Vida Andaluza – Fuente De Piedra

Flamingos are fabulous birds.  Fabulous in the sense that you don’t really expect to see them outside the pages of Alice in Wonderland, or an exotic holiday in Kenya.

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Surprise: Andalusia has not one but two flamingo populations; one in Cádiz province near Jerez in the Doñana National Park, and the other in Málaga province in the salty waters of the Laguna de Fuente De Piedra.  This second location is closer to Gaucín – about 1 hour 45 minutes’ drive.

As far as I was concerned you see flamingos in zoos: they are not birds that you stumble across in a field, but lo-and-behold, near Campillos that’s exactly what we did.  Imagine – wild flamingos wading knee deep on flooded farmland following the recent heavy rains.  A truly surreal and delightful sight, and a teaser for our visit to the wildlife reserve.

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First views: at a stretch, through a zoom lens

The flock at Fuente De Piedra comprises up to 24,000 birds.  This is the second largest colony in Europe, the largest being the 30,000 birds that spend the summer in the Camargue in southern France.

The Fuente De Piedra flamingo calendar looks like this:

Late February / early March – fly in from Tunisia, enjoy some adult naptime.

Late March / early April – lay eggs – one egg per breeding pair – and incubate them for 29 days.  This takes place on islands in the lagoon, quite some distance from the visitors centre, so not visible to the likes of you and me.

Late April / early May – chicks hatch, and can be seen with their parents.  The Fuente De Piedra flock begets (if flamingos beget?) up to 13,000 chicks each year.

July – 300 volunteers ring the chicks.

Mid / late summer – sometimes the birds temporarily relocate to other parts of Southern Spain, and by late August all the birds have left to return to Tunisia.

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Fun fact: apparently flamingos turn pink over time as result of eating pink things (namely shrimps).  I have been advised not to try this at home – the diet would prove fatal before any colour change was achieved.

Learn from our mistakes:

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The excellent visitors centre is rather shy, and closes when it is most likely to encounter actual visitors.  Check opening times before leaving home (yes, that’s what we didn’t do) and carry everything with you that you might need: water, binoculars, zoom lens for camera, food, mosquito repellent (particularly bad in summer, apparently).

Our visit:

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So we arrived six minutes after the visitors centre closed for its siesta.  The birds were visible in the lagoon shallows…but only just, and through a 300mm camera lens.  All paths seemed to lead away from the water.  We had forgotten our binoculars and had no food, so after a bit of aimless wandering we drove a couple of miles into the village of Fuente De Piedra.

I would not recommend making a special trip to Fuente De Piedra: we didn’t find any notable features, but did find a bar serving a menú del día where our arrival tripled the clientele, and we sat burning through our data contracts, speculating about the one other customer (could he really be Brian Cranston?) and waiting (three hours) for the visitors centre to open again.  Lunch was a good beef stew, and was, of course, ridiculously good value.

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At 5 pm we went back and, boy, were we glad we did!   Clusters of flamingos had moved from the distant lagoon (inaccessible and protected by high fences) to ponds much nearer to the centre, and every now and then a squadron of five or six birds would fly nearby, occasionally overhead.  This really was quite thrilling. When in flight, the otherwise all-pink flamingoes reveal themselves to have lots of black feathers in their wings, which might give them a slightly military bearing if they weren’t, overall, so patently absurd.

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The centre itself is a fine, contemporary building with good, informative displays (Spanish only) explaining the Flamingo lifecycle, migration habits, etc.  It occupies an elevated position, and has a large viewing window overlooking the reserve – however, again, the naked-eye experience is likely to disappoint.

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We visited in early April after an unusually wet winter, so the lagoon shallows were probably as close to the fences as they ever get.  As the weather heats up the salt lake shrinks and presumably the flamingos get further away.  Apparently the increasing salinity of the lagoon results in great photos of the birds in the summer months, complete with salt-crystal-sparkly reflections.  There are many good examples online.

We read that the visitors centre operates guided tours.  Myth or fact?  Opinion is divided.  As it is about whether (if you could actually get onto one) these tours would get you any closer to the flamingos.  It is also said that the centre rents out binoculars and bicycles, but we saw no conclusive evidence of this.  Cycling would be a great way to experience the reserve: there are well-maintained paths and hides, and the area is almost completely flat – again, check before visiting if this is important to you.  Good luck!

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Leaving at around 6 pm, we took a different route home, following the perimeter of the lagoon, and driving past other pools, paths and hides that also allowed good viewing.

So the morals of this story are:

  1. Take equipment that allows you to see and photograph distant birdlife.
  2. Take food, water, and insect repellent.
  3. Research in advance: find out opening times, tour information, rental provision, etc.
  4. Spend as much time as possible at the lagoon, the birds move around and a few hours can make a huge difference. It turns out that bird-watching rewards patience!

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