If we had to list our favourite countries in Europe, Spain would be a prime contender for Number One. Quite simply, it’s got the lot! With landscapes that vary from the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees that pierce through their snowy mantle, vast rolling plains of grassland that ripple like ocean waves in the breeze, and wetlands that are crisscrossed like a chequerboard with creeks and pools oozing with life, you can imagine how this is a country jam-packed with treats for the nature lover. With a huge variety of resident and migratory birds, there is plenty to see in all seasons, and some very charismatic mammals too if you know where to look. Add to that a pleasant climate and superb food and wine, not to mention aeons of culture, it’s definitely a top destination in Europe.
In fact, Spain’s problem is possibly that it’s too good! There is so much to see in a country that measures around half a million square kilometres that it’s hard to know where to start. If you had a month to spend exploring one country, you might be able to do it justice but realistically we’d recommend tackling it in bite-size chunks, getting to know and love Spain one mouthful at a time. We’ll cover what we believe are the best areas for birding over time, but the first bite we’d take would be the wonderful, dramatic and extraordinary region of Extremadura.
Extremadura – raptors, bustards and conquistadores
This fascinating area of Spain is a convenient two-hour drive from Madrid but is often overlooked by visitors rushing past on their way to better-known Andalucía. It’s a harsh, rugged area that was the birthplace of those early Spanish adventurers who explored the globe in the 16th Century adding to the country’s empire and wealth. Some of that former wealth can be glimpsed in the ornate mansions and churches that huddle in the preserved town of Trujillo, which makes an excellent base for exploring this region. However it is mainly the wildlife that attracts nature lovers to stay in this fascinating area.
Monfragüe, a raptor paradise
Visit the 18,000 hectare protected Parque Natural de Monfragüe and you enter a raptor paradise. The landscape is a dramatic mix of deep gorges carved by the rivers Tiétar and Tajo, oak woodlands and open scrubland. Here you are may have a close encounter with Black Vultures, Griffon Vultures and Egyptian Vultures as they cruise past the dramatic face of the Peña Falcon Cliff, and this is also a good place to look for Bonelli’s Eagles and the rare and endemic Spanish Imperial Eagle. This is the only place in Western Europe where Black Storks breed, and with luck you may encounter Europe’s largest owl, the Eagle Owl, here. If you prefer your birds on the smaller scale, there’s plenty here to catch your eye such as perky Crested Tits and badger-faced Rock Buntings.
Rolling grasslands, home to bustards great and small
As a complete contrast, the rolling steppe grasslands around Trujillo offer the perfect home for some of this region’s other charismatic species. Top of most visitors’ wishlist is the incredible Great Bustard. These turkey-sized birds patrol the open grasslands in flocks of up to 40 birds at a time. Impressive enough you might think, but the males have a particular trick up their sleeve. In order to attract the females of their harem in spring, the males seem to turn themselves inside out transforming from a brown bird into a large white puffball, enough to turn a girl’s head! Little Bustards are also found here, smaller cousins which lurk amongst the grasses making distinctive raspberry-blowing calls before popping up their heads like periscopes. As if that’s not enough, gorgeously-marked Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse also make this their home, and in winter, Common Cranes can be added to the mix.
In the picturesque towns and villages, the church towers and castle walls are topped in spring with nesting White Storks, the percussive clacking of their bills resounding across the rooftops. Noisy gangs of flighty Azure-winged Magpies play out their busy lives in the trees, while Little Owls perch statue-like on the corners of barn roofs. In spring and summer, larksong fills the air over the beautiful wildflower meadows as Skylark, Calandra and Thekla Larks vie to outdo each other in the musical stakes, and opportunistic Great Spotted Cuckoos and Lesser Kestrels keep a watchful eye on the scene.
As your destination for a shorter break of five days for example, or as part of a longer tour of Spain, Extremadura comes very highly recommended. And if you’ve already visited it in spring, why not take another look in autumn or winter to see a different side of this intriguing region. Just be warned, however, once you open this particular Pandora’s box, you may find that visiting Spain is addictive.