After a day’s birding amongst the crags and cliffs of Monfragüe National Park, the jewel in Cáceres department’s crown, most people move on to other areas of Extremadura. But there are many less-birded gems to discover. My group – consisting of seasoned journalists, budding young bloggers and, er, me – had had a fantastic introduction on Day One and now we were to explore off the beaten track, birding wetland, farmland and scrub sites where a wealth of Mediterranean species awaited us.
The Arrocampo Reservoir was originally built to cool the nuclear power station in nearby Almaraz, but today 687 ha of the reservoir and its surrounding banks are designated as a Special Protected Area (SPA) within the Natura 2000 Network. An Ornithological Park has also been created in neighbouring Saucedilla to make visiting the area easier.
Its tranquil ponds, reeds and surrounding ruderal vegetation certainly yielded some great finds for the group including Purple Swamphen, Bittern, Squacco Heron, Bluethroat. Penduline tits were heard but proved elusive.
The whole area offers a network of small ponds and wetlands, where we were able to enjoy many duck and wader species as well as getting acquainted with the area’s dragonflies, and being treated to a ‘splash’ from a departing otter!
Throughout the trip I was impressed by the quality and design of the visitor infrastructure and interpretation centres in the area, which are state-of-the art and offer new ways to get in touch with the wildlife all around. Not least ‘Orchydarium’ at Almaraz which gives fascinating insight into the orchid populations which occur on the area’s unusual soils, and Portico de Monfrague, an interpretation centre set in a converted church in the tiny village of Toril.
After checking in to a beautiful, newly renovated guest house in Malpartida de Placencia we were treated to another fantastic meal of regional specialities. The hams and sausages of Extremadura are truly exceptional. Pigs here rove through the wooded pasturelands or dehesas, feeding on sweet holm oak acorns, which gives the meats a distinctive taste. Holm acorns also give us the highly addictive locally produced acorn liqueur, which required sampling several times…
In the morning we drove through wooded valleys full of low growing oaks which held a bluish-grey hue in the mist to reach the beautiful historic village of Serradilla. Sat in the heart of the Biosphere reserve, just outside the border of the National Park itself, Serradilla is surrounded by family smallholdings and farms, interspersed with dehesa and wild areas and is absolutely alive with farmland birds.
We walked through Mediterranean scrub and farmland to the Gorge of the Fraile, a rocky gorge which is excellent for vultures and rock-loving species like Blue Rock Thrush.
The walk itself was an absolute joy. Azure-winged Magpies flitted across our path in gleeful, flamboyant flocks. Crested, Thekla and Woodlarks were all around. Iberian Great Grey Shrikes perched up on vantage points and stashed their prey along barbed wire strands like macabre washing lines. Cirl and Corn Bunting song filled the air as Serins busily gathered seed from the ground. To my joy, the huge mixed flocks of finches, buntings and sparrows that flitted around us contained Rock Sparrows, which perched obligingly on a fencepost for us to admire.
Our picnic stop at Mirabel castle gave us the most spectacular view of Cinereous Vulture of the whole trip as one flew low overhead. It struck me that while exploring the less visited parts of the Biosphere Reserve we’d seen all the stars of Monfragüe without entering the National Park. The surrounding biosphere is as much their home as the park itself and visiting and staying in the wider also has the advantage of experiencing better the local culture and giving fantastic context for the whole ecosystem on which Monfragüe’s wildlife depends.
The Mayor of Mirabel welcomed the group for a discussion at the town hall, and he echoed my sentiments. He also heads up ecotourism and sustainable development in the region, and is evidently passionate about Cáceres, its wildlife and its people.
There are currently plans for further sensitive development of local tourist facilities and infrastructure, to help people enjoy and access more sites in the Biosphere and take some of the visitor pressure off the National Park.
Make no mistake, the gems of Monfragüe Biosphere are being lovingly polished for all to enjoy. If you get chance, make sure you take the time to stop a while longer and watch them sparkle.