Often overlooked as a birdwatching destination, the Spanish city of Valencia offers much more than just sun…
Words: David Chandler
We touched down in Alicante, on a low-cost flight loaded with holiday-makers. Think Alicante and you probably think beach resorts and Brits abroad, fish and chips by the Med, and pale, basted flesh, frying slowly on golden sand. But there are other things you can do here – and that definitely includes birding.
After their usual fanfare Ryanair told us to have a good holiday. We of course, weren’t going on holiday. This was a work trip, and hard work at that, out in a heatwave watching birds. Someone’s got to do it…
Valencia is both a city and a region in the east of Spain. It’s made up of three provinces: Castellon, Valencia and Alicante. With mountains, wetlands, steppe and coast, 22 natural parks, and more than 400 bird species in a year, a trip here could get you more than a decent tan. You could visit specifically to see birds and some people do just that. It’s also somewhere you might find yourself on a package holiday, and if you do, you may decide to take some time out from the Brits abroad club. You could hire a car and find your own birds or, better, hire a local guide. They know where the birds are and you won’t have to drive. And the chances are you will see much more if you buy in some local knowledge. I visited in June, with local knowledge provided by guides from La Asociación de Guías de Birding de la Comunidad Valenciana (birdingcv.com), an association of local wildlife guides.
Don’t miss the wetlands. Try El Fondo or Les Salines de Santa Pola Natural Parks in Alicante province, or Albufera de Valencia Natural Park (just outside Valencia city). We started at Santa Pola, taking advantage of the trail and hides at Torre del Pinet. There was plenty of heat and plenty of Greater Flamingos, a species we saw again and again. At almost 2,500 hectares (6,100 acres) this is a big site, with active salt pans and islands made for birds, adorned with Avocets, Flamingos and Slender-billed Gulls. The latter are common here, but the bill isn’t slender – it is long and that makes it look slender. In flight, their wing pattern is very much like that of a Black-headed Gull. There were Common, Sandwich and Little Terns, Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plover…birds to the front and dunes, pines and the Mediterranean behind.
Then to El Fondo, another 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) of quality birding. This Natural Park is zoned, with open access to some areas, restricted access to others, and none at all to some parts. There are hides, a boardwalk, and a substantial visitor centre, and it’s all free. With quality wetlands come quality herons – Night, Squacco, and Purple, and Little Bittern. White-headed Duck were easy, and there are no Ruddy Duck hybrids now – that’s good conservation news for this endangered species. Great Reed Warbler chuntered away, a Water Rail called, a Fan-tailed Warbler zitted, and a distant, buzzing reeling turned into my first Savi’s Warbler for a long time.
The vulnerable and localised Marbled Duck was a doddle, with two of them near the visitor centre, black and grey bills, dark eye patches, and yes, marbled plumage. Crested Coot was simple too, the neck-collar meant it was an introduced bird, but there are ‘proper’ wild ones here too. And then, a walk on a wonderful boardwalk took us to three even more wonderful Collared Pratincoles, via some close flyby Whiskered Terns.
As the day faded we walked the planks of a narrow boardwalk between towering reeds, hoping for a Lesser Flamingo. The African pinky didn’t show, but 14 gorgeous Black-necked Grebes were no small compensation.
A winter visit could be rewarded with Greater Spotted Eagle – three to five overwinter here, as has a single Lesser Spotted Eagle. We never made it to Albufera de Valencia but that covers about 21,000 hectares (about 52,000 acres)!
Think Spain and steppe, bustards and sandgrouse come to mind. There is steppe in Valencia, but not that much – crossing into Albacete province made pain on the plains less likely. Our one Little Bustard was close to the van, walking away, but Great Bustard proved trickier, until one took to flight and let the side down. Come earlier in the year and you could have much better encounters. A cluster of farm buildings was a site for Rock Sparrow, and with a little effort this stripy-headed streakster became real, yellow throat spot and all, adding one more to #My200BirdYear. We saw a cryptic Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark – chunky, with a chunky beak, long, stout legs and black on its neck-sides – and one lark with a large punkish crest. It was a Crested Lark, but was so well-endowed that a new species was proposed – Very Crested Lark!
Lunch was lakeside, with pines, shade and good birds nearby – Red-crested Pochard, up close and obliging White-headed Ducks and Black-necked Grebes, and ubiquitous Flamingos. A more distant raptor morphed from Spanish Imperial Eagle to juvenile Booted Eagle – birds of prey can be tricky! That wasn’t the end of the day’s eagles. With the steppe behind us we headed to our accommodation and were almost there when a big, dark raptor over the ridge forced us to look at it. Its tail was long, 2/3 white and 1/3 black, white at the base – Golden Eagle, the icing on the day.
More than half of Valencia is sierra or mountains, with the loftiest summits scraping the sky at 1800m (5,900ft), and some mountainous areas a mere 45 minutes out of Valencia city. It was hot, and then it was too hot. But we persevered with the onerous task before us. Multiple Griffon Vultures took command of the sky, one casting a shadow on the rock face. A Golden Oriole sang.
A Cirl Bunting sang. Raven. A couple of distant Crag Martins searched for airborne consumables. A light phase Booted Eagle took centre stage – closing its wings, diving, and repeat. Then its dark phase co-star showed up – smaller, male presumably – and indulged us with a bit of aerial tumbling, small and dark with big and pale. Egyptian Vulture, and then another one scoped on its rock-face nest. Short-toed Eagle. Blue Rock Thrush. And down in the valley a Western Bonelli’s Warbler rattled out its song.
We drove on and searched elsewhere. Black-eared Wheatear – a very nice bird. There was thunder and a bit of rain, but not enough to stop play. Then Spectacled Warbler – my first and one more for #My200BirdYear list.
Our last day in the field had ended. Except it hadn’t. Dinner would have to be even later. The van stopped once more, for a Rock Thrush that stayed in view for 20 minutes or so, a Wryneck, a Black Redstart, a Woodchat Shrike, a plain-faced, yellowish warbler – Melodious Warbler, and, dapper, distant and in no hurry at all, a Black Wheatear.
We visited in June, which isn’t the best time of year. Valencia sits on a major flyway – imagine a visit during spring or autumn migration. We didn’t pay much attention to the 400km coastline or the Mediterranean Sea either (in the winter the Gulf of Valencia is important for Balearic Shearwaters).
There aren’t many birdwatchers in Valencia, but there is a desire to develop bird and wildlife-based tourism. This really can help conservation, as local people see birdwatchers bringing money into the local economy. So if you go, make sure they do see. You could even wear your binoculars when you stop off somewhere for lunch or a coffee…
Tancat de La Pipa
This nature reserve is a small part of the Albufera de Valencia Natural Park, which, in common with other coastal wetlands, has suffered because of excessive nutrients – in this case as a consequence of rice growing, industry and population growth. Tancat de La Pipa is the result of a project that started in 2007 which aimed to improve water quality, restore biodiversity and create space for the public and education.
Forty hectares (99 acres) of rice has become the Natural Park’s biggest wetland reserve. Lagoons were planted with Reeds, Bulrushes, sedges and Lilies to soak up nitrates and phosphates as the incoming water enters the reserve. This helped to create an area which is now the best place in the park for species that are particularly sensitive to water quality, including Red-crested Pochard.
When the project began, local fishermen, farmers and hunters were not entirely supportive. More Mallards and Purple Swamphens would mean more damage to precious rice crops… Perceptions began to change when the project was seen as taking the area back to how it once was, with plenty of shrimps and fish as well as birds. Most of the education work in the reserve starts on a boat in a nearby fishing port. This has made it possible to actively involve local boatmen and to provide them with income. In fact, two new boat trip companies have been created, and the operators are taking a positive interest in some of the birds too!
Local guides have very good relationships with the reserve, so if you do go to Valencia, you may be able to visit.
Some of the other birds…
Hobby / Red-crested Pochard / Purple Swamphen / Mediterranean Gull / Gull-billed Tern / Alpine Swift / Hoopoe / Bee-eater / Roller / Red-rumped Swallow / Tawny Pipit / Penduline Tit / Sardinian Warbler / Iberian Grey Shrike / Spotless Starling / Golden Oriole / Corn Bunting
With thanks to…
Joaquim Tortajada Pons and the Spanish Tourist Office, Rosa Molins Ten and the Valencian Tourism Board, and David Warrington, Ángel Sallent, Pau Lucio, Yanina Maggiotto and Virgilio Beltrán for guiding us.
Sponsors and collaborators: TURESPAÑA, Agència Valenciana del Turisme, Pattrronato Provincial de Turisme València, Patronato Provincial de Turismo Costa Blanca, Asoc. De Guías de Birding CV, Actio Birding, Birdwatching Spain, Valencia Birding, Avanzatours.