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View of the streets of El Rocío

The European Far West

By Lucía Lozano Villarán

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As expected, we’re having a beautiful spring in Doñana after the abundant winter rains. It came later than usual and we can see that clear now especially in regard to insects and reptiles that are not yet as abundant as normally this time of year. Only now is increasing the number of butterflies, dragonflies and snakes in the field. The good news is that so far the marsh has been virtually free of mosquitoes, but today I had to use protection against the first ones, the low night temperatures held them at bay. Nothing in any case that cannot be fixed with a little protection.

The Mother of the Marshes at El Rocío look great, flamingos, spoonbills, herons, glossy ibis, whiskered, red terns and ducks are frequent visitors. In the pine forests of Coto del Rey the meadows are green and the flowers open. The nightingale’s song is the dominant, but every single species can be heard singing around. Black kites don’t go unnoticed either, of course, nor the bootee eagles. We see the lynx often, almost every day it is spotted by the people in one the vehicles doing the north route.

The works to improve the sandy tracks before the coming Annual Festival of El Rocío are well advanced. Many thousand people eagerly await the arrival of the big party every year to spend a few days of excess and fun in El Rocío. They say that this small town, built around the famous chapel, looks like a village of the American Western movies; those who live here agree, it is similar in all respects to one of those villages filled with gunmen where law is absent, the only thing that seems missing is that riders carry a gun in his belt. But if there is something that attracts each year at such a high number of people is simply the absolute freedom given to do what they want, and those who live here suffer it every day.

The thing is that a few of us are also looking forward to the arrival of the pilgrimage but for entirely different reasons, the first is for the access to the park to be fix at last and the second to take a short vacation away from here while others flock to the dusty streets of El Rocío. The ford that was built to overcome the ravages of winter has been improved to make it a pretty decent road. The works to fix the access to the José Antonio Valverde Visitors Centre is well advanced and it has clearly improved the quality of the service we provide to the visitors of the Park.
Back to what interests us most, I will tell you that the first thing that calls our attention after entering the Hinojos Marshes from the north is the large number of egrets, herons, spoonbills and flamingos that spread throughout the marsh extension. Today in particular we have found a huge concentration of many thousand flamingos. It has to be given a special mention at a melanic grey heron and a western reef egret that have seen in the last days. There are also many flocks of small waders that are still passing through Doñana. The most abundant species are ringed plover, dunlin, curlew sandpiper, little stint and the only breeder to Doñana of the group, the kentish plover. Putting knowledge and patience can also be found among them the rare Tenmick’s astint.

Collared pratincoles, black-winged stilts and avocets are also very abundant and can be observed at close range sitting on their nests. Crested, calandra and short-toed larks fill the marshes with their melodic songs, while yellow wagtails sing their simple calls. At Caño Guadiamar, great reed warblers are the ones that, false modesty aside, direct the soundtrack, with the invaluable help of purple gallinule, coots, moorhens, little grebes, little bitterns and Savi’s warblers, whose shyness is evident making really difficult to spot them. Great crested pochards, common pochards, mallards, grebes, and terns sail or fly over the waters covered largely by the reeds.

Looking carefully through the vegetation you may enjoy the rides of the great crested grebe chicks  on the backs of their parents; or the little grebes sat on their small nests anchored to a branch of a tamarisk, at the slightest warning of imminent danger they cover their eggs with bits of nesting materials with a flashing movement to conceal them from potential predators; or perhaps the coots feeding their funny redhead chicks with small portions of algae taken from the bottom of the marsh. With a little luck will even observe through the windows of the José Antonio Valverde Visitor Centre the tireless work of building the nest of a great reed warbler.

There is certainly no shortage of spectacular scenes there. The colony continues a ceaseless activity of chick feeding, nest construction, fights for the space, talks of love and high-pitched arguments of heated competitors. Here, in the remote Western Europe, we are fortunate to have this wonder of nature for the enjoyment of its visitors. Without a doubt this is the place you should not miss if you decide to visit Doñana.

Before I conclude I wanted to share with you the small moment of happiness that is for any lover of birds the first observation of a species. It was a buff-breasted sandpiper that suddenly appear the other day in the field of view of my binoculars as I examined a group of waders. The unusual always stand out quickly for those who have trained eyes; to find out exactly what it is may not be so easy. We found on the 7th and the 8th an individual of this species feeding relentlessly among the short grass near an area full of small waders. Its long yellow legs and cinnamon front lit my alarms. Confirmed the second day with some American clients, this is probably one of the few observations, if not the first, for these species in Donana. Doñana surprises you …

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