The Donana National Park consists of 50,720 hectares of protected land and is one of the largest and most ornithologically important wetlands in Europe. It is situated within the boundaries of three Spanish provinces, Seville, Huelva and Cádiz, in which there are vast wetlands, sand-dunes and forests of stone-pine and cork oaks. Entry into the park is strictly limited to 4-hour tours on a 21-seater safari bus, operated by a licensed company.
These tours are solely designed to show you the various ecosystems that exist within the national park. They are of little value to serious birders as the drivers are on a tight time schedule and cannot stop just to look at a bird you wish to study further.
The importance of the Doñana region cannot be overstressed. Half a million wintering birds, mainly wildfowl and waders, flock to the area each year to escape the much colder weather conditions in the north of Europe and many more use it as a feeding station during the migration periods in spring and autumn. It is also of major importance as a breeding ground for some of the scarcest and most endangered bird species in Europe, such as the Spanish Imperial Eagle, the Marbled Duck and the Red-knobbed Coot.
There are four main visitors centres on the edge of the park’s boundaries that are open to the public and these should form a part of any visit to the region. However, the national park is further protected by a buffer zone of some 84,200 hectares of surrounding natural parkland and by the Atlantic Ocean, where a 35 kilometre stretch of deserted coastline forms the southern boundary. These areas are open to the public and offer access to some of the finest birdwatching sites in Europe. it is here that birdwatchers from all over the world visit in large numbers each year.
Unfortunately, there are no decent up-to-date maps of the region and many of the better birding sites, the areas I refer to as “The hidden Doñana” are never found by the average visiting birder, leaving them frustrated and disappointed at not having seen the best of what we have to offer. If you are a serious birder and wish to make the most of your visit to Doñana, it would be adviseable to engage the services of a local guide to lead you to the best sites and birds in the region. Local guides are out in the field everyday and have up-to-the-minute knowledge of which birds are in the region and where to find them. They also know about climatic conditions, migration patterns, feeding areas and breeding sites.
The habitats change quickly in Doñana. They include vast wetlands, where storks, ibis, spoonbills, flamingos, terns, herons, egrets and other waders are found, extensive forests that harbour treecreepers, orioles, woodpeckers, flycatchers, and an assortment of finches, tits and warblers, open scrubland, where larks, sandgrouse, wheatears, chats and pipits are common and lagoons, which are frequented by ducks, geese and grebes. Overhead, there are always eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards and falcons.
Doñana holds the largest breeding populations of some of Europes most attractive birds, namely the Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpie, the Purple Swamp-hen, the Glossy Ibis, the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and the Red-knobbed Coot. It also has significant numbers of Spanish Imperial Eagles, Black-shouldered Kites, Marbled Ducks, White-headed Ducks and winter visiting Common Cranes.
Adjoining Doñana, there are vast areas where rice is grown. The harvesting season (late September, October and November) creates an avian spectacle that should not be missed by birders. After the rice has been cut, the remaining stalks are ploughed back into the still wet earth to add nutrients to the soil for the following season. The tractors that perform this task are fitted with wide rear wheels that are made of slatted metal. As the tractors are ploughing the stalks back into the earth, they are also churning up millions of small fish, eels, crayfish, frogs, newts, insects, grubs and larvae. This attacts thousands of birds of many different species to the fields to join in a spectacular frenzy of feeding.
In the past I have seen fields with an estimated 25,000 birds feeding in them. I have also counted over 40 species feeding in a single field. These have included Little, Cattle and Great White Egrets, Grey, Purple, Squacco and Night Herons, Glossy Ibis, Geater Flamingos, White and Black Storks, Ruff, Snipe, Dunlins, Common, Green, Wood and Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Avocets, Black-winged stilts, Ringed, Little-ringed, Kentish and Grey Plovers, Purple Swamp-hens, godwits, gulls, terns, larks, wagtails, pipits, warblers, finches and numerous raptor species.
This spectacle, in my opinion, rates alongside the spring and autumn migrations along the Strait of Gibraltar as a “must-see” event for any serious birder.