You don’t go there for the historic towns and quaint villages, because there are none. Frankly, the towns of the delta, with their concrete cubes and modern holiday developments, seem rather soulless when compared to many other offerings in the region.
You probably wouldn’t pitch up there for the fishing, although the River Ebro itself lures fishermen in search of the monster catfish called wels, that, since they were introduced to the river system, have grown to epic size feasting on native species.
No. You go to the Ebro delta for the birds. Lots of birds. Birds in numbers and diversity unlike anything you’re going to encounter in all but a couple of other places in the Western Mediterranean. There are about 600 species of birds in Europe – the Ebro delta holds roughly 350 of them.
The Ebro drains much of north-east Spain, and over eons sediment has created a roughly triangular delta that stretches about 20 km into the sea.(The town of Amposta, lying about 18 km inland from the current mouth of the river, was a seaside port in the 4th century.) Much of the delta was designated a Parque Natural in 1983, and although most of original vegetation has disappeared under rice cultivation, the paddies provide rich habitat for a wide range of birds.
One our first trip to the delta we turned off the highway, drove through the town of Carmarles, and were immediately beset by birds. The car was in an uproar – Bird of prey! Egrets! Heron! Glossy ibis! – and we were in imminent danger of driving into the irrigation canals flanking the road since my eyes were flying all over the place. We pulled over.
In that very first rice field – recently harvested – there were maybe a half dozen grey herons, twenty or so egrets – little egrets, cattle egrets, and great egrets – a handful of glossy ibis, a flock of lapwings, and countless gulls of at least 3 species. A marsh harrier glided overhead. It was going to be a good trip.
Your first stop when the reach the delta (after all of the stops you make along the way to photograph birds) should probably be the information center in Deltebre (Carrer Doctor Marti Buera 22) for a good map of the area. The delta is poorly signposted and the intricate network of roads is bewildering. You will get lost. Don’t worry about it – there are birds everywhere.
Where to go:
On the north side of the delta:
The Punta del Fangar is a long spit of sand backed by dunes. In summer there are large numbers of breeding terns and gulls here, and in winter you’ll probably spot mergansers and grebes on the bay. Trouble is, you’ll have to do your best to ignore the masses of plastic strewn everywhere. Jetsom just ain’t what is used to be, and it can be depressing to see protected breeding areas covered in discarded bottles and old flip-flops.
El Canal Vell has a mirador on the southern shore, and is a good place to spot flamingos, little bitterns, and marsh harriers.
El Garxal is an area of dunes at the mouth of the Ebro. It has two hides overlooking a shallow sea lagoon and a high tower near the river. Red-crested pochards sometimes gather there in large numbers, and at times of migratory passage it can be excellent (I’ve read) for ducks, waders, terns and gulls. In our three visits there we’ve never seen much, but maybe we’ve just been unlucky.
On the south side:
The south side of the delta, for us, has been much more productive.
Riet Vell/SEO Birdlife is an organic rice cooperative that has an interesting information center/shop (the rice is excellent) and a hide that overlooks an 11 hectare lagoon. It’s a good spot for all kinds of birds, and the 50 hectares of organic rice fields seem to hold larger numbers of birds than conventional ones elsewhere.
La Tancada is a large lagoon next to extensive salt flats, and the hide on the western side is a good place to spot flamingos and waders such as black-winged stilts and plovers. While you’re in the area, the MonNatura Delta de L’Ebre is worth a visit. While the 8 Euro (4 for kids) admission price is a bit steep, MonNatura gives an insight into the traditional salt-harvesting and fishing on the delta, as well as bird watching. There are boats for punting on the lagoon and a 360 degree observatory with telescopes. A great place to see flamingos.
The largest lagoon on the delta, L’Encanyissada, also harbors perhaps the largest number of species. You’ll get all the usual suspects, along with purple herons, overwintering great bitterns, and squacco and night herons. There are five miradors and hides along the perimeter, and it’s possible to walk (or bike, as we did) a loop around the entire lagoon.
Where to stay:
There are a lot of accommodations in Sant Carles de la Rapita, which, although a rather uninteresting town, offers good access to the south side of the delta. The harbor is attractive, and boat excursions to the mussel beds are available.
Deltebre makes a reasonably good base, as you have access to the north side of the delta and the bridge to the south side is there as well. That said, it’s ugly. But if you’re interested, the town’s tourism website has lots of listings.
For my money, you want to stay in Poble Nou del Delta. Although tiny (population roughly 250), Poble Nou has a couple of hotels, lots of private houses and rooms to rent, and several very good restaurants. It’s also probably the most attractive town in the delta. Escapadarural has quite a few listings, as does Toprural. As always, Booking.com and Airbnb are useful websites. The great thing about Poble Nou is that you’re right in the thick of the action, on the edge of L’Encanyissada lagoon and a short walk to a very productive mirador. You can get in some early morning or sunset bird watching 5 minutes from where you’re staying.
Where to eat:
We’ve eaten at some very forgettable restaurants in Sant Carles de la Rapita and on the north side of the delta, but here are my picks of places where you simply can’t go wrong.
Lo Pati D’Agusti was recommended to us by the owner of the place where we were staying. Really friendly staff, really nice food. The boys had two different octopus dishes, and both remarked that it was some of the best octopus they’d ever had. I took their word for it.
C’al Faiges is a large, loud, very popular place on the edge of Poble Nou. Its extensive menu focuses on typical delta cuisine, with heavy emphasis on seafood. Quite good.
Nit i Dia (Night and Day) is a tiny, more upscale restaurant with a pleasant outdoor courtyard. The boys go mental for the mussels, and I can vouch for the confit of duck with prunes and pears. We eat here every time we’re in the delta.
Restaurant Casa de Fusta L’Estany is a great place to take the kids. The food is good-quality delta cuisine, but what makes this place cool are all of the amenities. It has a large mirador overlooking the lagoon, a frog-filled pond and canal, an extensive collection of live birds, and boats and bikes for hire. Here’s a tip. Take the dirt road immediately opposite the entrance to the restaurant, the one that is marked for pedestrians and bikes only. Walk over the short bridge and turn immediately to your right onto a short dead-end dirt road. At the end of the road you’ll see several large trees on the right side of a canal. In those trees will be many, many black-crowned night herons. Photograph them.
- Top Tips:
Between January and March the rice fields are at their driest, so bird life is focused on the lagoons and salt marshes.
- Summer gets busy, but if you avoid weekends and go during the week you’ll have the place largely to yourself.
- Bring insect repellent. The delta is, after all, largely covered in standing water. Mosquitoes abound.
- Either bring or rent bikes. The delta is, of course, mostly flat, and biking is an easy and efficient way to cover lots of ground.
- Dress is somber colors, be very, very quiet, and have patience.
- If there are specific species you’re targeting, figure out if they’re going to be there in that season. You want collared pratincoles? If you go in the winter you’re screwed. Looking to see eiders and velvet scoters? Winter is your only chance.
The delta, of course, isn’t just about birds – there is lots of other wildlife, including several species of frogs, four species of snakes, marbled and palmate newts, turtles, tortoises, foxes, badgers, boars and bats.