After several years of drought in southern Spain, the 2017-2018 winter, especially later during the season, brought huge downpours of rainfall. On my arrival on 9 May the countryside had a distinctly green hue and cereal crops already sported ears of ripening seed, with a few fields already beginning to turn brown. Many wildflowers were in full bloom producing spectacular blue, purple, yellow and white carpets in the countryside and on roadsides.
The deluges have been of especial benefit to the major lagoons of Andalusia and Laguna Fuente de Piedra is at its best – a situation not seen for several years. The main lagoon is spectacular and if the hordes of Greater Flamingos that have occupied it could smile I’m sure their happiness would shine through! A recent aerial survey estimated that 35,000 birds were present. When I revisited the lagoon on 12 May with Andy Paterson, who has lived in Andalusia for may years and published books and papers on birds of the region, we additionally found three vividly pink and noticeably smaller Lesser Flamingos among their larger cousins.
On small islands within El Laguneto, a small lagoon behind the visitor centre, Black-headed Gulls are nesting in good numbers for the first time in several years and among them Avocets and Black-winged Stilts are also incubating their eggs. The latter need to perform amazing contortions to fold their very long bright pink legs to enable the birds to sit on their eggs! This lagoon is also attractive to ducks and while Common Pochard are seen throughout the year, depending on the amount of water, on this visit they were joined by about thirty Red-crested Pochard and a dozen or so of one of the western Palaearctic’s rarest ducks, the White-headed Duck. In this part of southern Spain these duck species, and also the Flamingos, are highly dependent on water levels and can be absent in dry years but reappear as soon as winter rains refill water bodies sufficiently.
The margins of the lagoons are also attractive to another group of waterbirds, the waders. On these visits Redshanks, Dunlins, Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers put in an appearance in small numbers and many other species stop here to refuel on the way to and from their northern breeding grounds. With luck parts of the lagoons will remain wet into the autumn, providing returning waders with good muddy feeding grounds to help them on their way
On 9 May I also had the excitement of finding a Black-crowned Night Heron showing itself off atop a depth gauge in a small pond!
During the 20 years that I have travelled regularly to Andalusia I have witnessed several cycles of winter rainfall and drought and the associated comings and goings of waterbirds. Unfortunately, some farmers have capitalised on drier periods to plough and cultivate depressions in their land, leading to the loss of many smaller ponds. This, together with the prediction that climate change is likely to lead to a general warming and drying of the Iberian Peninsula, highlights the importance of conferring protection on networks of wetlands, something that the government of Andalusia is achieving.