All the birdsongs of Doñana

Travel

I must have mentioned that autumn marks one of my favourite seasons in Andalucia. The heat in the air becomes bearable, the morning and evenings bring refreshing breeze and between September-October we can see most of the migrating bird species from the North of Europe. Some people migrate too, escaping short and dark days, carrying their caravans all the way to the Southernmost part of Spain which can be easily observed by the types of traffic on the motorway linking Spain and Portugal.

Mild(er) temperatures make it easier to hit the road, as well and enjoy the ride in the sun. Mid-October we visited Huelva Province’s gem for a weekend: the National Park of Doñana, one of the most spectacular outpost to observe wildlife species, almost undisturbed by the human presence. Until the 1950s there were more wolves than people around here which speaks for its wilderness.

October proved to be not the best season to visit this area though, especially after this year’s extremely hot and dry summer season, as the wetlands attracting thousands of migrating birds, were still dry. We mostly saw ‘wild’ horses and ‘wild’ cattle – distant cousins of the North American mustangs, brought there by the colonial forces all the way from the Huelva province, nowadays co-habiting the land with horse keepers from the peculiar town, El Rocio.

El Rocio is a spectacle of its own: build in 20th century, looks like a movie setting for the western type of films, and in all honesty, it is a bit of a Spanish Wild West. Inhabited by less than 2000 people on a daily basis, is known for its religious celebrations around the last weekend of May, as it attracts millions (!) of Holy Brotherhoods from all over Europe, to celebrate the existence of the Virgin of Rocio. It is then also a place where a lot of drinking and bravado happens all over town, contrary to what the guides from the National Park would like to see.

There are no roads nor cobble stone in El Rocio, it is all covered in sand and people mostly ride horses all over the village. Watch out for them even in the night when the Holy Brotherhoods celebrate singing chants and drinking a lot of wine! The traditional character of El Rocio makes it hard to see any culinary spots other than the most typical Spanish food, not even a pizza place. No wonder why pope JPII praised its conservative, religious character wishing that the ‘whole world be like El Rocio’. After the initial few hours in town, we were rather overwhelmed by the religious chauvinism, and escaped to visit the natural side of Doñana.

Early in the morning, we took a trip along the National Park, spotting dozens of deers, bores, spoonbills, storks and partridges. Despite the eye for the species, we weren’t able to see the Iberian Lynx, a species which lives a great success of re-introducing on the Iberian Peninsula for the last 20 years. From 12 to over 2000 of inhabitants, between Spain and Portugal! Still, they are endangered, mostly subject to being hit by cars on the local roads, which don’t respect the signs ‘Paso de Linces’ and a recommended speed of 40 kmph.

On the other hand, we were able to see roaming birds of prey, including the red kite – not so common anymore in Spain. Birdwatching continues to be the most relaxing and rewarding, mindful activity after long weeks of working with code and text. Only after two days we notice how the eye accommodates to the new stimuli!

Eventually, we spent some time at the vast, Atlantic sandy beaches, almost empty around this time of the year. The water was incredibly warm and pleasant to bathe and swim and we managed to get some last tan this year. We are definitely returning to Doñana sometime in the winter/spring, hopefully to see it more wetland species and less of the horse bravado.

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