Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The secret birding sites of Western Andalusia: Number 2 – La Janda

Southern Spain is not unknown to British birders, in fact its one of the most popular destinations in Europe for them. But hidden within striking distance of the world famous Donana is a series of sites that many in the UK may have never heard of. Here are my top 5 sites that may have escaped your attention when looking at a birding trip in Spain.

La Janda – A sleeping giant of Spanish birding
La Janda is not your average birding site, in fact it’s a miracle it still exists at all. Before the 1950’s La Janda was a 20km square inland lake and wetland, one of the greatest of its kind in Iberia.  However during the fascist regime of Francisco Franco (more on him at the end!) it was decided that one of two great areas were to be chosen to be turned into agricultural land, La Janda and Donana.  While Donana has gone on to receive international protection and is known to birders the world over, although now under massive threat (more on this at the end too!), La Janda was drained and turned into mile upon mile of rice paddies and other agriculture land. It was nothing short of an ecological disaster.

La Janda was once home to breeding Common Crane, the last breeding site in Andalusia, Demoiselle Crane, Marsh Owl, Osprey, herons, ibis, crakes, rails and duck species including threatened species like White-Headed Duck and Marbled Teal. While La Janda has suffered greatly over the last 60 years it still remains a fantastic birding site throughout most of the year, pointing to just how good it was before the actions of Franco. There is also the nearby area of Benalup which is also worth a mention as another superb area for birding.
There are several ways of tackling the La Janda area, the map below giving the route through the former lake and which roads connect to it. This article assumes a southern starting point.

The southern track area (Around 11km in length) is very dependent on water level. If it is dry then it can be quiet, other than larks and other passerines, but if the fields are flooded then a whole host of species can be present. One of the most obvious is the increasingly large flocks of Glossy Ibis, which have become a very strong breeder in the area in recent years. Waders, herons, egrets, Spoonbills and birds of prey (including rarities such as Long-Legged Buzzard, Pallid Harrier and Spanish Imperial Eagle) can all be seen here with numbers growing markedly when the rice paddies are flooded. The main canal on the north side of the main southern track is a great place to look for Purple Gallinule which cling precariously to the reeds by the canal. Behind the canal is a huge expanse of farmland where similar species as mentioned about can be seen throughout the year. It is also a great place to find the Bluethroats, Common Cranes, Hen Harriers, Short-Eared Owls and Merlins that winter in La Janda.

Fence lines close to the main track are a fantastic perch for Fan-tailed Warbler, Stonechat, Tawny Pipit, larks and sometimes Bee-Eater, Little Owl and small birds of prey such as Common Kestrel and Black-Winged Kite.
Further into La Janda is a 1.5km line of trees by the track. Despite being cut back in early 2014 these trees are home to a fantastic Cattle Egret colony. In the past this area was also a breeding site for all of the heron and egret species but other than the Cattle Egrets, and a couple of pairs of Glossy Ibis, the other species have all left.

The land rises and changes habitat as you approach the farm in the centre of the area. Species more familiar to UK birders can be found here but it is also a great place to find Spanish Imperial Eagle, Roller, Hoopoe and Rufous Bushchat. Beyond the farm is a flat, open area of woodland. Birds of prey are very evident here with Booted Eagle and Black Kite relatively easy to find. During the migration period a huge variety of birds use this area as a stopping point, spring 2014 saw a good number of Roller in this area.
The track drops down once again to grazing meadow and joins the long track which runs from Facinas to Benalup, a good area to find Little Bustard. At the t-junction of the two tracks is a small pool and sometimes an area holding water by the track itself. This can be a great place for Purple Gallinule at close range and the pool itself looks great for crakes and rails.

Turning left we come to the Northern section of La Janda (about 5km in length). This is generally dryer then the Southern section and the bird species found here reflects that. A small pool on the south side of the track can hold waders in early spring, with Black-Winged Stilt and Common Sandpiper the most common. The agricultural land here is a good place to see pipits, larks and wagtails but also more elusive birds such as Stone Curlew. The woods to the north also hold Sharpe’s Woodpecker (Iberian Green Woodpecker), which are often heard from the track while driving along.
The track continues until reaching the CA-212 which goes from Benalup to the A-381, just north of Los Barrios. By taking a left then immediate right you enter the Benalup area and leave La Janda.

Despite its destruction La Janda is still a fantastic birding site all year round. Unfortunately it seems the current Spanish government are too naïve and short-sighted to see the true potential of La Janda for ecotourism purposes so its protection and long term future are far from certain.

Also with Donana facing a disaster of its own in the near future (water drainage, new pipes for gas extraction off the coast, new buildings destroying coastal habitat etc. etc.) the 6 million birds that use it every year face a very bleak future, along with all wildlife in South Western Spain.
Soon it could be a very real scenario that two of the greatest wetland areas in South West Europe will be gone for good. Donana at its limit is about the size of London and La Janda would cover three quarters of the Isle of Wight, soon they may be all but a memory.

Example Species:
All Year
  • Cattle Egret, White Stork, Griffon Vulture, Little Bustard, Purple Swamphen, Black-Winged Stilt, Stone-Curlew, Eagle Owl, Calandra Lark, Thekla Lark, Fan-Tailed Warbler, Spotless Starling.
Breeding Season
  • Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Short-Toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Booted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Collared Pratincole, Scops Owl, Red-Necked Nightjar, Bee-Eater, Hoopoe, Greater Short-Toed Lark, Red-Rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Rufous Bush Chat, Great Reed Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Ortolan Bunting.
  • Garganey, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Osprey, Roller, Wryneck, Lesser Short-Toed Lark, Bluethroat, Black-Eared Wheatear, warblers and finches.
  • Common Crane, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Black-Winged Kite, Short-Eared Owl, Merlin, Bluethroat, winter ducks
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 25 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, informative, article. The Spanish 'powers that be' still seem ambivalent over environmental issues. Currently there is now a push for rice paddies - great for the passage waders but degrading for the resident and specialised spp - if the resources i.e water was there and the plant was native it would be worth growing. Will they never learn? Meanwhile Donana coninues to shrink and dessicate as the demand for the precious stuff outstrips demand and natural supply.

    They have to decide - watercourses or Golf courses?

    Laurie -