The medieval village of Alquézar (Spain) is one of the most enchanting places earth. The village served as my basecamp for three days of birdwatching throughout the steppes of Aragon and the Pyrenees. In this magical region, I have never been so in awe of raptors and fallen so deeply in love with the greatly maligned and misunderstood vultures.
The abundance of birds and the grand scaffolding afforded by gorges, canyons, and rocky spires made me feel as though I was not merely watching birds, but allowed entrance into their ancestral homeland. In this area where birds greatly outnumber people, I was decidedly in their space, not they in mine.
In upcoming posts, I have many great birding stories to tell from the Aragon region. But first, let me tell you about the wonder that is Alquézar and the amazing luck I had there.
Alquézar is an ancient walled village located in Somontano County (“Comarca Somontano”), at the southeast corner of the scenic Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park, where raging whitewater spews through narrow gorges, vultures and eagles soar over forested slopes, and rock climbers test their luck on sheer limestone cliffs.
The name Somontano means “under the mountain,” as it is located at the foothills of the Pyrenees. The area’s hot dry summers and exposure to cool mountain winds have made Somontano one of Spain’s top producing wine regions (oenophiles may appreciate that the comarca was awarded the DO designation in 1984).
In the 9th century, Arabs had built a fort on top of the limestone peak pictured above, but that was eventually conquered and destroyed. In 1099, Christians began work on a castle-monastery that would take its place and the village of Alquézar grew around that center of worship and rule. Today, Alquézar is a beautifully intact village with cobblestone streets, arched stone doorways, and a selection of modern shops, restaurants, and hotels that do nothing to challenge its timeworn look.
I arrived at a lovely hotel in Alquézar well into the night, worn and weary from a long week’s birding and an awful cold. I was shown to a gorgeous tile-floor room with a small balcony where I could look out into the mesmerizing beauty of Alquézar at night.
Though dinner hour had long since passed, the owners were kind enough to fix me a late home-cooked meal of noodle soup, toast, and wine which in my state was the best meal in the world. I slept hard til the morning bell.
I had arranged to meet my bird guide, Juan Carlos Albero, at the “mirador” (scenic overlook) at Alquézar at the break of dawn in hopes of seeing a Wallcreeper, an enigmatic bird that had on more than one occasion kept my eyes glued with dizzying focus to miles of rock face.
Wallcreepers are a small blue-gray birds with crimson wings that nest in the high mountains (typically between 1,000 and 3,000 meters). They are exceedingly shy, hard to find birds and even thought to hide when sought. The birds are usually found hovering in front of a rock face, gleaning insects from tiny crevasses. Hence, they are sometimes referred to as the “Hummingbird of the Alps.” Even some experienced European birders have had to work hard and long to find this bird.
With these improbabilities in mind, I rose in the dark with equal measures of excitement and reluctance, gathered my gear, and headed out into the cool, and wonderfully silent, morning.
I followed the cobblestone road downhill and around a bend, until I stood at the foot of a deep limestone canyon cut by the Rio Vero, whose walls were awash in the peach tones of first light.
Juan was there and handed me a cup of steaming coffee. Just as I attempted to sit, drink and wait, Juan points to the left canyon wall and shouts “WALLCREEPER!”
I spilled my coffee and fumbled for my camera and binoculars. One, two, three…seven seconds later the bird was gone. Just gone. The fleeting glimpse in low light was painfully inadequate, but…I GOT WALLCREEPER! I remember seeing it work the stone, nothing more than a gray bird with wide, splayed wingtips fluttering against one of the caves. It shifted position, and flew up and over the canyon, not to be seen again.
We stood for more than an hour waiting for its return and as time went on, the pleasure of being in that space, having just been gifted with a Wallcreeper, grew larger and larger. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, and couldn’t thank Juan Carlos and my host Alba enough for bringing me to this special place.
I also could not believe my luck – I literally rolled out of bed, down the street, and into a Wallcreeper!
After all the hours I and others have spent searching for this bird, that it could be observed right here, in the Village of Alquézar over morning coffee, was more than I could grasp.
I cannot guarantee that you will be as lucky to see this secretive species on your trip to Alquézar, but I can guarantee you will never be so enchanted by a medieval village and so gifted by the possibilities of birding in this region. Nature and outdoor adventure (biking, hiking, canyoning, rock climbing, spelunking, paragliding) can be found in every direction, as well as superbly scenic views that will make photographers weak in the knees. There’s plenty to do your non-birding partner and the wine-infused romance will definitely filter into your veins.
So, if you won’t do if for yourself, do it for me. Go to Spain. Stay several nights in Alquézar. Heck, be flexible and stay until you see a Wallcreeper in the morning. By day, comb the steppes of Somontano for Great Bustard and Dupont’s Lark. Or hit the Pyrenees for intimate views of Egyptian Vultures, Golden Eagles, and Lammergeiers. You will not regret it. And take it from me, three nights is not nearly enough.
Stay tuned for more posts on this Pyrenees adventure, coming up soon.