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Marshes with white clouds reflected and El Rocio Sanctuary in the background

The beauties of Doñana

By José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

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Two months later I return to Doñana today. Two months of confinement playing to imagine a Doñana that only the oldest have lived. Anxious, nervous and expectant, this is how I feel when arrive at El Rocío in a cold morning, under a sky covered with high gray clouds. The distant silhouette of the Grazalema Ranges adds an unusual layer to the marsh landscape. Last weeks’ rains have raised the level of the waters beside the Sanctuary, which dominates the landscape with power. I remember the promising forecast of blue skies decorated with cotton white clouds later in the day and keep going.

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Several weeks ago I was been able to hear from home the first bee-eaters returning, now I can finally see them, joy for my eyes. The second obligatory stop is at Ajolí Bridge. Caño Marín Stream runs high, sediment-laden yellow waters run slowly and silently under the bridge. I had also missed the harmonic song of the nightingale and now I enjoy it again, joy to my ears.

Raya Real sands, drunk on rain, look decorated with a long rosary of large mirrors of still waters where clouds and pine trees look in. The first shades of blue surround the clouds, which get whitened by the gaze of the slowly rising sun. You never enter those forests without harboring hopes of tripping over the cat, and so I do, with contained emotion of the desired encounter. The grounds, almost clean of human traces, are a faithful reflection of the activity of the native inhabitants of the forest. Footprints of small rodents, rabbits, wild boars, deer, ducks, storks and those of other smaller birds surround the large puddles.

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In the cork oak dehesas the green of the grasses which have proliferated thanks to the favorable climate dominates. Early black kites fly over it in search of breakfast. I enter the pine forest, in the open areas along the firebreak I move along I see scattered notes of color. Patchs of daisies and other small flowers begin to open. Standing out against the spiky grasses, I find beautiful pink hyacinths and slender and bright purple irises. Pairs of turtle doves rise up as I pass while woodlarks sing descending whistles from their perches on a low branch of some pine. Serins, greenfinches, treecreepers, wrens, chaffinches, great tits, blue tits and a distant spotted woodpecker offer me the usual symphony of songs at this time of year.

 

Pines and mastic trees dress their gala greens and I find that the line of ferns along the Cañada Mayor Stream has gained height. I get out of the car to remove some fallen branches that block the track, clear evidence that no one has used it for some time. No signs of the cat yet. It is the time of year when females spend much of  their time with the cubs in the den, making the chances of tripping over them low. But I trust males that surely continue with their usual tasks of patrolling and defending their territory in addition to those of hunting.

The metallic blue colors of the flowers of the Spanish bugloss and viper bugloss contrast heavily with the increasingly numerous daisies open to the sun when I move across El Pinto Fords. A couple of bee-eaters look at me from a power line as a hoopoe fly across the road and move away among the wild olive trees. A layer of shallow water covers the second ford but I see no signs of water flowing over the area recently, so expectations of finding the marsh flooded decrease.

Upon arriving at the Matasgordas Cork Oak Forest, the usual black kites greet me from their perches and I watch with delight a booted eagle fluttering chased by one of them, perhaps competing for the territory around their nests. Where are the deer, I wonder, none has appeared yet, how strange. But I realize that it is mid-May, the time of year when females leave the protection of the herd and look for a quiet nook in the forest to give birth their fawns. Males are always more elusive. Being immersed in these thoughts is when the first young male comes out, with its incipient velvety antlers.

Thrift bush with a vast sabana in the background

Landscape suddenly opens up and the dense forest gives way to the vast marsh, where the inundable clays block its progression. Large grass meadows dominate over some patches of salty bushes that cover the highest areas and small flooded areas in the lowest. I make the usual stop next to the large cork oak that stands majestically at the edge of the marsh that seems to be watching over. The same views that it enjoys daily make my soul rejoice again that morning of skies covered by gray clouds. At the foot of the guardian, an elegant thrift bush puts a contrast note in the surrounding green. A whole legion of small black and red beetles strive to feed on their pink flowers, completely oblivious to the dark storm-clouds that hang over the uncertain future of many of us. There are only a few birds of prey flying around, it is still early, I do not manage to find any Spanish imperial eagle perched on the trees along the far forest edges. The pair of red-jumped swallows that nest each year under the nearby road bridge flies over me to try and lift my spirits, and they succeed. I resume the excursion.

 

I push out into the marshes. I can’t find Veta Zorrera’s little owls, but I do find a large male partridge riding his watchtower on top of one of the large eucalyptus roots. I continue and something catches my attention in the grasslands on my right. The head of a large deer, decorated with some 40 cm long soft looking antlers, stands out among the grasses. Near it I find three more heads with antlers of different sizes. Alerted by me they stand up and trot away. These last two months of separation from the human threat have clearly not served to reset his deep-seated instinct for survival. Just before reaching La Escupidera Gate I feel grateful to find my first purple heron of the year. Unusually exposed as if it was a gray heron and unusually tame allowing me to take several photos.

Marshes with a group of horses in the background

Crested larks, short-toed larks, lesser short-toed larks and calandra larks welcome me to the extensive flood-able marshes, where small oasis of greenery break an immense plain that is already yellowing. Groups of horses and cows graze in the distance. A little further on, the waterlogged areas increase as the terrain losses height. I see large groups of flamingos in the distance, as well as groups of egrets and ibises that feed on the waters accumulated by the rains of recent days. Storks, some lapwings and several pratincoles greet me along the way, each with its own particular dialect. Another sound also comes to me and I easily identify is the shrill calls of the numerous whiskered terns that hover low over the marshes. Much quieter, a large number of ringed plovers and other small waders go almost unnoticed, faithful to their appointment in Doñana each May during their migration north.

Puddled marsh

I stop when arrive at Caño Guadiamar Bridge. The flamingos of the closest group move slow but steady away from the vehicle that breaks the peace of the place. The deeper waters here support a good variety of waterfowl. Great crested grebes, little grebes, coots, swamphens, herons, and ibises feed on waters of different depths. Great reed warblers, cetti’s warblers and Savi’s warblers sing from their hiding perches on the reeds. A pair of ferruginous ducks fly off when I get out of the car. I came hopping to find signs of bird reproduction, but much to my regret I can’t find them. Rain came too late this spring and not in the necessary amount to think of a late reproduction like that a few years ago. A little bittern flies over the road to hide in a tamarisk, and shortly afterwards a squacco heron flies over the waters of the river. Activity is low compared to that of a good year in Doñana but we are used to that alternation of good and not so good years, that is the irregular normality that our irregular Mediterranean climate brings us.

Marsh with flamingos

My exploration along Guadiamar River only confirms the obvious: the many thousand glossy ibis, purple herons, great egrets, squacco herons, little egrets, cattle egrets and night herons that usually reproduce in the Caño are not doing so this year. The same can be applied to the lagoons around Jose Antonio Valverde Visitors Centre, where activity is also very low. Shortly before arriving at the gates a clear sign of the effects of the poor human activity in the area over the last two months: a new large colony of Spanish sparrows in the tamarisks next to the road.

I continue down to Lucio del Lobo, where I find some water accumulated. A number of glossy ibises and little egrets feed in it. It is noon so I start moving back. A short-toed eagle rises from its perch on an electric pole while a group of young fallow deer leaps away over the high vegetation.

 

The grey clouds and dim light I begun the day with have disappeared. Now a blue sky decorated with large white clouds and a lively spring light have replaced them. The Hinojos Marsh now looks much more attractive even though the distant flocks of flamingos are now much more blurred by the heated upward air. A dozen griffon vultures fight for something behind the scrubs next to Chozas del Pastor Among them stands out a black one. Several black kites and a red one fly over them looking for an opportunity to grab some food. The green of the flooded areas now contrast much more with the yellow pasture grass.

Group of horses in the water of the marshes

With no fawns or partridge chicks in sight, I cross the cork oak and pine forests back to El Rocío. The Mother also looks prettier now. The stop next to the restaurant is essential. A group of mares cross the deepest waters to come and try the pastures next to the Canaliega Bridge. I go home with a good collection of snapshots where I keep the beauty of a landscape in which the clouds shade the silhouette of the hermitage while looking at each other flirtatiously in the calm waters of the marsh. I return home with the spirit revived by the beauties of this natural paradise and renewed hopes of being soon back in my task of sharing them with you. See you in Doñana.

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About José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

José Antonio Sánchez se licenció en Biología por la Universidad de Sevilla en 1985. Más tarde, durante varios años, se dedicó a organizar y guiar rutas de senderismo y naturaleza ...

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