In 1956 a team of distinguished ornithologists organised an expedition to explore the wilderness of marshes and woodland along the Guadalquivir River in southern Spain known as the Coto Doñana. At a time when foreign travel was still a remote dream for most people, the subsequent account of the expedition in Guy Mountfort’s classic book ‘Portrait of a Wilderness’ made exciting reading and inspired ambitions to visit this remarkable area. Five decades later, the Coto Doñana is still regarded as one of the best birdwatching sites in Europe but it owes its continued existence to the efforts of dedicated conservationists, who have fought against a myriad of threats, ranging from encroachment by farming and tourist developments, to a serious chemical pollution incident. Although the central core of the area was declared a national park in 1969, the conservation struggle continues, but each spring and autumn the marshes still attract an amazing variety of birds and offer one of the greatest ornithological spectacles on the continent.
We begin our holiday in Seville, famous for its oranges and Moorish architecture, from where we will drive south-west to the town of El Rocío, a delightful and elegant village that overlooks the lagoon, river and marshlands that lie within the Coto Doñana National Park. With its white-washed buildings (that include a magnificent church) and its unmetalled sandy streets, there is something of the American Wild West about this village! It also makes a fine base as we explore the wide range of habitats in the region: the mosaic of marshes, Stone Pine woodland, open grassland and heathland, freshwater pools and coastal sand dunes. Here we will enjoy the large numbers of birds of prey that are present in the park, together with numerous other migrants, including storks, herons, waders, ducks, gulls and terns. We will also look for some of the region’s specialities, amongst them Purple Gallinule, Marbled Teal, Crested Coot and the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle (seven pairs of which occur here). Additionally, in the drier habitats, we will search for such species as Azure-winged Magpie, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Tawny Pipit, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Red-necked Nightjar. A range of mammals may also be encountered in this part of the park, most notably the Iberian Lynx, of which a handful remain in this corner of Andalucia, together with Red and Fallow Deer, Hares and Rabbits all, potentially, to be found on the menu of this endangered cat!
For the latter half of our holiday we will focus on the marshes and paddy fields in the eastern part of the Doñana, where the birding is excellent. We will focus, in particular, on a vast area of 11,300 hectares at the heart of the Guadalquivir Marshes that is included within the Doñana Nature Reserve and comprises an extensive area of ‘naturally’ farmed fishponds, pastures for cattle grazing, and rice paddies — all areas being organically farmed with great awareness of, and provision for, the vast numbers of birds attracted to this avian paradise. Avocets, Collared Pratincoles, White Storks, Slender-billed Gulls, Gull-billed Terns and many other wetland bird species all nest in good numbers, whilst in winter hundreds of thousands of ducks and waders thrive here. The site also supports large numbers of Greater Flamingoes and Purple Gallinules, as well as Marbled Teal and the occasional White-headed Duck. It is an experience which will undoubtedly provide the highlight of this holiday.
Both in spring and in winter one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer number of birds here. Pools are crowded with herons and egrets, flocks of terns swoop over the marshes, and the sky is filled with raptors. In spring, additionally, we will hear the melodic outpourings of Nightingales from almost every thicket, and the songs of Great Reed, Reed and Savi’s Warblers from the reedbeds, whilst Bee-eaters and Golden Orioles add their liquid tones to the chorus. With practice, some of the less familiar songs may also be identified: the scratchy warbling of Subalpine and Spectacled Warblers in the scrub, or perhaps the persistent rattle of a Cirl Bunting. Chirping tree-frogs and crickets remind us that not all the sounds are produced by birds and the fragrance of a myriad of flowers ensure that the Doñana experience envelops all of our senses!
Raptor enthusiasts will be delighted by the abundance of birds of prey inhabiting the Doñana, amongst them Griffon Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Goshawks, harriers and both Red and Black Kites, but it will inevitably be the sights and sounds of the marismas that will leave the most indelible memory of our visit to this fragile Spanish wilderness.
Byron was an exceptional tour leader. Very knowledgeable and always looking after the comfort of his guests.
The lunches organised by Byron and Julian were better than the dinners at the hotel. If they ever stop tour guiding, they should consider careers in catering! Lovely tomatoes, delicious cheeses and wonderful jamon de serrano! This was a super trip: not just the variety of birds but the quantity of each one. We got really blasé about raptors and waking up to see over 200 flamingoes from my balcony; it was just the right tonic for November.
Alan and Dave were excellent guides. They were extremely knowledgeable … I was amazed how much time they devoted to the group, from the first walk at 7am to a sunset walk at 8.30pm.
Amazing sightings of birds and mammals, the lynx was a special treat.
The leaders were great. Byron, especially, made sure everyone got to view the birds through the scope. Thanks for a great trip.
It was a lovely, restful holiday and I particularly enjoyed new facts about the birds we saw.
The accommodation, meals and picnic lunches were excellent; the guide, Jorge, was really great – friendly, informative and thoughtful; and we thus had three good and memorable days, bird watching and exploring the Coto Donana, even seeing a Lynx (an unexpected bonus).
I can't praise the tour guides enough. They were absolutely excellent from beginning to the unusual and taxing end of driving us 1,100 miles to the French coast (due to the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland). They were informative, patient and consistently helpful and humourous.
We were affected by the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, and the leaders had to work under stressful conditions, but ensured our safe arrival at Caen. Thank you to them both for being wonderful guides.
It was a fantastic trip, made all the more exciting by being stranded due to the ash from the Icelandic volcano. Thank you all back at the office for getting us home (personally, I could have stayed forever!).
The trip was excellent due to the professionalism, enthusiasm and knowledge of the tour leaders. They ensured that we obtained maximum benefit of the bird life in the area. Great ambassadors for the company.
Overall, a great experience. The leaders were first-rate in all aspects. The trip was a great experience and very good value. Thank you!
My particular interest is birds so this was good for me. On longer trips Naturetrek usually includes cultural visits, which I like. This is why I choose Naturetrek over the other more dedicated birding tour operators. The local leaders were very keen and enthusiastic and Kevin was excellent as our main tour leader. I was very impressed by the completeness of the itinerary.
E. & A.P.
Roy Taylor, our leader, was exceptional. His organisation of each day's itinerary was good and varied, and his ornithological knowledge inspiring. The two Spanish guides were very helpful, friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable too. A very enjoyable few days packed with interest. Spending every minute with the wildlife meant there was not even time to take advantage of the coffee-making facilities in our rooms!!