Nature reserves are common in Spain.
The ‘Laguna de Fuente de Piedra’, is one of them and is famous in Spain and Europe as a beautiful lagoon. At 2.5km wide and 6.5km long it is considered to be the largest natural lake in the Iberian Peninsula and popular spot for birds, where over 170 different species have been recorded here.
Taking nothing away from its wealth of aquatic birds it is probably most famous for its flamingo population. After the French Camargue region it is the second largest colony of these birds in Europe, and the only inland site on the continent where they breed. Attracted by the shallow waters and the high salt content of the lake thousands of Flamingos flock here in the Spring to breed. It’s not surprising, therefore, that this lagoon is deemed a protected zone in an international treaty, as the loss of this unique enclave would cause a serious set back for the flamingo population.
This setting of the Fuente de Piedra is significant, in part because of its geographical location which is very close to the African continent and is thus a strategic point for migrating birds seeking rest before crossing the Mediterranean to spend the winter in Africa. One of the characteristics of this lagoon is the salinity of the water. Normally this does not constitute an attraction for a non-marine bird, however in the case of the pink flamingo it is this very concentration of salt in the water which determines the presence of microscopic organisms, such as seaweed and crustacea which are the basis of their diet.
Being a naturally fed lake it will fill up during the winter months and can cover up to 15km2. However in the hot summer months is known to dry up leaving only small parts of water, which is when the birds may go as far as the Doñana National Park to find food. If you are up late at night in the country, maybe enjoying a warm summer evening on the patio, and in the flight path, it is not uncommon to hear a flock of flamingos flying over head.
It was in 1988 that it was a declared a zone of special interest for birds and the protected area covers 8,543ha. There is a viewpoint located near the visitors centre where you can use the telescope or bring your own binoculars. It is not possible to get down to the water as the lake is fenced off but there is a footpath on one side of the lake which also offers more viewpoints such as the Mirador de Cerro del Palo. The footpath known as the Sendero de la Vicaría, is also a lovely spot to explore, either on foot or by bike.
The visitors’ centre can be found just off the Sierra de Yeguas road out of the Fuente de Piedra village. Here, there is plenty of information on the lake, much of it audiovisual and in Spanish. Even of you do not speak the language it will not affect the quality of your visit. There are also guided tours available, for observing the birds and other wildlife, but these only run when the lake has water. From the vantage points at the centre you can observe the remarkable courtship rituals of the flamingos. According to experts it is the females that choose the mate, and generally the selection is of a strongly built male that is capable of withstanding the high temperatures that are registered on the lake and of continuing with the incubation when the female is exhausted.
The presence of halophytic plants (those adapted to a saltwater habitat) is in abundance. Amongst many others, there are saltwort, Mediterranean brushwood and African tamarisks, the latter an important area for many species of birds during the breeding season.
There are also freshwater reeds and rushes by the site of an old canal, which is now used to control the inflow of freshwater to the lake and to prevent the overflow of saltwater into nearby crop fields. All these plants form the basis of the ecosystem of the lake and surrounding area and upon which the aquatic bird life survives. This wetland is watered by rains, and by underground aquifers, as well as by water from the Santillán and El Humilladero streams.
The optimum time to observe the Flamingos is around the end of January, which is when they arrive from their winter quarters to spend the spring and summer months engaged in the activity of breeding. Of course this depends on the amount of rainfall earlier in the year however, as if the lagoon is dried out or is at a low level this would result in a risk for breeding and the flamingos would essentially disappear. Thousands of flamingos fly in and take up residence, building nests on the small island on the lake, known as La Colonia, and by the end of April or beginning of May the flamingo chicks appear beside their parents to wade the shallow waters of the lake and learn to feed. In July and August some of the young, generally ten per cent of the total of new chicks, are banded. The total number of flamingos hatched at the lake can be as high as 7,000 to 10,000 per year. The best time for visiting this area is in May and August, although it is open throughout the year. Following this the flamingos and their chicks migrate to Africa or to find other sites in Andalucia, like the saltpans in the Marismas del Odiel, Cabo de Gata or the Bahía de Cadiz.
Although renowned for the flamingo, the lake is also home, all year round, to many other species of birdlife.
There is freshwater running in a channel surrounding the lake, attracting other wetland birds that also breed here. Birds such as avocets, Montagu’s harriers, black-winged stilts, white-headed ducks, little bitterns, red-crested pochards and black-necked grebes.
The list of aquatic birds to be found here, some in danger of extinction and including several protected species, goes on and on. Such other types include cranes, grey herons, great crested grebes, teals, mallards, shovelers, marbled ducks and wigeons. During migration times, terns and waders, as well as birds of prey like short-toed eagles and black kites, can be seen, whilst in the fields around the lake are bee-eaters, crested larks, yellow wagtails, stone curlews, great grey shrikes and hoopoes.
The lake also supports a wide range of reptiles, such as spine-footed lizards, ocellated lizards, Spanish sand lizards, Algerian sand lizards, southern wall lizards, three-toed skinks, grey-borrowing lizards, horseshoe snakes, ladder snakes, water snakes and grass snakes. In the fields surrounding the lake are rabbits, hares, garden dormice, foxes and badgers.
There is no doubt that whether you are a bird lover or not this is a place well worth a visit.