Given the popularity of nearby La Janda, it seems surprising that relatively few birders explore the area between Medina Sidonia and Benalup despite a host of interesting species. Superficially, the track along the Corredor Verde dos Bahias seems to offer good access but this route is closed to motor vehicles so can only be walked or cycled (something many birders are reluctant to do). Yet the area is an important one for Cadiz’s remaining Little Bustards (the main focus of this article) and for several other sought after species so is well worth exploring. Birds are most easily located in the spring when the male’s distinctive “wet raspberry” call quickly alerts observers to their presence. In winter they are harder to find but, when located, may be seen in small flocks (in recent years there have been between 18-26 birds in this area). A note of caution is needed at this point as birders must be careful not to disturb this sensitive species particularly in the breeding season and need to respect both local sensitivities and rules regarding vehicular access. This shouldn’t be a problem if birders stick to permitted routes and make judicious use of a telescope. As so often in Spain, I’ve found the locals both friendly and interested.
The hilltop town of Medina Sidonia (a) makes a good starting point not only for the spectacular views across the countryside but also thanks to its local reputation for delicious pastries! Migrating raptors skirting the higher ground to the east and the coast to the west, often seem to channel through this area (perhaps following the A 381 south) so it’s often a good place to spot migrating raptors particularly Black Kite. It also has a good population of Lesser Kestrels and with luck both Black Redstart (mainly in winter) and Blue Rock Thrush can be seen around the castle at the top of the town.
If starting from Medina Sidonia the first destination should be a minor road (b) off the A 396 (which links the Vejer road to the A 381). This road heads off towards a quarry (look for the sign “FYM Italicementi”) and a ruined 13th century castle, Castillo de Torre Estrella, beyond. After c500m a rough side track runs off into a scrubby area with cacti hedges where, optimistically, I’ve looked for Rufous Bushchat (possibly still in the Medina area) but only found Little Owl, Woodchat Shrike, Sardinian Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear etc. Further along road you reach a lovely area of rough grazing dotted with thistles, which is worth careful scanning. This is a superb area for Calandra Lark and if, in spring, you can’t see them just listen for their distinctive song (their Green Sandpiper like notes are distinctive). Stone-curlew can be found here and Little Bustard are a distinct possibility (although I’ve yet to see one, the habitat looks spot-on). In spring check sown areas for singing Quail. As with Medina itself a variety of raptors are possible including the delightful Montagu’s Harrier. (Note – previously you could drive up to the quarry but more recently the road has been fenced off about 2 km from the main road).
Back on the main road and heading west you soon reach the main road to Vejer where you head south. Between c1.5 and c2.5 km along this road you reach two heavily restored Roman bridges which are worth a stop in their own right (c). Check the fences, eucalyptus trees and tamarisk scrub here for Spanish Sparrow (your first chance to spot this attractive species). Both bridges sometimes have nesting Red-rumped Swallow and, except in the summer when the river is entirely dry and the birds elsewhere, you’ve a chance of a Green Sandpiper or other small wader along the small stream. The dense tamarisks here also sometimes hold Western Olivaceous Warbler (a more widespread species than many think).
Continuing towards Vejer you soon turn off onto the A2225 for Benalup but after c1 km, where track crosses the road, pull off to the left. A further kilometre along this track (d) there is more habitat like that at (b) but here I’ve seen (and heard) Little Bustard several times. The track heads uphill and continues into the campo for several kilometres passing through a variety of habitats. If you’ve not seen them already then scan for Short-toed and Booted Eagles but also be aware that, since its re-introduction in the province, Spanish Imperial Eagle is now a real possibility in this area. If you’re feeling energetic you can walk the Corredor Verde dos Bahias from here to Los Badalejos (e) and then back via the village’s pleasantly shaded passeo (a round trip of c6 km).
Coming from the north, the road swings sharply to the right as you enter Los Badalejos but you need to take the concrete village road dead ahead. Turning here can be dangerous and difficult so if in doubt continue for another 150m to use the roundabout to change direction so you can make a far easier right turn on to this road. Follow the track for c600m and park where the track divides (e). In spring I’ve found this site an absolute ‘banker’ for Little Bustard (2-3 males present) often hearing their ‘raspberry’ call before I get out of the car and rarely having to spend more than 5 minutes looking before I see one. They do get harder as the vegetation grows up which is when knowing the call becomes still more useful. Scanning here can add still more raptors to your list as Montagu’s Harrier often quarter the fields and Black-winged Kite is a good bet (particularly in the evenings) although you’ll need some luck to spot Spanish Imperial Eagle and even more so Long-legged Buzzard which has also been reported from here. The possibility of walking along the Corredor Verde dos Bahias towards (e) has already been noted but it’s equally productive to walk in the opposite direction. Whichever direction you chose, the reed choked Arroyo de Yeso (c500 from where you’ve parked) not only has Great Reed Warbler but can harbour a surprising range of herons particularly during migration (Squacco Heron, Purple Heron and even Little Bittern). Check bushes here once again for Spanish Sparrow. Heading east, after c1 km you reach another good area (f) for Little Bustard. This route also takes you closer to the hills where birds of prey often congregate on passage. The energetic can again make this a pleasant 6 km circular walk along the Corredor Verde dos Bahias to (g) and then back to your starting point. You should also see Whitethroat here, which although fairly widespread in Cadiz province, has a rather patchy distribution in Andalucia but check carefully as Spectacled Warbler occurs on passage and has bred near San Jose de Malcocinado.
If you’ve been following this itinerary by now you’ll probably feel in need of some refreshment and, fortunately, two of my favourite ventas are nearby. On the road towards Benalup you reach Cortijo los Monteros first which is the more upmarket of the two and serves excellent food (they also have rooms). Further along Venta la Casillas is more rustic but the staff are very friendly. Opposite this venta another track (g) takes you down to (but by car not along!) Corredor Verde dos Bahias. This is another area for Little Bustard and the other species noted at (e) but it seems particularly good for Hoopoe (my highest count here being of 15 birds). It also sometimes has Tawny Pipit. Although I’ve been ‘checked’ by local agricultural security patrols here, I’ve never experienced any problems driving down this track since locals have always proven to be friendly once they realise you’re an eccentric foreign birdwatcher!
It’s possible to access the Corredor Verde dos Bahias further from tracks near Benalup (h) but you’ll probably find little that you’ve not already seen elsewhere. However, the scrubby hillside above the Corredor Verde where it crosses the Alcala road sometimes has Iberian Green Woodpecker and, if you’ve not seen one elsewhere, Melodious Warbler. The nearby buildings here have nesting White Storks (which also nest in Los Badalejos) and Little Owl. Whilst it’s not possible to get a decent view of the small area of rice paddies on the far side of the fields here, you may pick up additional birds for your day-list as Black-winged Stilt or Glossy Ibis can often be seen dropping into them. Surprises are always possible and Bald Ibis have turned up here too. The tall eucalyptus trees and bridge here are home to a colony of House Sparrows but it’s a good test of your birding skills to winkle out the odd Spanish Sparrow amongst them. If you visit this area late in the day there remains one trick up your sleeve. Taking sandy tracks from San Jose de Malcocinado towards Cantarranas (i) you’ve a good chance of seeing (or at least hearing) Red-necked Nightjar.
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
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.