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INTRODUCTION TO DOÑANA
 
 
 
(An extract from John Butler's book A Birdwatching Guide to Doñana)

The Doñana National Park and the surrounding areas of the natural park of Doñana consist of almost 139,000 hectares (343,500 acres) of protected and semi-protected land and are situated in the south western region of Andalucia. The great diversity of habitats that exist hold significant numbers of mammals, rodents, amphibians, reptiles and fish species, along with about 750 plant species and vast numbers of moths, dragonflies and butterflies. The full list of bird species that have been recorded in the area is now over 360, although many of these have been vagrants and the true number of species that are regularly recorded is nearer to 275. The geographical position means that the area is likely to attract any vagrants or accidentals that may wander, or be storm-blown, into the region and many Spanish and European rarities have been recorded. The importance of the entire Doñana region as a conservation site cannot be overstressed. Millions of wintering birds, mainly waterfowl and waders from the north, flock to this area each year, attracted by the mild climate and the abundant food supply. The region is also on a major migratory route for birds travelling from and to north and west Africa during the spring and autumn migration periods. It is estimated that up to six million birds pass through this region each year. It is also of major importance as a breeding ground for some of the scarcest and most endangered bird species in Europe, such as Marbled Ducks, Red-knobbed Coots and Spanish Imperial Eagles.

Parque National de Doñana

The National Park

The national park of Dońana is situated in the south-eastern corner of the province of Huelva and the south-western area of the province of Seville. The terrain is mostly flat, with the highest point being only 47 metres above sea level. Land borders exist to the north and west of the park, whilst the Río Guadalquivir, to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean, to the south, form the other borders. Following recent land purchases, the national park consists of 54,252hectares (136,000 acres) of protected land, in which there are dune systems, forests of stone pine and cork-oaks, open scrubland and a vast area of seasonal marsh-land and lagoons, considered by many to be amongst the finest and most important wetland systems in Europe. For hundreds of years it was the royal hunting grounds (cotos), where kings, queens and other notable dignitaries would come to enjoy their sport. Then, in 1963, an area of 6,794 hectares of the land was purchased by the World Wildlife Fund to aid conservation and set up a scientific research station. It was declared a national park in 1969 and in 1978 more land was added. In 1981, certain areas of the park were turned into Biospheric Reserves and in 1982 it became a RAMSAR site. Then, in 1988, it achieved the status of a Special Protection Areafor birds and finally, the park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1994. The park management is now the responsibility of the Consejería de MedioAmbiente, the environmental agency of the Andalusian government and is a part of “Red Espacios Naturales Protegidos de Andalucía” (RENPA), the network of protected natural areas of Andalucía and entry into the park is restricted to tours operated by a licensed company, the “Co-operativa de Marismas del Rocío”, using 21-seater safari vehicles. These tours last for approximately four hours and cover some70 kilometres of trails along the Atlantic coast, the sand dunes and inside the park proper.Unfortunately, as interesting as these tours may be, they are not an ideal way to watch birds, insects or to study flowers, as the drivers, who mostly only speak Spanish, are on a schedule and cannot stop just because you have caught a fleeting glimpse of a "lifer" and would like to investigate it further. The main objective of these tours is to allow you to experience for yourself all of the various eco-systems that exist within the park There are four visitors centres within the park that are open to the public and three of these should form a part of any visit to Doñana . The fourth, the José Antonio Valverde Visitors Centre, is many kilometres out into the Marismas del Guadalquivir and access can be difficult,unless you know the way. However, in recent years this has become a major breeding ground for Glossy Ibis, Squacco, Purple and Black-crowned Night Herons, Little and Cattle Egrets, Little Bitterns, Purple Swamp-hens and Red-knobbed Coots and any serious birder should make the effort to visit this site.Without doubt, in the spring, this centre and the surrounding marsh-land is one of the finest birdingwatching areas in Europe and is one of the regular highlights of my guided tours.

Parque Natural de Doñana

The Natural Park

The national park is further protected by some 84,200 hectares (208,000acres) of surrounding natural parkland and by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, where over 30kilometres of deserted sandy coastline forms the boundary. This buffer zone, the Parque Natural de Doñana, also benefits from protected status, but not to the same strict degree as the national park. Much of the protection and management of the natural park also comes under the umbrella of the “Consejeria de Agencia de Medio Ambiente” (AMA). There is a great diversity of habitats within the natural park and these include streams, rivers, lagoons, beaches, salt marshes, estuaries, forests, rice fields, pasture land,agricultural land and open heathland, all of which hold a wide range of bird species and other wildlife. Entry into these areas is largely un-restricted and there are various visitors centres with nature trails, where the general public are welcomed. All of the birds and other animals that exist within the boundaries of park can generally be found at these sites, usually in greater numbers and at closer range.

PROTECTED AREAS

There are numerous sites that have been given varying levels of protection by the environmental agency of the Andalusian Government (AMA). The sites in question are usually well marked with cream and green signs every 100 metres or so,indicating the status of the protected area. The three levels of protection you are likely to encounter are:

The Parque Nacionalde Doñana.
 
The national park obviously receives the highest level of protection and entry into the park is strictly controlled and limited to organized conducted tours. Only a handful of local people are still permitted to work in the park, using traditional methods of collecting pine nuts, harvesting shellfish and burning charcoal.
 
Parque Natural.
 
These are generally very large areas or nature parks which are open to the public. In this region they are mostly marshes, rivers, lagoons, forests and estuaries and form part of the pre-parque, or buffer zone, to the national park. In some cases there are information centres at these sites that offer leaflets and guides to the area. You may also find recreational facilities and signposted or colour-coded walking trails. Certain activities may be restricted and only selected planning permission for building is granted.
 
Paraje Natural.
 
These are natural areas that can vary greatly in size and include similar sites to those mentioned above. Some may be fenced off and others may be open to the public, although certain activities may be restricted or prohibited.
 
Reserva Natural.
 
This translates as a nature reserve and some of the sites may be fenced off to conserve the natural surroundings and wildlife, but all usually offer good opportunities for birdwatching.
 
THE BIRDS
 
The current bird list for Doñana stands at over 360 recorded species of resident, summer and winter visitors, passage migrants and vagrants. The area is mainly a wetland site and the largest number of birds are usually present during the winter, when millions of ducks, geese, waders, herons, egrets and raptors arrive to escape the colder climates of the north to take advantage of the milder temperatures and the abundant food supply. Most field guides inform you that many birds are only migratory summer visitors to Europe and will not be seen during the winter. This information is very outdated as, in fact, many species spend the winter in the Doñana region. These include Purple, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons, Little Bitterns, Black Storks, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Black Kites, Egyptian Vultures, Sand and House Martins, Barn and Red-rumped Swallows and Reed Warblers. The spring migration and the breeding seasons offer birders the chance to see many species of birds that have not been recorded, or are extreme rarities, in Britain and many other European countries. Amongst these I include Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies, Squacco Herons, Little Bitterns, Cattle Egrets,  Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, Black Storks, Greater Flamingos, Ruddy Shelducks, Red-crested Pochards, Marbled and White-headed Ducks, Black-shouldered Kites, Spanish Imperial Eagles, Lesser Kestrels, Red-knobbed Coots, Purple Swamp-hens, Great and Little Bustards, Collared Pratincoles, Black-winged Stilts, Temminck’s Stints, Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great Spotted Cuckoos, Red-necked Nightjars, White-rumped Swifts, Little Swifts, Bee-eaters, Rollers, Golden Orioles and a whole host of passerine species.