Birding in Southern Spain

Sevilla plaza
Plaza de España, Seville

Allison and I recently booked a trip to Spain based largely on the price of the airplane tickets. I found the deal, did a quick internet search to confirm that yes, Spain does indeed have birds, and then pulled the trigger. It is fair to say that it was the best impulse buy of my lifetime. Spain offered us an astonishingly beautiful countryside, ancient ruins, stunning architecture, a gracious and accommodating people, excellent food, affordable hotels, and great birds. I cannot recommend Spain highly enough for those interested in a trip that weaves birding into cultural tourism.

The success of our trip hinged upon some fairly extensive planning combined with good luck in the form of several friends who provided excellent advice on travelling and birding in Spain. I’m sharing our itinerary and some photos here in the hope that it proves useful to people like Allison and I, who are ready to sacrifice a few lifers in the name of old cathedrals, new food, and long cocktail hours. We recorded 102 species – a dedicated birder would surely end up with substantially more.

Trip map
Where we stayed (green houses) and where we birded (yellow pins) along our route (red line).  Smarter planners would have added a day or two to complete the purple circuit.

Our trip began in Madrid and ended in El Rocío on the southern coast of Spain. We drove straight back to Madrid so we could meet up with an old friend. Otherwise we would have returned through Cordoba, where the nearby mountains would have probably offered offer new birds and new landscapes. We spent 8 total days in the country and would have been smart to add 1-2 additional days to complete the circuit and perhaps spend more time in and near Trujillo. There are many good choices for traveling and birding in Spain and I don’t pretend to know more than a small fraction of them. We chose southern Spain based on old Professor Google, and we chose specific birding sites based on an oddly arranged but indispensable guidebook.

Get this book!

Here’s what we did:

Madrid: Our original plan was to visit the Royal Palace, but it was closed that day. We briefly applied our American education to identifying all the statues (“Who’s that?” “Christopher Columbus.” “How about that one?” “Also Columbus.”) in the plaza before wandering down to the King’s old hunting grounds, a 4,300 acre park named Casa de Campo, to find some birds. The park was gorgeous and gave us a good start on our trip list, but our Spanish friend laughed at us when we recounted the day and said she was surprised we still had our binoculars because she’d expect them to have been stolen by a thief or an indignant prostitute. So tip #1: maybe don’t go to Casa de Campo.

Trujillo: On the way out of Madrid we encountered our first castle, which Allison thought was some kind of cheap tourist trap.  No – it was an actual castle.

car castle
Not a putt-putt, Allison.

We stayed in the Palacio Santa Marta, a converted 16th century palace and one of two hotels I would explicitly recommend for the opportunity to bird from your window with a 15th century cathedral in the background. Earlier in the day we visited Monfragüe National Park, a must see that offers a river cutting through rock faces that house nesting vultures, eagles, and many other species.

Squint and look closely at the uppermost ridge and see Egyptian, Griffon, and Black Vultures.

Bonus: The park has a 9th century castle sitting high above the river, the road to which we foolishly walked. A Spanish couple took pity on us and drove us back down because the shuttle driver had ceased operation during the typical 3-hour Spanish siesta.

Merída: We intended to leave Trujillo bright and early but got waylaid because someone (that would be me) forgot to set the alarm. On our way to Merída we birded the road that leads east out of a small town called Campo Lugar, which offered Great Bustards and other grassland birds.


We also stopped by Cornalvo Natural Park, which offered some gorgeous scenery (Spain is fully in bloom in April) and a variety of woodland birds.

Allison in Cornalvo
Allison in Cornalvo Natural Park, just northeast of Merída.

Merída houses a number of pre-Christ Roman ruins, which were a real highlight of the trip. For reasons unknown there was just a small handful of tourists in the amphitheatre, where 2,000 years prior gladiators were busy hacking lions and/or each other to bits. The adjacent Roman theater was also empty, giving each an intimate feel that really added to the experience. At one point I found myself alone, ducking through an ancient tunnel, dragging my fingers across ancient stone blocks, water dripping through the ceiling onto the muddy path. No docent lecturing me about acid in the oils in my fingers posing an existential threat to the sanctity of the site, no over-friendly Texan telling me about the ruins I really should visit. It was wonderful.


Seville: Parking the car in Seville was a time-consuming adventure that left me needing a bathroom, which ironically could only occur once I bought a beer, which left me needing a bathroom. But I resisted the second urge and we hit the city’s famous cathedral. We entered the building and it was so awe-inspiring I felt momentarily religious. Turns out we were in a side chapel of sorts, a kind of warm up to the main event. We found the line for the actual cathedral and after some pushing and shoving found our way in. It’s impossible to imagine what someone in the 1500’s must have felt walking into such grandeur. We visited Columbus’s tomb (“No, this time it is actually Columbus”), climbed the tower, and generally walked around wide-eyed, acknowledging the greatness of the place.

cathedral selfie
The cathedral and a couple of nerds.

The next morning we visited the 8th century Muslim turned Christian Alcázar Palace, the intricate carvings of which were only slightly sullied by the crowds and the anti-Semitic tour guide who spent entirely too much time talking about prostitutes and Columbus’s affection for Jewish bankers.

Alcazar dome
The dizzying palace dome.  Some Game of Thrones scenes were shot in the palace, which is appropriate given the bloody exploits of its former tenant, Peter the Cruel.

We ended our stay in Seville with a trip to the Plaza, which at 90-years old is Seville’s newest architectural masterpiece. It’s hard to imagine that kind of government building being erected in the States. Birds were scarce in Seville, but for the real nerds out there we got a clear view of common versus pallid swifts from the hotel roof.

El Rocío: The second hotel room I explicitly recommend: the junior suite at La Malvasía. There is no senior suite – this is the best hotel room in the dusty town that borders a lagoon full of feral horses and wetland birds.

Allison in Malvasia
Allison in her element.

A million pilgrims descend upon El Rocío each May for a brief festival, which means that the remaining 11 months offer up a populace totally prepared to make your visit a good one. The food was excellent and inexpensive. Doñana National Park (the crown jewel of the country’s birding locales) did not disappoint and offered up flamingoes, grebes, lapwings, deer, boar, dead horses, you name it. Access is limited so we got a guide for a trip in the northern side of the park, which was completely worth the 35 euros per person. The following day we birded the visitors’ center south of El Rocío, which offered a fantastic boardwalk hike through wetlands, scrub, and pine woodlands. It was a good place to pick up migrant passerines, bee eaters, and about 100 little grebes. We ended the day with a brief trip to the beach, where our appreciation of the impressive dune system was somewhat muted by the howling winds. I did see one nude sunbather braving the day – apparently Europeans are used to 30+ mph gusts.

What a trip. A few final thoughts:

  • April is the right time to go. The weather is usually great, the flowers are blooming, and just about every bird is either singing its heart out or building a nest. The Spaniards we talked to were perplexed as to why more people don’t visit in April before it gets too hot and the green turns to brown.
  • Spanish time is a real thing. Expect to eat lunch around 2:00 and dinner no earlier than 9:00.
  • Tapas and house wine is both the affordable and the right choice. You can eat and drink for a song and the tapas of southern Spain cannot be beat if you are into simple, flavorful foods.
Trujillo’s plaza and a photo interloper.


In February of 2005 I flew out to Mizzou to interview for a position within the biology department’s graduate program. The recruitment process is one part fun to three parts stress – there is drinking and food and socializing but there are also one-on-one interviews with faculty, graduate students, and staff, and implicit to the process is that everyone is judging you. Take your standard job interview, stretch it out to 2 full days, make sure all applicants get to meet and size one another up, and there you have it.

I met Ray Semlitsch toward the end of that first, worst day. I had already met my future advisor and many other faculty and was pretty exhausted when I walked into his office, but then Ray asked me about myself, he smiled a lot, laughed a lot, exuded excitement and encouragement about my professional interests and suddenly I was wide awake.  I felt great talking to him and I felt great when I left his office – I had just spent 30 minutes in the office of a nationally recognized leader in his field and it was the most relaxing part of my day. I loved Ray for that and vowed to put him on my committee should I attend Mizzou.

Attend Mizzou I did, and it quickly became clear to me that the Ray I met as a nervous recruit was exactly who Ray really was. He was excited, accessible (during the non-hunting season), and approachable throughout my graduate career. He challenged me to think big, he urged me to stay hungry, he provided encouragement when the imposter’s syndrome was running hot to scalding. He taught an invaluable and foundational class for incoming students, he shared with me the fundamentals of deer hunting, he told me how proud he was of my work, how impressed he was with Allison’s thesis, how fun it was to see his own graduate students acquire skillsets that surpassed his own.

Ray was human – he missed meetings (especially during hunting season), he disappointed his students, he could be unfair. But so what. I have really fond memories of Ray that will be easy to hold onto. I remember Billy’s impersonation of weak-kneed graduate students introducing themselves to Ray at professional meetings like they were shaking hands with The Beatles, a phenomenon I was reminded of today when multiple emails were shared in my office today about Ray, one of which said, “I really can’t imagine my field without him.” I remember how much my own work benefitted from Ray’s influence, and I remember the warmth and encouragement he greeted me with that first day I met him and in the years that followed. I valued his friendship and wish I could have told him so again. Ray was a great committee member and a mentor in the truest sense. Mizzou, his students past and present, and our field all suffer for his loss.

Moving on

In March of last year, Allison and I drove to Omaha to find housing for a post-doctoral position that was too good to turn down.  It was a blustery, cold day and Omaha was coated with a layer of snow dirtied by people living their lives in the week since it had fallen.  Future uncertain, we decided. As I write, Allison is in Florida, looking for housing.  After 2.5 years on the market and 46 applications submitted, I found a permanent job working at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Gainesville.  We couldn’t be more excited to go back home.

But despite the vagaries of midwestern weather (on Saturday I was getting pelted by what can only be described as a horizontal sleet storm, on Sunday it was 59 degrees with calm winds and a deep blue sky), we had a wonderful time in Nebraska and in many ways I am sad to leave.  I will miss you, Bobolink with the yarmulka.

Great bird.
Great bird.

I will miss you, humidity- and tick-free hiking.

Allison and Stella enjoying un-Missouri, tick-wise.
Allison and Stella enjoying un-Missouri, tick-wise.

I will miss you, freakishly polite populace (seriously, Nebraskans take the midwestern thing to a whole new level).

Nut-job Nebraska graduate student
Nut-job Nebraska graduate student

I will miss you, Nebraska.

Pheasants and the future of conservation

Last weekend I went pheasant hunting in southwestern Nebraska.  I hunt like I fish, which means that it’s the process rather than the results that matter most.  I am only a fair shot and I am usually caught woefully off guard when we flush a rooster, but walking through a grassland on a crisp, clear November morning, marveling at the dogs as they work, is immensely enjoyable for me.

The warm weather meant that the pheasants were free to leave the comfy confines of the grasslands and head to where the food was – wheat and milo fields:

A beautiful day in a very typical Nebraska landscape
A beautiful day in a very typical Nebraska landscape

Most wheat stubble is shorter than this, but Nebraska pays some farmers to keep stubble tall and to allow public access because taller cover benefits wildlife (read: pheasants) and because people like me like to shoot (at) pheasants.

As I walked through the wheat (non-native, monoculture crop) looking for pheasants (non-native, intensively managed species), I found myself wondering whether I was meeting and greeting the future of conservation.  What do I mean by that?  It’s not front-page news (unlike the mayor of Toronto, god bless his soul!), but there is currently a battle between “new conservationists” and the old-guard of conservation biology about how to define the goals of conservation science.  Here are some quotes* from a recent paper written by Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier (you can download it here), that summarize some key differences between classic and new conservation:

As a direct result of conservation, economic well-being has, in some instances, been harmed, and there are well-documented instances of human communities having been unjustly displaced and disrupted for the creation of protected areas. Clearly, conservation can also benefit people, but the fact that it may disadvantage them highlights the need for paying more attention to the nexus of conservation and human society.

Only by seeking to jointly maximize conservation and economic objectives is conservation likely to succeed. Win–win outcomes for people and nature are possible, and discovering their preconditions should be a focus of research.

Conservation will be a durable success only if people support conservation goals (i.e. broaden the concerns of conservation beyond biodiversity and also to pay attention to economic development, jobs, poverty, and environmental justice.

Our vision of conservation science differs from earlier framings of conservation biology in large part because we believe that nature can prosper so long as people see conservation as something that sustains and enriches their own lives. In summary, we are advocating conservation for people rather than from people.

Here are some components* from a response by Michael Soulé (you can download it here), founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and generally acknowledged father of the field.

New conservation promotes economic development, poverty alleviation, and corporate partnerships as surrogates or substitutes for endangered species listings, protected areas, and other mainstream conservation tools. Its proponents claim that helping economically disadvantaged people to achieve a higher standard of living will kindle their sympathy and affection for nature. Because its goal is to supplant the biological diversity–based model of traditional conservation with something entirely different, namely an economic growth–based or humanitarian movement, it does not deserve to be labeled conservation.

The key assertion of the new conservation is that affection for nature will grow in step with income growth. The problem is that evidence for this theory is lacking. In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction, in part because increasing incomes affect growth in per capita resource consumption. We also know that the richer nations may protect local forests and other natural systems, but they do so at the expense of those ecosystems elsewhere in less affluent places.

Other nettlesome issues are also ignored, including

  • Which kinds of species will persist and which will not if the new economic-growth agenda replaces long-term protection in secure protected areas?
  • Is it ethical to convert the shrinking remnants of wild nature into “gardens” beautified with non-native species?
  • Will these garden-like reserves, designed to benefit human communities, also admit inconvenient, dangerous beasts such as lions, elephants, bears, jaguars, wolves, crocodiles, and sharks?

The globalization of intensive economic activity has accelerated the frenzied rush for energy and raw materials and is devouring the last remnants of the wild, largely to serve the expanding, affluent, consumer classes in industrialized and developing nations. At current rates of deforestation, dam construction, extraction of fossil fuels, land clearing, water withdrawal, and man-caused climate change, it is expected that the 2 major refuges for biological diversity on the globe—the wet, tropical forests of the Amazon, and Congo Basin—will be gone by the end of this century.  Is the sacrifice of so much natural productivity, beauty, and diversity prudent, even if some human communities and companies might be enriched? No. The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.

Much like the authors of the papers, I am accentuating the differences rather than focusing on the similarities (and there are many) between “classic” and “new” Coke.  Conservation!  Classic and new conservation.  Regardless, as I mentioned in a previous post, 98% of tall-grass prairie in North America is gone.  >75% of mixed-grass prairie is gone, and most of what remains is intensively grazed by cattle.  The grasslands that I stomped around in with the dogs last weekend are tiny postage stamps of native species in a landscape dominated by wheat, milo, and pasture grazed so low it was more dirt than not.  And even those little patches are disappearing at an alarming rate in many areas in response to increased demand for federally subsidized ethanol.  With this in mind, I ask myself:  Are we are now at the point that we think using tax-dollars to pay farmers to manage crop fields as wildlife habitat is conservation?  Would Kareiva and Marvier and Emma Marris and others consider this to be a win-win situation for wildlife and people?  And if, pragmatically speaking, it is the best we can do, should we be satisfied?  When is it okay to let the interests of wildlife trump those of people? Would it be okay to displace 1 person to save a 1000 species?  1000 people to save one?

I dunno.  If you don’t either, I encourage you to read the two papers above.  I also encourage you to keep in mind that this is not merely an academic debate – Peter Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy.

*These are largely direct quotes, but I’ve slightly changed some wording and rearranged a few sentences to make the material more accessible for undergraduate students.   

Interpreting interactions in multivariate regressions

Warning: if you are not interested in data analysis, avert your eyes!  What follows could not be more boring.  It’s actually pretty boring to me, and I wrote it.

Lately I’ve been getting a fair number of requests to review papers.  The last three have made the same error regarding interactions in multivariate regression, so I thought I would write a quick note about it that my loyal reader(s) can share with their friends/students/enemies as need be (or correct me if I am wrong!).  Specifically, all three papers have interpreted the coefficients of the main effects and the interactions in a model, which is problematic in most cases.

Let’s consider an example.  Using data that are unfolding before me, let’s say you are interested in how affectionate domestic cats are in relation to ambient temperature.  You observe your study system intently and develop an a priori hypothesis that cats grow increasingly affectionate as it gets colder, but that this relationship disappears in the presence of a dog because they are too scared to be affectionate.  Your regression model should then look like this:

affection = temperature + dog_presence + temperature*dog_presence

Note that the main effects must be present in a model with an interaction to allow not just the slope, but also the intercept of the different “dog_presence” categories to vary  (looking at the figure it’s clear they shouldn’t have the same intercept).

The influence of temperature on a cat’s affection for me is mediated by the dog.

You run this data in a simple linear model and you get the following output:

Estimate          Std. Error        p-value

(Intercept)                           20.75000         1.38141           <0.001

temperature                       -0.20714          0.01802           <0.001

dog_presence                   -17.24286        1.95361           <0.001

temperature*dog            0.18000           0.02549          <0.001

All the coefficients are highly significant, but what does that mean?  When you have an interaction in a model, the coefficient of a main effect represents its effect on the response variable when the other main effect is set to zero.  So in this case, the coefficient for dog_presence represents the effect of a dog when temperature is zero, which is not even a case for which we have data.  As such, the value of the coefficient and its significance are not meaningful and so it should not be interpreted.  In retrospect this makes a lot of sense – when we include interactions we are explicitly assessing whether a covariate’s significance is conditional upon another covariate and so a single p-value can’t tell you whether the main effect is sometimes significant and sometimes not.  Even the p-value for the coefficient on the interaction term is not always meaningful, for similar reasons.  You can have an important interaction with a statistically insignificant interaction term.

It sounds as if there is no good way to evaluate the importance of a potential interaction, but that’s not the case.  You can compare models with and without interactions using AIC to determine whether the inclusion of an interaction is parsimonious.  In conjunction with that, you can and should produce plots of the marginal effects of each covariate across a range of biologically relevant values so a reader can get a sense of the strength of the interaction.  You can also further educate yourself on the matter so you are not relying on me as your guide to how to correctly analyze data (that could be dangerous).  I suggest the following paper, which was the basis for much of this post:

Brambor, T., W.R. Clark, and M. Golder. 2006. Understanding interaction models: improving empirical analyses. Political Analysis 14:63-82.


Conservation, sacrifice, and motivation

Albert Camus once wrote that the only serious question in life is whether to kill oneself.  Not the kind of guy you want to invite over for a dinner party, I’m guessing.  Regardless, I often think about that quote within the context of the inevitably conspicuous consumption that entails the modern lifestyle.  To kill oneself is the ultimate act of sacrifice for the committed environmentalist!

Okay, okay, that’s garbage.  But it gets me thinking, what kind of sacrifices do I really make in the name of our dear friend the environment, and what are my motivations?  Here is a hastily compiled list:

“Sacrifice”                                   Impact             Motivation

No children                                Huge                Don’t want kids.

Recycle                                        Minimal          For the environment!

A/C high, heat low                  Minimal          I am cheap

Ride my bike a lot                   Modest           Exercise

Don’t eat beef                           Modest           For the environment!

No McMansion                       Modest           Too much to clean/insufficiently rich

Try not to buy stuff               Modest           I hate stuff (except super cool stuff)

Do conservation research  Minimal          I like birds & being outdoors

Limit my travel                       Large               I don’t actually do this

Buy an efficient car               Modest           I didn’t actually do this

Keep my cats inside               Minimal          I don’t actually do this

Become a vegan                       Large               I don’t actually do this

Not terribly impressive!  The single best thing I do for the environment is motivated by the fact that I can barely handle a dog and two cats.  The two things I do specifically to benefit the environment are neither terribly important nor difficult, in my opinion (although I do miss a good steak).  I wholly ignore some pretty big ones.  What’s more, I would argue on a per capita basis, the world needs more rather than less resource consumption – who am I to tell a poor Somali/Bangladeshi/insert-impoverished-country-here family not to strive for a longer, easier, more secure life?

But the thing is, I don’t think I’m alone.  I think even people in my field largely do what they’d like to do, with environmentally friendly activities largely coincident with other motivations.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Am I wrong, my fellow professional ecologists/nature lovers/tree huggers?  What do you do on a personal level to ensure a sustainable future?  What are your motivations?  Are we like cops, who should hold themselves to a higher standard and drive the speed limit even when everyone else is going 5 mph over?  Do we?

I try not to eat her and her friends  (and not just because she's a dairy cow)
I try not to eat her and her friends (and not just because she’s a dairy cow) Picture courtesy of

The world’s most threatened biome is in your backyard

Last week I visited a Nature Conservancy prairie restoration site to help a graduate student in my lab find nests (fun!) and measure vegetation (no comment!).  From far away, the restoration sites didn’t look much different than your average cattle pasture:

tall grass

In fact, many of the restoration sites have cattle grazing on them.  But up close, the restoration sites were nothing short of spectacular:

Black-eyed susan
Black-eyed susan
Sensitive briar (don't be mean!)
Sensitive briar (don’t be mean!)
White sage and hoary vervane
White sage and hoary vervane (I think)

The diversity and beauty of the place was astounding (and the plant names great – I’m looking at you purple poppy mallow).  Today, Allison made me aware of a quote from Aldo Leopold:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.*

I, for one, feel no special need to live alone in a world of wounds, and it is in this spirit that I share the following fun facts with my reader(s):

  • 99% of North American prairies dominated by tall grasses are gone.  The vast majority have been converted to row-crop agriculture.  99 percent!  I leave you to do the math on how much is left.
  • >75% of North American mixed grass (i.e., tall and short grasses and flowering plants) prairies are gone.
  • The demand for “green” fuels such as ethanol has increased the profitability of growing corn.  As a result, 500,000 hectares of midwestern U.S. grasslands have been converted to row-crops in the last five years.
  • Grassland bird populations in North America have exhibited sharper declines than any other guild (~40% fewer birds in the past 40 years).
  • Temperate grasslands are the world’s most threatened biome.    More threatened than rain forests.  More threatened than any other biome.  And it’s right in your backyard.

Right in your backyard!  Did you know it?  Do you wonder why the complete demolition of an entire biome doesn’t make the news?  Do you wonder why you are probably more familiar with the plight of the California Condor than you are the plight of an entire biome?  Do you wonder if I’ll ever stop saying biome?

If you knew all of this, this wasn’t for you.  If you didn’t, welcome to a world of wounds.  A melodramatic phrase for sure.  But, as I said, 99%.  Surely a little melodrama is in order.

If you want to know more about grasslands, such as why cattle are a part of grassland restoration efforts, a good place to start might be here.  And because I worry that my professional melancholy is overly tiresome, I end on a positive note: grassland species have shown incredible resilience in the face of massive disturbance.  It’s not too late to protect prairies against even the weediest of weedy species:

For Scoe
For my friend Scoe

*Credit due to Katie Klymus for the quote!