Doñana National Park


Most famous is Doñana National Park, U.N. World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve on the Guadalquivir River delta on the Mediterranean coast in southern Andalucia. This 200 square miles (550 km2) of marsh, fresh and saltwater lagoons, stable and moving sand dunes, woodlands, and scrub is permanent or winter home or essential migratory stopover for an estimated six million birds.

More than half of Europe’s avian species are recorded here, some in huge numbers. About 80 percent of western Europe’s wild ducks fly in to winter here when fall rains fill the marismas (marshes)—flocks of up to 70,000 graylag geese, 126,000 common teals, 100,000 wigeon, 40,000 northern pintails, and among smaller wading birds, some 20,000 bar-tailed godwits and 10,000 slender, graceful avocets with uptilted bills. Many stay to nest. Breeding species include over 1,000 pairs of black-winged stilts, 350 pairs of Eurasian spoonbills, hundreds of pairs of little egrets and purple herons.

As waters recede in spring, almost 10,000 pink greater flamingos begin prancing courtship dances like the Spanish flamenco dance named after them. Spoonbills, white storks, hoopoes with wildly erect buffy crests, and black-winged stilts arrive, and many nest. Multicolored beeeaters hover and glide swiftly after flying insects. Great crested grebes dance on the water in pairs, shaking head plumes, later swim about with downy young riding on their backs. Spectacled warblers nest in dry scrub. Flocks of noisy, stunning azure-winged magpies scold anything that moves.

Doñana’s emblem is the brilliant purple gallinule—found mainly in the reeds here, along with such other rarities as marbled teal, white-headed ducks, and red-crested pochards.

Beaches where Columbus and Magellan set sail can be full of sanderlings and oystercatchers, with seasonal influxes of whimbrels. Peregrines nest in former wartime defense lookout towers.

In midsummer, fish are trapped in drying pools and thousands of white storks, red and black kites gather with otters and others to feast on them.

Some 50 square miles (144 km2) of Doñana is scrub and woodland, stone pine and cork oak forests, home to red and fallow deer, wild boars, fierce, catlike small-spotted genets, wild horses, rare Egyptian mongeese and Spanish or Iberian lynx—among 29 mammal species.

Butterflies (Spain has many endemics) flutter over wild blooms, and dragonflies and bright damselflies zoom like small fighter planes over wet areas.

Europe’s greatest concentration of raptors is here—short-toed, booted, and Spanish imperial (aka Adalbert’s or simply imperial) eagles with 82-inch (210-cm) wingspans, lanner falcons, honey buzzards, hobbies—both residents and migrants between Europe and Africa. For these powerful birds of prey whose migratory flight pattern requires heated thermals rising from land, Doñana, with its abundant prey species, is a vital rest stop before the short pass over Gibraltar Strait to Africa.

Spur-thighed tortoises, Lataste’s vipers, spiny-footed and ocellated lizards are among numbers of reptilian rarities here.

For over 700 years Doñana was a royal hunting preserve (its familiar name, “Coto Doñana” means “Doñana game preserve”). Owned by the Duke of Alba, who named it after his wife, Doná Ana, Doñana formed part of the backdrop for her famous “Maja” portraits, clothed and unclothed, by Francisco Goya, painted in the ducal palace which still exists (not open to the public).

All year is of interest, but midsummer can be blisteringly hot—and best avoid the seventh weekend after Easter when Pentecostal pilgrims come from all over Spain for a riotous celebration.

Park access is carefully controlled. Trips are offered in 26-person all-terrain vehicles from El Acebuche, often booked far ahead (sometimes not available July–August). Occasional trips to the interior are offered in eight-seat Jeeps—ask. (Unless you speak Spanish, ask or arrange for a translator-guide.) Otherwise there is a well-developed system of guides, tours, visitor centers, observation points, blinds or hides, and marked trails. Marsh viewing is especially good at Cerrado Garido, the El Rocio bridge, also a path a short distance behind Las Rocinas—ask directions at visitor centers.

Four-hour guided park boat trips leave from Bajo de Guia going upriver with stops at salt lagoons with good birdlife.

Threats go back before the park’s formation in 1969 when environmentalists, alarmed that spreading rice-growing, roads, and tourism would damage wetlands, raised funds internationally and with World Wildlife Fund arranged its purchase. Battles have continued since over projects that would degrade park fringes and water supply. In 1986 an estimated 30,000 birds died of poisoning from massive agricultural pesticide runoff. Tens of thousands of chicks and eggs were accidentally destroyed in the same years by crayfish hunters. In 1998 a zinc mine’s dam broke, flooding the Rio Guadalquivir with 6.5 million cubic yards (5 million cubic m) of sludge loaded with acids and heavy metals, damage which still causes concern. Luckily environmental awareness has grown. Spain now has more than 200 voluntary conservation groups which monitor threats to Spain’s wilderness.

Helpful books include A Birdwatchers Guide to Southern Spain and Gibraltar, by Clive Finlayson, Prion, 1993.

Altogether some 15,000 square miles (40,000 km2) of this ecologically important country is in some kind of protection, nearly all at least partly open to visitation, many reserves with walking trails and lodging nearby. Their importance can hardly be overstated for a wide spectrum of species. Whales and dolphins are among 27 marine mammals offshore—Cabo de Peñas near Gijon on the Bay of Biscay is a noted gathering place. Dolphin-spotting trips are popular at Gibraltar, whose Barbary macaques are Europe’s only wild monkeys.

ALSO OF INTEREST

Notable national parks include:

Montaña de Covadonga, 66 square miles (170 km2) on the western peak of the Picos de Europa mountain range, with imperial eagles, capercailles, and other threatened species.

Ordesa, 63 square miles (160 km2), with alpine choughs, alpine accentors, the world’s only herd of Pyrenees mountain goats, many raptors—imperial, short-toed, and booted eagles, griffon and bearded vultures, lammergeiers—on the Spanish side of France’s Pyrénées National Park.

Maritimo-Terrestre of the Cabrera Archipelago, 4,500 acres (1,835 ha) on the largest unpopulated Mediterranean island, with seabird flocks, abundant Eleanora’s falcons.

International jets fly into Seville, about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of the park. Rental cars are available, and busses go on good roads to Matalascañas at the park’s southwestern corner via El Rocio at the northwestern corner. Busses also stop outside the Las Rocinas and El Acebuche visitor centers. Lodging and tourist information are at El Rocio and Matalascañas, also Mazagon, 17 miles (28 km) northwest. Three campgrounds are available by permit.

 Black storks—more than three feet tall (100cm) with red beaks, legs and feet and wingspans up to 81 inches (205cm)—nest deep in old forests, so silent and retiring they are seldom seen, despite enormous nests. Built by both pair members, often near a marshy forest clearing, nests can measure five feet (1.5 m) across and a yard (1 m) deep. Spain’s population has been resident and stable, isolated while elsewhere in Europe, the largely migratory species was driven near extinction by habitat destruction and pollution. Its comeback through protection recently has been an encouraging success story.

Black storks—more than three feet tall (100cm) with red beaks, legs and feet and wingspans up to 81 inches (205cm)—nest deep in old forests, so silent and retiring they are seldom seen, despite enormous nests. Built by both pair members, often near a marshy forest clearing, nests can measure five feet (1.5 m) across and a yard (1 m) deep. Spain’s population has been resident and stable, isolated while elsewhere in Europe, the largely migratory species was driven near extinction by habitat destruction and pollution. Its comeback through protection recently has been an encouraging success story.


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DOÑANA NATIONAL PARK as well as...

Montaña de Covadonga

Ordesa National Park

Maritimo-Terrestre National Park

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