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The Parque Nacional de Doñana in Spain is just a 90 minute easy drive from Casa Rosa.

 

The Parque Nacional de Doñana is one of Europe's most important wetland reserves and a major site for migrating birds. The parque itself and surrounding parque natural or Entorno de Doñana (a protected buffer zone) amount to over 1,300 sq km in the provinces of Huelva, Sevilla and Cádiz. It is internationally for recognised for its great ecological wealth. Doñana is well known for its enormous variety of bird species, either permanent residents, winter visitors from north and central Europe or summer visitors from Africa, with its numerous types of geese and colourful colonies of flamingo and it has one of the world's largest colonies of Spanish imperial eagles.

Black-winged Stilt

You can take half-day trips with official guides or explore the environs of the visitors' centres on foot.

The drive to Parque Nacional de Doñana from Casa Rosa only takes around 90 Minutes and the park is very easy to find. Just head to Spain stay on the motorway A22 past Huelva until the Bollullos del Condado turn-off then take direction Almonte and about 12km from El Rocío at Km 29 watch for the signpost for Centro de Recepción El Acebuche which is 1½km from the main road. The centre has an exhibition about the park, a café and a shop selling maps and books. From the centre is a signposted 5km trail through scrubland and pine trees. Next to the centre is the El Acebuche lagoon, with bird hides, where you can see purple gallinules, among other birds.

From El Acebuche there are four-hour trips into the park run by the Cooperativa Marsimas del Rocío (959 43 04 32), which must be booked in advance. The four-wheel drive vehicle can seat 21 people and guides speak some English. There are two trips a day (excluding Mondays), at 0830 and 1500 (1700 in summer). Full day trips can also be organised for groups, with lunch in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. A typical trip will take in all three ecosystems in the park - dunes, matorral and marshland - but the amount of exposure to each environment varies with the seasons. One thing is guaranteed - no two visits will be alike.

The nearest visitors' centre to El Rocío is La Rocina 500m from the village and just off the Matalascañas road. It has information on the park and a 3km-long nature trail along the freshwater lake and marshland Charco de la Boca, which feeds into the Madres de la Marismas at El Rocío. The trail has five bird hides and it's possible to see purple gallinules, hoopoes, herons and Savi's warblers, among other birds.

Seven kilometres on from La Rocina is the Palacio del Acebrón, an old hunting lodge containing exhibitions on the park. In the grounds is a pleasant 1½-km nature trail through woodland and around a small lake, the Charco del Acebrón.

The Centro de Visitantes José Antonio Valverde on the northern edge of the park has some excellent birdwatching opportunities. It is 30km south of the town of Villamanrique de la Condesa.

Little ringed plover

The Playa de Castilla beach, reached on foot east of Matalascañas, runs alongside the park boundary and although you can't enter Doñana here, it is a beautiful, unspoilt stretch of coastline with good birdwatching possibilities. Parque Nacional de Doñana floods in winter and then the water drops in the spring leaving rich deposits of silt and raised sandbanks and islands. These conditions are perfect in winter for geese and ducks but most exciting in spring when they draw hundreds of flocks of breeding birds. If you're lucky you may also catch a glimpse of the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. In the marshes and amid the cork oak forests behind you've a good chance of seeing grey herons, lanner falcons, ring and turtle doves, partridges, oxpeckers, cattle egret, storks and vultures.

What you see at Parque Nacional de Doñana depends on the time of year. November, December and January constitute the off-season for visitors but is an ideal time for waterfowl, since the autumn rains have brought life back to the marismas and filled the lagunas. Gradually, the water attains a uniform depth of 30-60 centimetres (12-24 inches) over vast areas and the resulting marches attract huge flocks of wildfowl, ducks, geese and other water birds of the most varied kind. These are freshwater marshes, incidentally, although there are traces of sea salt in the underlying silt. Here and there small islands (vetas) which rise above the water. These remain dry throughout the year, creating an ideal breeding ground for waders and terns.

Towards the end of February the geese that have migrated here from northern Europe commence their return journey, but at the same time the spoonbills arrive from North Africa to nest in the cork oaks. In March the waters begin to recede and spring begins in earnest. This is also the time when the imperial eagle hatches its eggs: 15 breeding pairs of these formidable hunters were counted recently in the park - above a third of all the imperial eagles known to survive in Spain. Each pair requires nearly 2,600 hectares of land to hunt over in summer, and even more in winter. This is a far from perfect environment for these great birds and Doñana pairs seldom raise as many young as those elsewhere in Spain.

In spring the marismas are alive with birds - some settling down to breed, others en route for more northern climes.

In mid-summer the temperature in the parched marismas mostly exceeds 40°C. In August, there is almost nothing left of the marsh's aquatic fauna, but it is a good time for observing dozens of summer residents. Which include griffon vulture, booted eagle, red and black kites, short toed eagle, Baillon's crake, purple gallinule, great spotted cuckoo, Scops owl, red necked nightjar, bee eater, hoopoe, calandra, short toed and thekla larks, golden oriole, azure winged magpie. Cetti's and Savi's warblers, tawny pipit, great grey shrike, woodchat shrike and serin.