The Parque Nacional de Doñana is essentially the delta of the Guadalquivir, the 'big river', or Wada-I-Kebir, of the Moors. But it is a delta with a difference. Unlike most, the river has only one outlet to the sea, just below Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The rest of what used to be its delta has gradually been blocked off by a huge sandbar that stretches from the mouth of the Rio Tinto, near Palos, to the riverbank opposite Sanlúcar, and which the sea winds have gradually formed into high dunes. Behind this natural barrier stretch the marsh (marismas).
The effect of this extraordinary mélange of land and water was to create an environment shunned by people but ideal for wildlife. As early as the thirteenth century, the kings of Castille set aside a portion of the Doñana as a royal hunting estate; later the dukes of Medina Sidonia made it their private coto. One of the duchesses of Medina Sidonia, Doná Ana de Silva y Mendoza, indulged her antisocial instincts by building a residence there that was more hermitage than palace. As a result, the entire region came to be known as the 'forest of Doná Ana', or Doñana. In the eighteenth century, Goya is known to have visited the Duchess of Alba at the Palacio de Doñana when she was its proprietress. Subsequently, the land passed through many hands before the official creation of the parque nacional in 1969. Meanwhile, adjoining areas of wetland were being dramatically reduced. Across the Guadalquivir vast marshes were drained and converted to farmland, until only the protected lands of the Doñana remained intact. For centuries there had been only a vacant spot on the map between Lebrija in the east and Almonte in the north west, but in recent years whole towns and villages have sprung up west of the Guadalquivir, and the resort town of Matalascañas has brought urban sprawl to the south-western edge of the Doñana, a place once occupied by reed-thatched. fishermen's huts.
The proximity of these settlements has further complicated the work of the park's wildlife guardians. Two of the Doñana's precious lynxes, for example, have been run over by cars on the highway to Matalascañas; cats and dogs straying out of the nearest towns have killed animals in the park, and birds that have overflown the fences have been gunned down by trigger-happy hunters despite stringent conservation laws.
A more permanent threat to the Doñana's ecosystem are the new ricefields and other agricultural projects north of El Rocío, whose run-off waters sluice pesticides into the marismas and the sulphur mines upstream at Aznalcóliar which was effluvium into the river.
Doñana comprises delta waters which flood in winter and then drop 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. 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. If you're lucky you may also catch a glimpse of a Spanish Imperial Eagle, now down to 14 breeding pairs. You can explore the park in a veritable safari jeep and there are organised camping trips for children, as well as audio-visual shows and exhibits.
Both of these amount to more than 100,000 hectares in the area of the mouth of the Guadalquivir, of the provinces of Huelva, Sevilla and Cádiz. They have great ecological wealth, recognised internationally. Doñana has become a key centre in the world of conservationism. Its configuration is a result of its past as the estuary of the Guadalquivir river. It consists of beaches, coastal mobile dunes, “corrales”; marshes, “lucios” (ponds) and “caños” (jets); vegetation is typical Mediterranean thicket of narrow leaved cistus heather, mastic tree, rosemary, cistus scrub, red lavender, etc; the marsh cork oaks are known as “las pajareras” for the enormous quantity of birds that nest in them and large expanses of stone pine. Fauna here has a rich variety, some in danger of extinction, such as the lynx, the Egyptian mongoose and the imperial eagle; game is also plentiful – deer, fallow deer and boar.
Doñana is well known for the variety of species of birds, either permanent residents, winter visitors from north and central Europe or summer visitors from Africa, such as numerous types of geese and colourful colonies of flamingo.
Entrance to the park is strictly controlled. You can take half day trips with official guides or explore the environs of the visitors centres on foot. To visit the park take the A483 past Almonte and El Rocio to El Acebuche (near Matalascañas) where one finds the main visitors centre. There are trips into the park at 08.30h and 17.00h every day except Sundays in the summer (1/06 – 15/09) and at 08.30h and 15.00h every day except Mondays in the winter. Booking is recommended by phoning the visitors centre on +34 959 430432. Full day trips can also be organised for groups. Visitors centre 'El Rocina' is nearer to El Rocio, it has an audio visual display and nature trail. The park can also be reached ( but not entered) by taking the ferry boat across the Guadalquivir river from San Lucar de Barrameda where a new visitors centre is projected.
What you see at Doñana depends on the time of year and the luck of the draw – 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 vast flocks of wildfowl, ducks, geese and other water birds of the most varied kind. These are freshwater marches, incidentally, although there are traces of sea salt in the underlying city. Here and there small islands known as vetas 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 who 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. Huge numbers of kites hang in the air, harriers send the duck scurrying skywards in fear of their lives. There are black-tailed godwit and ruff on their way to Holland and beyond, greenhank and wood sandpiper bound for Scandinavia, little stint and curlew sandpiper heading for northern Siberia and usually a marsh sandpiper that should be a thousand kilometres or more further east.
Overhead, vast flocks of whiskered terns wheel and circle along with a few gullbilled terns and racy pratincoles. There are swallows galore, some of them red-rumped, and bee-eaters and rollers perch on post and wire. All of these and more can be seen from the bridge at El Rocio – perhaps the best free bird watching in Europe.
From bird hides at the reserve centre, just south of the bridge, you will hear Cetti's and Savi's warblers and watch egrets, herons and little bitterns come and go. Marsh harriers and kites are continually on view and sometimes a majestic imperial eagle will soar from the woods of Doñana over El Rocio to the Coto del Rey.
In mid-summer, the temperature in the parched marismas, easily exceeds 40 degrees centigrade. Aquatic birds that remain in the stagnant pools die of botulism, and each year thousands more die during the advancing drought in the Doñana. 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, re 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. There is, in fact no end to the life cylce of this wilderness where 125 species of birds are known to breed, as well as 28 mammal species, 17 reptiles, nine amphibians and eight species of fish.
The park as a whole comprises three distinct kinds of ecosystem, the marismas, the matorral and the dunes. A typical safari trip will take in all three, but the amount of exposure to each environment varies with the seasons. One thing is guaranteed – that is that no two visits will be alike.