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This wooded and mountainous area, which lies near Cadiz at the extreme south-west corner of mainland Spain, covers just over 170,000 hectares and is the third largest such protected area in Andalucia. It was established as a Natural Park in 1989 and includes what is probably the largest cork oak woodland in the world. The highest peak, Mount Ajibe stands at 1,092m and, on a clear day, affords superb views of the surrounding countryside.
Over 220 species have been recorded within the borders of the park which is an impressive total given the relative lack of habitat diversity (most of the park consists of woodland and exposed mountains). However, the park is skirted by some superb birding locations (e.g. La Janda, Tarifa, etc.) and, mainly in coastal areas, a series of migration watchpoints which pushes the total for the general area to well in excess of 300 species. However, these notes focus on the park itself.
The park has a healthy population of raptors, numbers of which are boosted, in volume and variety, by migrant birds in the appropriate season. Booted Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle and Short-toed Eagle all occur whilst Spanish Imperial Eagle, after an absence of many years, now breeds in the area once more. This species can also be found in winter in the mountains on the Ubrique road not far from Alcala de los Gazules as well as the adjacent lowlands (the road looping round to the dam for the Embalse de Barbate off the Benalup road is particularly good). Egyptian Vulture are scarce and most likely to be found as migrants, but there is a large population of Griffon Vulture (c700 pairs) and vagrant Rüppell's Vulture are annual here.
Partly assisted by an introduction programme Osprey have returned to breed. Lesser Kestrel commonly breed in the villages of the area and a few winter. Although more typical of the coastal zone, Black-shouldered Kite have increased massively in the province in recent years and may be encountered at lower elevations (e.g. the Alcala-Benalup road).
The woods are alive with familiar British birds such as Nuthatch, Blue Tit, etc., but also harbour Short-toed Treecreeper, Bonelli's Warbler and so on. Both Olivaceous Warbler and Orphean Warbler occur, but are scarce. Try tamasrisk choked dry river bed for the former and open rocky woodland for the latter.
Open wooded habitat at lower elevations holds Red-necked Nightjar (esp around Canterrranas) and Wood Lark. In more open areas Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush and Thekla Lark abound, but Black Wheatear is extremely scarce here and better sought in nearby Grazalema as is, to a lesser degree, Rock Sparrow. Note that Alpine Accentor may be regular on some of the rockier peaks, but as they all require a long walk to reach Grazalema is again the better site.
The skies should be scanned not only for raptors, but also Eurasian Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow and four species of swift (including White-rumped).
Rüppell's Vulture are regularly found in late August/September, but reports straddle the whole year. Long-legged Buzzards are increasingly reported and have bred.
Birds you can see here include:
Key Interest – raptors – over 20 species occur
Resident - Cattle Egret, Little Egret, White Stork, Osprey, Black-shouldered Kite, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Bonelli's Eagle, Spanish Imperial Eagle (rare), Griffon Vulture, Peregrine Falcon, Eagle Owl, Eurasian Crag Martin, Iberian Grey Shrike, Dartford Warbler, Common Firecrest, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear (rare), Black Redstart, Crested Tit, Rock Bunting and Cirl Bunting, Rock Sparrow (scarce), Hawfinch.
Breeding season (Feb onwards) – Black Kite, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, Lesser Kestrel (few winter), Scops Owl (scarce away from lower elevations), Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, Red-necked Nightjar, Alpine Swift, White-rumped Swift & Pallid Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Tawny Pipit, Melodious Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler & Western Orphean Warbler (both scarce) and Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous Bush Chat (declining) and Ortolan Bunting.
Winter – Common Chiffchaff, Eurasian Siskin. Raptors may include Hen Harrier, Red Kite and the smaller eagles a few of which are increasingly seen in the winter months, especially at lower elevations. (Note -nearby La Janda has Crane, Bluethroat, etc.)
Passage – Black Stork, European Honey Buzzard, Eurasian Hobby, Montagu's Harrier etc.
The Alcornocales is famous for it's 'game'. Most significantly it hosts the most southerly population of Roe deer in Europe.
History and Use
The Alcornocales Natural Park includes the largest cork oak woodland in the world and thus the name, which means cork oaks, is particularly apt. In addition to producing cork, the area was once a major source of charcoal. The mountains also support livestock particularly goats, sheep and pigs. The local goats' cheese is apparently much prized.
The Alcornocales have been inhabited since ancient times with evidendence of occupation by Neanderthal man. There are also numerous examples of prehistoric rock art in the park, most notably at Tajo de las Figueras (south of Benalup). The remains of dolmens in the same area testify to early occupation of the area too. However, due to the general poverty of the mountains, few signs of later occupation exist although a good stretch of Roman road can be seen near Alcala de los Gazules (Lomo del Judio). Such was the wild and thinly occupied nature of the region, the Alcornocales gained a reputation for smuggling and lawlessness which persisted into the 20th century.
Areas of Interest
This is an area of narrow twisting roads with some stunning views across the mountains and woodlands. Whilst open skies allow you to look for raptors wherever you can pull off the road, access to woodlands is quite restricted.
For descriptive purposes the park is best split into two distinct areas to the north-east and south-west of the new A381 motorway with the old A381 providing a pleasant meandering route between the two.
North-east of the A381
1 - Alcala de los Gazules & the Molinos Valley This small village (a few km off the A381 between Jerez and Algeciras) makes a good centre for exploration and also has one of the healthiest colonies of Lesser Kestrel in the area (a handful of which winter). Flocks in excess of 100 birds may be seen circling over the village in early spring, but they are best seen at the ‘top’ of the village west of the ruined castle where they perch on trees bordering the road overlooking a sharp drop into the valley.
Most swifts here are Common Swift, but a few Pallid Swift are present. The village Mirador east of the castle also has Blue Rock Thrush and permits stunning views into the park.
To the east of the village a road runs along the Molinos valley and into the park. After several kilometres the road gives way to a path which takes you into the mountains.
This valley is excellent for raptors (inc. Bonelli's Eagle & Northern Goshawk) and acts as a funnel for bird migration (e.g. Great Spotted Cuckoo, Rock Sparrow, Tawny Pipit).
2 – El Picacho Leaving Alcala on the CA-2115 the route takes you into the park where you will find a number of convenient places to stop and scan the hills (most obviously where a minor road heads towards San Jose del Valle). About c10km out of Alcala there is a picnic site and a series of paths which permit access to the woodland and, for the energetic, the peak of Picacho which holds Alpine Accentor in winter. Bonelli's Warbler are abundant here. Bonelli's Eagle is also present
A little further along the road there is also a cycle route which allows even greater exploration for the energetic.
3 – La Sauceda From Alcala continue along the CA-2115 towards Ubrique, at a sharp bend you pass the road to Algar. This, particularly the side route to Charco de los Hurones, can be a pleasant and rewarding diversion. However, continuing into the park you reach the Venta de Galis (highly recommended for the game eating carnivorous birder) where you can go right on the C-3331 for La Sauceda. The route again gives opportunities for some superb views although few convenient stopping places. However, at La Sauceda there is a picnic site and more well marked paths allowing access into the habitat which thus far has been frustratingly closed to casual visitors. (Note this area can also be accessed in reverse direction from Jimena de la Frontera).
4 – Jimena de la Frontera area The attractive village of Jimena de la Frontera has a fine castle which allows good views of surrounding countryside. It is also a site for White-rumped Swift. From the lower part of the village a minor road heads west towards the Lomas de Camara Relay station giving an interesting transect of habitats.
5 – Castillo de Castellar area The approach to Castillo de Castellar is along well wooded road along which there are several good spots to pull over. One of the best is on the left where the old bridge crosses the river (near a white building). This area may hold Olivaceous Warbler and has Monarch butterfly.
Further up the village has Lesser Kestrel, Pallid Swift and White-rumped Swift and Rufous Bush Chat has been reported here.
6 – Los Barrios Leave the A381 at the first exit for Los Barrios (as you come from the north) and then take the first left along a minor road connecting the town with the A 369 in the Rio Guadarranque valley (north of San Roque) on the far side of the ridge. Head for the large rubbish tip above Los Barrios (easily located by the circling birds and rubbish strewn track); this is said, not surprisingly, to attract Eagle Owls, but be prepared to put up with an awful stench! This insalubrious site also attracts huge numbers of Black Kite and White Stork. It has also a good track record for attracting Ruppell's Vulture. The main park in Los Barrios itself is also a likely spot for Scops Owl.
7 – Old 381 The new A381 has brought two essential advantages to the area; first it allows rapid movement between the south coast and the north of the province and second, it has relieved the old road of traffic so that you can stop and look for birds virtually at will.
Several several picnic sites and official walks here are worth exploring (e.g. Valedeinfierno); local information offices have details of these.
South-west of the A381
This area includes some lowland and two large reservoirs, but much of it is as rugged and wild as the rest of the park. Reaching further south, it also has a greater concentration migrating raptors.
8 – Embalse de Barbate This embalse (reservoir) is immediately south of Alcala. Unfortunately, there are few access points and views to the water are distant.
However, better views can be obtained by taking a turning off the Benalup road to the dam or by following the track signposted for the Hacienda de Agua off the old A381 a few kilometres south of the La Palmosa service station. This area tends to be better for Pallid Swift than more mountainous areas of the park and the reservoir is home to two pairs of Osprey. There is a ‘Migres’ observation post at the dam. Black-shouldered Kite may also be seen along the Benalup road here. The road to the dam (presa) off the Benalup road can be a good site Spanish Imperial Eagle although ourists may object since most are part of a re-introduction scheme.
9 - Embalse de Cemlin & Tajo de las Figuras The embalse here attracts small numbers of migrating terns and waders, but the great attraction here are the cave paintings at Tajo de las Figures. These include some of the earliest known paintings of birds (allegedly including Flamingo!); well worth the detour.
10 – Ojen Valley Although this ‘road’ is marked on most road atlases, it is actually a rough and poorly maintained track so caution is needed. After the very heavy rains of 2008/2009 it's condition must have grown still worse.
There is a healthy population of raptors here which includes a good number of Bonelli's Eagle. Being near the coast it is also good for passing raptors. It is also a recognised site for White-rumped Swift with the area near the 22km marker being particularly favoured.
Two walking routes off this road allow access into the park (see local information offices for details). Although it is probably quicker to drive round via Tarifa, this route takes you over to Fascinas and Bolonia on the coast.
11 – El Bujeo This site is on the Tarifa - Algeciras road. A track just beyond Puerto de el Bujeo is the start of several walking routes one of which follows a narrow well wooded valley. A track also runs up towards Las Corzas.
Being near the coast, it can be good for migrants (inc. raptors). This general area has also had a very good track record for the rare but increasing Long-legged Buzzard.
12 – Facinas area The ‘pueblo blanco’ of Facinas is at the south west margin of the park and as such it is in a good area for migrating raptors. The nearby embalse holds few birds, but the minor road east of the village which runs south towards Tarifa. This can be good for a variety of birds including migrants and, in particular, Rufous Bush Chat can be found in the old olice groves.
Access and Facilities
The Natural park is 40 minutes from Jerez and Gibraltar airports with those at Seville and Malaga another hour or so distant. Access via the A381 is straight forward, but the mountain roads are narrow twisting and, since resurfacing, have few points where you can pull over safely.
Local information centres and tourist information offices can supply details of walking routes (or senderos) although for some of these permission is needed. A car is really essential, but some routes at the periphery of the park can be accessed by public transport from Alcala (e.g. Molinos valley) and Los Barrios. Alcala de los Gazules makes an ideal centre for those wishing to take in a variety of local habitats.
Much of the park is in private hands and access is surprisingly limited for such a large expanse of wild habitat. There is an excellent new interpretive centre to the park off the A381 on the road to Benalup.
A large number of options including migration watch points on the coast, seawatching at Cap Trafalgar, wetlands at La Janda, near Barbate, Cadiz and Sanlucar, superb lagoons north and east of Cadiz and the Grazalema Natural Park further east.
[http://www.andalucia.com/environment/protect/alcornocales.htm Alcornocales Natural Park 
'Crossbill Guides - The nature guide to the Andalusian Sierras from Malaga to Gibraltar' This is good guide to the area with a wider focus than just birds.