Splat! Something pale brown and more or less liquid fell from the sky and landed on the page of my open notebook. It was the third of March and I was in Trujillo in Extremadura, Spain. Most of the day was behind us, the light was fading and we had just left the old Moorish castle that tops this ancient city. I looked up and the only birds in the sky were Pallid Swifts. One of them must have been the donor. One of them had gifted me some DNA. I just happened to have my notebook open at the right time.
I had been in Extremadura for three nights and was coming to the end of my short visit. This is a well known and highly acclaimed birding destination, and it hadn’t disappointed. Economically speaking, this is one of the poorer parts of Spain. Ornithologically speaking, it is one of the richest parts of Europe. This birding hotspot is southwest of Madrid and abuts the Portuguese border. It is twice the size of Wales, with monumental mountains, landscape-splitting river gorges, Holm and Cork Oak dotted dehesa, Mediterranean forest, and plains that are best avoided by the agoraphobic. It had been a very good trip. I had seen plenty of reasons to visit Extremadura. Let’s start with the raptors…
The Raptors of Extremadura
Raptors are one of the reasons birdwatchers come here. Our first day yielded 17 species before lunch, though admittedly, this was the combined count of two separate groups. Visit Monfragüe National Park, and it is very difficult to miss the Griffon Vultures. Monfragüe is Extremadura’s only national park and it spreads itself out to cover more than 18,000 hectares. It is part of a much bigger SPA (Special Protection Area – a Birds Directive designation) that exceeds 116,000 hectares. The Salto del Gitano viewpoint is where everyone goes to see the aerial goliaths that are Griffon Vultures. We went there on our first afternoon to stand and stare, at massive lumps of craggy sandstone rising up out of the Tajo River, and massive vultures. More than 100 pairs of Griffon Vultures breed in the immediate area. A sky splattered with floating Griffons is unlike anything you’ll see in the UK. A big one can have a wingspan of 265 cm. We saw 60 or more, many aloft, some on the rocks, and one on its nest, a messy, guano-spattered stick structure on a sandstone ledge. A Peregrine perched on a ridgeline tree and a Black Vulture on a distant nest added to the raptor spectacle. The Griffons come close too, and are big enough for the most inept bird photographer to have a go with. This is certainly not the only place where you will see Griffons. We saw more the next day, from the Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint overlooking the Gredos Mountains. I heard one here too – its call was like a saw ripping through wood. And then we saw more the next day, on the plains this time. They were easy birds to see, but this didn’t make them any less spectacular.
The Extremadura vulture list doesn’t stop at Griffons – it gets bigger, and smaller. Smaller means Egyptian Vulture, a bird whose wingspan peaks at ‘a mere’ 170 cm. A rocky river valley, complete with wild Olive trees, was the scene for our first encounter with this wedge-tailed vulture. Later, we saw another, on the ground on plains northeast of Trujillo, with Red Kites and Griffon Vultures a little beyond it, and also on the ground. A dead dog lay nearby. Egyptian Vultures are not picky eaters. Dead dog would be fine cuisine by their standards. Cow dung provides them with the carotene they need for their yellow faces. Elsewhere in the world they eat human excrement.
The big one of course, is Black Vulture. With a wingspan that can nudge three metres, this is the old world’s biggest bird of prey. BirdLife International have given it ‘near threatened’ status. It has a European population estimated at less than 2000 pairs, and most of these are in Spain. A Black Vulture’s pale legs are a very good fieldmark – you won’t see pale legs on a Griffon Vulture. I saw my first Black Vulture during a coffee break at a bar(!), but it wasn’t the last.
Spanish Imperial Eagle is even more rare, with a global population of around 600 birds or less. BirdLife International have classified this species as ‘vulnerable’, which is one notch up the threat scale from Black Vulture. We saw this iconic bird well from the Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint. First, a perched bird – big, with a massive beak, a very pale nape, and white frosting around the bend of its wing. I even managed to get a record shot of it. Later, two Spanish Imperial Eagles joined forces to mob a Griffon Vulture – that was something special. We saw another on day three.
And the bird of prey list doesn’t stop there… Short-toed Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle twisting in flight as it pursued pigeon for lunch, Red Kite, Black Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Marsh Harrier, Merlin, Kestrel, and Lesser Kestrel. To see this last one well, head to Trujillo. There aren’t many urban SPAs, but Trujillo is one of them because of its Lesser Kestrels. There’s a colony at the bullring. You can park nearby and watch Lesser Kestrels from the roadside. It’s a dapper falcon and is more agile in the air than ‘our’ Kestrel.
One highlight for me was my first Eagle Owl. Without our excellent guide we would never have seen it. It was sitting on a nest on a distant cliff ledge opposite the Portilla del Tiétar viewpoint. Martin Kelsey, our guide, knew exactly where to point the scope. Even so, I struggled to see the world’s largest owl species. I was the one in the group who needed extra help to see the bird. Eventually I got there, and when I did this giant among owls was bigger than I expected – even at that range.
The Spanish Plains
The plains are wide-open spaces with more birds to excite birdwatchers. Our first morning started on the plains. If you’re not used to seeing Corn Buntings in your neck of the woods, you’ll get used to it here. My notebook describes them as the ‘sound of the steppe’. The small, brown and streaky theme continues with the larks. Thekla Larks with their short, thick bill and, compared to Crested Lark, more Song Thrush-like breast spots. Crested Larks with their longer bill and smudgier breast streaking. Pot-bellied Calandra Larks, big, with dark underwings, and black breast sides. To my ear their song sounded like a varied Skylark. There’s lots of mimicry in a Calandra Lark’s song – we heard them do White Wagtail and Swallow.
To be honest, larks are not my favourite birds. Sandgrouse and Bustards are much more to my liking. Pin-tailed, Black-bellied, Great and Little, we saw them all. Little Bustard was the first to find its way into my notebook. Four males, though not in breeding plumage. Look for them in the longer vegetation – they like to hide. Pin-tailed Sandgrouse came next, three of them, with crow-like calls. Look for these on short vegetation – they like to see what’s going on. One on the ground showed us its chestnut breast band, before taking to the air, looking like a cross between a pigeon and a dashing falcon. Our closest encounter with this species was during the coffee break – but it was a stuffed one. Not the best way to see any bird, but as is often the case, the stuffed specimen looked smaller than my mental image of the size of this creature. If you’re wondering, a Pin-tailed Sandgrouse is the same size as a Stock Dove, not counting the Sandgrouse’s pin-tail that is.
Five Black-bellied Sandgrouse completed the Sandgrouse set. They are plainer than their pin-tailed relatives, and when on the ground, the black belly was almost shadow-like. They have a good bubbling call that these words don’t do justice to! Great Bustard proved the trickiest of the four. We didn’t see any on day one. On day two we saw less than one. On day three we headed to the Llanos (plains) de Zorita to have another go. It was 5 degrees C and misty, far from ideal for tracking down a Great Bustard. Sure enough, we didn’t see any. These are huge birds, but they had still eluded us. Later, we tried the Llanos north of Trujillo. There was no mist here, and finally, we saw two Great Bustards, quite distant, flying, proving that they can, even though they are on the edge of the flight-weight threshold. It wasn’t the best Great Bustard encounter ever. I didn’t get to hear them make their unabashed, schoolboy humour, farting noises. That’s one reason to return then. The other group of course had an excellent encounter with this fantastic bird.
The plains are also home to Great Spotted Cuckoos. These striking birds are brood parasites of Magpies. They eat caterpillars, and we saw one doing it. Tiger Moth caterpillars are their favourites – this bird can cope with seriously hairy food! Spanish Sparrows massed and chattered, a Hoopoe called, there was a Little Owl, and Iberian Grey Shrikes – dark pinkish underneath, with a prominent white eyebrow.
I also added a mammal to my life list. It wasn’t Iberian Lynx, Beech Marten or Genet, though any of those would have been good to see. It was an Iberian Hare, that revealed a very white undertail when it ran, and whose ears were very grey on the rear.
Other Birds in Extremadura
White Storks are easy to see here, but I have still not tired of seeing them. They are in Extremadura all year round with some on their nests in late December. Their nest sites include houses and pylons, but their habit of feeding their young on snakes means that they are not always popular as chimney nesters, especially when they drop their food… There are fewer Black Storks but we saw single birds on two of our three days in the field, a good bird – red-billed and dart-like in flight.
Azure-winged Magpie are an Iberian speciality. We saw them three days running, with my notebook entries peaking at 40+. But our best encounter was breadcrumb fuelled at a picnic site, where 10 or so whizzed in and out to grab an easy meal, making buzzy, electronic-like noises. They allowed a pretty close approach and a burst-mode of 12 frames per second enabled me to get some reasonable pictures – these blue-winged corvids were not loitering on the picnic table!
The Sierra Brava reservoir is a relatively recent discovery, but has more wintering duck than anywhere else in Spain, with the exception of Doñana and the Ebro Delta. The ducks spend the day roosting on the reservoir, and plunder the nearby rice fields under the cover of darkness. The rice fields attract wintering Cranes too, birds that used to gorge themselves on acorns in the dehesa. The Cranes are here in big numbers – the rice-growing region pulls in 30-40,000, with an additional 50,000 in the rest of Extremadura. That’s a lot of Cranes.
We missed it, but Black Wheatear is possible. We didn’t miss Blue Rock Thrush, a bird with a song that’s a Blackbird-Whitethroat hybrid. Purple Swamphen is a bit of a speciality too. A brief stop at Arrocampo Reservoir on our way back to the airport added this exotic creature to the trip list.
I could go on… Hawfinch, oily-green, brylcreem-soaked Spotless Starlings, Crag Martin, Serin, Black Redstart… I know those last two are common in mainland Europe but they are not birds we see very often on our island annex… there are lots of good reasons to visit Extremadura.
Travel Tips for Extremadura
Extremadura is a large region. The birding heartland is a triangle with Monfragüe, Trujillo and Cáceres as its corners. Most birdwatchers visit between the middle of February and late May, though a winter visit is an attractive proposition too – just imagine all those Cranes.
We flew in to Madrid, which is about two and a half hours by car from Trujillo. Alternatively, you could fly in to Seville, or Lisbon in Portugal. Once you’re in Extremadura, there are some great accommodation options, at attractive prices, and quality local guides if you don’t want to go it alone. Use the ‘Birding in Extremadura Club’ to put together these parts of your trip. It’s a new initiative bringing together a range of birdwatcher-relevant tourism operators. They have to meet a set of criteria to be part of the club and if what they offer isn’t deemed to be good enough, they won’t be allowed in. The club has produced a very helpful ‘Extremadura birding notebook’. It includes a checklist and notes pages, plus useful information about accommodation, guides, interpretation centres and tourist information offices. You can find out more about the ‘Birding in Extremadura Club’ on their section of the Birding in Extremadura website (www.birdinginextremadura.com). There’s more information about this new initiative on page xx too.
If you need to persuade a less bird-focussed companion to accompany you, try the landscape, food or culture approach – you know which one will work best. There are landscapes here that have hardly changed in centuries. Or, tempt their taste buds with talk of the local pork, hams, sausages, olives and olive oil, wines, cheeses and pastries. If it’s the culture line you need to use, the Roman sites at Mérida are a World Heritage Site. Mention Mérida’s Roman bridge. It’s the longest one in the world. Visit the bridge in spring and you could see three swift species while you’re there (Swift, Pallid Swift and Alpine Swift). Cáceres and the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe are World Heritage Sites too, and Trujillo Castle is worth a visit. But watch out for the Pallid Swifts.
If you have never been to Extremadura, it’s worth going – for vultures, for bustards, for sandgrouse, for eagles, for Lesser Kestrels, for mountains, for storks, for Azure-winged Magpies, for wide-open spaces, for Purple Swamphens. If you have been before, you know that it would be good to go again.
Thanks to Valentina Beteta at the Spanish Tourist Office and TurExtremadura (Extremadura Tourist Board) for organising this trip. Thanks to Karissa Winters, Macarena Esteban, Godfried Schreur, Martin Kelsey and Jesús Porras for all that they did to make the visit such an enjoyable one.