Think of a birding trip to Extremadura and you’ll undoubtedly think of Monfragüe National Park. This 18,000 hectare jewel in the region’s crown has become one of the most important birdwatching destinations in Spain.
And with good reason. As well as a wealth of mountain passerines, this protected area is internationally important for breeding birds of prey. Bonelli’s Eagles and the mighty Spanish Imperial Eagle are easy to see here and the area hosts 316 pairs of Cinereous Vulture, giving it the world’s highest density of this bird.
But most birders swoop in and out faster than a speeding Crag Martin, visiting the major honeypots at Peña Falcon and Monfragüe Castle before heading further south to the plains. If you know where to look, you’ll soon discover that this jewel is flanked by dozens of less-birded gems in the surrounding Monfragüe Biosphere Reserve.
Covering over 116,000 hectares, the traditional farmlands and Holm Oak forests of the Biosphere Reserve sweep out from the crags of the National Park and act as a critically important buffer zone. This landscape is in effect the foraging area for the park’s birds of prey, and boasts a great diversity of habitats supporting a wide array of birds and other wildlife. The area is a patchwork of picturesque smallholdings where vegetables are grown and livestock reared amongst the dehesa, a managed wood pasture system which sustains both the rural community and the typical wildlife of the region.
Having spent much of my previous career looking at how farmland in the UK can be managed in a more nature-friendly way, I find this kind landscape-scale conservation fascinating, so when I was invited to visit the region by the Diputación de Cáceres and The Urban Birder David Lindo, I jumped at the chance. The local government have recognised that Extremadura’s wealth lies in its natural capital, and have an impressive attitude towards creating jobs in the area through sustainable development and ecotourism.
Our first day was spent exploring the delights of the park itself – the prime destination for so many birders. My group – consisting of seasoned journalists, budding young bloggers and, erm, me – had a great night’s sleep in our beautiful rural apartments in Torrejon el Rubio. As we breakfasted on pastries fresh from the local bakery (the owner of the apartments works there, ideal!) excitement was already high.
Looking out over the beautiful Tajo river valley from Monfragüe Castle gives a real vulture’s eye view of the area and provides great context for understanding how the National Park is set within the Biosphere Reserve. As we arrived, we were barely out of the van when we had our first views of two formidable Cinereous Vultures circling with a group of Griffons. This magnificent bird was a lifer for everyone in the group and seeing it in such a spectacular setting meant there were spine-tingles aplenty!
From the highest point of the rock you can look down on Hawfinches foraging in the tops of the Holm Oaks below you. With Chough calling in the mist and Crag Martins swooping low over your head, you won’t fail to be impressed by the numbers of Griffon and Cinereous Vultures occupying every pinnacle of the rocky slope across from you.
The crags of the famous Peña Falcòn offer yet more breath-taking views of the resident vultures, as well as Crag Martins, Black Redstarts, Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Bunting, all within metres of where you stand.
A relaxed afternoon spent largely at a tranquil bend in the river at Portilla del Tiétar gives time to reflect on the age of the landscape. The layered and twisted rocks, folded into these dramatic crags in a earth-shattering geological occurrence millenia ago, are now perched on by dozens of hissing and screeching vultures. As flocks of cormorants and egrets make their way down river to roost you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in to prehistoric times.
Our musings were to be interrupted by Emma of the Next Generation Birders. She’d been scrutinising the horizon for some time when suddenly she bellowed ‘Spanish Imp!!!!’. We all looked skyward as a stunning adult Spanish Imperial Eagle glided in to drink at the river. We were treated to unbelievable views of this stunning resident, which was mobbed by dozens of irate Azure-winged Magpies as it drank.
As darkness began to fall, the soft ‘Buuoo!’ of an Eagle Owl began and we rounded off a magical day listening to its plaintive call as it sat silhouetted against the sky.
The day was a fantastic introduction to the jewel of the park, but we knew there were countless further gems waiting for us in the days to follow. For the rest of the trip we were to explore off the beaten track, birding wetland, farmland and scrub sites where a wealth of Mediterranean species awaited us…
Stay tuned for Part Two!