Binocular-wearing bearded youths, and their denim-clad girlfriends, were viewed with suspicion in Franco’s Spain. Wild creatures were for hunting, not for watching, and disputes over access to water had farmers and conservationists at each other’s throats.
Thankfully, those bad old days are gone; Spain now has an impressive network of nature reserves, while farmers and naturalists seem reconciled. Tourist brochures feature, not just cultural attractions, but wildlife venues as well.
As millions of migrant birds, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, travel along the Mediterranean coast, the Costas have become a Mecca for birdwatchers. On a visit to reserves in the Valencia region last month, I managed to see almost 80 species.
The visitor facilities are excellent; viewing hides, observation towers and raised walkways give access to the birds while sensitive breeding areas are carefully protected.
More than 50 bird species nest at the El Hondo reserve, 25km southwest of Alicante. Among them are two iconic ducks with dramatic stories to tell. The marbled duck, once known as a teal, is recognised now as a diver not a dabbler.
The light-brown marbled plumage is covered in snow-flake-like white flecks. One of the commonest Spanish ducks a century ago, it fell on lean times; fewer than 200 pairs remained by the 1960s.
The Iraqi marshlands were its main haunt elsewhere. In the 1980s Sadam Hussein, in an attempt to drive out the “Marsh Arabs”, began draining the famous wetlands.
The swamps were re-flooded after his downfall and, in 2011, Iraqi ornithologists counted at least 40,000 marbled ducks in a single flock on a lake there.
Another celebrity of El Hondo had an even narrower brush with extinction. The white-headed duck is one of the seven stiff-tail species; their paddle-shaped tails stick upwards like a wren’s. White-heads are accomplished divers, able to travel up to 30m at a time.
Stay-at-home birds, they tend not to migrate and never venture out of sight of land.
As a result, their population has fragmented into isolated pockets in Spain, Turkey and the Middle East. This means there is little genetic interchange between populations.
During the 1930s another stiff-tail, the ruddy duck of North America, was introduced to wildfowl collections in Britain. In 1953, ruddy escapees began breeding in the wild. Some of them, and their descendants, visited Spain, where they encountered the native white-heads.
The ruddy drakes took a fancy to the white-headed Spanish females and their black crowns and bright red-brown plumage were a hit with the white-heads.
In this duck version of the Spanish Civil War, the native drakes lost out in the bedrooms, the females regarding their native suitors as weaklings and wimps compared to the glamorous Americans.
Interbreeding seldom matters, because the offspring of mixed unions are hardly ever fertile. White-heads and ruddies, however, are so closely related that hybrid offspring can reproduce. Worse still, aggressive ruddy traits are inherited by hybrids which go on to displace other white-heads.
Conservationists took drastic measures in Britain. A no-fly zone was declared and a cull of ruddy ducks began in 2005. According to a DEFRA report, 1,365 were shot in 2008, 717 in 2009 and 386 in 2010. By 2012, only about 60 ruddy pairs were breeding in the wild in Britain.
Although both the marbled and the white-headed duck are listed as endangered by the IUCN, they seem to be out of the woods in Spain. At any rate, both species are living happily on reserves such as El Hondo.