Birding Without Borders

Day 170: Birding the Hippodrome

A reclaimed horse-racing track in Spain provides wetland habitat for birds.

June 19, 2015, Alicante, Spain — Gorka called a biologist friend named Nacho Dies at El Raco de l’Olla—a unique wetland reserve along Spain’s central Mediterranean Coast—and Nacho was waiting impatiently for us when we arrived at El Raco this morning. Nacho knew exactly which birds I needed to see and where to find them, and, practically twitching with enthusiasm, he led us straight to a blind overlooking a marsh full of birds.

“Do you see it?” he said, as soon as we entered the blind. “There!” Nacho positioned his scope and motioned for me to look through the eyepiece. A Curlew Sandpiper meandered slowly around the mudflat—out of season here, and a bonus bird for Spain. I’m not sure whose smile was bigger, Nacho’s or mine.

Seconds later, he got a text message and suddenly pulled us down the trail to another blind at another pond. There, two young biologists were staring at a group of birds. “We’ve got another one for you,” said Nacho, and, sure enough, a couple of Marbled Teal floated past. Ca-ching! We soon added several Collared Pratincoles and a Common Kingfisher, too.

El Raco de l’Olla is an interesting place. Decades ago, a salt marsh was filled in here to build a hippodrome—a horse-racing track—but the track, with stables and everything, was sitting empty by the mid-1990s. Spain’s government, more environmentally minded at the time, bought the land at auction and scraped away the fill to reclaim a productive wetland. Today the reserve hosts more than 6,000 nesting pairs of terns, gulls, and other waterbirds, and is managed both for the birds and for environmental education. Nacho has been there since the beginning and talked about the birds as if they were guests at an all-inclusive hotel. He knew what every bird ate, where it nested, and exactly how many of them there were. The constant squabble of bird babies and territorial parents was hypnotizing. 

In the afternoon Gorka and I continued down the coast to meet another friend of his named Roque near the town of Alicante, halfway to Gibraltar. Roque took us to a couple of wetlands where we found some more goodies, including a Bearded Reedling (a rare bird in these parts). Then Roque called yet another another friend named Dani who knew a spot for Trumpeter Finches, and the four of us hiked up to an old pit mine at sunset to search for them. As it got dark, I realized it was nearly 11 p.m.—it’s practically the solstice! Downtown Alicante is jammed with a hugely popular solstice festival this week, dedicated to San Juan, where people make papier-mache statues, light fireworks in the street, play music, drink beer, and jump over huge bonfires at midnight. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

New birds today: 14

Year list: 3031

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