Half an hour from the capital, there is an oasis of biodiversity well known among locals for its proximity and the leisure opportunities it offers – and very far away from the busy city life. Sureste Regional Park, chosen place by cyclists and other outdoor activities lovers, can boast of hosting one of the most beautiful and diverse bird populations in the entire Community of Madrid. The great attraction birds feel in this place is due to the variety of habitats and ecosystems, mostly aquatic ones.
This “corner” of more than 30,000 hectares was, in its day, a completely altered place by human activity. However, the abandonment of gravel pits and the passage of time caused the waters of Manzanares River and Jarama River to soon flood this place, that today looks completely different and is home to species as beautiful as the imperial heron.
SURESTE REGIONAL PARK: WHERE TO START?
Obviously, it is practically impossible to visit the whole of the Regional Park in just one day, but you can visit many of the most interesting sites, from our ornithological point of view.
To start with, you have to choose the best dates.
The birds are known for their fantastic and impressive migratory trips that they make to escape the cold or reach their breeding areas. Knowing this, it can be said that the months of March and April, when we can watch some wintering birds and other summer species, are the best months to learn about the winged life in southeast of Madrid, although February and May can also surprise us. They are months where birds begin to be really active, and weather starts to be very pleasant.
A good starting point for the bird watcher is Velilla de San Antonio. The Jarama river crosses this town in Madrid, and in its surroundings we find a small lagoon complex as a result from extractive activity and is now a must within the park.
The route starts next to a factory inside Velilla, and goes through the lagoons while the riverbank forest accompanies us along the road. The arboreal surface shelters a shy group of birds known as woodpeckers. The resonance of the wood makes the picapinos beak or the real whistle betray its presence and let us enjoy its colors. Looking towards the lagoons, the clumsy but elusive common gallinule, a bird with a very nice blue plumage which stands out because of its striking carmine-colored beak, will not go unnoticed among the vegetation on the shore. More and more aquatic species, like the common grebe, the great cormorant, the gray heron or the common coot brighten an ecosystem that is still trying to recover.
The next stop is downstream, in Rivas Vaciamadrid, just where Manzanares and Jarama rivers come together. When taking the M-208, there is another small lagoon just at the height of the first roundabout on that same highway, and it’s called Miralrrío. In it, some egrets and little bitterns can be seen along with numerous anatidae such as the common spoon. In spring, common swallows, sapper planes and common planes are given a feast of insects that can sometimes disturb the observer, so the use of anti-mosquitoes is recommended.
To sum up, in this part of the Regional Park, you will find many birds similar to those you could watch in a day of bird watching in Doñana.
WATER: MAIN CHARACTER ONCE AGAIN
In Rivas, we will take the exit 19 on the A3 to take a dirt track that will lead us to the famous Soto de las Juntas, where Manzanares and Jarama become a single river.
This enigmatic place stands out for its combination of habitats. On the banks of the river, the large black poplars shade the riverbed that falls with force, while the surroundings are adorned with the taray forest, a typical species of aquatic ecosystems. Above the poplars you can see the huge cuttings inhabited by the peregrine falcon, a small but elegant raptor that has its populations more and more decimated.
Meanwhile, a small wooden construction appears out of the blue, an observatory that will allow us to have great views. Here, you can see one of the most beautiful shows in the bird world, the courtship of loons. When the heat arrives to this land, these diving birds decorate their plumage with extravagant ornamental feathers that give both females and males a much more elegant appearance. It’s the perfect outfit for a dance in which timing can mean finding a partner.
Close relatives of the grebes but somewhat smaller, are the black-necked grebes, which can be seen from the observatories with no difficulty, although they are much less abundant than the huge white storks that constantly fly over the park. The presence of these well-known birds is due to the fact that they have built their nests throughout the entire network of electric lines in the park, and even on the radio antennas, where more than 10 nests can be seen at some points. A whole colony of storks that sadly feed in the nearest dumps.
Returning to Rivas, you will find Laguna del Campillo, an ideal place to stop along the way and have lunch while watching the wintering black and laughing gulls, and to take a look at the cliffs running along the northern shore of the lagoon, where you can spot some corvids like the western jackdaw or the red-billed chough. In this place with snack bars, we will enjoy food a lot more than usual.
CONTINUING RIVER DOWN
Following once more the course of the river, this time by the M-506, you arrive at San Martín de la Vega located in one of the most fertile plains in the Community of Madrid. The majority of its crops are irrigated or flooded, which requires a system of canals and ditches leading water to the crops. As a result of this agricultural activity, there is a small ornithological reserve called Los Albardales, with a small temporary lagoon where a lot of birds arrive when the crops cause flooding.
The banks of the lagoon, covered by the typical wetland vegetation, are the refuge for many birds, some of small size, such as the nightingale cetia that gives a nice soundtrack to the reserve and some other larger species, like the redfish or the cattle egret. The Albardales, as well, stands out for hosting a small population of shorebirds in the areas where water barely covers few centimeters. There, the snipe, plover and sandpiper take advantage of this area to feed on the few invertebrates that today’s insecticides leave alive.
Keep in mind that this reserve within the Regional Park, does not always have water and depends a lot on the farmers, if they decide to water a few weeks before or after, the water will take more or less time to flood the lagoon.
The small size of the reserve and how easy it is to cross, give the visitor some time to travel by car or walking another area of abandoned gravel pits and flood crops. On the way to Ciempozuelos, the Soto Gutiérrez extends, a small hiding place of agrarian landscapes that goes unnoticed but where in the months prior to spring you can see large concentrations of lapwings and other waders.
These two stops won’t take long, because you can travel by car and are relatively close to each other, although you will have to hurry before the night arrives.
LAST STOP, THE CARRIZAL
Continuing towards the south but taking a turn towards Chinchón, and leaving the shore of the Jarama, we will find a wonderful place to spend the rest of the afternoon and even to enjoy our evening.
In a deviation from the M-404, a dirt track leads to the Wildlife Refuge of San Juan Lagoon, in the town of Chinchón. This small protected area within the Regional Park is characterized by the density of its marshy vegetation. The reed has acquired such volume that many birds breed in the maze of canes.
The ear, in this spot, is the main tool to detect some species. Many of them, such as the common reed warbler or the reed warbler, hide among the vegetation taking advantage of the color of their plumage and are only detected when they sing. They are species that you will hear but that you will not see. Another example of this type of bird is to look for a brown bird, very similar to the colorful reed, which hides taking advantage of its camouflage but betraying its presence with its unmistakable song.
Although it seems a bit complicated to close your eyes and try to differentiate the bird songs, it is a matter of time before we begin to identify one or another species when we have some practice.
San Juan Lagoon is not only heard, the impressive flights of the marsh harriers arriving to the reed for the night are a real show and during the breeding months when they are looking for a couple or land, you can see amazing stunts that seem more like an airplane than a raptor.
When it looks like Laguna de San Juan is going to be over, it can still surprise us a little bit more, with some flights of the beautiful imperial heron, carrying some materials for their nests – this can certainly leave anyone speechless. The rocks that escort the lagoon are also a box of surprises where you can see the black wheatear and the rock lone, although the most surprising species of all comes with the last ray of light, the king: the eagle owl, an impressive raptor to watch to top off a perfect day.