Where to watch birds in Andalucia is a feature article we hope might be appreciated by members both resident and those visiting here. This regular feature, in collaboration with John Cantelo and others, will be dedicated to a single birding hot spot each time and not necessarily one of the better known locations. We very much hope these featured sites might add to your portfolio of places to visit and increase your enjoyment of birding in Andalucia.
Marismas de Barbate
Being sandwiched between the much larger Bahai de Cadiz (which attracts many of the same species but in far greater numbers) to the north-west, the birding hotspot of La Janda to the north-east and the straits of Gibraltar to the south-east, the marismas de Barbate tend to be relatively neglected. This is a pity as not only does it make a convenient stop if you want to boost your bird tally with waders, gulls and terns when exploring nearby areas but is also worthy of a longer exploration in its own right. Roughly 7.5 km in length and between 1.5 and 3.5 km wide the upper third is largely wet pasture with some marshland, the centre is largely saltmarsh and the lower part, best known to birdwatchers, is saltmarsh mixed with salinas (operational and derelict) which gives a good mix of birds. Together with the nearby clifftop woodland it forms part of the Parque Natural de la Breña y Marismas del Barbate. Although the described route starts near Vejer, it could equally well be begun on the Zahara road east of Barbate. In some ways this is the better option as viewing west across the estuary with the light behind you from the El Cañillo track (see below) is better in the mornings.
Exploring the Marismas de Barbate
In recent years, though, there’s been a strong reason for starting near Vejer since it has gained an unrivalled attraction in the form of the globally extremely rare Bald Ibis. Although the past history of this species in Iberia was shrouded in mystery until recently, this reintroduction is going very well. In spring and early summer the best (and easiest) place to see them is on the cliffs at La Barca de Vejer. Here they nest right next the busy A 314 (a on map) and if you tire of watching them then the waterside scrub nearby has an active Cattle Egret colony. Bald Ibis can also be seen elsewhere in the area but particularly on the pastures along the A 2231 coastal road towards Zahara.
Compared to the lower section, the upper part of the Barbate marshes tend to be neglected by birdwatchers but one good point to pull off for a quick look at the very least is the start of the sendero marisma alta (b) which is on the left c1.5 km from La Barca de Vejer. (Note that an excellent leaflet on the senderos here – ‘mapa guia ornotologico’ – is available but see also online at http://adsise.com). As this sendero is over 15 km in length taking you along the river or beside the marshes all the way to Barbate, it’s better tackled by bicycle (available for hire in Barbate) if you want to explore the whole route. Fortunately, good birding can be had right at the start of the sendero so there shouldn’t be any need to walk too far. A short distance along a dirt track beyond a small sewage farm the fields are often flooded providing good habitat for Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt and often a variety of waders such as Green & Wood Sandpipers, Greenshank and Ruff (although note that the degree of flooding is variable). Rarities are possible – a Lesser Yellowlegs was seen here in autumn 2012. The reed beds here can also attract Great Reed Warbler, Purple Gallinule and smaller herons. The track along upper marsh may also be accessed c3km further along the A 314 by pulling off to the left onto a small roundabout and then along a minor road, after c500m parking to following a track beside the water channel (c). After c1 km there are some wetter areas than may repay investigation for species such as Collared Pratincole and ‘Yellow’ Wagtails.
If you opt out of this stop continue south on the A 314 to the outskirts of Barbate itself. After two roundabouts in quick succession you pass the Galp petrol station on your left after which there’s a turning left into the pines. As the road can be quite busy here (and the turning easy to miss) you may want to continue to a third roundabout and retrace your route for c250 to pull off under the pines (d). You can drive further along the track but it’s often best to make use of the shade here (although try to park in clear view of the road as there have been thefts from cars in this area). Follow the track on foot and bear right to reach the river. The footpath here gives excellent views across the main and subsidiary river channels so expect the usual varieties of estuarine waders at low tide. Both Crested and Short-toed Lark can often be seen on the track here. Although absent from the local atlas, it may also be worth checking for Lesser Short-toed Lark since there are a number of recent reports from the area. This is also a good place from which to scan for Ospreys – although mainly a wintering and passage bird some may commute from nearby breeding site on the Embalse de Barbate. The track here follows the river but loops round to make a 6 km circular walk. Given the excellent views across interesting habitats this area seems oddly neglected by birdwatchers but should once again repay closer investigation.
Continue into Barbate bearing to your left on the road towards Zahara de los Atunes (A 2231). Some 450m after passing over the bridge across the Rio Barbate pull off on your right (e). Walking along the road back to the bridge is both dangerous and unpleasant but fortunately a footpath (sendero antingua salina) from the track here takes you back to (and under) the road bridge. Although the old salinas here can be rather birdless (often your only companions are Black-winged Stilt), the view across the main river channel can repay the walk. In autumn and winter this spot can be good for Mediterranean Gull and Caspian Tern. Another c1km further on you can pull off near a restaurante to explore the river mouth (there’s a boardwalk here) or a track leading to some salinas (f). At quieter times the beach can hold Kentish Plover whilst at sea there’s always a chance of Gannets, passing gulls, terns and shearwaters. The track across the road gives another opportunity to see waders and species like Spoonbill.
The next stop is to explore the senderos El Cañillo and Las Albinas (g) which are on the left c 2.5 km after crossing the bridge by an obvious noticeboard about the restoration of the marshes. You can either park by the road and walk or, avoiding the badly rutted initial part of the track, swing round behind nearby buildings to follow easily drivable route for almost 2km. The wet muddy areas here can attract large flocks of gulls including Audouin’s (250+), a few Slender-billed and Mediterranean and all the usual waders. As ever it’s always worth checking waders carefully (bring a scope!) Most will be Dunlins or Ringed Plovers with a few Kentish Plovers but in season expect Grey Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints and be aware of the possibility of an odd scarce or rare species (e.g. Marsh Sandpiper). Remember, though, that in the afternoon/evening you’ll be looking into the sun. Check here for Stone Curlew in September – up to 300+ have been seen here at this time (although numbers are generally in the tens rather than hundreds). Flamingos are present in good numbers but often quite distant. This can be a good area for migrants with the bushes attracting Melodious Warbler, Redstart, Wryneck, etc. and the track Black-eared Wheaters whilst the fields may hold Tawny Pipit, residents like Calandra Lark and attracts the usual range of raptors. Look out for any flocks of ibis here and further along the road as they’re likely to be Bald, not Glossy, Ibis (remember that in flight the feet of the Bald Ibis do not project beyond the tail). From here you can either continue towards Zahara or retrace your route and head along the coastal road towards Canos de Mecca.
In common with Zahara de los Atunes further down the coast, the port of Barbate has strong links with the tuna fishing industry. There’s a Natural Park information centre (open 09:00 – 15:00 Jan – March & 10-14;00 & 18:00 -20:00 the rest of the year) tucked away, poorly signposted, inside to old docks (to the left of the last entrance as you head towards Canos de Meca). This centre often has useful leaflets (some in English) about the area. Check here too for trips out to sea (see – www.trafalgarcharters.com) as, although aimed squarely at tourists, these trips may result in good views of Cory’s Shearwater and provide a good opportunity for a birder with a family to get in some sneaky birding! However, they’re not cheap (40€) so for your seawatching ‘fix’ it may be more economical to continue along the coast to Cabo de Trafalgar just beyond Canos de Mecca. As you do so you pass through remainder of the natural park, the Pinar de la Breña, which has a number of good walks and excellent views from the clifftop. Check the area (esp. the white broom at the base of the cliffs) for Chameleon.
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: John Cantelo
Photos: Peter Jones
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.