Birding in Spain: El Rocio and Cota Donana

El Rocio

A strange town, El Rocio. A Spanish pilgrimage town with unpaved, sand streets, hitching rails, low white faced buildings – a spaghetti-western place. Not my comparison, someone else’s, but it works. The pilgrimage, an incredible procession of horses and wagons with participants in traditional Andalusian costume ends up in El Rocio around Pentacost. Then the population of town tops a million, they say. Now, it’s a semi-ghost town.  It’s been raining and the streets are barely passable because big sections of them are lakes.

On my GPS, the car icon floats on a block of ‘no streets’ and real car almost floats on some real ones. We take the better part of an hour to find the hotel we’ve booked. At one point, my wife claims we must be going wrong because she recognized a pile of dirt! We pass many of the combo stables and lodgings for the ‘hermandades’, the brotherhoods who will fight it out for possession of the statue of the Virgin when the ‘Festival’ begins. The hotel’s dry and we get coffee there but there’s something odd about it too. More about that later.

That night, we eat in the best restaurant in town. It’s on the water, with views of the marshes. A table of English birders, and a young Spanish couple are the only guests. Another young couple arrives – with binoculars. Most of the birders are up and down, dashing to the windows to catch glimpses of birds spotted through the windows by the guide. Not the Greater Flamingos, which are everywhere. A Booted Eagle perhaps. But I can’t see much from where we sit. I’ve only brought my cheap monocular with me and the light is failing.


Greater Flamingos

The waiters in this place speak so low and quick that it’s impossible to catch what they say. I think it’s deliberate; my wife thinks I’m a conspiricist. My Spanish is adequate but these guys seem to mock the fact that you try. The food is good though. Anyway, Andalusians aren’t overly welcoming. Maybe it’s the family thing. Outsiders are obviously not family and that’s that. Nobody’s rude. The Spanish have invariably been polite in our experience. Except maybe the waiters in the ‘best restaurant in town’. The Pilgrimage is like that I’m told, as is the week-long Feria in Seville. Don’t expect to join in. It’s an ‘our thing’ thing. Understandable, perhaps. Still….

The something about our hotel that bothered me before still does. I can’t put my finger on it. The windows open onto a kind of corridor, tarped over against the rain but there aren’t any back windows. The room is comfortable enough,the beds are good, breakfast included but it’s unlike any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There’s even a loft over our heads. Then it dawns on me. It’s like a stable; it is a stable – or was. Horses don’t need a back window in their stalls. I think of the lodgings of the hermandades, which are a lot like this hotel. Okay, I’m a conspiricist. I’ve also slept in stables before, including one with an elephant in it. Never mind, I’m mostly here for the birds and this odd town is on the edge one of the best birding spots in Europe.

Cota Donana and Birds

As one of the largest nature reserves on the continent, Cota Donana is a place that warrants more time. It also warrants more accent marks and  a tilde but I can’t figure out how to stick these on the words in the right places, so there it is. The marsh is fantastic with hundreds of birds here now. It’ll be dry in few months, really dry. Then all these flamingos , Glossy Ibises, Eurasian Teal, Shelducks, Coots and Marsh Hens will be gone, gone north, along with most of the birds of prey that hunt here.


Glossy Ibises

The Cork Oak Forest

The drive to the Cork Oak forest reminds me of some of the roads I’ve travelled in Texas, grass and scrub and lots of open spaces – a birdy kind of place. I like the road in but I really like the Cork Oak forest at its end. This looks kind of ‘Middle Earth’ ancient but is in fact what’s left of the commercial Eucalyptus plantation laid in decades ago. Now the Eucalypts with their peeling ghost grey boles and pale leaves tower above the gnarled and twisted Cork Oaks and other trees. Here and there, the thick cork on damaged oaks can be seen. Weird stuff. I’d heard of these trees but this is the first time I’ve seen them. Hard to imagine a piece of that funky bark in the neck of a wine bottle.



The Cork Oak Forest

Many birds are singing here, thrushes and warblers mostly, but few are flying; it’s too wet. We follow a bold Chaffinch for a hundred yards of more, his strategy being to fly a few feet ahead and hope we go away. When we don’t he repeats. Finally, he loses patience and flies behind us and gets back to his dinner. And then a delight – a Hoopoe! I see the unmistakable striped wings as he flies off. And then another bird dodges away through the oaks. Fantastic. I’ve wanted to see a Hoopoe ever since I saw a picture of one, striped and crested,  in my first bird book, the one my aunt sent me from England when I was eleven. I would have loved a photo of the bird but I have to content myself with a snap of my new friend the Chaffinch. His picture was in the same book.



We carry on and close in on the parking lot, the end of a wonderful walk through a beautiful, likely unique forest.  Suddenly, a half dozen colourful and noisy Bea-eaters light in a tree and chase each other around before departing. Just before we go, a Black Kite appears floating, the way these birds do, above the scrub. The two species make a nice end point for our trip to Donana, the almost tropical Bea-eaters particularly.  It would be nice to linger but it’s started to rain again and time to go.




Black Kite




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