Reserva Natural del Complejo Endorréico de Espera or, to use its more informal name, ‘Lagunas de Espera’, is tucked away out of sight in the rolling hills east of the village of that name which itself is 15km north of Arcos de la Frontera. Were it not for signs advertising their existence in Espera (and latterly being mentioned in site guides) few would know where to find them and, given the species found there, it remains surprisingly little visited. Fortunately, the track to the reserve from Espera has a hard surface and so is surprisingly reasonable (although, as ever, caution is needed particularly where it’s degraded). The obvious signposted route is on the left (as you come from Espera) off the SE 5207 just east of the village but be aware that the 1 km track (a) that connects to the main route is sometimes (as it was in May 2019) badly rutted, waterlogged and impassable (unless in a 4×4). If so you can also access the track by driving up towards (but not quite to) Castillo de Fatetar in Espera (take the road behind the Repsol garage as you enter from the south and follow the signs to the castle) or by driving in from the west (g). A third alternative for the more energetic is to drive for c4km beyond the signed turning and take the c2 km walk on the left (by a small white building) along the Cañada de Jérez a Utrera to reach the reserve. Even if the track isn’t blocked at (a) all three are viable alternatives; from the castillo you have commanding views across the countryside giving you the opportunity for some fruitful “vis-migging”, driving the other way along the track from the west (off the Se 6201) is better if coming from the N-4/Las Cabezas de San Juan (and the track to the reserve is generally in better condition and c1km shorter) whilst the cañada is lined with bushes which are good for Woodchat Shrike and crosses open farmland which may hold various larks, raptors and Stone-curlew.
This account assumes, however, that the signposted route will be accessible and that this will be your chosen way to the reserve. The undulating 5 km drive (b) to the first laguna can be rewarding in its own right as the open fields have Crested and Calandra Lark and attract finches so can also be good for raptors. During migration periods there’s a good chance of Booted Eagle, Black Kite, etc. whilst Montagu’s Harrier persists into the summer and in autumn/winter I’ve seen both Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagle here. In spring/early summer you may also be lucky enough to hear Quail (seeing them is a different matter!). As always when driving an unfamiliar track it seems longer than the posted 5 km distance but after c15 minutes you should see the small white building that overlooks the first of the reserve’s lagunas, Laguna de Hondilla.
The reserve’s three lagunas are Hondilla (c), Salada de Zorilla (d) and Dulce de Zorilla (e). Hondilla is the smallest in surface area (c2.9 ha) and shallowest (c1 m) but the one with the greatest surface area (c23 ha), Salada de Zorrilla, is not the deepest as might be expected. That distinction goes to the Dulce de Zorrilla (c6 ha). The surface area, of course, varies with rainfall but it’s the depth of the lagunas that tends to determine which are most prone to drying in drought conditions and thus which contains to most interesting birdlife. So Hondilla is most likely to be least interesting sometimes being dry (and choked with vegetation) although, perversely, after heavy rains may flood the road here (although not usually so deeply that you can’t drive through the large puddle). In a drought year even the larger Salada de Zorilla sometimes dries up leaving Dulce de Zorilla alone as an attractive habitat to waterfowl. It is also, as its name implies (dulce = sweet), the least brackish.
So the first laguna you reach is likely to be the least productive but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored! Despite the thick growth of willow (which can make viewing tricky particularly when in leaf) an open area of water may be visible (particularly from the building that alerted you to your imminent arrival). This may attract wildfowl particularly Mallard, Gadwall, Shovellor, Pochard and Red-crested Pochard whilst Dabchicks often keep to the willow fringed edges. All receive attention from the local Marsh Harriers. Almost invariably the Coots here will be of the common variety but Crested Coot is possible too so it’s always worth checking carefully. Roughly 600m beyond your first sight of Hondilla to your left and a short way down an obvious track lies Salada de Zorilla.
As with so many of the lagunas in southern Spain province viewing is compromised by a thick belt of reeds and a necklace of tamarisk that surrounds the available open water. Salada de Zorilla is no different but really ought to be better since, unusually, it has a small hide (on your left) sited on higher ground which ought to offer good panoramic views of the laguna. However, not only is it positioned on the ‘wrong’ side of the path (and so some 50m from the edge of the laguna) but trees obscure a significant proportion of the view to your right whilst a rocky prominence clothed in trees entirely blocks the view to your left. A little judicious ‘gardening’ of the trees and shrubs here is well overdue. In fact, it’s often better to scan from outside the hide. Here a ‘scope is invaluable. As already noted this is the largest of the lagunas in surface area but rather shallow one so when the water level is low waders (esp Black-winged Stilt) may be present. Expect the same ducks as found on Hondilla but also check for other ducks (e.g. White-headed) and grebes (this is often the best laguna for Black-necked and Great-crested). As always keep checking the sky for raptors (particularly during migration) with a passing Osprey being quite possible. Continuing along the path you pass though an area of small trees and low scrub that hold Nightingale, Melodious Warbler and Whitethroat in spring and summer and Sardinian Warblers and Blackcap all year. The reedbeds here have Reed and Great-Reed Warbler.
About 1 km beyond the hide and often just as you think you must have gone the wrong way, the final laguna, Dulce de Zorilla, comes into view. Once again getting a good view here can be tricky but it’s worth persevering as this small laguna has the reputation for being the best of the three for the rare and endangered Crested Coot. Picking one out here almost always requires the use of a ‘scope but if they’re feeding along the closer edge of the laguna and not concealed by the reeds then binoculars will do. Finding one is easier if the red ‘nodules’ above the white ‘shield’ are prominent but on some birds they are poorly developed and hard to see. Subtleties like the relatively smaller head, differences in the body shape and the ‘shield’ often requires experience to detect whilst other differences (e.g. bill colour) are only visible at reasonably close range and in good light (usually requiring a telescope to discern). You should have much less difficulty in picking out the salient features of Purple Swamphen for which this can be a good spot (although you can find them on any of the lagunas). There is also the possibility of seeing Iberian Green Woodpecker along the track and, of course, passing Bee-eaters.
After a thorough investigation of these lagunas it’s time to return to your vehicle. Instead of heading back the way you came continue along the track (f) towards SE 6201 (which, as its designation suggests, is in Seville Province). Although generally in a better state than the section from Espera take care, as some parts can be slippery when wet. This section is more enclosed than the approach to the lagunas and the scrub thicker but it’s worth pausing to check any sparrows since Spanish Sparrow is often to be found lurking amongst its congeners. When you reach the SE 6201 instead of turning onto the welcome security of a good tarmac road, continue straight on along a reasonable dirt track (again slippery when wet) to reach another trio of lagunas which form part of the Complejo Endorreico de Lebrija-Las Cabezas (h). These lagunas are smaller than the larger two at Espera and seemingly not worth a long detour, which probably explains why they’ve been largely neglected by birdwatchers. However, since they’re only c1.5 km along the track it would be foolish not to have a look. The first (and smallest) one you reach, Laguna Galiana, is the easiest to view being in a hollow on the right of the track. Unless water levels are high it has only a little open water and can be choked with reeds but when wet holds ducks, Coots and even Flamingos. Some 200m further along the track is the largest of the three lakes, Laguna de Cigarrera, which has more open water some of which can be viewed from the track. It’s well worth looking carefully at the Coots again since this is another site for Crested Coot. The odd White-headed Duck may also lurk amongst its commoner brethren and, as with all of these lagunas, the possibility of a stray Ferruginous or Marbled Duck cannot be discounted. Any of the lagunas mentioned in this article can hold a variety of herons – Grey Heron, Night Heron and Little Egret are the most frequent – but this is the only one where I’ve actually seen both Purple and Squacco Heron. Frustrating as the thick belt of tamarisk is for those searching for interesting waterfowl, this is the best laguna for (Western) Olivaceous Warbler which makes a diversion here rather more attractive proposition after all. Be patient since although they’re easily heard, they can be very skulking and hard to see. At times large numbers of Spanish Sparrow roost in the tamarisks too. (The third lake here, Laguna de Peña, is inaccessible being tucked away behind Galiana on private farmland).
The laguna-fest isn’t quite over since if you return to the road and turn left towards Lebrija then after c1.5 km Laguna del Pilon appears on your left or maybe not as it is very prone to drying out. In drought years (or in late summer) it’s no more than a shallow weedy bowl and so easily missed. As such it provides a ‘litmus test’ for the condition of the other lagunas in the area, which is particularly useful if approaching from the north or west from the Jerez – El Cuervo – Los Palacio road (confusingly maps refer to this road variously as the N-IV, N-4, A-480 or CA 31!). When wet it can hold White-headed Duck and, since the view is unobstructed and it often has wide muddy margins, can be good for picking up waders such as Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Little Ringed Plover. The area can also be good in spring for Common and Pallid Swift, (test your skills!), and hirundines (inc. Red-rumped Swallow). I’ve also had Black-winged Kite nearby. From the junction of the CA 5207 and SE 6201 in a fold in the hills to the east you can see the distant Laguna de Taraje (j), which, unlike the other lakes in this complex, doesn’t dry out even in drought years. It’s reputed to harbour Crested Coot but, unfortunately, is not accessible to the public.
The Espera is fittingly named for the birdwatcher since the name means ‘wait’ or ‘hope’ and waiting in hopeful expectation is often the lot of our tribe. Although often very rewarding, there can be no doubt that a visit here can carry with it a degree of frustration since obtaining a good view across the lagunas can be problematical so searching for some of the sought after species found on these lakes is not without difficulties. The frustration is compounded by the fact that a minimal effort to provide (or maintain) infrastructure for birding tourism would make a huge difference; a screen here, a viewing platform there, or another couple of hides would convert this neglected area into a popular hotspot for birders. Yet, despite these factors the Lagunas de Espera and nearby lagunas remains one of my favourite sites in Cadiz province, a small gem hidden in a crease in the landscape. On a good day it can be sublime site to visit where you can see a wonderful variety of birds (over 125 species have been noted here) in a pleasing mix of habitats. For an overview of the birds found here check https://ebird.org/hotspot/L2769391.
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.