Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Trip Log May 24 2017 - Doñana Natural Area and National Park, Andalucia Province, Spain

If there ever was a contested landscape in modern European conservation history, Doñana National Park (DNP) is it. Last week I attended a conference in Seville to present an environmental and conservation history paper. I had an extra day built in to meet up with a friend to go birding. Matu and I spent nearly 8 hours from early morning through late afternoon birding the vast wetlands and low dune forests that make up an enormous protected area - outside the park.

"Burn the Preserve"
The interior of the National Park contains 550 square kilometers of walking dine, oak and pine forest, and wetlands. It is closed to the public unless you book a special guided tour or if you are part of an scientific study. From our various vantage points (there weren't many because the land here is so flat) I saw more wetland than I have ever seen in my life. We looked in to National Park from the surrounding Doñana Natural Area (DNA), a very large protected area that serves as a regional buffer to the national park with a combination of conservation easement and working farms. There was plenty to see in the dozens of wetland ponds, lagoons, hedges, and tremendously large tracts of wetlands of the DNA. 

Vantage point from atop ancient dunes. Industrial rice fields stretch to the Guadalquiver.

Matu works for a river-keeper organization and conducts public education, attends hearings and meetings on behalf of river health, lobbies for ongoing protection, and is a biologist and birder highly respected in these parts. He explained that DNP has been a contested landscape for some time and since the early 2000s large multinational rice and mining interests have been the most persistent threats to both the national park and the natural area. "It's an ongoing battle for access to mineral rights and water," he said. "Add to that the very real effects of climate change - we have two additional months of summer now compared to when I was a boy - and the prospects for the wetland complex both in and outside the park are in question." As in some central and south American countries, there is the prospect of violence and political-corporate manipulation of local farmers. We drove past several (closed) gates and signs that had been defaced as warnings to those, like us, who support the park as a natural refuge.

Giant Prickly Pear cactus formed hedges around ponds and lagoons.

We visited the first of two DNA visitor centers and here was my first vantage point. "See the rice fields? They go on forever. Large-scale irrigation and taking water from the Guadalquiver. It's big business. Economy of scale. There's no way the local rice farmer can compete for this much water." We passed several enormous pumping stations as well as many small cisterns and holding ponds. Water is business here. It reminded me of water rights battles in the American West and how the interests of the more powerful and highly leveraged companies have made it very hard for independent farmers to access irrigation water. Cash-cropping of rice outside the park has made it difficult to maintain conservation priorities for migrating birds inside the park. These issues cannot be contained by political boundaries. To the local farmer the water restrictions seem arbitrary and unfair. For wildlife, including the rare Iberian Lynx, water provides the habitat in which populations can survive.

Black Kite - they were everywhere!
Cattle egret doing its job - with wild horses.

With this recent landscape history in mind, Matu explained how local people of hundreds of years ago managed their resources. A quick look at Google Maps of the area showed vividly where traditional cattle and horse grazing continues to this day. Compared to the immense flooded grids of the rice companies, the unencumbered traditional landscape of semi-wild herds of cattle and horses seemed penned in, small and fragile. I began to understand what it was that Matu actually does. He fights for this river and these wetlands, and the birds. He knew every bend in every tributary, the names of all the local farmers, and all of the ways local conservation efforts were threatened by multi-national pressure. He knew the names of every plant, dragonfly, reptile, spider, and bird. This is his home landscape.

Swamp Hen and chicks.

We visited many freshwater ponds and birded their shores. Where we could, we found small heights of land to see over the shoreline brush. I began to add dozens of birds to my list almost right away. Beyond the ponds were small herds of cattle grazing among the stands of Holmes Oak and willow. Matu jumped and pointed - a pair of Common Cranes, uncommon for this area this time of year - were flying northward overhead. The presence of cranes is a not only a good ecological sign for the landscape but holds strong symbolism for European nations. As a crane fan, I was thrilled to see this!

DNA freshwater pond.

And if that wasn't enough excitement, a pair of nesting marbled teal emerged from the rushes. "People come to Doñana just to have the hope of seeing these birds!" exclaimed Matu. There are only a few pair nesting in all of Doñana region and here they were, just yards from our high point on the cactus bank. As if we needed any more reason to cheer, a Booted Eagle flew right over us and circled once around. This gave Matu plenty of time to explain to me the field marks and habits of this magnificent raptor.

Booted Eagle!

We continued down dusty roads turning in and out of a maze of unnamed paths. I could see clearly the differences between the industrial landscape and the agricultural land use of traditional farmers and ranchers. Some of traditional methods date back to the Iron Age and include small free-ranging ranching that encourages livestock, adapted to Doñana's environment, to keep moving and not stay in any one place for too long. This was very different from the scale of cattle ranching back home in the American West.

Traditional thatch-roof barn and home.

A mounted herdsman could be seen in the far distance with his cattle dogs moving a small herd of tough-looking cattle out from an oak stand into a fringe wetland. He hugged his small horse with his thighs, no stirrups, somewhat like a Roman cavalry soldier. But I could see how his ranching options were decreasing as industrial rice fields ran right up to the low hill dunes eliminating the fringe wetlands so important to many bird and mammal species including his cattle. "These are traditional people," said Matu, "Most of them have jobs outside the Donana range. Some even work for the big rice companies. But many are charcoalers, fishermen, or work in nearby towns in service industries. There are few full time ranchers left." Each year, he explained, people of the Coto de Doñana who have ties to the farming and ranching here, return for a large religious festival. I was lucky, said Matu, that I came when I did because next week is the time of the Festival of Nuestra Señora del Rocío. "There would be no way to access the DNA. Roads will be clogged with horsemen, decorated wagons, pilgrims from all over Spain. There are parades through Coto every day that block vehicles for hours at a time. Nothing moves in or out when the Festival is taking place."

Andalucians protecting the Doñana.

We pulled in to the second visitor center, a beautifully large shady pavilion named aptly "The Ornithological Centre." It had been built to look like an enormous thatch barn, giving some deference to the history of traditional farmers of the past centuries.  Inside the deliciously cool pavilion we could see out in every direction but signs and chains prevented us from leaving the space on three sides. Ponds and marshes came right up to the breezeways. Birders had pulled chairs from the small cafe inside to sit at the openings with their scopes and binoculars. There was no view of rice fields or ugly pump houses.


The pavilion serves an enormous hide for birders. You can't step outside!

We were surrounded by glorious wetlands loaded with birds. Here I saw Lesser Bitterns, Greater Flamingos, Spoonbills, and a Gadwall duck, a familiar bird from home. Overhead were Night Herons, Little Egrets, Great White Herons, Grey Herons, and Squacco Herons all headed in the same direction. A fellow birder described how to reach the heron rookery once we left the pavilion. "Don't exit your car," he warned, "The rookery is right against the road and goes back almost a mile into the marsh. You'll likely be drenched in heron shit."  Point taken!

Little Grebe.
I was thrilled to see a tree full of Bee-eaters in their festive colors, busy chatting with each other. I was disappointed that my small travel camera couldn't get a close-up of any of these birds. But through my compact binoculars I was very happy with watching the activity in and beyond the tree. We counted forty individuals! Happy with what we'd seen from the pavilion, we stepped up to the bar/cafe for a much-needed drink. The temperature was approaching 90 degrees and it was only ten in the morning! The barkeep spoke to Matu about the heron rookery. "The herons are far less this year. The rookery that was right here at the Centre moved many miles away. The water is leaving." As I tried to make out what she was explaining to Matu, I watched his face. He seemed troubled.

School students on birding walks at the Visitor Center.  White storks nesting everywhere.
To see the marshes and ponds from the pavilion was almost romantic and I couldn't imagine it any more spectacular. But obviously things have changed. A British birder next to me explained that the national authorities are trying very hard to protect the Donana inside and outside the National Park boundaries, but that regional and local agencies are often at odds with conservation aims. And there is the growing threat of illegal farming and water extraction. "They want more business. They want more jobs. Even if it puts the wetlands at risk."  DNP is a UNESCO site and recently was the first in Europe to receive an Endangered status. "In this part of the park, it's the massive greenhouse undistry that is draining groundwater from these wetlands." Matu finished his conversation with the barkeep and joined our chat. He explained that hundreds of illegal wells and holding ponds are pulling water from the wetlands. The government tries to keep up but the industry is growing faster and infiltrating the wetlands at such a pace that authorities are at a loss to stop it. (See the film clip below for more on the greenhouse industry in Doñana.) Add to that, said Matu, the fracking industry is having a serious impact on the park.


It was hard for me to look out at the wetlands and think that it might have been even more spectacular that what I was witnessing. There were hundreds of egrets and herons flying over, hundreds of waders in the wetlands. The Brit birder assured me that he's seen much, much more activity and that the herons in particular are indicating the change in the water table by relocating their famous rookery. "What you see today? Imagine numbers ten times as much for breeding populations in the park, even just a decade ago," he said.

Pochard Duck.

Back in the truck, we headed out to find the heron rookery. A dusty Land Rover pulled up next to us and there was Rafi, another biologist with the DNA and DNP. We chatted about exactly where the rookery had gone and which track to take. "Really all you need to do is follow the birds!" he said, pointing the a long line of birds flying towards the horizon. "They've moved quite a distance." Herons were streaming over us like a river current. A line of low trees in the distance seemed to be cloaked in fog that turned out to be thousands of herons circling the new rookery. This and other heronries located in the protected wetlands complex in Coto Doñana make up the largest multi-species rookery in all of Europe. The idea that it could be lost in my lifetime saddened me. I had read the expedition logs of Guy Mountfort before coming to the park. In his book Portrait of a Wilderness he described the rookeries in the late 1950s as "galaxies of birds" and "clouds of herons and egrets as black as smoke."

Rafi helps us find the rookery. It is so vast a place that distance is hard to gauge.

We followed Rafi for a time and watched as he checked on some Lesser Kestrel nesting boxes atop a drab Franco-era farm building. Lesser Kestrels are colonial nesters and on the overhead lines near the building and in the skies above us were dozens of these little falcons. Matu suggested I check out the Cathedral in Seville for an urban Lesser Kestrel nesting site. (Later I did and saw dozens of Lesser Kestrels hunting insects high over the church.)  As I looked up at the circling kestrels I could see hundreds of other raptors. Griffon vultures streamed north. Common Buzzard (looks like our Red-Tailed Hawk) circled in the heat. More Booted Eagle, Black Kites, Marsh Harriers, and birds so high that neither one of us would venture a guess as to what they were. I was quickly becoming overwhelmed with sheer number of birds I could see in every direction. "It's easy to be overwhelmed here," said Rafi, "This place shelters almost 600,000 birds during migration. You should come back in September when every bird from Europe is staging here to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing back to Africa!"

An ugly Franco-era farm building now home to a colony of Lesser Kestrel where Rafi has set up nesting boxes on the roof.
Lesser Kestrel with a small snake to take home for chicks.

The approach to the rookery was thick with dust and crowded with cars. We decided not to venture farther and got out of the truck to watch procession of birders. One pale middle age British birder had forgotten his sunscreen and was walking the dirt path back to his car. He was a ridiculous shade of bright pink. "Uh-oh," laughed Matu. The draw for birders from all over the world is the regions great diversity of life. There's literally something here for everyone. I watched a young couple from Germany spotting butterflies and dragonflies, happy when they checked off a new species for the day. A family of grown sons and their older parents were identifying wildlflowers, oblivious to the birds and insects. A birder hollered out his window "Have you seen any Marbled Teal? I need a Marbled Teal!" We pretended not to understand him.

Marbled Teal - our secret find from earlier!

The very common Grey Heron wading near the new rookery.
Grey Heron and Great White Egret preening.
Greater Flamingo and Glossy Ibis.
Greater Flamingo.

The traffic seemed to disperse a little. The temperature was now over 100 degrees and people were calling it quits. Not us. We moved on to the rookery site and if I was overwhelmed before, I was thunderstruck now. Looking out across the landscape I had to redefine the word vast for I have never seen anything like it. I watched a Snake-Eating (or Short-Toed) Eagle circle overhead, then go into a spectacular dive as he nailed a water snake along the edge of the road.

Great Crested Grebe.
As far as the eye can see are birds.
My little camera could not capture the scene. Forests full of nests. Herons and egrets flying in every direction. Our necks hurt from whipping around to identify the species. Purple Herons were so plentiful that I stopped counting. Cattle Egret, Little Herons, Great White Herons, White Storks, Squacoo Herons, Grey Herons, Night Herons, and Glossy Ibis by the hundreds. I could understand why ancient cultures revered these birds as symbols of fertility and wealth. A herd of wild horses approached the rookery to drink and bath in the water. They rolled and splashed. Cattle Egrets quickly tended to them.

And then came herds of wild horses...

Matu explained how the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, and Etruscans have all left evidence of living and hunting in this area. The shifting dunes along the sea often expose ruins, foundations of homes, wells, and lodges. In Medieval times, the great scholar-king Alfonso X built a royal hunting place here that is now covered by walking dunes and forest. "Someday maybe we'll see it again?" Spanish kings and monarchs from all over Europe would come to the palace hunt birds and deer. We saw several deer herds grazing along the tree line into the tall grass marshes. Wild horses, descendants of Arab war horses, roamed freely across the wetlands. Many had foals. A small herd passed right in front of us, just feet away. I could have reached out and touched them. But we stood silent and still in the heat as they passed.

Matu scopes the distant tree line for signs of the new rookery.

I asked about how Coto Doñana became a park. Matu explained that King Alfonso had set a precedent by declaring the area a royal hunting ground. Full time game managers were employed to protect the marshes and forests. It was an early attempt at conservation, even if only for the benefit of a privileged few.  It reminded me of the game parks of Germany and England under royal protection during the Middle Ages. Without them many species would have been lost to us today. But modernity took the greatest toll on Doñana even as it persisted as a cherished landscape.

Storks and Herons everywhere.

By mid-century environmental concerns for the health and welfare of Doñana was a priority for many European and British scientists and authorities. By 1957, in the middle of the Franco years, the greatest threat to Doñana was a hard push for tourism to develop sprawling resorts along the coast. Hard paved roads began to infiltrate delicate and dynamic wetlands. The scientific community countered by organizing several large-scale expeditions that included conservation leaders Jose Antonio Valverde, Maricio Gonzaliz-Gordon, Guy Mountfort, and Roger Tory Peterson who all participated in several high-profile expeditions to bring attention to the fight to save the Coto Doñana. "It was a monumental effort," said Matu, "The World Wildlife Fund was born here. This was their first success in international conservation. They bought the place with money raised from contributors from all over the world!" It sounded like an early victory for bird conservation, but there was more fighting to come.

The biggest bird blind I've ever seen.

In 1972 the Guadalquiver was channelized to accommodate increased shipping traffic to Seville It is still an active inland port 60 kilometers upriver with plans to expand again. Polluted agricultural water, mining brine, and heavy dredge sediments killed tens of thousands of wetland birds in 1973 in  a series of unregulated releases and impoundment failures. Stunningly, it happened again in 1983 in nearly 100,000 birds. Public pressure and international lobbying pushed hard for better protection of the wetlands and coasts. Still, a freak mining accident in 1998 spilled thousands of tons of toxic sediments into the wetlands, killing so many birds that local and international cries for protection could no longer be ignored. The government finally began to sanction and fine mining and agricultural interests for pollution and resource regulation violations. With fracking and illegal wells taking a toll today, the rally has started again with school children, traditional farmers, townsfolk, biologists, birders, and conservationists from all over the world demanding that the degradation of the protected areas stop.

The National Park is closed to the public, with certain exceptions, unlike parks in the U.S. that are always accessible.
White Stork nests are in every tree on the lane into the DNP Visitor Center.

The DNP and DNA continue to add acreage to the protected zone even as new pressures for water rights and land use increase. The public may access the DNA but the DNP is off-limits except by special arrangement for guided-only tours, scientific work, or special exception. The DNA is managed by the regional-provincial  government of Andalucia while the DNP is managed by federal authorities. Matu explained that aligning the priorities of the two management agencies can be complicated. The race to save Coto Doñana is a serious issue, and one that the effects of climate change are only making more serious. As we sat in some rare shade at the close of the day we stopped talking and just listened to the sound of insects, birds, horses, and in the distance a cat-like yowl. An Iberian Lynx? Could we be so lucky? I'd like to think we were.

Panting in the heat, a young White Stork rose to poop and almost hit us!


Huge fruit-growing greenhouse plantations have sprung up all around the National Park and the effect of illegal wells and holding ponds pulling water from the forests, dunes, and wetlands is becoming obvious and concerning. See this May 24, 2017 video from France24.com -

Guy Mountford (1958) Portrait of A Wilderness: The Story of the Ornithological Expeditions to the Coto Doñana. Hutchinson & Co., London. (Out of print but I found it easily on Amazon Used Books.)

There are numerous guiding companies to take birders into the DNA but many people chose to venture in on their own. I have to say, I was thankful for Matu's company and expertise, because I don't think I'd have ever found my way in or out of this vast, enormous, humongous place! It was a fortunate meeting on the Camino that brought me here to spend the day with him.

The Andalucian Birding Society website contains many suggestions for local guides. I've been a member for several years in anticipation of my visits to Spain to walk the Camino and visit Doñana. I can't wait to go back! http://www.andaluciabirdsociety.org/

UPDATE: June 26, 2017
The opening photograph for this post "Burn the Preserve" seems to have happened. Doñana is burning. Matu and others expressed concern during my visit that violence against the park would occur, given the high profile issues of industrial agriculture, mining, and water rights. As the sign says, and as my friends agreed, fire would be the weapon of destruction.