56. Matalascañas, Doñana – Andalucia, Spain


An old stone pine tree, Mazagon

We left Morocco as it was playing havoc with our attempts to learn Spanish!

We weren’t overly impressed with Tangiers – there are many people there simply sitting outside cafes, staring at the world going by. Don’t get me wrong, I like that sort of stuff normally but with two, important provisos: 1. The people walking by are really only interesting if they look different from each other, and, 2. There’s only so much coffee/mint tea you can drink. Somehow, beer or wine make the experience more fulfilling.


We left the unhelpful hotel and taxied down to the ferry port for our cross-straits trip back to Europe. The lack of signs at this place creates the ideal opportunity for the local chancers to insist they ‘help’ you. After ‘helping’ us to the right places for tickets/embarkation cards, etc., our ‘helper’ now needs some money – not just the generous amount I was offering, ‘No, I need more than that!’ Ungrateful git.


Driving from Algeciras the following day we were thrilled to see a huge colony of Griffon Vultures riding the thermals above the city.


I vowed a few years ago that I would never again try to negotiate the motorway system around Sevilla but couldn’t avoid it; every few hundred meters there are large imposing road signs saying: ‘Dangerous road, you have less than a 50% chance of getting through this’ (or something like that, my Spanish translation may be subject to some hyperbole). This is not surprising, given that, in places, you leave and join motorways in the fast lane!


P1090952Anyway, we found an apartment in the seaside resort of Matalascañas; it’s deserted at this time of year but we’ve been immersed in some amazing temperatures – reaching 30 degrees. The apartment has a typical Spanish bathroom bog/basin combo: the wash basin being directly in front of the bog, allowing the squatter to do their business and chunder into the sink at the same time. Surely, says something about the Spanish diet.


We moved to this area to do some birding in the beautiful Doñana national park. I have a separate birding blog here for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing. I promise I’ll only mention one or two interesting things here.



The Azure-Winged Magpie

This large area is protected and well looked after by the government. And it’s free! There are many beautiful walks through woodland, scrubland and wetlands. It’s a haven for bird life and is deemed the most important area for migrating birds in Europe with over 350 species recorded. You may be unable to contain your excitement now so you can jump to our full birdlist in the birding blog, here. But, just a taster, the park is full of Azure-winged magpies – a welcome relief for those of you fed up with the bog-standard common magpie. We also bagged a great lifer: the Short-toed Treecreeper – instantly distinguished from its cousin, the Eurasian Treecreeper, on account of its having a hind claw a full millimetre shorter. I also like the name of this bird as it would be pronounced in my native dialect (Hull, in East Yorkshire): the Short Turd Treecreeper!


Thirty or so kilometres away is the delightfully named Marismas del Odiel (marshes of the Odiel river) near Huelva. Here there are hundreds of flamingos and spoonbills and, a special treat, they have introduced ospreys. We got another lifer (we think!): the Curlew Sandpiper.



El Rocio

We’re staying very close to a weird old town called El Rocío; it’s like a Wild West town. Roads are all sand; some people are on horseback; bars like saloons – it’s quite magical.


Friday 13th – early morning start, before Venus and Jupiter had a chance to set. The mist came in from the sea but fortunately it burnt off while we were in Acebuche (‘old olive trees’) where we bagged our third lifer: the Firecrest, a rare relative of the Goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird.


We’ve now moved on, once more having to negotiate the Sevilla ring road system. They really need to build a ring road around this ring road system! We’ll be staying for a month in Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, as, for no other reason, we’ve never been there before and I know some students who live there who, inexplicably, want us to be their English teachers again!


I think Helen wasn’t too displeased – she was bitten to buggery by mosquitos, a treat that is usually mine.


Andy, 21 November 2015

Ciudad Real


33. Russia – snowing, Algarve – birding

The industrious snow shovellers - our block in background

We’re back in Moscow – here are some snowy piccies of our neighbourhood I took yesterday:


Every day there are hundreds of snow-shovellers out on the streets. These guys are up and shovelling from 5am and never stop. It’s very impressive. All around there are huge mountains of snow piled up alongside the paths and roads. It could stay like this until the big thaw in April. I can imagine walking to work through 20 foot high, off-white tunnels, seeing only other shuffling, muffled perishers en-route like termites in an enormous illuminated mound.

Helen’s currently reading a book called ‘Snowdrops’. This is a splendid euphemism for a frozen corpse found in the snow after a thaw; a well-known hazard.

We’d been away in the UK and Portugal for 3 weeks, sunned and tanned we came back to the cold at 5 in the morning on Saturday after a gruelling day in the air and airports. Still, it’s only 2 degrees below now but minus 20 is forecasted for next week. Looks like I’ll be wearing the fur hat one of my students kindly presented me with before Christmas despite my vegetarian protestations.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last couple of years, you’ll know that the PIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland/Italy, Greece and Spain) are in dire straits when it comes to finances. Italy and Portugal are still in negative growth, so, in an initiative that would have impressed the crazed Thatcher herself, Portugal has come up with a motorway toll system par excellence.

Road tolls are fine but this one takes the biscuit. It was introduced only a couple of months ago. If you have an electronic gizmo in your car, the automatic motorway toll stations clock you and then your credit card/account is debited. If you don’t – and all hirers of cars at the airport don’t – the toll stations read your number plate and then you have to wait 2 working days for the system to process your toll and then you can pay at a post office or similar establishment. A standard motorway journey from Faro to Lagos is about €7.

Great! You say. But how do you pay at the end of your stay? There is no pay station at the airport. You rack up a fine (€50) which is levied against the car hire company who then take it off your credit card. Unless you have friends staying in Portugal who are willing to pay for you 2 days later, you are bolloxed. Good, eh?

Can you spot the Little Owl?

Anyway, it was a great stay. The weather was fab – shirt sleeves job. The birding was brilliant – we got 62 species including a lifer – Iberian grey shrike. We were particularly impressed finding the Little Owls we’d spotted some years earlier in exactly the same spot at Alvor estuary – a birding cornucopia with more waders than you can shake a stick at. The flamingos simply laughed back at me so I had to put the stick down.

Here’s more piccies:


Here’s our bird list from Faro and Alvor estuary:

Gadwall, shoveller, teal, wigeon (x1000), white stork, spoonbill (1), flamingo (14), little grebe, coot, moorhen, avocet, black-winged stilt, ringed plover, Kentish plover, grey plover, common sandpiper, redshank, greenshank, black-tailed godwit, dunlin, sanderling, turnstone, curlew, lapwing, cormorant, lesser black-backed gull, herring gull, red-legged partridge, gannet, black-headed gull, yellow-legged gull, sandwich tern, whiskered tern, grey heron, little egret, cattle egret, buzzard, kestrel, little owl, kingfisher, Iberian grey shrike, stonechat, blackbird, chiffchaff, Sardinian warbler, crested lark, pied wagtail, robin, bluethroat, black redstart, house sparrow, Spanish sparrow, greenfinch, goldfinch, linnet, serin (call), meadow pipit, barn swallow, hoopoe, azure-winged magpie, jackdaw, collared dove

Alvor estuary map link:



Moscow, 13.1.12