Extremadura is a real Spanish Mecca for many a birder, but there’s plenty to see without going anywhere near the usual honeypots. We spent this weekend exploring some of these lesser known hotspots with our friend David Lindo, aka The Urban Birder.
Without so much as whispering the word “Monfrague” we jammed into avian delights galore, off the beaten birding track.
Keeping true to David’s moniker, our first stop was a Saturday morning wander round a park in Merida. In true urban style, no sooner had we set foot outside the car than we were greeted by an Iberian Grey Shrike, perched up on a statue!
Set next to the city’s beautiful river, it wasn’t long before the park yielded many more delights – Serins, Black Redstarts, Hoopoes and Crested Larks mosied about the playgrounds and pathways, Penduline Tits called from the reed-fringed lakeside, and we got some great flybys from introduced (but still splendid!) Monk Parakeets and Waxbills (aka ‘Spambirds’!).
Another urban stop by the river in central Badajoz gave us chance to watch House, Spanish and Tree Sparrows feeding together, and muse on their chosen sexual dimorphism strategies (So do they fancy each other??)…
Next day it was time to get in the automobile and go rural. The plains and farmland north of Merida are truly spectacular at this time of year, as the skies and fields are teeming with tens of thousands of Common Cranes going about their graceful, musical business.
As we chomped on our lunchtime bocadillos, huge flocks of passerines hurried past included Corn Buntings, Spanish Sparrows, Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and even the odd ruby -coloured Red Adavadat. Raptors came thick and fast too – as well as dozens of Red Kites and Griffon Vultures, the ever-growing list soon included Merlin and Cinereous Vulture. And just to top it all off, five Great Bustards flew over to visit their Inglorious cousins.
Hanging out at Embalse de Alcollarin was a proper joy. Again there was a real bustling atmosphere, as Little and Great Egrets bickered with Cormorants and Grey Herons and we picked through thousands of Common Coots moving in and out of the shoreline.
The whole reservoir surfaced was dotted with wildfowl. We found Black-necked Grebes amongst the many hundred of Great Crested and Littles. A solitary Black Stork lingered on the banks. And, after much searching through a plethora of Mallards, Teal, Wigeon, Shovelers, Pintails and Tufties, we happened upon two Ferruginous Ducks, two Ring-necked Ducks and a red-head Smew – the latter being a first for Extremadura!
We had a cracking weekend with David and it gave us lots of ideas for trip destinations to chat about on the way home to Huerta Grande. Which was lucky as Niki realised after an hour on the road that she had left her trusty Leicas behind, hence doubling the length of the automobile stint…
If you fancy joining us to see all the best-known haunts of Extremadura as well as its lesser-known gems, why not check out our tours page or drop us an email..?
Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, it seems we can add ‘fish sauce’ and ‘great places to go birding’.
The well-preserved ruins of a Roman town, Baelo Claudia, are a mere stone’s throw from our base at the eco-lodge of Huerta Grande, and the flower-rich meadows and farmland scrub in which they are set make them a popular attraction for history buffs and wintering birds alike!
We were entertaining guests this week so we took the opportunity to explore a bit of local history- naturally with bins in hands!
The town’s prosperity came from its coastal farmland location, giving it access to salt, tuna, ceramics and beeswax – all the things needed to make, store and transport garum, a seasoning thought to be the predecessor of modern-day fish sauce.
These same features and the fact the location is protected from development now make for a very pleasant stroll for the biodiversity enthusiast. It’s around 17oC here at the moment and well into ‘second spring’ so there’s lots of wildlife activity going on.
As we wandered through ancient Roman equivalents to shopping malls, entertainment multiplexes and erm, ‘nightlife areas’, we were treated to scratching Sardinian Warblers, jangling Serins and some very obliging Common Chiffchaffs, Stonechats and Crested Larks.
Plenty of butterfly action too, as Monarchs, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Clouded Yellows all made use of the warm sun and the late burst of flowering plants.
To our surprise we even witnessed a group of around 50 White Storks crossing the Straits from Morocco – maybe they too were on a day trip to the Bolonia area…
Baelo Claudia fell into decline around the 6th Century AD, as Southern Spain was riddled by earthquakes, the Roman Empire collapsed and presumably people started scrawling “Romani ite domum” on the walls…
Many civilisations have come and gone in the Straits, but we enjoy thinking that all of them, at some point, would have looked up and admired a migrating flock of White Storks.
As the long, hot autumn season draws to a close at our base of Huerta Grande eco-resort, the rains have finally arrived, clearing the air, refreshing the ground and filling the streams. They bring with them the region’s ‘second spring’, as the parched soils are brought back to life with fresh water and lingering summer warmth.
A wander around the grounds soon supplies some great ingredients for a free meal!
It’s mushroom gatherer’s heaven out there this week as the resident fungi make a grab for moisture.
We know we’re on safe omelette-making ground with the Parasols, but we think we’ll leave the range of decidedly dodgy-looking Agaricales and Russulales to the experts!
For the accompanying salad we’re all set – the forest floor is now a blanket of deliciously sour Wood Sorrel.
In terms of protein, the Cork and Holm oaks are hung with delicious sweet acorns, said to be the foodstuff that gives Iberian ham its special flavour. We’re debating whether to eat them straight from the tree or follow the example of Extremadura friends and brew them into Licor de Bellota, a delicious acorn liqueur guaranteed to ward off the forthcoming winter chills…
Whatever the outcome of our culinary attempts, we can be sure of a fantastic cabaret. The rains have brought with them a cacophony of Mediterranean Tree Frog song, worthy of Paul McCartney himself!
When a third of a region’s expected annual rainfall comes pouring down in under 12 hours, we could be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse is coming to Spain.
As a wet front coming in from the Mediterranean hits the mountains of the Alcornacales Natural Park, it is being forced to unceremoniously dump its moisture on the Cork Oak cloud forest, turning roads into streams and reeking havoc as it tears through villages.
Coastal towns are being hit hard as the waters converge at the base of the hills. Parts of Tarifa were underwater, and there have been deaths in nearby Malaga. As a descendant of the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, I am no stranger to scenes like these, but it doesn’t make them any easier to watch on the news.
Here at our base of Huerta Grande eco-lodge, it’s been torrential rain for 5 days straight and the Inglorious Bustards are preparing to reach for a hammer and chisel and the animal register.
Tucked up safe in our valley, we can only marvel at the tropical moisture-laden air and our beautiful bubbling stream which has by now become an awesome torrent.
There will be winners in Nature from this deluge as the soils, plants and streams are refreshed, Mediterranean Tree Frogs and Fiery Salamanders generally have a lovely time, and ground-feeding birds gather insects washed off the trees.
In the meantime we’ll sit and watch wintering Chiffchaffs valiantly looking for insects on the underside of leaves, and hope that we won’t have to shepherd Huerta Grande’s 126 recorded bird species two by two onto a shambolic Ark carved out of a fallen Cork Oak!
There’s nothing better when travelling than to connect with a place that you really feel at home in.
This is exactly what happened to Simon of the Inglorious Bustards when he first found Huerta Grande eco-resort and met Katrin and the team ten years ago, and we’re both extremely happy to now be able to call this special place home!
It’s situated in the wooded hills above the Strait of Gibraltar, at the edge of the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales (Natural Park of Cork Oaks). Its peaceful 7 hectare grounds are nestled within a forest of Laurel and Cork Oak trees, making it the perfect spot for nature lovers or indeed anyone looking for a bit of peace and tranquillity!
Los Alcornacales itself is one of the largest cork oak forests in the world. Its latitude and mostly coastal location make it a totally unique habitat – the Mediterranean warmth and continuous moisture captured from the sea air even in the driest months mean the density of the trees and the diversity of the ground flora is exceptional. So as well as being home to the Inglorious Bustards, it’s also home to a wealth of wildlife whatever the season. When the rock’n’roll lifestyle of a ecotour guide gets too much, I love walking around its tiny paths surrounded by wizened trees, bubbling streams and birdsong. No two days are ever the same.
So when you visit, what will your home be like?
Well there’s something for all tastes. Ewok wannabes can chill out in one of the secluded log cabins in the woods, watching our resident Firecrests and Short-toed Treecreepers flit through the trees around them – Beechawawa!
Or if you fancy yourself as a bit of a James Bond type, you could play at espionage in the ‘Spy House‘, from where Italian and German spies kept track of Allied shipping movements through the Straits during WWII.
Those with delusions of grandeur may enjoy the Commandante’s house, once a summer holiday residence for military top brass. It has also served as an open prison for General Milan de Bosch, one of the ringleaders in a failed 1981 coup attempt against Franco’s regime. We can certainly think of worse places to be imprisoned, and if the General wasn’t a birder, he certainly would have been by the time he left!
Whatever the season, these places provide fantastic bases for exploring the birds and wildlife of Los Alcornicales.
In migration season, with a favouring wind, you can enjoy the spectacle of thousands of raptors, storks and bee-eaters drifting over you as you float in the eco-resort’s open air pool!
A wander through the grounds will bring you up close with resident species such as Crested Tit and Hawfinch.
When looking out for migrant passerines on their travels, anything could turn up! We’ve yet to have our first Siberian Accentor but we did have a Yellow-browed Warbler this October which made Huerta Grande its home from home for several days.
We’ve been high…in the Mountains of Ronda where we delighted in showing the best wildlife to our group who not only had the best encounters with the nature of the area but also some of the best food and culture of these two wonderful areas on our “Unknown Vulture Spectacle tour”
This tour had two bases – a mountain hotel with our friends and hosts David and Ivan – who provide the warmest of welcomes and the best food in the quirky and fabulous blue village of Juzcar and the tranquil eco-lodge and our home of Huerta Grande in the village of Pelayo near Tarifa.
We yielded a great quality bird list from mountain habitats, coastal and inland wetlands, salt pans, farmland and cork oak forest as well as views of thousands of migrating and resident Griffon Vultures in the Straits itself. Highlights included excellent views of raptors Including no less than three Bonelli’s Eagles just metres overhead, Short-toed and Booted Eagles provided near daily sightings, Ruppell’s Vulture, Black-winged Kite, Lesser Kestrel and Osprey.
The group also had close encounters with many species including, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Sparrow, Crag Martin, Red-billed Chough, Hawfinch, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Northern Bald Ibis, Audouin’s Gull, Purple Swamphen, huge flocks of White Storks and some exciting Spanish rarities in the form of a Yellow-browed Warbler at Huerta Grande and an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard that whizzed through.
Non avian stars came in the form of Iberian Ibex sauntering along a cliff face, daily encounters with Monarch Butterflies and Portuguese Sundew.
One of our first stops was at Los Riscos, an imposing rocky limestone outcrop at 1400m above sea level. After pausing on the way up through olive groves and cork oak trees to admire an Iberian Grey Shrike, several Common Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps and large flocks of farmland birds, we ensconced ourselves in a viewing area high up in the crag. Here we enjoyed the aerial antics of Crag Martins as well as some great views of Wood and Thekla Lark and a female Hen Harrier flying down the valley. We were also treated to brief glimpses of Rock Bunting and Alpine Accentor before we travelled on.
While we prepared a delicious open air picnic for the group, the group had some time to wander around the caves and crystal blue streams at Cueva del Gato. This awe-inspiring beauty spot – whose streams and pools are frequented by Black-bellied Dipper and Grey Wagtail – forms the downstream end of a vast 8km cave system of which the group would be birding both ends today. We ate while Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins swirled overhead, and Cetti’s Warblers skirmished in the undergrowth, so busy with their antics they were oblivious to our gaze.
We made a stop for coffee and local apple and nut cake before continuing on to the final stop of the day at Cueva del Hundidero.
This second cave lies at the base of a spectacular mountain gorge and forms the northern end of the Hundidero/Gato cave system. From our viewpoint at Montejaque dam, we spent a spectacular afternoon observing the canyon’s nature, listening to Cirl Buntings and Iberian Green Woodpecker as many species passed through and eventually came in to roost among the crags and scrub. A mammalian highlight was a majestic Iberian Ibex sauntering along the skyline. The group had superb views of four Black Wheatears and several Blue Rock Thrushes flitting among the boulders. As the afternoon wore on, the scrub filled with groups of roosting Rock Sparrows and Hawfinch, and Red-billed Choughs and Griffon Vultures lined up along the rock faces.
We returned to the hotel as the sun was setting over the impressive scenery, to more fabulous food including a sensational fennel and manchego risotto!
No sooner had we arrived at our base at Huerta Grande in the Straits than a massive kettle of hundreds of Griffon Vultures formed overhead, providing the group with an awe-inspiring spectacle! along with large groups of Red-rumped Swallows.
The ‘unknown’ Vulture spectacle did not disappoint as several groups of Griffon Vultures numbering well over 1000 birds – and at least one Ruppell’s Vulture – were drifting around the hillsides. A sheep carcass at one of the farms brought the birds down spectacularly low as we observed them spiralling down to eat.
….and you can never fail to be impressed with thousands of Griffon Vultures just metres overhead!
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.
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…
A. We all chose to pass through Tarifa’s Cazalla raptor watchpoint on the same day!
Several days of strong easterly crosswinds (known locally as the Levante or ‘sunrise wind’) had stopped the migrating raptors in their tracks. Now, the gentle Poniente or ‘sunset wind’ prevailed, with a slight southerly direction giving the birds the lift they needed to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, and the sun beat down on the rocks creating spiralling thermals. Conditions for migration were perfect and we knew the birds would be eager to follow their strong instincts to journey south.
We started the day at El Algorrobo at 9.30am watching Zitting Cisticolas flit between the carob trees and waiting patiently with a dozen or so other birders from across the world as the anticipation built.
We are guiding David, the BBC’s Urban Birder, around the Spanish and Moroccan sides of the strait this week and we had promised him a spectacle beyond compare, so the pressure was on!
As we sat in our special raptor watching chairs chatting to the staff and volunteers of Migres about the season so far, a lone Montagu’s Harrier flew low along the valley, and suddenly it had begun.
Next came Short-toed and Booted eagles, first one, then four then several at a time, circling low over the watchpoint to give spectacularly detailed views of their beautiful plumage. As a steady trickle of Barn and Red-rumped Swallows and Common, Pallid and Alpine swifts gave way to a gathering flow of Honey Buzzards, Simon narrowed his eyes, sniffed the air, looked west and said “It’s time for Cazalla…”
After an essential ice-cream stop at El Mirador cafe, we squeezed our way into the rammed car park at Cazalla and took our places for the show.
The spectacle that followed has to be seen to be believed as the sky turned black with spiralling kettles of raptors and storks of every kind, and magnificent Short-toed Eagles narrowly avoided mid-air collisions with formidable Egyptian Vultures.
Judging the weather and wind to choose the perfect observation spot takes local knowledge and ornithological skill, something Simon has in buckets! The air positively crackled with excitement and aerial skill as the enthralled folk of the international birding community who had also chosen this spot watched a sizeable chunk of the Western Palearctic raptor population gather in massive numbers, spiral higher and higher and then, gaining confidence in one another, jet out into the haze over the strait.
Alejandro from Migres was counting so fast we thought his clicker thumb might fall off!
It was a mind-blowing experience, in fact so emotional that Niki wept openly in front of raptor guru Dick Forsman! When asked “What do you make of that, David?!”, Mr Lindo simply replied “Leave me here. Just leave me here!”
Needless to say we didn’t! We want to share a lot more common time with these raptors and in coming days we will be journeying with them again in Morocco! Stay tuned…