Wetland birds in Andalusia : the Doñana paradise
If there is one group of animals that offers the greatest pleasure to nature observers, this has to be the spectacle of birds living in wetlands. Plenty of large and iconic species give joy to the neophyte while many tricky birds, either to sight or to recognize, offer much work to the amateur birder.
A handful of species live together and feed frantically on water bodies and in marshes; or on the contrary, find refuge and rest in the greatest tranquility while waiting to resume their migrations. Quite a show and a life lesson.
Wetlands of international importance
The Inventory of Wetlands (“humedales“) of Andalusia (IHA) counts 244 protected natural areas, mainly located on the western coast of the region. The 7 most important wetlands are home altogether to up to 90% of waterfowl and marsh bird populations.
As we have already mentioned, Doñana is the most prestigious wetland in Spain because the Lower Guadalquivir marshes (Doñana National Park) and its peripheral lagoons (including Dehesa Abajo, Brazo del Este) provide refuge for hundreds thousands of waterfowl throughout the year.
Waterfowl / wetland birds
About fifty species are resident and visible all year round in Doñana, and those numbers are very often strongly reinforced during the winter period.
These species are accompanied by about forty wintering species only present at this period. Doñana thus becomes one of the most important “winter quarters” in Europe with more than 600,000 waterfowl, waders and other marsh birds.
This panorama is completed by five strictly summer species and four passage species, only briefly visible during the migratory phase.
Of course, every year, vagrant species that are usually very rare for this territory are observed by ornithologists.
Visual guide in English
We have already published a list of Andalusian birds (non-vagrant species), very useful for keen birders who already know their species.
Below, we offer an illustrated guide to the hundred species of wetland birds present in Andalusia, about a third of the regional avifauna.
Souvenir at the Palacio del Rey de Doñana: a remote pink mass of brilliant flamingos amid lush green marshes.
Fuente de Piedra
Costa del Sol
Guide to the birds of Doñana and the wetlands of Andalusia
R´ÉSIDENTE: Présente toute l’année et repoductrice
HIVERNANTE: Saison hivernale (non reproductrice)
ESTIVALE: Présente pendant l’époque de reproduction
TRANS-MIGRANTE: De passage (non reproductrice)
Population estivale, quelques individus hivernants
Petite population résidente, très nombreux hivernants
Risques d’extinction (UICN)
CR – Danger critique
EN – En danger
VU – Vulnérable
NT – Presque menacée
Herons and storks of Andalusia
Herons and egrets are large freshwater birds with slender silhouette, very long neck and a beak as much tapered as they are robust: a real dagger that allows herons to hunt on the lookout for fish, alternating phases of great immobility with excessively fast blows. The white stork and the cattle egret, whose beak dimensions differ slightly, are more generalists and feed in the terrestrial environment and even in landfills. Generally colonial and social arboreal species, forming heronries (“pajareras”) which occupy large trees in the riparian forest and host often several species (mixed heronry): communal roosts in the winter and very dense breeding colonies during the spring. As for the bittern and the little bittern, these solitaries species are fond of reed-beds. Finally, it is interesting to note that the most sensitive and specialized species are often migratory.
Large waterbirds in Spain: Spoonbills and ibises; flamingos; cranes
Remarkable species, emblematic of the wetlands of the Iberian Peninsula, of very large sizes, long lifespans and very easy to recognize in the field. The shape of the beak indicates their diet: spatulate foraging beak of spoonbills, elongated foraging beak of ibis, filtering beak of flamingos and short, generalist beak of cranes. Colonial birds that often move in large flocks and whose breeding sites are very sensitive to disturbance. Eurasian Spoonbills and Glossy Ibis join the mixed arboreal heronries, ibises having experienced an extraordinary expansion in the Lower Guadalquivir marshes over the last two decades. Flamingos breed only occasionally in Doñana, the large Spanish colony being located in Fuente de Piedras. Everything about this species is extraordinary, especially its spectacular coloration. Flamingos mate for life, build raised cup-shaped mud nests in the middle of a shallow lagoon, lay a single egg a year, and raise the young in communal crèches. As for Common Cranes, they only spend the winter in Andalusia, sleeping with their feet in the water, but feeding on land (dehesas and crop fields).
Moorhens, coots and rails at the Doñana marshes
Rails are related to cranes even if their medium size and short legs classify them in a separate family. These resident and solitary species are particularly fond of the emergent vegetation of the Doñana marshes where they move efficiently using legs with very long fingers. Unlike rails and moorhens, coots have webbed feet which make them excellent swimmers and join ducks on the lagoon. Crakes and rails are extremely discreet…unlike the splendid porphyry-coloured Purple Gallinule. The latter is unique in the European fauna, tearing off the young shoots of reedbed with a powerful peck, which it then manipulates with its long fingers (like an authentic hand). Along with ducks and geese, those are the only wetland bird species with a fundamentally herbivorous diet, a circumstance that facilitates their presence throughout the year.
Purple swamp hen
Grebes and cormorant: tireless divers of the lagoons
These birds, whose silhouette is somewhat reminiscent of ducks, are fond of swimming and diving all day long on permanent bodies of water. Piscivorous species that find prey throughout the year. The medium-sized grebes are solitary while the large cormorants are social and colonial birds. They often join heronries to rest, while remaining somewhat distant from the Ardeidae roost, and have recently started breeding in southern Spain; their numbers increase considerably during winter.
Great crested grebe
Geese and ducks in Mediterranean wetlands
Ducks are water birds par excellence that spend many hours in the middle of lagoons to protect themselves from predators and thus rest or eat. Many species are migratory and usually have large numbers that winter in large unfrozen wetlands in southern Europe. Doñana is famous for its greylag goose winter quarters which hosted almost all of the European population until the 1980s. Resident species in the Mediterranean basin and Andalusia are generally threatened and have very low populations: like all breeders, they are susceptible to habitat destruction and predation. Male ducks are most often very colorful while females have discreet and cryptic plumage. As the pairs form in winter, it is common to observe the two sexes together in pairs, or even males insistent in search of a partner. Geese graze the grasslands adjoining the lagoons, while many ducks assume a fishing-cap posture to filter water and sediment. The most threatened species are usually diving ducks that search for aquatic vegetation growing in the water column or at the bottom of the lagoon.
Wading birds of Doñana: 28 small waders frequent on the mudflats
Waders form a large group of fairly homogeneous species that feed preferentially on mudflats and other silty areas. Most of these species are present during the winter and/or migration period between the West African coasts, where they winter, and the far north of Western Europe, where they breed. We can distinguish between larger waders (black-winged stilts, avocets, godwits, curlews), medium-sized (shanks, sandpipers, lapwings, snipes) and small-sized (stints, plovers). How do many similar species coexist and feed together on the mudflats? … beautiful subject which wonderfully illustrates the concept of ecological niche. It suffices to observe the shape and size (length and thickness) of the beaks which allow them to access food resources (bloodworms, bivalves) in differentiated strata of mud. And There you go! These morphological differences also help us identify these birds in the field. It is important to develop an eye on a reference species (redshank, dunlin, etc.) which allows comparison with individuals that do not correspond to this type. Resident (stilt, avocet, plover) and summer (pratincole) Doñana shorebirds tend to form small, sparse colonies, laying on the ground on raised ground forming small islands (“veta”, “pacil”, ” isla”) in the middle of the marshes.
Little ringed plover
Terns and gulls of the Mediterranean coastal lagoons
Although gulls are most often coastal species (without making them totally seabirds), it is very common to observe them in coastal marshes, and the most generalist among them are even capable of colonizing inland lagoons or feeding on landfills. As for terns and terns, they are more restricted to freshwater wetlands. Species nesting on the ground and present in large numbers, often forming unstable colonies. With the exception of generalist species, these birds practice a “flying lookout”, followed by a dive, and feed mainly on small vertebrates living in the water column. Highly mobile birds: only the black-headed gull and the yellow-legged gull are truly resident, the other species being equally winter or summer, with very large numbers during migrations.
Lesser black-b. gull
Wetland birds: Raptors; kingfishers and swallows
Group of heterogeneous and singular birds frequenting wetlands.
Wetland passerines in Andalusia
Wetland passerines colonize the vegetation belts around the lagoons. This varies enormously according to the hygrometry of the soil, creating a gradient in the structure of the vegetation around the lagoons, and thus favoring the diversity of the avifauna. ♦ The bluethroat, the most aquatic species, inspects the waterlogged ground between the emergent vegetation (helophyte plants). ♦ Marsh species colonize patches of emergent vegetation (reeds, bulrushes) where the ground is most frequently covered with water. ♦ Species from more or less wet and open environments (meadows) are often concentrated in wetlands or their periphery (especially in winter), even if they are not strictly dependent there. ♦ Riparian species are typical of gallery forests and coexist with more general forest species. This last group is also very present in the riparian forest of the main lowland rivers. Reed bed passerines are mainly insectivorous, a circumstance conditioning the elongated shape of their beak and their summer presence or during the migratory phase. As for the resident and wintering species, they are able to search for their food by digging in the ground – which does not freeze at these latitudes – (pipits, wagtails), at least during the winter (Cetti’s warbler, cisticola), or are granivorous (reed bunting, penduline tit).
Great reed warbler
W. olivaceous warbler
Species restricted to the littoral zone, without being pelagic seabirds or marsh birds. A group added to this list since the most important wetlands in Andalucia are coastal. It will also be easy to observe seagulls and gulls (especially Audoin’s gull) on the beaches of Doñana.
Steppe birds of the salt marshes of Doñana
Doñana is famous for being a wetland of international importance. However, much of the marshes are flooded for only a few weeks during the year, forming dry salt marshes (“marismas secas”) which are home to birds specializing in arid conditions. Among these steppe birds, a few species are typical of Doñana and deserve to be included in this list.