News, Trip Reports, etc

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, in winter - Part 1 (updated 1/2018)

Article text
Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) Los Alcazares


Location of area covered

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, December 2011 gallery

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, 14/12/2012 to 1/1/2013 gallery

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, 14/12/2013 to 10/1/2014 gallery

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, December 2014

Southern Costa Blanca, Spain, December 2017

In an attempt to escape the cold winter of central France, in December 2011 we spent two weeks on the Mar Menor (Murcia), the largest coastal lagoon in Spain. My cousin has a 2 bedroom villa there Villa Sonriente, and the chance to birdwatch an area ‘off the beaten birding track’ in mild, sunny weather was too much to resist. This turned out to be a good move, as there were plenty of birds, great weather, and some very interesting sites providing good photo opportunities. Add to this plenty of Indian and Chinese restaurants, it proved the ideal antidote to the grim winter days of central France.
The Mar Menor area is surprisingly good in winter. My initial suspicions that this very urbanised part of the coast would prove birdless were soon dispelled. Between most of the developments protected areas of reedbed, sand dunes and disused salinas have been left, little oases that provide great habitat for a good number of species. Access to all was excellent, often with a boardwalk or signed footpath.

Big thanks to Oscar Aldeguer Peral for info on El Hondo, Murcia and Alicante. There's probably nobody who knows more about the birds of this area. Oscar is a professional wildlife consultant living in Elche.

SITES VISITED

Check reference sources for access details if not stated here

Parque Regional San Pedro salinas (700 Ha./1800 acres)

The reserve comprises disused salinas, coastal sand dunes, saltmarsh and beaches; excellent for waders, gulls and flamingos.
Access to San Pedro can be confusing. There are two zones, 'salinas south' and 'salinas north', separated by the working salinas (no access).



The roundabout at point 'A' gives access to the northern salinas. Access to this roundabout is from San Pedro (north) junction 774 on the motorway AP7. Follow signs to 'playas' and 'salinas' to get to the roundabout point 'A'.
Point 'B' is reached by the main road from roundabout point 'A', or by following the seafront road from Lo Pagan, Santiago de la Ribera and the south.
The road (yellow on map) from roundabout 'A' goes to the working salinas - 'Las salinas' on the map, and to the harbour, providing viewing points over the reserve. There are two car parking areas which mark the start of trails through and around the reserve, and to the beach.
At point 'B' on the seafront, there is an old windmill and ample parking - from here it's on foot or bicycle. The route marked yellow goes from here out along the La Puntica isthmus, with the Mar Menor one side and disused salinas on the other. After about 2 kms, there's another old windmill; past this there are sand dunes rather than salinas on the left, and saltmarsh on the right, approaching the mouth of the Mar Menor. This is a very good area for waders, and the dunes look good for migrants spring and autumn. The path ends on the beach; one can then circle round towards the saltmarsh and eventually retrace ones steps near the second old windmill and back towards the mainland by the same route. An alternative (very long) return route would be to follow the beach along the eastern side of the isthmus to the harbour, and then along roads back to point 'B'. Both these roads have cycle tracks alongside them.
A canal runs around the outside of the site, flowing into the Mar Menor at point 'B', and into the Mediterranean Sea at the small resort of El Mojon. Close views of waders, flamingos, etc, can be had along here, although the light is often a bit dull for photography. The El Mojon end also suffers much human disturbance.
Birds seen include wintering wildfowl, Red-breasted Merganser, grebes, Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, 18 wader species, Slender-billed, Mediterranean and Audouin's Gulls.

Los Narejos area

Good species can be found even in this urbanized area. A unbuilt plot of land near the villa had regular Southern Grey Shrike, for example, and there were common Mediterranean species around the open park areas and some nice fly-overs - Booted Eagle, Golden Plover, etc.
At the NE end of Los Narejos beach, there is a boardwalk through a large reedbed, and a tower hide. A pleasant walk through towering reeds, giving good views of Serins, Reed Buntings, Crag Martins and occasional Water Rail.

Los Alcazares

Two sites in particular here offer some good birding.
  • The N 332 local coast road south out of town crosses a river bed (rambla) just before the junction with the local road F 34. This usually holds some water throughout winter, and in January 2014 was our only site for Jack Snipe - thanks to Oscar Aldeguer Peral for info.
  • Just south of here, accessed along the F 34, an abandoned military zone proved good for raptors and common passerines, etc. There are three obvious parking spots along the road, also giving good views over the Mar Menor and coastal scrub. In the afternoon the area is best watched from the El Carmoli side.

El Carmoli

Continuing south on the F 34 into Punta Brava and the volcanic plug El Carmoli on the right. This 113 metre high cone-shaped rocky hill is worth the climb for the splendid views, Booted Eagles, and Red Kites on one occasion. The 'summit' makes a nice place for a picnic.

Los Urrutias

Next stop south is this coastal village on the Mar Menor. Between the beach and a private marina accessed by a bridge, a shallow area often had small numbers of waders, gulls, egrets and flamingos. Access off the coastal road F 34 via the road to the school, ending at the bridge.

Los Nietos

Southwards again on the F 34 from Los Urrutias, about half-way to Los Nietos, the road goes over a dry rambla – turn immediately left off the road (taking care) onto a mud track towards Mar Menor. I wouldn't attempt to drive this track after rain. There is a big expanse of mud where they often fly model aeroplanes. Going towards the dunes and the Mar Menor, turn right at the dunes and continue until there is a shallow lagoon ahead, landward side of the dunes – this was the old Salinas de Lo Poyo. Park before the lagoon and walk along the dunes towards Los Nietos. Along here there are two zones of sapling trees/shrubs planted to stabilise the dunes; this is where we found two Richard's Pipits in January 2014 and December 2014, perhaps wintering birds. Although we visited this area in 2012/13, we didn't pick the species up then, but it does look like a classic wintering area. Good also for Stone Curlews, Thekla Larks, and waders on the Mar Menor.

La Manga salinas

Marked 'Salinas de Marchamato' on some maps, they are easy to access, and are signposted on the MU-312 route west to La Manga, exit junction 16. On approaching the small village/resort of El Vivero, the salinas are viewable from the road, on the left, and another left turn along a dead-end track gives good views and parking. Best views are obtained from a hide on the NE side of the salinas; drive into El Vivero to the part of the beach nearest the salinas and walk, in fact you can walk along the entire length of the salinas with the Mar Menor on the right. These salinas are completely disused and fenced off. Again, good for waders, gulls and flamingos.

Cabo de Palos

Headland with a lighthouse and an elevation just right for sea-watching, particularly on north-easterlies.
Easily accessed off the MU-312, again junction 16 and signposted all the way to the cape, making it a good combination with the above site. Parking below the lighthouse, entry through the metal gates to the rocky area below the lighthouse. In the afternoon the area north of the lighthouse is good. Interestingly, this part of the sea is a marine reserve, so fish stocks should be good.

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus) San Pedro
Sanderling (Calidris alba) and Little Stint (Calidris minuta) San Pedro
El Hondo 'Red trail'
El Carmoli


Parque Regional Calblanque

This reserve rather flatters to deceive in winter; I'm sure it's good in spring and maybe autumn too.
Access is off the MU-312, the reserve is signposted, the service road leading to a metalled track that divides, right to a small reserve centre, left to the Salinas del Rasall. Both tracks lead to the coast, the eastern part being of more interest. The landscape here is low, rocky hills and beautiful sandy beaches, with a nice headland east of the most easterly carpark. There are marked walking trails, and the whole area looks very promising. Unfortunately, we found it almost birdless in the winter, the biggest surprise being an almost complete lack of raptors. The salinas hold a large Audouin's Gull roost, but little else, and viewing from the two hides is always difficult as both face south, so the sun's pretty much always a problem.

Bateria de Cenizas (within the Parque Regional Calblanque)

We found this site by chance whilst driving from Portman to La Manga on the MU-314. Driving east from Portman, a road off left is signposted 'Llano del Beal' - take this and park almost immediately at the obvious car park on the left. On foot, cross the MU-314 and through the closed gates to the gravel track that goes towards the coast. From here it's about a 40 minute walk to the impressive guns (made by Vickers & Armstrong in the 1920's) that overlook the approaches to Cartagena. Good for woodland birds and Bonelli's Eagle.

Cartagena cemetery and surrounding coastline

We found this site by accident, but if in the area it's probably worth a visit as a convenient place for Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush. The cemetery is on the SE side of the city, on a mountain road going over to the commercial port of Cartagena. As the road ascends the Sierra Minera, a road off to the right goes to a church on the summit, Sanctuario del Calvario (signposted), with good views over the city and coastline. A short way up this road gives views over the wall of the cemetery, where a pair of both species can be watched, often on the wall, but also around the road.
To summerise access from the east; A30 > Cartagena, last exit before city 'Puerto' (Cartagena port), > Santa Lucia (CT 33), > cemetery, > Sanctuario del Calvario.

The area between here and La Union has been heavily mined since roman times, mainly for zinc and lead, but more recently uranium. The resultant landscape is heavily scarred, bizarre, but not without fascination. Mining activity ended in 1991, but the industrial heritage has left a coastal landscape reminiscent of Cornwall.

El Algar EDAR

Originally sourced from the website Birding in Murcia, the author gives no indication as to where it is... however, it's fairly easy to find. Take the N-332 north out of El Algar to the next roundabout. Take the first exit signposted 'Los Urrutias' then turn almost immediately left onto a minor road (tarmaced). This is a dead-end road that ends at the old sewage works ('EDAR'). Viewing is through the fence to the only lagoon that still appears to hold any water. The lining must have deteriorated because this lagoon is only any good after rain. Waders (including Little Ringed Plover, December 2014), pipits, etc.

Los Camachos agricultural reservoir

Again mentioned in Birding in Murcia, this one was a bit trickier to find - however, Google Earth never lies... On the AP-7 travelling south from Los Alcazares take the second slip-road signposted 'Los Beatos' - thus by-passing the town of that name. At the roundabout take the second exit onto route F-38, which goes under the AP-7. At the next roundabout, you can see an industrial estate over towards the right. Take the first exit, onto the estate, immediately past a security post (portacabin, no barriers). This dual carriageway is the spine road for the estate. Go straight over the next (enormous) roundabout, continuing on the spine road, and the reservoir comes into view on the right. Viewing from the pavement gives an excellent, elevated panorama of the reservoir - scope required.
Waders and wildfowl, including occasional Ferruginous Duck and ever-present White-headed (December 2014).

Parque Natural Sierra de Espuna

As Rebane 1999 was my main source of reference, in 2011 we made two visits to this small mountain range, only to find it inexplicably birdless! The habitat is good, especially at the summit, above the tree-line, but no accentors and virtually no raptors. The lower pine forest proved only marginally more inspiring. The area described as a Dupont's Lark breeding area must surely be a thing of the past. Good for spectacular views, and topping up your list with woodland birds. That said, resident birders do sometimes do well here with the right conditions - a cold winter helps.

Guadalentin

This area is obviously better in spring and summer, and can be hard work in winter. It can be surprisingly good for Little Bustard, found on cabbage fields as well as the scrubby areas of natural floodplain – of which there is little remaining. The area looks in much decline in terms of natural habitat, the plain is now mostly turned over to growing fruit and vegetables.
In a December 2013 visit, the plains were virtually birdless. The wet winter had delayed the growing season, with cabbages, etc still very small and many fields were being ploughed rather than having been already sown. In December 2014 it was almost as bad, again the cause I suspect being the wet weather.

NB This site attracts hunters at weekends, in 2012 we abandoned a visit there due to hunting with dogs, presumably for rabbits and hares. Although not intense, the hunters concentrated on the scrubby areas and newly ploughed fields.

Pilar de Horadada EDAR

Conveniently situated just off the AP-7, and if staying anywhere on the Mar Menor is on the way up to El Hondo. Sourced from Birding in Murcia where there are directions in the form of a dropbox PDF, so thanks to the author for publishing the details. At Junction 768 on the AP-7, take the CV-941 for San Miguel de Salinas. After 1 km, where the road bends round to the right, there's a left turn signposted ‘EDAR Pilar de Horadada’. The reserve is 400 metres along this road, on the left. The road ends at the modern sewage works.
Wildfowl, including White-headed Duck (December 2014).

El Hondo



When we first visited this site in 2003, it was not only hard to find, but the reserve itself only accessible by appointment. Now things are much improved, with a Visitor Centre and trails open to the public every day throughout the year, and an 'ornithological' trail ('Red trail') open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings (8.00 to 11.00) only, bookable by telephone, 966 678 515, or email parque_elhondo@gva.es In fact, these are the contact details of the Visitor Centre, so you can book there in person. The trail is over 2kms long and has 6 hides; you can drive down the track to the southernmost hides if you wish. The only problem here is that 3 hours really isn't long enough*.

*NB This has since changed. Currently (December 2014) opening time is Saturday mornings only, 9.00 - 12.00. Entrance via the North Gate on the northern perimeter road just east of the rubbish tip. The centre itself is closed between Xmas and New Year.

The whole site is superb, and an ideal day is to start with the Red trail on the (Saturday) morning and go on to the Visitor Centre trails in the afternoon. This is undoubtedly a true oasis in a very mundane desert; that said, the area on the southern edge of the reserve is also good, and best done by car - the CV 861 Vistabella Road. From here, driving the 'caminos' (farm tracks) it is possible to access the field network to the south, the main camino being the one that goes through a 'palm farm'. In the species list (part 2 of this report), I've referred to this area as the 'southern fields'. The 'North Gate road' is probably better in spring/summer, and is busy in parts, but the rubbish tip near the entrance to the Red trail is usually worth a stop.

NB The rubbish tip has since closed (visit of 12/2017).

El Hondo is privately owned, and the external pressures on it's usage and it's water are considerable. Farmers, hunters and fishermen all, it seems, want a piece of the action - despite levels of protection including Ramsar status.
Over many years I've visited most of Spain's well-known wetland areas. In my view, El Hondo is quite possibly the finest SINGLE wetland site in Spain - and I've not seen all of it.

Access to El Hondo is off the main AP7 junction 730 to Catral. At the roundabout take the San Felipe Neri exit, go through the village (the main road bears left) and the Visitor Centre is sign-posted from there, a further 1.5kms from the village.

La Mata

Just north of Torrevieja, this site is very busy in the holiday period, probably weekends too. Low water levels and people walking around in front of the hides meant that our visit of December 2012 was short! We had better luck on 29/12/14, when higher water levels were perfect for this site. Then we had good numbers of waders and Black-necked Grebes from the two hides nearest the cemetery.

Escalona

This small sierra just south of Murcia looks really promising. Unfortunately being so close to Murcia means that again this site is probably a 'no-go zone' in holiday periods and weekends. Inundated mostly with cyclist (both on and off-road) we gave up trying to find a pull-in in which to park in December 2012! In December 2013 we did at least manage Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear and Little Owl.

Crevillent

This sierra north of the town of Crevillent can be seen from El Hondo, as can the Bonelli's Eagle nest site, or at least the actual cliff face. When you eventually find it, don't expect the scenic splendour of Bonelli's sites in Andalucia or Crete, for example. What you do get is probably a dead reliable site for the species - and therefore something not to be sniffed at. The pair seem to remain around the breeding site throughout the winter.

Segura river

We have only visited the mouth of the river at Guardamar, north of Torrevieja. There is access on both sides of the river with the south (Guardamar) by far the easiest. Just follow the signs off the main N332 to the port/marina. Park at the port and follow the footpath along the river mouth as it opens to the sea. Looks interesting, there were plenty of gulls around and the sea looks like a promising sea-watch place, due no doubt to the large inflow of fresh water from the river.

Clot de Galvany

...And this site is almost impossible to find without GPS sat-nav! Although totally surrounded by hideous development and busy roads, the site itself is large, and it may well be worth spending all day here in spring. The permanently wet areas opposite Avenida Carabasi to the south are good for wildfowl (but no White-headed Ducks 19/12/13). Looks excellent for spring migrants.

IMG 2555 filtered

Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus) El Hondo


PART 2 - SPECIES LIST

ACCOMMODATION

Villa Sonriente

Perfectly located on the nicest urbanization in Los Alcazares. All the birding sites were less than an hour from here (many less than half-an-hour). See website for information, rates, and availability.

REFERENCE SOURCES

Where to watch birds in North & East Spain. Michael Rebane, Helm, 1999. Revision/reprint in 2008.

A Birdwatching Guide to Eastern Spain. Malcolm Palmer/Luis Fidel, Arlequin Press, 2001.

Birding in Murcia Informative blog but you have to dig and delve a bit. All the recent stuff is about the UK!

Birding Costa Blanca Super local birding blog.

Costa Blanca Bird Club Site guide, species list, etc - very useful.

La Manga Wind website Two quite useful articles on San Pedro and Calblanque.

Reservoir Birds Latest Spanish rarity sightings.

SEO Spanish Bird List

birdingmurcia Local tour leading company with itineraries, trip reports etc.

Murciatoday English language on-line newspaper.

El Parque Minero de La Unión Mineral mine museum, La Unión. Not open in winter, unfortunately.