This blog post summarises a week long visit to Extremadura, Spain during the early spring of 2015. We travelled with Naturetrek and had a fantastic time immersed in the landscape, the history and of course the wildlife. The impressions are my own. You can read much more about this in Martin Kelsey’s profile and his blog. Visit if you can – take it from me you will not be disappointed.
Central Extremadura is a country of gentle rolling steppe, where the short grass somehow finds sufficient nutrients from the shallow sandy soil to coat the land in pleasant green. The landscape is broken every so often by isolated hills, atop which, more often than not, an ancient castle will perch, commanding the view for miles around. Much of the lowlands is given over to open woodland or Dehesas where holm oak or cork oak are well spaced, giving the air of African Savannah as opposed to the familiar denser woodland of home. Some areas have been converted to rice fields, providing artificial wetland habitat where none existed before. Towards the north of the province are a range of higher hills which form the Monfragȕe National Park, where invasive Eucalyptus is being removed and native flora replanted. Here wide rivers flow, creating high gorges beloved by soaring raptors. There are higher mountain ranges that we saw from a distance, snow-capped and forbidding.
All of this combined results in a rich diversity where many birds, mammals, insects and other animals find home. Like the UK, it has its resident species as well as winter and summer migrants, which means that at all seasons there is something of interest to see. The following is a selection of images of some of the more impressive birds we encountered.
This group of female great bustards surprised us with a fly by as we were watching another group in fields in front of us. These birds form single sex flocks over the winter period, only getting together as spring advances and the mating urge kicks in.
These males spotted our party well before we spotted them, and through the heat haze of mid-afternoon this was all I could capture of their stately strutting presence.
The first black vulture I ever saw was soaring high above my straining neck in the mountainous region of North Mallorca, near the monastery at Lluc. On that occasion the immense size of the bird was only really apparent when it was mobbed by a peregrine, a minuscule antagonist by comparison. Fast forward nearly twenty years and this bird, first picked up as a rectangular shaped spiralling speck in the far distance, gradually circled closer and closer until it passed overhead at no great height giving brilliant views. I like the way it is peering down at us owl like as it lazily soared above us.
Not a particularly good shot, but this pair of black-bellied sandgrouse were one of our major targets on our morning spent scouring the steppe. This is as close as they came to us. We did see a few more together with their relatives, the pin-tailed sandgrouse, but they were very distant and seemed to favour foraging on the far side of any ridge we happened to be scanning. We were very lucky to see them on our first morning and didn’t get a sniff for the rest of the holiday.
“Golden eagle!” Cried our leader. A dozen pairs of eyes swivelled skywards to where this massive top predator sailed above the rock face being mobbed by two Ravens, not exactly small birds themselves. The bird circled majestically and sedately along the ridge accompanied by its unwanted acolytes until the corvids became too much of an irritant. Then, the king of the mountain decided to turn the tables and stooped at one of the cronking black pests. Normal order was resumed.
Griffon vultures abound in Monfragȕe National Park. We watched dozens on these huge scavengers using updrafts to effortlessly glide to and fro across the river gorge. The birds were busy nest building, mating or sitting on eggs; the colony a hive of activity on this sunny February day. Our second visit to Castillo Monfragȕe allowed us to watch these birds passing at eye level – simply stunning.
The iconic bird of Iberia, the Spanish Imperial Eagle, has a good population in Extremadura but a sighting is not guaranteed. We were very fortunate. As soon as we arrived at a known nesting area we found one surveying its territory from the lofty vantage point of a dead tree positioned high up on the hillside. During the following couple of hours we saw a pair of these wonderfully patterned raptors performing skydiving courtship dances, collecting nesting material and beating up the ubiquitous griffons. Breathtaking.
Blue rock thrushes are handsome birds but can be frustratingly hard to see well. Quite often they afford only a frustrating glimpse as one flips over the edge of a rock or dives out of sight from its perch on a Mediterranean rooftop. So, to see one so close and for so long was a real treat.
Not an impressive photograph I know, but then it was nearly dark, and the bird was a long way off at the very top of the hillside opposite where we had waited patiently for its appearance. What a fantastic bird though, and since this is the only picture I’m ever likely to get of a real, wild, eagle owl I have to include it here.
We had climbed the steep pathway and steps to Castillo Monfragȕe to watch griffon vultures pass close to, but were also hopeful of catching sight of a rock bunting. None appeared, at least not whilst a large group of nature lovers milled around. I hung back from the main group. As soon as most of the party had vacated what was, in times past, the castle courtyard, this little beauty appeared. A life bird for me, one of fourteen for this holiday.
I like crag martins, and these birds are resident in the mild climes of mid Spain. We spied several groups milling around most areas of rocky hillside we visited. These birds were, I guess, engaged in spring courtship and like all their family provide challenging subjects for the photographer. Keep snapping and hope for the best is my philosophy, and sometimes it works. Kind of.
A target species for our day visiting the Arrocampo wetland at Saucedilla was the purple swamphen……and here it is. What a sumptuously colourful bird.
It’s such a shame we don’t have truly wild white storks in this country. I feel they would add so much colour, interest and sparkle to our villages and small towns. In this part of Spain they return to their breeding territories very early. We saw birds standing sentinel on their huge nests, bill clapping in courtship or strutting across fields wherever we went. They make excellent photographic subjects and somehow epitomise what birding in this part of the world is all about.
Look at this little gem. Laura, our lovely guide picked up this bird from some distance away, but by the time we arrived at the spot it had gone into hiding. The more hardened birders amongst us braced ourselves for a bit of a wait, but it was pleasantly warm and sunny so not too much of a trial. It took 20 minutes or so for the bird to decide to hop back into view, and in the few seconds it showed itself I snapped away. All things considered I was happy with this image.
We made a special trip to the castle at Montanchez to see Alpine accentors on a cold and blustery morning. After wandering around the castle ruins we eventually came upon a trio of birds, one of which posed nicely on the ancient stone walls. Smart little birds and another tick on the life list.
The rice fields and Dehesas are wintering grounds for thousands of common cranes that seek refuge from the harsh northern weather in the milder climate of central Spain. Here they congregate in large bugling flocks feasting on fallen grain and acorns. We watched some spiralling high and heading off in a northerly direction, the subtle change in season triggering the urge to begin the return journey to their breeding grounds.
The grounds of our hotel played host to a roosting group of azure-winged magpies (now called Iberian magpies). These birds, uttering their shrill screeches and cackles, gathered at dusk in the conifers but were very wary and would only show themselves for a couple of seconds at a time before diving once more into thick cover. Beautiful birds, it was long thought that they were introduced to the Iberian peninsula, possibly by Portuguese seafarers. The rest of the world population lives in Eastern Asia; there is nothing in between. However, recent fossil finds in caves on Gibraltar have proved that the species is indeed endemic to this part of Europe, and conversation with our Spanish hosts showed them to be very proud and protective of this fact. Either way makes no difference to the fact they are amongst the most handsome of birds and it was good to see them thriving here.