5 Great Places to Go Birdwatching in Extremadura

Egyptian Vulture image by Mike Watson.

Egyptian Vulture. As you’ll read below, I had a mesmerizing experience seeing this species from a crumbling castle in Villuercas Geopark. Image courtesy mikewatsonfoto.com.

My last post, “Birding Extremadura: It has always been Spain,” described what a great experience can be had while birding this beautiful and “birdy” region of Spain.  Now let’s focus on its spring birding.

We covered multiple sites per day over the course of nine days, which gave us a generous overview of the variety of Extremadura in early spring.  Of course, some sites were more exciting than others owing to the time of year and the overall “wow” factor that the birds and scenery provided. We wanted to linger at some sites and rush through a few others, but the timing of migration could change that from day to day.  Be sure to check with an informed guide (try a multi-lingual guide listed with the Birding in Extremadura Club) or other birders before you schedule your bird trip. My trip list is here: Extremadura Checklist.

I recommend the following five sites for birding and nature exploration in Extremadura. Each of the five can be found in “Extremadura Birdwatching Routes.” Some I chose based on the birding experience alone, others were chosen due their potential during crane migration season, while others were chosen for their blend of stunning scenery while birding.

Monfragüe National Park 

Salto de Gitano in Monfragüe National Park (image courtesy Extremadura Tourist Board)

Salto de Gitano in Monfragüe National Park (image courtesy Extremadura Tourist Board)

My notebook says it all: “Mind blown. Can’t stop smiling.”

Any visit to Extremadura should fit in a visit to Monfrague, the region’s only national park and one of the region’s many Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds. The park contains a large, wonderfully conserved Mediterranean forest with an impressive system of gorges carved by the rivers Tajo and Tiétar. Here, a large number of charismatic bird species nest in rocky cliffs. The most iconic and visually stunning outcrop is the Salto de Gitano, or Peña Falcon, which on any one day can be occupied by hundreds of Griffon Vultures and joined by numbers of Peregrine Falcon, Black Storks, (Eurasian) Black Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, and sometimes Eagle Owl.  The breeding success of most raptors in the park had grown in recent years and Peña Falcon is the most accessible place to see this in evidence. Here we also picked up small birds like Rock Bunting, Black Redstart, Short-toed Treecreeper, Winter Wren, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, and Crag Martin.

Sorting through hundreds of these dark, massive birds circling the rock hoping for a Golden Eagle was chaotic and exciting, and finding one was a thrill! Watching a Peregrine land on the rock and give good, long looks was great. Snapping close-ups of a nesting Griffon Vulture was fabulous. And watching the interplay between Griffon Vultures as they vied for space on the rock was just plain fun.

We also stopped at Portillo de Tiétar, a rocky cliff across the river Tiétar where we saw our first Spanish Imperial Eagles (a pair!) casually fly in front of the cliff and land in a tree, giving us good long looks. Earlier in the morning, a guide noticed an Eagle Owl land in a tree across the river, and while the bird was still there hours later, it was painfully hard to see. After an inordinate amount of instruction the rest of us got on the bird, and when we did – JEEPERS! This was one awesome bird! The Eagle Owl is one of the world’s largest owls; it has a wingspan of 5 to 6 ft and the female weighs from 3 to 9 lbs (males from 3 to 6 lbs). They eat a variety of birds and mammals, including everything from hedgehogs, hares, and foxes to corvids and grouse. Even Peregrine Falcons make their plate once in a while.

TIP: It can be overwhelming to sort out raptors on the wing at places like Monfragüe. Don’t be discouraged, just keep at it. The park and many other sites in Extremadura give you plenty of opportunities to gain experience with raptors. Do enough prior research so that you’re familiar with some of their distinguishing marks (e.g., wing shape and markings). Keep a cheat sheet in your pocket, test your assumptions, and confirm with your guide. I guarantee you’ll pick up more than a few by week’s end.

Bring your scope and tripod so you can see birds resting and nesting in the cliffs. Plenty of action to film or digiscope, as well. However, if the boardwalk at Peña Falcon is crowded you will have bear with camera shake.

ALSO VISIT: Stop at the Villareal de San Carlos Visitor Center to get oriented and tour the castle of Monfragüe. Check out the Extremadura Birdwatching Fair, which is headquartered here each spring.

Plains of Cáceres, Magasca, and Trujillo

The plains of Trujillo (image courtesy of Extremadura Tourist Board)

The plains of Trujillo (image courtesy of Extremadura Tourist Board)

Spanish Imperial Eagle and Eagle Owl for breakfast. Short-toed Eagle for lunch. Might we have Great Bustard for afternoon tea? — at Plains of Trujillo.”

Why yes, we can! That Facebook update describes our bounty as we moved from Monfragüe to the plains of Trujillo and surrounding areas.

Watching the raptors of Monfragüe is a thrilling experience, but the sublime pleasure of birding the sprawling steppes of Extremadura cannot be beaten. This route winds through gently rolling pastureland and dehesas and offers a full complement of steppe bird species, such as Calandra, Thekla, and Sky Lark (a winter resident), Corn Bunting, Spanish Sparrow, Red-footed Partridge, Hoopoe, Common Stonechat, Zitting Cisticola, Spotless Starling, Meadow Pipit (a winter/early spring resident), Southern Gray Shrike, Short-toed Lark, Black-eared Wheatear.

Here we also saw soaring Red Kites and hovering Lesser Kestrels, and caught glimpse of a distant (Eurasian) Black Vulture. Flock of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew over the steppes. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were likely present but out of sight. European Bee-eater had not yet arrived.

The stars of the steppes are the bustards. Leks of both Great Bustard and Little Bustard perform remarkable courtship displays in the grasslands. The Great Bustard, for example, fluffs its white underfeathers up so high that the bird nearly turns itself inside out.  We weren’t so lucky as to catch a bustard in display (best seen from mid-March to mid-April), so on a return visit I will plan a long day in the grasslands with bustards.

Once more, the history of this region is as fascinating as the birds. The region is connected by wide, dusty footpaths that were established by royal decree as Via Pecuarias (VPs), to protect shepherds from unfair taxation charged by wealthy landowners as livestock were transported to greener pastures. Today, these very footpaths serve as peaceful thoroughfares for hikers, birders, and other travelers.

TIP: Bring a good scope and catch bustard displays early in the morning from a high vantage point. Even in cool to moderate weather, heat haze at the horizon may impact your photography.

ALSO VISIT. Visit the Trujillo town center for a good meal and to buy local products. Scan the plains for marauding enemies from the Castillo de Trujillo.  Contemplate the legacy of a Spanish conquistador as you tour the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, the man responsible for conquering the Incas of Peru and founding Lima. Stay at the lovely Casa Rural del Recuerdo, which is owned by birding guide Martin and Claudia Kelsey.

Moheda Alta

Black Stork (Extremadura Tourist Board)

Black Storks are also common in the (Extremadura Tourist Board)

Moheda Alta lies at the eastern end of irrigated lands, used mainly for rice and maize cultivation in central Extremadura. This irrigated zone is the most important area for wintering Common Cranes in all of Extremadura and a major site for them in the Iberian Peninsula. In December 2013-2014, an estimated 128,000 cranes were counted in Extremadura. Roughly 80,000 of them wintered here, with the others in pockets dotted across the region. They spend the winters eating acorns felled in the dehesas and grains and cereal from stubble fields.

Moheda Alta has a lovely nature center dedicated to the cranes and we climbed a two-story overlook to scan the fields.  Most of the cranes had lifted just a few weeks before our trip but we it’s easy to imagine thousands of them feeding below. A handful were still present; we counted roughly 150 cranes along with Black and White Storks. If your timing is right, this location is a must-see for cranes.

TIP: Other local birds include Black-tailed Godwits on passage in the wetlands, and Zitting Cisticola, Cetti’s warbler, European Goldfinch, Spanish Sparrow, Corn Bunting, and in winter the area is good for harriers and Merlin.

ALSO VISIT: The Sierra Brava reservoir and the rice fields around Madrigalejo are often done in concert with Moheda. More than a hundred species can be seen in the varied habitats leading up to the reservoir.

Pico Villuercas (Villuercas Geopark)

Spain © Laura Kammermeier - 0994

This next site offers an excellent vantage point for watching migrating Common Cranes and a stellar, high-above-the-clouds experience.

Our guide scooped us up from the town of Guadalupe one morning and guided us through the Sierra de Las Villuercas, in the Villuercas Geopark, southeast of the province of Cáceres. This range is known for its Appalachian relief, a system of parallel valleys and mountain ranges with many folds, faults and residual rocky areas. The relief provides ideal nesting habitat for birds such as Griffon Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Black Stork, Egyptian Vulture, Eagle Owl, and more.

We motored to the crest of a Pico Villuercas, a 1,600-m mountain and the highest point in the Villuercas Mountains, where the remains of an abandoned military installation still stand. After filling out of the van, we stood in awe at the center of a circular helipad, looking in all directions on this marvelous sunny day.  We could see the Gredos mountains far to the north and the town of Guadalupe below.

The peak was enveloped in big, puffy white clouds, which made us all giddy, as if we were exploring the heavens. We let the scenery get the best of us, and soon all manners of selfies and group photos has been taken (“Wait, wait, one more!”).

Oh yes, the birds! If your timing is right, this is a great place to watch the great crane migration. Arrive here on a clear day in mid-February, and you could witness tens of thousands of cranes migrating at nearly eye level.  Yes, put it on your list. And bring your camera.

Meanwhile, Golden, Bonelli’s Eagle, Booted Eagle, and Short-toed Eagle are possible here, as well as species characteristic species of mountain scrubland and rocky outcrops, such as: Black Wheatear, Black Redstart, Dunnock, Alpine Accentor (in winter and early spring), Blue Rock Thrush and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, a rare breeder in the Villuercas (also common in the Gredos mountains). Alpine Swifts and Red-billed Chough also breed here.

TIP: If you visit in winter and Common Cranes top your agenda, contact any of the guides listed in Birding in Extremadura Club.

ALSO VISIT: Be sure to stop at the ancient “ice-making” structure nestled in the mountain called Pozo de las Nieves. This deep, circular well was filled with snowpack in winter in order to conserve food and medicines for the monastery and town of Guadalupe. Encountering the relics of medieval societies like this doubles the pleasure of birding.

 

Castillo de Cabañas (Villuercas Geopark)

Castillo de Cabañas © Laura Kammermeier - 0877

Castillo de Cabañas © Laura Kammermeier – 0877

This short but precarious hike is well worth the thrill and stellar views it provides from the top, and it gave us the best views of Egyptian Vulture we had all week.

The Cabañas del Castillo is a small village nested at the base of a rocky outcrop inside the Villuercas Geopark. The Castillo de Cabañas rests at the apex, at 1,100 meters. The hike to the castle starts in town and winds upward, eventually turning into a narrow path with loose stones and a serious drop (hint: surefootedness required!). Once you’re up here, though, the scenery is magnificent, the air is quiet and peaceful, and the birds are wonderful.

I laid on my back watching two Egyptian Vultures circle above, observing how sunlight filters through the white feathers of its tail and forewing. From that day on, I could not mistake an Egyptian Vulture from any distance and this singular moment is what puts this high on my lists of favorite sites. Other vultures, eagles, falcons, and species of rocky outcrops are possible here, such as Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Bunting.

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STOP HERE AND CLICK THIS LINK TO ENJOY 82 FRAMES OF EGYPTIAN VULTURE!

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This area marks one of the constantly shifting historical borders between the Arab and Christian peoples. Castles were built on well-placed strategic outposts like this and the borders were watched for advancing armies. They say a nobleman from Trujillo once resided in this castle, which is now nothing more than a picturesque but crumbling stone tower.  I don’t even want to think about how he carried his groceries up that hill.

TIP: Granted. The birding here requires a bit of good wind and good luck. Ask your guide. Good footware is a must; a hiking stick would be nice. This hike is short and “not a big deal” in terms of difficulty, but a mistake could be dangerous. It took us roughly 90 minutes for the leisurely round-trip hike. A scope is optional, but perhaps more of a burden than an assist.

ALSO VISIT: Enjoy the comforts of city life in nearby Mérida. Explore Roman ruins by foot in the afternoon. And spend the mornings birding from the Roman Bridge, the world’s longest extant Roman bridge. Here, we were able to pick up several new species, including Kingfisher (a mating pair!), Alpine Swift, Little Bittern, Purple Swamphen and Penduline Tit.

So there you have it, my favorite sites in Extremadura.

Martin Kelsey provided excellent guiding services in Extremadura.

Martin Kelsey provided excellent guiding services in Extremadura.

You might ask how my picks stack up to those recommended by an Extremadura bird specialist. So I asked Martin Kelsey to provide his top 5 sites, and while choosing was hard to do, these are his chosen five. Not surprising, there’s overlap.

    1. Monfragüe: Simply a must for year-round raptor experience.
    2. Plains of Cáceres, Trujillo and Magasca: This are encompasses a rich diversity of habitats that epitomizes Extremadura and some of its most emblematic species.
    3. Moheda Alta: Not just a winter treat for the thousands of cranes, but the walk through the dehesa woodland is very special at other times of the year.
    4. Alange and Mérida: Alange is the centre for swifts in Extremadura and the walk beside the crags is always rewarding. Follow this by superb urban birding from the Roman Bridge, right in the centre of Mérida.
    5. Villuercas Mountains: awesome scenery, successive bands of different types of woodland by altitude, great for birds, and superb for butterflies.

Runners up include Arrocampo Reservoir and  the Jerte Valley (Gredos Mountains).

 

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