A BIRDER’S PARADISE IN SIERRA MORENA


 

Just as dawn was breaking we watched and snapped an Otter fishing nearby, catching Andalusian Barbel and snaffling them on a rock in full view. In shade cast down by Alder, Ash and Cork Oak we carried on walking along the river, listening to Iberian Chiffchaffs and watching the threatened dragonfly Orange-Spotted Emerald hawking for its prey.

As the morning wore on we moved into an area of dehesa and Mediterranean scrub. Suddenly, with a heart-tripping thrill, we heard the barking call of the Spanish Imperial Eagle and picked it out circling overhead with Griffon- and Cinereous-Vultures. A few feet below us Black Storks were fishing in a pond while Calandra Larks sang tirelessly aloft and a bush-top Southern Grey Shrike went through its strange repertory of calls. Scuttling over the ground were several Spanish Psammodromus lizards and a sizeable Horseshoe Whip Snake.

After a quick snack in a picturesque pueblo blanco, we visited an area of crags and rocks to swell the day’s sightings with Red-Rumped Swallow and its eternal rival, the nest-robbing White-Rumped Swift, while a Blue Rock Thrush gave out its fluty refrain from a rock and a Bonelli’s Eagle performed its display flight in the sky. A clump of magnificent Giant Orchids begged to be photographed.

In the afternoon we waited on a promontory for the dashing Iberian Lynx to appear, beguiled meanwhile by singing Orphean Warblers and Great Spotted Cuckoos. Al last we lucked into a patrolling Lynx calmly climbing up a nearby hillside while Mouflons and Red Deer watched nervously on. The day ended with a hooting Eagle Owl perched in a Holm Oak while a chorus of distant Iberian Midwife Toads piped away in the background. Back at the hotel a delicious dish of the very best Spanish cuisine awaited us.

This report comes from a springtime outing in one of the great Iberian nature sanctuaries. Lying in the south of Spain, SIERRA MORENA is a huge inland area spreading over much of the northern part of Andalusia. It is divided into four sectors; from west to east these are Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche; Sierra Morena Sevillana; Sierra Morena Cordobesa and Sierra Morena de Jaén, each one falling into a different province (Huelva, Seville, Córdoba and Jaén, respectively).

Sierra Morena has an extraordinarily low population density and takes in some of the wildest and best preserved corners of Mediterranean Spain. The people who live in its 57 villages, towns and hamlets have been using the land sustainably for centuries. Sierra Morena boasts a total of 6 parques naturales (nature parks) and one Biosphere Reserve, plus various smaller reserves and spots listed as monumentos naturales (natural monuments). Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is that over 90% of Sierra Morena has been officially listed as a Site of Community Interest (SCI) and hence forms part of the European Natura 2000 network. Its parques naturales are: Sierra de Andújar (famous as the world’s best site to see Iberian Lynx), Despeñaperros, Sierra de Cardeña-Montoro, Sierra de Hornachuelos, Sierra Norte de Sevilla and Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche.

Sierra Morena’s most typical habitat comprises dehesas (open grazing woodland) of Holm- and Cork-Oaks, Mediterranean scrubland, denser woods of Portuguese Oak, Pyrenean Oak and Cork Oak in the more humid dells plus pinewoods and riparian thickets, all intermingled with olive groves, Sweet Chestnut woods, pastureland, grassland, dryfarming cropfields and forestry plantations. The whole area is criss-crossed by a network of rivers and streams, many of which dwindle or even dry up completely in summer, something the local flora and fauna are perfectly adapted to. There are also some reservoirs. But why exactly should birders come to Sierra Morena? Well, it’s hard to know where to start because this under-appreciated destination has so much to offer that birders are really spoilt for choice:

  • First and foremost its 241 bird species include some of the veritable gems of Iberian birdlife, with Mediterranean specialists like Spanish Imperial Eagle and Cinereous Vulture (the biggest populations in southern Spain), Bonelli’s-, Booted- and Short-Toed-Eagle, Black Kite, Lesser Kestrel, Orphean-, Subalpine- and Sardinian-Warbler, Iberian Chiffchaff, White-Rumped-, Alpine-, Pallid- and Little-Swift, Red-Necked Nightjar, Red-Billed Chough, Black- and Black-Eared-Wheatear, Iberian Green Woodpecker, Azure Winged Magpie, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Little Bustard, Montagu’s Harrier, Roller, Thekla Lark, Hoopoe, Spotless Starling, Rufous-Tailed Bush Robin, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Stone Curlew, Cirl Bunting, Turtle Dove, Red-Legged Partridge, Woodchat- and Southern-Grey-Shrike, Purple Swamphen and Golden Oriole.
  • It is also home to threatened carnivores like Iberian Lynx and Iberian Wolf and boasts huge populations of Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Mouflon and other mammals. It is also rich in reptiles and amphibians, with many Iberian and southwest European endemics.
  • Expert naturalists will also be able to enjoy its well-conserved populations of bats, native fish species and insects (dragonflies and damselflies to the fore). Its flora includes many species specially adapted to the Mediterranean climate and lovely springtime orchids.
  • Another plus factor is that Sierra Morena itself lies so close to other top birdwatching sites like Doñana (only 1 hour away) or La Serena (also 1 hour away). Other sites of interest to bird- and nature-lovers are also close by, like Marismas del Odiel, Brazo del Este, Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, Sierra de Grazalema Sierra de Ronda and the lakes and open countryside of La Lantejuela-Osuna. Slightly further off but still within fairly easy reach are the Strait of Gibraltar, Sierra Nevada, Almería-Cabo de Gata and Llanos de Cáceres-Trujillo. It is therefore easy to plan a combined visit taking in all these places, all of them offering very different birds and landscapes so birdwatchers can chalk up a huge list without having to make long, time-consuming journeys.
  • Sierra Morena is also well placed for sightseeing trips to historical cities like Seville, Córdoba and Granada; it lies less than 1 hour from Seville airport, less than 2 from the airport of Málaga-Costa del Sol and 2-and-a-half hours from the airports of Madrid and Faro-Algarve.
  • Dotted around the whole of Sierra Morena are many pueblos blancos, typical Andalusian villages and towns of whitewashed facades and geraniumed balconies, steeped in history and replete with sights to see. All these towns between them offer a varied range of hotels, B&Bs, self-catering cottages, rural hotels, campsites and organic farms. The local cuisine is exquisite, renowned within Spain and around the world. Two of the prime ingredients are olive oil and Iberian ham produced from free-range, mast-feeding pigs.
  • Lastly, Sierra Morena has come into its own in recent years as the ideal spot for ecotourism. A growing web of small, eco-friendly, officially-vetted companies now offer a wide range of services like guided birdwatching tours, raptor- and passerine-photographing from hides, trekking, mammal-and-Lynx watching, mushroom identification outings, cultural and ethnographic visits, nordic walking, horseriding and canoe trips, etc.

On this page you’ll find an online Birdguide and information on the 62 birdwatching trails we have signposted in Sierra Morena, with information on how to get to each one and its star birds. Finer details of each one are given in the collection of books called Birding and Nature Trails in Sierra Morena, handy, pocket-sized guides that can be easily carried in the field to make sure you miss nothing!

Click on the tab of the Red MITO grouping of Sierra Morena birdwatching-tourism firms for handy visit-planning information. This website section lists birder-friendly hotels and local companies offering birdwatching, nature-photography or trekking options.

Everything’s ready for birders in Sierra Morena. Are you up for it?