Extremadura: The Cradle of Conquistadors, Bastion of Birding

The harsh environment of Extremadura was the cradle of the conquistadors, men who opened up a new world for the Spanish Empire. Remote before and forgotten since, Extremadura enjoyed a brief golden age when its heroes returned with their gold to live in splendor. Trujillo, the birthplace of Pizarro, and Cáceres were built with conquistador wealth, the streets crowded with an array of perfectly preserved and very ornate mansions of returning empire builders. Then there is Mérida, the most completely preserved Roman city in Spain, and the monasteries of Guadalupe and Yuste, the one fabulously wealthy, the other rich in imperial memories. Even the local eagles are imperial.

Extremadura is the best place in Western Europe for raptors (including Spanish Imperial and Bonelli’s Eagles, Cinereous, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, and Black-winged Kite) and for bustards (with good numbers of Great and Little present). As if that wasn’t enough, you could find some of Europe’s other most spectacular birds such as White and Black Storks, Eagle-owl, Roller and Iberian Magpie. All these are to be found against the backdrop of one of the wildest and therefore avian rich locations left in Europe, with its wide open semi-arid stony plains, hills and open Iberian Holm Oak woodland known as dehesa.

Griffon Vulture Spain © Laura Kammermeier - 1348

Griffon Vulture, Extremadura, Spain © Laura Kammermeier

In northern Extremadura, wild scenery and superb fauna abound at the Monfragüe National Park, where even the most casual birder can look up to see circling storks, vultures and eagles.  South of Plasencia a pair of dams, built in the 1960s, have turned the Ríos Tajo and Tiétar into a sequence of vast reservoirs. Monfragüe extends over 44,000 acres to either side of the Plasencia – Trujillo road; it’s an impressive sight and a favourable area for wildlife. Two sites that are not to be missed are the great crag known as the Peñafalcón, that houses a large colony of Griffon Vulture, and the Castillo de Monfragüe, a ruined castle high up on a rock with a chapel next to it. All manner of raptors drift by you at head height. Rocky outcrops such as these provide breeding sites for many of Extremadura’s birds of prey. Towards Trujillo, on the south side of the park, you pass through the dehesas, strange savanna-like plains, among the oldest woodlands in Europe. The economy of the dehesas is based on grazing and the casualties among the domestic animals keep the Monfragüe vultures well fed. Cereal crops compliment this agriculture and are suitable for Black-winged Kite.

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

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

Monfragüe is an outstanding site for raptors, with more than fifteen regular breeding species, including the world’s largest breeding concentration of Cinereous Vulture, a large population of Griffon Vulture, and several pairs of Spanish Imperial, Golden and Bonelli’s Eagles. Other breeding birds for which the park is noted are Black Stork and Eagle-owl and a high density of Iberian Magpie. It is also one of the few locations in Europe where White-rumped Swift breeds. This impressive cast of breeders is enlarged by Egyptian Vulture, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Orphean Warbler, Hawfinch and Rock Bunting – nearly all of which may be seen from the viewpoint El Salto del Gitano.

Lesser Kestrel, Extremadura, Spain © The Biggest Twitch

Lesser Kestrel, Extremadura, Spain © The Biggest Twitch

Between the two towns, the plains of Cáceres and Trujillo are an area of diverse habitats, including open plains, deep wooded river valleys and dehesa. As well as species like Great (a population of nearly 7,000) and Little Bustards, Black-bellied (rare with only 2,000 pairs) and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (best viewed in early morning or evening when they commute to a drinking source), the area is good for Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks, as well as birds of prey such as Black-winged Kite, Montagu’s Harrier, Short-toed and Spanish Imperial Eagles, and the globally endangered Lesser Kestrel (including a colony in Trujillo on the town’s bullring). The town itself is also an excellent place to watch Pallid Swift.

Egyptian Vulture image by Mike Watson.

Egyptian Vulture by Mike Watson.

Thirty kilometres southwest of Cáceres is the Sierra de San Pedro – an area of wooded hills and an important ecological area. It is a stronghold for such birds as Black and White Storks, Black-winged and Black Kites, Egyptian and Cinereous Vultures; Short-toed, Spanish Imperial, Golden and Booted Eagles, Peregrine Falcon and Eagle-owl. Photography hides are available to get you close to the action (www.photo-raptors.com). Iberian Magpies live in small groups in the woodlands here as they do everywhere in the region, though they are most gregarious outside the breeding season, when they form large flocks. The range also harbours an important bat population in abandoned mines.

Seventeen kilometres west of Cáceres is Los Barruecos Natural Monument. This is a spectacular natural creation – a unique undulating landscape dotted with lakes and enormous granite boulders. The site is well-known for its rock-nesting White Storks, but also provides a mixture of habitats such as scrub, pools and woodland which offer chances of seeing many other species including rarities. Red-necked Nightjar, Spotless Starling and Spanish Sparrow may all be found here too.

Forty kilometres to the southeast of Trujillo at Alcollarín is a newly-formed reservoir which attracts grebes, egrets and herons, overwintering Black Stork and waterfowl. Another reservoir lies sixty kilometres to the north of the city at Arrocampo. Fringed with vegetation, this bird-rich waterbody can produce Little Bittern, Squacco and Purple Herons, Western Swamphen, Penduline Tit and Black-winged Kite. The latter is a delightful little raptor that hunts and forages over the grasslands at dusk by hovering. Just southeast of Alcollarín reservoir lies Moheda Alta, amongst dehesa at the edge of irrigated rice fields, which holds important numbers of wintering Common Crane.

The town of Puebla de Alcocer, 100 kilometres southeast of Trujillo, has a hilltop castle providing impressive views across the plains of La Serena. The hilltop itself has Black Wheatear, as does Alange Dam near Merida (which is also good for Alpine Swift). Characteristic of rocky areas, the Black Wheatear decorates its nest site with dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of small stones. Its cousin the Black-eared Wheatear is also to be found within the region. A bit of height in Extremadura is useful for raptor spotting and one should keep an eye out for Red Kite, especially abundant in winter. La Serena and the Sierra de Tiros to the south are well-worth visiting for steppe birds.

Want more? One of Extremadura’s most characteristic species is Europe’s ‘other’ cuckoo, the Great Spotted Cuckoo, which parasitizes the nests of the Eurasian Magpie and other crows, instead of small birds. The aforementioned Roller is found widely where there are numerous nest boxes for this species. The Sierra de Gredos are just outside Extremadura, but worth an excursion to look for Citril Finch and Spanish Ibex. Rock Sparrow are common in many areas.

Extremadura is a precious remnant of the wild and untamed Spain of yesteryear. The modern world and its resultant agriculture continues its relentless ‘progress’ outside the confines of this beautiful region. It remains a place where bustards may still roam the steppes and where raptors may ride the thermals, safe from persecution. The ‘Land of the Conquistadors’ remains remarkably unconquered.

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Ed wishes to thank Karissa Winters and Vanesa Palacios from the Extremadura Tourist Board (www.turismoextremadura.com) for their generous hosting and Godfried Schreur (www.ecoturex.es) and Martin Kelsey (www.birdingextremadura.com) for their expert guiding. Mid-March to mid-April is the optimum time for displaying bustards (although they do display later). Mid-April is the peak time for flowers and mid-April to early June (especially late April to early May) are the best times for most birds.

Ed Hutchings

Born in East Anglia, but raised in the Arabian Gulf, Ed Hutchings was always going to have two things – itchy feet and an inquisitive mind. After leaving university with a degree in hospitality, he Read More