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




Mallorca Birding

Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands of Spain, is rugged. Much of the agricultural land I saw  on the western side of the island was terraced for olive and lemon trees and other crops. Walking the paths and roadways among the terraces in the early morning produced many species new to me, including Blackcaps, Song Thrushes, Chiffchaff, Black Redstart, Wood Pigeons. On the north coast, extensive coastal marshes hold many shorebirds, such as Black-winged Stilts and many others.


It helps that Mallorca is on a migration flyway between Africa and Europe, I was there in mid-March, at the beginning of the migration.We’re staying in the mountain town of Valledemossa. Georges Sand and Chopin stayed here too and hated it, apparently. Times change. Valledemossa is beautiful.


Mallorca Terraces


Main Street, Valledemossa



Albufera, a wildlife sanctuary at the north end of the island near Can Picafort, is one of Mallorca’s birding jewels. One of the few places in Europe where the threatened Red-crested (or Red-knobbed) Coot still lives, it covers many hectares of marshland crises-crossed with trails and walkways.


Red-crested Coot

Black-winged Stilts are plentiful at Albufera. They don’t mean to be hilarious but I smile whenever I see them. They’re so serious too. I guess you have to be to pull it off, what with those extra long ‘red vine’ legs!


Black-winged Stilt

European warblers are not related to our warblers, which are wood warblers. Often the European types are brown and, for me as a newcomer, not easy to identify. That’s putting it mildly. I think this guy is a Moustached Warbler, scolding me from a thicket. Of course, I could be wrong.


 Moustached Warbler?

And then there are the Moorhens, some of them quite bold. This bird ran ahead of me down the walkway and then, chicken-like, hopped onto a rail and lingered a moment before jumping down into the scrub. A water bird with a vermilion beak, lemon yellow-tipped with extra long toes to boot — great.



Back in Valledemossa,  a few tiny Scops Owls start calling at nightfall. This is a monotonous rounded peep, repeated at regular intervals. It sounds, at least to me, like water dripping (loudly), or like an attenuated sonar ping – slow and amplified, a submarine sound. I read somewhere that having a Scops Owl in your garden during mating season can drive you mad. Peep-peep-peep-peep—peep-peep-peep. You get the idea. I’m delighted to hear the little blighters though. Then again I’m only here for a few days.


Klamath Mountain Part 2

Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warbler

I don’t really want to take the Alfa up gravel roads or even drive her further south. Beatrice is a tough little bird but it’s a long drive home and I don’t want to risk it. Luckily, this isn’t necessary. I catch a ride with Vince in his ancient Izuzu SUV. I can leave the Alfa at the Science Center.

Western Wood Peewee. Bear Creek, Oregon
Western Wood Peewee. Bear Creek, Oregon

I’m not sure what I’d do if I needed repairs, or rather the car did. Mechanics at most garages make faces when I pull up and look like I might want them to work on this, an Italian sports car. I think I might have seen a garage guy make the sign against the evil eye when I pulled up in a small interior town once. My imagination surely because to make the sign must mean the mechanic was Italian and the Alfa would have been no big deal.

Bullock's Oriole and Nest, Bear Creek, Oregon
Bullock’s Oriole and Nest, Bear Creek, Oregon

I’m compressing several days here, leaving out details about highway rest areas, the slopes and canyons of the Siskyous, Emigrant Lake, North Mountain park and other great locations. All good. I get Canyon and Rock Wrens, a Western Screech Owl, several Calliope Hummingbirds, an obliging Hermit Warbler – lots of species.

Green-tailed Towhee, Mount Ashland
Green-tailed Towhee, Mount Ashland

Mount Ashland is the highlight (in both senses of the word) – the peak is at 9000 feet or so. There’s a ski resort of sorts at the top but Vince tell me that the mountain got very little snow the winter past and the hill couldn’t open. It’s a dry area and the thought that the drought crippling California could be spreading north is sobering. That aside, I’m thrilled to be up in the high country.

Mount Ashland Peak
Mount Ashland Peak

I record both species of Bluebirds – Mountain and Western – near the summit. A swath of cleared ground yields Green-tailed Towhees in relative abundance. We’re hoping for a White-headed Woodpecker but that bird eludes us. A trio of off-roader motocross-type bikers almost takes out my group, or so it seemed. Mostly it’s the shock of having the quiet of the mountain top ripped open by the roar of the bikes that irks. Still, it is a big mountain.

In consolation, I get a Mountain Quail – a life bird for me – the call incongruously loud coming from the scree area below the mountain peak. Very enjoyable this being on a mountain top, looking across meadows and seeing birds. Hearing the too. A spectacular view of Mount Shasta doesn’t hurt either. Shasta is one of a chain of volcanoes with Mount Baker in the north – I can see it from my window at home. On the drive down I passed Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helen’s with its top blown off, Mount Hood and now Mount Shasta – amazing to see four volcanoes in a single day.

Mount Shasta
Mount Shasta
Townsend's Solitaire, Mount Ashland
Townsend’s Solitaire, Mount Ashland

It’s the weekend so there are quite a few hikers up here. Some of them are porting babes with them. It even gets to the point where the pitifully few washrooms have line ups. Happily, it is a big mountain. The air’s thin up high too, noticeably so when the trail edges upward. The high country is quite beautiful and I’m really starting to dig it.

Mountain Birds

Klamath mountain Revisited

Klamath Mountain, Part 1

It’s hot in Ashland, Oregon – about 85 degrees and getting warmer – a change entire from the Scotch mist morning I woke up to the day before yesterday.

On the way down to southern Oregon, I had added in a trip to Ocean Shores, Washington to pick up a few species – if I can. Most shorebirds should be on their way to the Arctic by now but hope springs eternal, as they say. I stop at Gray’s Harbor Wildlife Refuge and make the long hike out to the tidal flats. Alas, aside from a small flock of Canada Geese and a few gulls and terns there’s nothing out there to see. I hear yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroat in the brush as I pass but see not a bird. Normally, I’d linger and wait but I’m not in the mood today.

Out on the boardwalk, I see a Common Tern and hear Caspian Terns. Four Brown Pelicans pass by in the distance too. Not much to show for the hike. There’s nobody here either. That should have been my first clue. I’m packing up my scope when, out of nowhere, three Wimbrel cruise in. I’m excited. I like all the curlews and have done since I read ‘The Last of the Curlews’ when I was eight or nine. The birds come down about a half a mile away across the mud and instantly vanish. I reset the scope and scan the flats for half an hour but I never do locate the darn things. I guess they set down in a depression. In any case, they are invisible from my vantage point. Finally, I give up and pack up. Sometimes you just have to let things go.

Later, at Ocean Shores, to my surprise I find mixed flocks of Godwits, Red Knots, Sanderlings and a few peeps working the line between beach and surf. I thought I’d see rien. It’s the first time I’ve seen Red Knots in their breeding plumage. I’d love some pictures of these birds but, as it happens, I’ve decided not to bring my camera on my walk, mostly because the sun was so low in the west. I could have got some great shots nevertheless. There’s a lesson in that somewhere. So, in place of a gloriously colored Red Knot, a picture of a charming Yellowlegs will have to do.


The next morning, the Scotch Mist one, I drive out to Hoquiam and then take 101 south to Astoria and Cannon Beach. Cannon Beach has Haystack rock and Haystack Rock has Tufted Puffins. They’re nesting now and I have to hit it right if I’m going to see the birds because the parent providing the food is way out to sea collecting it. They return en masse and I know from having watched a documentary on the subject that the flock of the returning birds swings back and forth with individuals dropping out over their burrows. The behavior is supposed to confuse gulls which will seize the chicks if they can find them.

Well, I did hit it right. The flock returns and, for the better part of a half hour does its confuse-a-gull back and forth manoeuvrings. It’s remarkable and a real thrill to see. I wish I had a picture, or a video but I left my camera – darn it – in the car.

I visit Baskett Slough, which is one of my favorite birding sites. More about Baskett Slough in another post. I overnight in Salem and then take i-5 to Ashland.

Ashland is a small university town with theaters, book stores, coffee shops and some decent restaurants. It’s got a nice vibe to it. Apparently, Lithia water had something to do with the founding of the town but I’m not sure how. The town square does have a battery of antique fountains that constantly flow with the aforementioned Lithia water so the story must be true.


I’m driving my ’86 Alfa Romeo this trip. I had fun getting the car ready for the journey. Actually, fun is the wrong word. I feel like one the folks who drive the Mille Miglia in Italy. My mechanic, Sam, takes a propitiatory interest in the car and does lots gratis. Sam’s an Eritrean who lived for years in Italy so he knows the car and doesn’t flinch when bizarre Alfa things come up – as they often do. He also speaks Italian.

I really like driving the Alfa. The sound of the tuned exhaust, the pleasant vibration of the steering wheel in my hands, the sun, the sound and smells make for an intoxicating combination. I think so anyway.

I’m here for the Klamath Mountain Bird Festival. I’m at the Nature Center in time for a glass of wine and the opening speeches. My first field trip is that evening. We’re going out to see and hear the barn owls that have taken residence in a nesting box in a small barn near Medford, which is about 10 miles away.

Vince drives slowly. He’s afraid to hit a deer. in fact, we see deer often, including a herd of ten in a ditch right beside the road. It is getting dusk when we arrive. Our host, the woman who owns the property, meets us and after introductions takes us to the small barn and shows us the nest box. The intense smell of dry grass, flowers perfume the summer night air. We wait, seated in a semi-circle, far enough away (we hope) so that we don’t alarm the birds.

The first hint that the birds are there is the faint mewing of a chick. Long minutes pass. The light is almost gone. Motion! An adult bird leaves the box on silent wings and hunts the nearby field. We can hear its hoot and then a blood-curdling squeal. Suddenly, the owl materializes out of the darkness in front of us, hangs in silhouette, long wings black against the sky and then vanishes. We listen to the owls for another half hour and then it’s time to go. Vince drives us back to Ashland and we disperse to out various lodgings. It’s been a great day but I’m beat. and so to bed, as Pepys said.