Birding Extremadura: It has always been Spain

Editor’s note: While the experience of birding in Spain was top-shelf, the experience of being in Spain was much more. Let me set the stage…

It has always been Spain.

When I was in high school Spanish, trying to emulate Ms. Judy’s pretty red lips as she explained how c was pronounced ‘th’, it was Spain.

When I was nearing 40 and thrashing in a midlife crisis, looking for a place to stretch my ambling soul, it was Spain.

And now, as I thumb the first “Madrid-Barajas” stamp in my passport, it is still Spain.

Before, Spain beckoned me for reasons unknown, probably for reasons embedded in its seductive language. Perhaps much of my desire was coiled up in the magic of an expertly rolled r.

And now, even as I am firmly planted back in New York, part of me is still moving through Spain, blowing in the dehesa winds, walking on ancient footpaths, clicking my heels on cobblestone, banking around the sunlit corners of deep canyons, and resting at night with vultures in karstic caves.

Little Bustard is a most-wanted bird for Spain. Photo © Mike Watson
Little Bustard is a most-wanted bird for Spain. Photo © Mike Watson
Little Bustard is a most-wanted bird for Spain. Photo © Mike Watson
Our merry band of 24 bird guides, travel writers, and travel agents scanned the skies 24/7.
Our merry band of 24 bird guides, travel writers, and travel agents scanned the skies 24/7.
Our merry band of 24 bird guides, travel writers, and travel agents scanned the skies 24/7.
Dehesas, or wooded pastures, are typical of Extremadura. Cows, sheep, Iberian black pigs, and goats are typically raised. © Courtenay Willis
Dehesas, or wooded pastures, are typical of Extremadura. Cows, sheep, Iberian black pigs, and goats are typically raised. © Courtenay Willis
Dehesas, or wooded pastures, are typical of Extremadura. Cows, sheep, Iberian black pigs, and goats are typically raised. © Courtenay Willis
More sprawling dehesa, typically composed of Holm oaks.
More sprawling dehesa, typically composed of Holm oaks.
More sprawling dehesa, typically composed of Holm oaks.
Peña Falcon, or Salto de Gitano, is Monfragüe’s number one site for raptor watching. Here we saw 300 Griffon Vultures, a few Black Vultures, one or two Egyptian Vultures, a single Peregrine Falcon, Black Kites, as well as Rock Bunting, and Short-toed Treecreeper.
Peña Falcon, or Salto de Gitano, is Monfragüe’s number one site for raptor watching. Here we saw 300 Griffon Vultures, a few Black Vultures, one or two Egyptian Vultures, a single Peregrine Falcon, Black Kites, as well as Rock Bunting, and Short-toed Treecreeper.
Peña Falcon, or Salto de Gitano, is Monfragüe’s number one site for raptor watching. Here we saw 300 Griffon Vultures, a few Black Vultures, one or two Egyptian Vultures, a single Peregrine Falcon, Black Kites, as well as Rock Bunting, and Short-toed Treecreeper.
Observation deck at Peña Falcon in Monfragüe National Park.
Observation deck at Peña Falcon in Monfragüe National Park.
Observation deck at Peña Falcon in Monfragüe National Park.
Vultures circling near the top of Peña Falcon
Vultures circling near the top of Peña Falcon
Vultures circling near the top of Peña Falcon
Everywhere, a congress of vultures convenes.
Everywhere, a congress of vultures convenes.
Everywhere, a congress of vultures convenes.
Griffon Vulture are among my favorite birds.
Griffon Vulture are among my favorite birds.
Griffon Vulture are among my favorite birds.
Eurasian Black Vultures are distinct from American Black Vultures. Photo © Mike Watson.
Eurasian Black Vultures are distinct from American Black Vultures. Photo © Mike Watson.
Eurasian Black Vultures are distinct from American Black Vultures. Photo © Mike Watson.
Being surrounded by so much rolling, unspoiled land was a simple luxury.
Being surrounded by so much rolling, unspoiled land was a simple luxury.
Being surrounded by so much rolling, unspoiled land was a simple luxury.
Vías Pecuarias, or VPs, are ancient footpaths established by royal decree for safe livestock transport through the region. Today, they make excellent birding routes.
Vías Pecuarias, or VPs, are ancient footpaths established by royal decree for safe livestock transport through the region. Today, they make excellent birding routes.
Vías Pecuarias, or VPs, are ancient footpaths established by royal decree for safe livestock transport through the region. Today, they make excellent birding routes.
Calandra Lark are often found singing over the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Calandra Lark are often found singing over the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Calandra Lark are often found singing over the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Great Spotted Cuckoo, a brilliantly spotted bird also found in the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Great Spotted Cuckoo, a brilliantly spotted bird also found in the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Great Spotted Cuckoo, a brilliantly spotted bird also found in the steppes. Photo © Mike Watson.
Great Bustard
Great Bustard

Great Bustards are a sought-after species. Observing a male turn itself “inside out” is spectacular (though I missed this!).  Photo © Extremadura Tourism.

Great Bustard
In Trujillo, as everywhere, history is underfoot and begs to be understood. Castles are situated on every high vantage point in the region.
In Trujillo, as everywhere, history is underfoot and begs to be understood. Castles are situated on every high vantage point in the region.
In Trujillo, as everywhere, history is underfoot and begs to be understood. Castles are situated on every high vantage point in the region.
Scattered remains of stone buildings dot the landscape.
Scattered remains of stone buildings dot the landscape.
Scattered remains of stone buildings dot the landscape.
Thekla Larks are often found in open hillside and mountain terrain with scrub and bushes.
Thekla Larks are often found in open hillside and mountain terrain with scrub and bushes.
Thekla Larks are often found in open hillside and mountain terrain with scrub and bushes.
Rocky outcrops that jut from the sprawling steppes provide fantastic habitat for nesting eagles, vultures, and more.
Rocky outcrops that jut from the sprawling steppes provide fantastic habitat for nesting eagles, vultures, and more.
Rocky outcrops that jut from the sprawling steppes provide fantastic habitat for nesting eagles, vultures, and more.
The town of Guadalupe, built around its famous monastery, was my favorite historic village. Cafes serve strong coffee, shops serve locally produced food, and libidinous White Storks cluck from atop clay-tiled roofs.
The town of Guadalupe, built around its famous monastery, was my favorite historic village. Cafes serve strong coffee, shops serve locally produced food, and libidinous White Storks cluck from atop clay-tiled roofs.
The town of Guadalupe, built around its famous monastery, was my favorite historic village.  Cafes serve strong coffee, shops serve locally produced food, and libidinous White Storks cluck from atop clay-tiled roofs.
Whether or not you are Catholic, a professional tour of Santa María de Guadalupe Monastery MUST be in your itinerary.
Whether or not you are Catholic, a professional tour of Santa María de Guadalupe Monastery MUST be in your itinerary.
Whether or not you are Catholic, a professional tour of Santa María de Guadalupe Monastery MUST be in your itinerary.
Extremadura is…Iberian ham, artisan cheese, local wine, ripe olives, oranges, and almond trees…
Extremadura is…Iberian ham, artisan cheese, local wine, ripe olives, oranges, and almond trees…
Extremadura is…Iberian ham, artisan cheese, local wine, ripe olives, oranges, and almond trees…
This boutique vintner works with tempranillo, Extremadura’s specialty, as well as grenache and other grapes. If you find a bottle of Madre de Agua by Bodega Toribio – you will thank me.
This boutique vintner works with tempranillo, Extremadura’s specialty, as well as grenache and other grapes. If you find a bottle of Madre de Agua by Bodega Toribio – you will thank me.
This boutique vintner works with tempranillo, Extremadura’s specialty, as well as grenache and other grapes.  If you find a bottle of Madre de Agua by Bodega Toribio – you will thank me.
An abundance of olive trees of many varieties ensures you get a plateful of fresh olives at each meal. Save room in your bag for a locally pressed olive oil.
An abundance of olive trees of many varieties ensures you get a plateful of fresh olives at each meal. Save room in your bag for a locally pressed olive oil.
An abundance of olive trees of many varieties ensures you get a plateful of fresh olives at each meal. Save room in your bag for a locally pressed olive oil.
The snow-capped Gredos mountains range in the background
The snow-capped Gredos mountains range in the background
The snow-capped Gredos mountains range in the background
Rice fields are an integral habitat for cranes, storks, and shorebirds; days before this field was teeming with 30,000 cranes.
Rice fields are an integral habitat for cranes, storks, and shorebirds; days before this field was teeming with 30,000 cranes.
Rice fields are an integral habitat for cranes, storks, and shorebirds; days before this field was teeming with 30,000 cranes.
This abandoned military installation where we stand, at 1,600 meters, is a fantastic place to watch cranes as they migrate through at eye level.
This abandoned military installation where we stand, at 1,600 meters, is a fantastic place to watch cranes as they migrate through at eye level.
This abandoned military installation where we stand, at 1,600 meters, is a fantastic place to watch cranes as they migrate through at eye level.
A small nature center in Puerto Peña serves as a good base for a hike into the mountains for Alpine Chough, Black Stork, Common Crane, Egyptian Vulture, and more.
A small nature center in Puerto Peña serves as a good base for a hike into the mountains for Alpine Chough, Black Stork, Common Crane, Egyptian Vulture, and more.
A small nature center in Puerto Peña serves as a good base for a hike into the mountains for Alpine Chough, Black Stork, Common Crane, Egyptian Vulture, and more.
Castle of Cabañas, Villuercas Geopark.
Castle of Cabañas, Villuercas Geopark.

A short, challenging hike to the Castle of Cabañas provided close views of Egyptian Vultures circling overhead.

Castle of Cabañas, Villuercas Geopark.
Brandishing binoculars rather than swords, people find new use in castles birding observation decks.
Brandishing binoculars rather than swords, people find new use in castles birding observation decks.
Brandishing binoculars rather than swords, people find new use in castles birding observation decks.
Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian Vulture

This is a rapidly declining species now on the endangered species list. Threats include loss of ungulates in its range, poisoning of animal carcasses near its breeding grounds, powerline collisions, and use of diclofenac. Source: The Worlds Rarest Birds, Hirschfeld, et. al. (2013). Photo © Mike Watson.

Egyptian Vulture
Here at Arrocampo Reservoir, we saw Green and Common Sandpiper, White Heron, and both Common and Azure-winged Magpies. Regrettably, we missed Bee-eater by a matter of hours!
Here at Arrocampo Reservoir, we saw Green and Common Sandpiper, White Heron, and both Common and Azure-winged Magpies. Regrettably, we missed Bee-eater by a matter of hours!
Here at Arrocampo Reservoir, we saw Green and Common Sandpiper, White Heron, and both Common and Azure-winged Magpies. Regrettably, we missed Bee-eater by a matter of hours!
Next time you hear the expression that “a stork delivered a baby,” think White Stork.
Next time you hear the expression that “a stork delivered a baby,” think White Stork.
Next time you hear the expression that “a stork delivered a baby,” think White Stork.
Tens of thousands of Common Cranes pluck these fields during winter and depart en masse come spring.
Tens of thousands of Common Cranes pluck these fields during winter and depart en masse come spring.
Tens of thousands of Common Cranes pluck these fields during winter and depart en masse come spring.

Traveling anywhere as culturally enlightened and historically accomplished as Spain was bound to be interesting, but birding in this country revealed an added dimension that my younger self could never have imagined. The story of this country, as told through its magnificent birdlife viewed in an ancient and largely untouched landscapes, was positively enchanting.  So after feasting my eyes on birds and swallowing chunk after chunk of history, culture, food and nature in one amazing holiday, I left corpulent with pleasure, wanting more.

Most of my trip centered on Extremadura, an underpopulated region of Spain with a pastoral landscape that has changed little in hundreds of years. Visually, the picture of Extremadura changes from sprawling hectares of dehesas (woodland pastures), to wide open grassland steppes, to tracts of vineyards and small villages to medieval towns with a complex history of war and ownership, all of which is reflected in the surviving architecture and in its castillos (castles) and fortresses. The snow-capped Gredos mountain range flanks Extremadura to the north, and every so often an isolated mount emerges from the steppes. These small, rocky mountains forming excellent substrate for nesting birds, such as for vultures and eagles at Monfragüe, Extremadura’s flagship national park.

It was early spring (Feb 26 – March 6), and Extremadura was a rolling carpet of green – a sharp contrast to the desert browns that will appear in August. Crested and Calandra Larks sang over tall grasses, Great and Little Bustards strutted through reeds, and gorgeous Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew in unison over the plains.

In the dehesas, social flocks of Azure-winged Magpie searched for insects at the base of holm oaks while Red Kites, Lesser Kestrels, and Common Buzzards scanned for prey overhead. Here, the sweet sound of trembling leaves and the gentle clang of sheep bells was an omnipresent soundtrack.

In the villages, House Martins, House Sparrows, and White Storks made use of eaves, chimneys, towers, and utility polls while union men in colorful jumpsuits cleaned the streets of last evening’s litter.

And in the rocky crags of Monfragüe, charismatic raptors (vultures, eagles, falcons, and buzzards) were so plentiful that it was easy to see why this park is a registered UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

As I traveled Extremadura, I felt like I was in a tranquil paradise, a place I could explore and fit into for awhile if I only I’d stay longer. The birding was extremely exciting and productive, even though we were a bit late for Common Crane migration and a bit early for Rollers and Bee-eaters. Every day was filled with comfortable drives through picturesque landscapes where we viewed scores of raptors, stout grassland birds, beautiful passerines, and a great cast of long-legged waders.  But more than that, our lifers were stitched together by wine-infused lunches, early evening tours of historical villages, monasteries, ancient Roman ruins, and followed by a three-course dinner with local wine, meats, and cheeses.

Not everyone travels through Spain this way…nor can. But I must say that if you can, you must! It would be a pity to breeze through Spain on tour, picking up lifer after lifer but leaving so much behind. Spain is a place you must linger, a destination to cultivate in more than one visit, if only to ensure you find all the birds, explore the towns, savor the wine, sample the food, and taste the language. And by all means, bring your camera. You will want to capture all of it and bring it home with you.

It was always Spain, and now I know why.

***

Stay tuned for more. Thanks to Birding in Extremadura for sponsoring my stay and to Courtenay Willis and Mike Watson for sharing their photos.

Laura Kammermeier

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network. She is a writer, website producer, traveler, birder and a birding/nature travel consultant. Laura has traveled Uganda, Europe, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Israel, and throughout the United States Read More

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  • @CharlieBeau Diary of a Muzungu | Uganda travel blog March 27, 2014, 03:23

    You made me miss Europe, Laura! Much as I love Uganda and East Africa’s spectacular wildlife, I miss the built environment (and the food of course!)
    I’ve really loved birding in southern Portugal too and seeing the beautiful Hoopoe flying across the road. I remember my grandfather telling me how these exotic birds used to be seen in the UK.

    Reply
  • Laura Kammermeier March 27, 2014, 08:13

    Hey Charlie!

    Good to “see” you here – thanks!

    It’s interesting what you say about missing the built environment. As much as I long to be away from the built environment and into nature, I suppose I’d miss the comforts, too.

    I do love the Hoopoe, and like you saw it fly across the road a few times, and one morning woke to it singing from an almond tree at sunrise. But I never did get cracking looks. Hope to revisit and do that someday.

    Cheers! Laura

    Reply
  • Frank Mantlik March 28, 2014, 18:23

    Hi Laura,
    I enjoyed reading your personal, well-written comments about the recent trip to Extremadura, Spain. I was glad to have been there as well, to have met you, and to have shared the experiences. Not knowing what to expect, I was very pleasantly surprised by what we encountered: 110+ species of birds (21 lifers), great scenery, delicious food (Iberian cured ham at every meal), Martin Kelsey’s bird-guiding and Marco’s village historical walks.
    I WILL return someday, hopefully with my own tour group.
    Frank,
    Sunrise Birding

    Reply
    • Laura K April 1, 2014, 15:20

      Frank!

      What a trip, eh? It was great to share it with someone who was as impressed as me. Thanks for sending me your Flickr URL, you take some really great photos. Send me note when your Spain set goes up and stay in touch!

      Laura

      Reply