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Family of coots among the reeds

Coots can’t count

By José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

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Rain arrived a little later than normal this year, the marshes got filled properly but much later than usual. Due to this birds begun thinking about breeding much later than average. As a result, this year we have in Doñana marshlands that offer in May landscapes more typical of the marshes in April or even March. Weather forecasts announce new rains, so the favorable conditions for the reproduction of thebirds will be extended this year in an unusual way.


Marisma con castañuela y ranúnculos acuáticos

These first days of May temperatures are being kept cool and pleasant and we have large expanses flooded with good depth of water, in many areas covered by extensive meadows of sea bullrush and large patches of aquatic ranunculus. The marshes looks great and offers visitors of Doñana a wonderful natural performance.

During our visit to the Park today we look out to the marsh edges, locally called vera, just before leaving Matasgordas Cork Oak Woods, which give way to the great open plains of Hinojos Marshlands. Large centennial cork oaks support their roots in the last sands of the forest edge and let their branches hang over the first flooded clay soils, covered with a dense green mantle of aquatic plants. Large herds of deer graze here quietly during the early hours of the morning, sometimes accompanied by small groups of wild boar, which hort in the mud. Here and there some cattle egrets use the backs of some of them as an perche, jumping opportunistically over the insects that moves away from the feet of its mobile innkeeper. The white storks of the nearby nests also search in the high prairie the food with which to feed their couple of week old chicks, whose heads are already poking up among the branches of their nests.

La vera con alcornoque y clavellinas

Herons, gadwalls and mallards fly off as we go through the first flooded areas. The first laughs of little grebe and the first glossy ibis and egrets welcome us to the great green plains. Goldfinches, serins, thekla larks and corn buntings abound along the edges of the dirt road that goes into it. Pairs of partridges prepare their nests and Iberian hares scamper one after the other excited with their loving games.

When we go through Escupidera Gate we observe the first large groups of flamingos, which abound everywhere in the distance. Two pairs of lapwings, who have decided to stay with us this year, ascend high in the sky reacting quickly to a black kite that threatens its nesting spot, carefully hidden among the small salty bushes that cover a dry area of the marshes. Next to them, the first black-winged stilts already hatch their eggs, sitting on their platforms of sticks built on shallow waters. They also get up and launch themselves aggressively on the predator. More congeners will join in the next few days to crate a small colony; the more they are the better protected from predators they will be.


The first purple herons abandon their safe hide in the bullrush meadow, alerted by our vehicle. The unmistakable song of collared pratincoles and pintail sandgrouse overflying us attract our attention. But it is larks who play the main part of the soundtrack of the marsh. Crested larks, short-toed larks, lesser short-toed larks and calandra larks, intone their courtship melodies all around us. A male calandra lark shows off from his perches on one of the cattle fence pools. It is undoubtedly the best sound of the marshes, its song has no equal, especially when it stops imitating its other larks, and plays its own musical notes. A wonder to our ears.

Flocks of flamingos and ibis in v formations fly over us from the distant marshes, where the activity is incessant, with groups of birds feeding and flying all over the area. Groups of spoonbills and great white egrets feed half hidden among the vegetation while a platoon of whiskered terns flies low over open water areas. When they find something of interest, they stop and hover like a kestrel to set their prey and let themselves fall on them, diving for a moment, to take flight again with a small fish in its beak.

fumarel cariblanco cerniendose

Fumarel cariblanco

Near the bridge over Caño Guadiamar the activity is hectic. Black-necked grebes and great crested grebes build their floating nests among the reeds. Moorhens and purple swamphens already feed their chickens, although these are not easy to see. The ones we see often are those of coots. Mother and father are busy getting small pieces of seaweed to offer lovingly to their red-headed chicks. The broods are usually composed by 6, 8 or up to 10 of them. But this large number of descendants is nothing more than a strategy of nature to ensure the success of reproduction. While we watch them with emotion, a great black kite appears from behind us and hovers over the open waters next to the vegetation where the coots feed. A great commotion, and a second later we see him take flight again with one of the small ones between his claws. He moves the chick from one foot to the other one and, with the precision of a surgeon, plunges his sharp claws on his soft skull to cause a quick death. Nature also saves us unjustified sufferings.

Milano negro posado

The entire family, who had hidden among the vegetation, comes out again quickly as if nothing had happened. None of them seems affected. Have they realized what has just happened to them ?, we ask ourselves. Everyone goes back to their tasks. The brothers of the missing chick continue to receive their pinches of green algae from the peaks of their parents. They continue to dive to search for more, apparently untouched by what has just happened. Only us seem to have suffered damage, it hurts to have witnessed one of those hard events, so common in nature. A nature that seems not to have endowed coots with the ability to count, we think, is the only explanation we can find to justify such insensitivity on those loving parents reaction. Or maybe the wise nature purposely selected that behavior to such misfortunes, which mark their daily life during the breeding season.

Life in the marshes continues its course, and we continue to observe it, although with the stomach a little hidden from now on.

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 ...