It’s sobering to think that it’s the best part of fifty years since I first visited southern Spain with a group of birding friends all on the cusp of going off to university. Our knowledge of Spanish ornithology was limited to the odd rumour, the maps in Peterson’s field guide and what we’d gleaned from Guy Mountfort’s 1958 book ‘A Portrait of a Wilderness’ which was our inspiration. This amounted to little more than an awareness of the Coto Donana, Bonanza saltpans and the Laguna de La Janda. I’m not sure how we’d heard of Laguna de Medina and, in truth, my memories of what we saw there are embarrassingly vague (my notes long having been lost). I do remember that our visit was disappointing and that we saw relatively little largely because we couldn’t see much through the dense fringe of reeds. I’m not sure we even knew what to expect in the way of birds either beyond this being our only site for Crested Coot and White-headed Duck. That we saw neither is perhaps forgivable since in 1970 there were fewer than 100 of the latter in Spain whilst the subtle distinctions between the two coots were poorly covered in the field guides of the time (all two of them). It probably didn’t help that we only had one ‘scope, a distinctly mediocre instrument by today’s standards, between the five of us since even with experience of the species they can be tricky to pick up with only binoculars. By the time I next visited the site in 2005 (or thereabouts) little had changed except that I now had a ‘scope of my own and, hopefully, a better idea of what the birds I wanted to see actually looked like. The dense phalanx of phragmites still guarded the lake rendering the view less than desirable although at least this time I managed to see a few White-headed Ducks. Subsequent visits were just as frustrating as the first or even more so since heavy winter rains had made the path along the lakeside impassable even in wellies ….. had I any to put on.
Then, a few years later, something wonderful happened. A conveniently raised walkway (one of two along the track) not only lifted you above the extensive puddles but also afforded a hugely improved view across the laguna. Now, at last, I could see the masses of grebes, coots and ducks without peering through a screen of reeds and tamarisk. Venturing further along the path I was still more astonished to find a path leading down to a hide (Mirador Laguna de Medina). OK, it was (then) fitted out with tinted perspex windows and so carefully sited that the view into the furthest corner of the lake was obscured by bushes (since trimmed), but it was still a huge improvement. Two new viewpoints on the western edge of the laguna also help although the first is somewhat distant the second is closer to the lake and aptly named Observatorio de La Malvasía (= White-headed Duck). Thanks to these developments (and after familiarising myself with the species elsewhere) I was at last able to catch up with Crested Coot at Laguna de Medina. It had only taken me over 30 years!
All seemed well for this classic site but at the start of the second decade of this century the number of grebes, ducks and coots here suffered a catastrophic decline with numbers of the latter falling from thousands to hundreds and with them any realistic chance of Crested Coot. It appears that the floods of 2012 allowed carp to colonise the laguna from nearby fisheries and it was their presence which are at the root of the decline. The shallow rainfed lagunas of Cadiz province (of which Medina is one) live on a knife-edge – too little rain and they dry out completely but too much and they’re vulnerable to colonisation by fish, which upset their delicate natural ecology. Laguna de Medina plays a particularly significant role since, unlike many of the smaller lagunas and the nearby marismas, it rarely dries up completely so acts as a natural refuge in drought years.
However, harsh droughts can occur and may have a silver lining; with nowhere to go invasive fish are the prime losers. It seems that this is what happened at Medina in 2018 and in their absence, the laguna is returning to the status quo ante. On my most recent visit in September 2018, I found 180+ Black-necked Grebes, c50 white-headed Ducks, 30+ Red-crested Pochard (although I missed a couple of Ferruginous Ducks and a Marbled Teal), a rough estimate of 1,000 Coots and hidden in their midst a Crested Coot. This and earlier reports this summer seem to be the first here for several years. Numbers of wildfowl may not (yet) be up to previous levels when they carpeted the laguna so thickly as to almost make it seem almost possible to walk across the water on their backs but it’s certainly very promising.
How then to approach a visit to this laguna and what might you expect to see? If it is your first visit here I recommend walking along the path behind the small white building towards the Observatario de Malavasia. Climbing a low hill after c100m you reach a viewpoint (a) that offers a superb vista of the laguna, which will help you to get your bearings, give you a good idea of its general state and where the birds are to be found. However, although you may be able to pick out the more obvious waterfowl from here using binoculars alone, you will find a ‘scope invaluable for identifying the species present as the shoreline is 100m distant and many of the birds still further away. Even with both a x60 ‘scope and previous experience of the species picking out a Crested Coot from here is a challenge. By continuing to your left for c200m you soon reach a boardwalk and then steps which take you c 150m down to the Observatario (b). As you follow this route in the summer months don’t neglect to check the scrub for birds like Melodious Warbler, Blackcap and Nightingale. This second viewpoint again gives you an interesting view across the laguna and with the distance to the shore halved you’ve a better chance of picking out birds although a ‘scope will still be invaluable. You will certainly wish the small white building on the lakeside below was a public hide!
By this point, you may well have seen a variety of ducks (including Red-crested Pochard, Mallard and White-headed Duck), a few grebes (Great-crested, Black-necked and lurking in the margins Dabchick) and good numbers of Common Coot but views will have been distant. To obtain better views and to have a realistic chance of Crested Coot you need to retrace your steps back to the car park and head along the southern side of the lake. With the waterside scrub and reeds much closer than before you can start hoping for more small passerines. In the breeding season the strident notes of Great Reed Warblers, a species with which even Cetti’s Warblers are unable to compete in terms of volume, loudly announce their presence. Look too for Great Reed’s smaller cousin, European Reed Warbler and, during passage, Sedge Warblers. By late spring the tamarisk bushes by the first boardwalk (c) hold another treat, Western Olivaceous Warbler which, within Europe, is confined to Spain as a breeding bird (very few are found in Portugal but confirmed breeding is virtually unknown). A decade or so ago there were few reports of this species here but whether it has been overlooked or has increased in the area remains unclear. All but the Cetti’s are absent outside the summer season but it is then that Penduline Tits may be found.
Although a ‘scope is still useful from the raised walkway you should find it relatively easy to pick out and identify the closer waterfowl on the surface with binoculars alone. In addition to the species already noted, now is when you may pick out the odd Ferruginous or Marbled Ducks particularly in autumn. A second boardwalk (d) gives a further opportunity to scan the laguna. Further along the track, a path drops down to a hide (e) overlooking the laguna. Approach quietly and carefully as the windows here are large and birds easily spooked. Scanning the massed ranks of coot from here for Crested Coot requires some patience although don’t neglect the birds immediately below the hide as sometimes they can include your target species here. Having been apparently absent for several years Crested Coots returned in 2018 although it will probably be some time before the numbers reach former levels (Garcia & Paterson suggest c20 birds here). At close range, in the breeding season the adults’ swollen red nodules above the white shield render identification simplicity itself but when these have shrunken to insignificance outside the breeding season or are absent (immatures) identification becomes much harder. At such times pulling one out of the massed ranks of their commoner cousins requires previous experience of the species and a little luck. Search through the coots looking for a bird with a slightly more wedge-shaped shaped head, a marginally higher aft end and, best of all I find, the narrower ‘wobbly’ neck which seems too weak to bear the weight of the head! The latter impression is imparted by the Crested Coots habitually bending its neck from the midpoint of their neck rather than bending the whole neck like Common Coot. Once you’ve found a likely candidate watch carefully for those diagnostic nodules, ‘dented’ upper rim of its shield, the different feathering around the bill and the bluish-grey (not creamy or pinkish) tone to the bill.
Hopefully, with White-headed Duck and Crested Coot ‘in the bag’ you can now relax and scan the reedy margins from the hide for Purple Gallinule or a Little Bittern plus, if the water level is low enough, a variety of waders. Like any large body of water, the skies above the laguna can attract large numbers of aerial feeders, particularly during migration, such as swifts (Pallid, Common and Alpine) and both swallows, House and Sand Martins (although Crag Martins are more likely to be seen in winter). From spring through until the autumn you also have a fair chance of seeing a few Whiskered Terns but bear in mind that Black Terns, and rarely White-winged Black, also turn up. There can also be a sprinkling of Collared Pratincoles mixed in with the terns (although my highest counts here is an impressive 500 in April 2009).
From the hide continue back to the main path to turn right to return to your car park. However, it can sometimes be worth heading left to follow the path further along the path beside the laguna although views of the lake are at once difficult which is particularly frustrating as this corner often holds large numbers of birds. As the path drops down a little you reach a third boardwalk to the left of which there’s a marshy area (f). This can be worth scanning for Marsh Harriers and it’s here that I’ve once had Savi’s Warbler. Look out too for Stone-curlew although they’re more often heard than seen (area near the quarry by Exit 4 may also have this species).
Wherever you are in southern Spain it’s always worth looking up for passing raptors and that’s probably truer here than in many places given the relative proximity of the migration bottleneck of the straits of Gibraltar to the south. All the “usual suspects” can be seen (especially in the autumn) but perhaps the stand-out species is the recently arrived Black-winged Kite. With this in mind it can sometimes be worth exploring along the lane (g) a footpath which can be reached off the servicio.
It’s impossible to do justice to this site in a short article like this. Checking on Ebird (see https://ebird.org/hotspot/L918126) shows that it’s one of only half a dozen sites in Andalucia where in excess of 200 bird species have been reported. Another advantage of looking at ‘Ebird’ is that not only will you be able to see a full list of species reported from this popular site but also maximum counts and bar charts showing seasonal occurrence. This information will confirm the importance of Laguna de Medina’s as a breeding site for White-headed Duck and Crested Coot but it’s also important as a staging post for migrants and a refuge for wetland birds at times of drought. The threat of further incursions by ‘alien’ fish cannot be discounted but, hopefully, wildfowl numbers will continue to rise to former levels and a long-term solution to this problem will be found.
This article is adapted from John’s ‘Birding Cadiz Province‘ guide which contains details of many more sites (including some just over the border into other provinces). It’s free to birders, although donations to charity for their use are very welcome, particularly to Age UK & Alzheimer’s Research UK in memory of John’s late wife Liz via https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SomeoneSpecial/LizCantelo – the amount so raised, with gift aid, now exceeds £1,800.
Contact the Society with your email address and John will email a copy to you. Good birding!
Article and map: John Cantelo – ABS Member
Photos: John Cantelo and Peter Jones
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.