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.
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.