Written by Lucy Brzoska
In the intensely developed Empordà plain, the wild and human overlap. Circling storks and patrolling marsh harriers can be observed at the Aiguamolls nature reserve with a background of skydivers, dropped off in batches by droning planes and helicopters. You cross the Muga, which slides placidly to the sea between wooded banks . . .
. . . another step and suddenly Empuriabrava looms into view, a legoland development sprouting at the mouth of the river. Across the plain, traffic roars on congested roads, and electricity pylons clutter the landscape. But in a stroke of genius, by fitting perching sites for the storks and nest boxes for the kestrels, the reserve has appropriated the pylons.
The photo was taken near the Vilaüt lake, away from the coast, where the reserve’s first hide was built. Rising salinity, drought and contamination from fertilizers has affected the quality of the water in recent years, and some species have stopped breeding there. Solutions are being found, including expropriation of land. The view from the hide, looking north west, is pristine.
The path to the Vilaüt hide meanders among rocky outcrops and oaks, in contrast with the water-logged meadows and absolute flatness of the surroundings. Cows graze with their retinues of Cattle egrets. A single Conical orchid (Orchis conica) had emerged on the grass, the flowers like pale strawberry ice cream cupped by leaves. Close up, the petals look like pink bonnets trailing in the current of a stream.
Corn buntings were present in astonishing density. The whole area vibrated with their songs, broadcast from every branch and post.
Four red kites were hunkered down in a tree, resting mid-migration and getting mobbed by a raven. Later that morning I heard a trumpeting directly above me, and saw two cranes circling higher and higher. After reaching the correct altitude, they stretched their necks due north and disappeared over the mountains. I wondered if they were the same pair I’d watched taking a bath at the Cortalet the day before.
In the extensive preening session that followed, with much vigorous wing-shaking that at one point seemed would evolve into a dance, the cranes would regularly lengthen their necks in cautious observation. A cruising marsh harrier set them off trumpeting.
At the end of March, there was an air of expectation around the Cortalet. An early flock of Bee eaters flew overhead. The first nightinglales were still quite tentative and acoustically Cetti’s warblers had few rivals. Walking along the narrow path, I was deafened as one exploded in song next to my ear. Two Long-tailed tits fell fighting out of a tree and continued grappling on the ground, peeping in rage. Blackwinged stilts sorted out their issues over in the flooded meadow. In the lagoons Great crested grebes ceremoniously fanned out their crests.
List of birds seen
Stork, yellow wagtail, skylark, zitting cisticola, black-winged stilt, spoonbill, shoveller, crane, purple heron, grey heron, little egret, cattle egret, great egret, nightingale, cetti’s warbler, goldfinch, great tit, blue tit, long tailed tit, chiffchaff, stonechat, starlings, house sparrow, raven, jackdaw, pheasant, partridge, mute swan, marsh harrier, kestrel, buzzard, red kite, swallow, common swift, alpine swift, kingfisher, great crested grebe, little grebe, teal, garganey, gadwall, shelduck, hoopoe, green woodpecker, great spotted cuckoo, corn bunting, coot, moorhen, scops owl (heard).
Some practical information
- Castelló d’Empúries makes an excellent base for exploring the Aiguamolls reserve on foot: the coastal area around the Cortalet and the inland Vilaüt hide are equidistant and connected by well-marked GR trails.
- On holidays, after 11.00am, the Cortalet site (with its information centre, car park and picnic area) is the preserve of families. So children can enjoy the experience, they’re allowed to shout and run in and out of the trembling hides (most of which are built on stilts). But my only ever sighting of a bittern was precisely on a day like this. The Vilaüt area is usually very peaceful.