WILD SPAIN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Wild Spain: Day 1 Our Wild Spain birding tour begins in the morning at Madrid airport, from where we will drive southwards to the Ciudad Real area for an overnight stay. Prime targets in the rich wetlands of the area include the superb but globally declining White-headed Duck and Moustached Warbler. We will also have an opportunity for many of the species listed for Extremadura. En route, the roadside wires provide perches for the range-restricted Spotless Starling.
Wild Spain: Day 2 This morning we will head for the Trujillo area in Extremadura for a three nights stay. This afternoon we will begin our exploration.
Wild Spain: Days 3-4 From our base in the Trujillo area we will undertake a variety of excursions in order to enjoy the bird-rich plains and hills of Extremadura. As well as visiting areas close to Trujillo, we will travel north to Monfragüe National Park, a superb hilly area that is a Mecca for raptors. At this time of year Extremadura is at its very best, with wildflowers growing in a profusion almost unknown elsewhere in western Europe, forming a mosaic of blues, violets, whites and yellows across almost every field and pasture, newly arrived summer visitors in full song, and a profusion of raptors.
Two of our prime targets will be Great and Little Bustards. The former can usually be found with little difficulty. Bachelor parties of huge Great Bustards stride across the plains, dwarfing other birds, while individual males may be encountered as they display to admiring females that have barely half their bulk. Little Bustards once seemed to be everywhere amongst the green young cereal crops, the males ruffling up their throat feathers, enhancing the black and white patterning, or jumping up into the air in display. However, changes in agricultural practices in recent decades have led to a catastrophic decline in the population of over 80% in Spain! Now we have to work much harder to find some.
As well as the bustards, both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse breed in the region, although their preferred areas tend to vary from one year to the next. Often heard well before they are seen, both species have distinctive calls that they frequently utter as they fly to and from their favourite drinking spots each morning. Stone-curlews give their mournful calls at dawn, dusk, and even during the night, and we may well see these strange, bug-eyed waders stalking stealthily through the spring flowers.
Other birds of the plains include Crested, Greater Short-toed and Calandra Larks, Western Black-eared Wheatears and even Western Cattle Egrets that here breed far from water, pursuing the traditional black bulls through the pastures. White Storks are abundant, and the courting birds can be watched bill-clattering on nests placed on buildings, trees or telegraph poles only a few metres above the roadways. Roadside wires provide perches for Southern Grey Shrikes, and splashes of tropical colour are provided by newly-arrived European Bee-eaters and European Rollers.
Around the various small wetlands, we should find the secretive Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Western Swamp-hen, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, and perhaps Gull-billed, Black and Whiskered Terns, and Zitting Cisticola. Cetti’s Warblers give their sudden explosive song from nearby thickets, and we may well see this mahogany-coloured warbler creeping amongst the vegetation. Huge Great Reed Warblers clamber amongst the reed stems, all the while croaking and gurgling, while Savi’s Warblers give their far-carrying reeling songs from the cover of the reedbeds.
Where the plains meet the hills, the hand of man has, over the centuries, created a unique, park-like habitat, the ‘dehesa’. Cork and evergreen oaks cover a gently undulating landscape, aromatic with the scent of a myriad of herbs and coloured by the dusty blue blooms of the French lavender that lines the roadsides. This lightly wooded country is home to a very different set of birds from that of the plains. Woodchat Shrikes sit patiently as they watch for prey, while Eurasian Hoopoes fly away through the trees, displaying their remarkably broad, piebald wings, only to land and erect their equally zebra-striped crest. Gorgeous Eurasian Golden Orioles flit, elusively, through the dappled shade of the canopy, and Short-toed Treecreepers hug the rugged bark of the cork oaks, every once in a while giving their explosive songs. European Serins tinkle from the treetops, Western Orphean Warblers sing away from inside the cover and Hawfinches, as elusive as ever, give their ‘ticking’ calls from the canopy. Wood Larks are quite common, and their haunting, yodelling song is one of the characteristic sounds of the dehesa and is surely one of the most beautiful bird songs of all.
The star bird of the dehesa is the Iberian Magpie (nowadays split from the Azure-winged Magpie of East Asia, which has a white-tipped tail; it is now known that they have been isolated from each other for a huge period of time). Noisy parties can be found playing ‘follow my leader’ through the trees and they even nest in the gardens of our accommodation. In attendance are Great Spotted Cuckoos, which parasitize this gaudy corvid, as well as the more familiar Eurasian Magpie. Amongst the cork oaks we should also come across flocks of Spanish Sparrows, a surprisingly localized species in the country celebrated in its English name.
Moving higher, scrubby hillsides hold Red-legged Partridges, while Dartford, Subalpine and Sardinian Warblers skulk in the scrub, which also holds Cirl Buntings. The gently rolling hills are interspersed with steep rocky valleys and gorges, beloved of Blue Rock Thrushes, Rock Sparrows with their strange nasal calls and Rock Buntings, while Red-billed Choughs can be found around some of the most precipitous crags and ruins. Two special birds of the hill country are Thekla Lark, which is found in lightly-wooded areas (a very different habitat from that of the extremely similar Crested Lark), and the smart but sombre and uncommon Black Wheatear (so large it is almost thrush-like), which favours rocky ravines. Also, in Monfragüe and other hilly areas, prehistoric-looking Black Storks still nest along the river gorges. Overhead, we may well see Alpine Swifts, Eurasian Crag Martins (displaying their distinctive white tail spots as they bank and turn) and Red-rumped Swallows.
Indeed, our eyes will never be far from the skies because this area holds a great wealth of raptors, amongst which the star attraction is the Spanish Imperial Eagle. Small numbers breed in Monfragüe National Park, an extensive area of craggy forested hills, with other pairs scattered across the region, and we will make a special effort to see this highly endangered eagle. We have a good chance of finding them quartering the hillsides, or even sitting, massive, dark and menacing, on their large tree nests. All the other eagles found in Western Europe occur here as well and we should see Short-toed and Booted Eagles, and also have a good chance of finding the rather scarce and localized Bonelli’s Eagle.
Vultures too are still common (quite unlike the situation in the rest of Europe) and, as well as good numbers of Griffon Vultures and a few Egyptian Vultures, we should see the uncommon Cinereous (or Eurasian Black) Vulture soaring over its prime habitat (nearly 1000 pairs now breed in the region). If we are especially fortunate, we may even find numbers of vultures attending a carcass. The vultures leave their roosts in the morning and methodically quarter the landscape at a great height. They watch the ground, but also other vultures, and when one spots a carcass it is the signal for every vulture for miles around to descend. Large numbers can thus arrive with astonishing speed and strip a carcass clean in a matter of minutes. A strict pecking order is observed, with the great Cinereous Vulture being the dominant species and often the first to tear through the tough hide with its huge, sharply edged bill. After their grisly feast, the birds may be so gorged as to be almost unable to fly, and it is thus sometimes possible to obtain exceptional views of them on the ground.
Black Kites are frequently sighted throughout the region, but Red Kites are nowadays much scarcer, having suffered a decline in numbers. Montagu’s Harriers have also declined greatly but still sail above the cornfields, while Lesser Kestrels (an endangered species, thanks to modern agriculture) nest in old buildings in the towns of Caceres and Trujillo. Over 100 of the latter can sometimes be seen wheeling over Trujillo, joined by Pallid Swifts. Eurasian Hobby and Peregrine may also be seen, but best of all, dainty Black-winged Kites can be found in the more open areas of the dehesa. Hovering like kestrels, and dipping to the ground to pick up small prey items, they can be elusive at times and can require a bit of searching out.
At dusk, we may see the barrel-shaped Eurasian Eagle Owl as it emerges from its daytime seclusion in the dark recesses of an isolated crag before heading off to hunt across the wild countryside of this remote corner of Spain. More likely, however, will be the sight of one or two nearly fledged youngsters at the nest site. We may also encounter European Scops Owl and will make a special effort to search out Red-necked Nightjar, which nests only in the Iberian peninsula and in adjacent Northwest Africa. After hearing the latter’s strange, knocking song, we may see a male’s white wing spots flash as it wing-claps overhead or watch one drift, ghost-like, over the dehesa.
Other species likely to be encountered during our stay in the area include Little and Great Crested Grebes, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Gadwall, Mallard, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Little Owl, Common Swift, Common Kingfisher, Barn Swallow, Common House Martin, White Wagtail, Winter Wren, Common Nightingale, Common Stonechat, Whinchat, Common Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, European Reed Warbler, Blackcap, Long-tailed, Blue and Great Tits, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Jay, Western Jackdaw, Common Raven, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Common Linnet and Corn Bunting.
Wild Spain: Day 5 After some final birding in the Trujillo region we will drive into the Sierra de Gredos for an overnight stay, arriving in time for some initial exploration. We will stop to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker en route.
Wild Spain: Day 6 The Sierra de Gredos supports a wealth of breeding species, and we will be concentrating on some of the birds that breed at higher altitudes and are consequently absent from the low-lying plains of Extremadura that we explored during the first part of our Wild Spain birding tour.
The big attraction here is the endemic Iberian (or Sharpe’s) Green Woodpecker. In the pine forests that cloak the slopes below the snow-capped peaks, we should find Western Bonelli’s Warblers giving their rattling songs from high in the canopy. Two additional good birds are European Pied Flycatcher (the local iberiae form is now sometimes split as Iberian Pied Flycatcher) and the perky European Crested Tit with its slurred trilling calls. Firecrests should also be in evidence, their high-pitched song hard to distinguish at times from that of the more familiar Goldcrest. A little gem, with its beautiful bronze ‘shoulders’, the Firecrest is surely one of the most attractive of European birds. We also have our first chance for the unobtrusive Citril Finch, a montane speciality that is endemic to Western Europe.
Other species we are likely to find in the area include Great Spotted Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, White-throated Dipper, European Robin, Common Whitethroat, Goldcrest, Coat Tit, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Siskin and Common Crossbill.
Moving to higher altitudes, Northern Wheatears will scold us cheekily from boulders and other prominent perches and Black Redstarts flash orange as they dart amongst the rocks. On the more open slopes, we will search for Bluethroats, here of the ‘white-spotted’ form (although most have no visible spot at all), in thickets of broom. This small chat has a most attractive song, which has led to it being referred to as the ‘silver bell bird’ in parts of its range. Water Pipits, at this time of year in summer plumage with a delicate pink blush to the underparts, favour grassy slopes still flushed with spring melt-waters. With luck, we will also find Ortolan Bunting, which breeds in the alpine meadows together with Eurasian Skylark, the ‘Spanish’ form of the Western Yellow Wagtail and the colourful Common Rock Thrush. We may well encounter Spanish Ibexes, wild goats which leap from rock to rock and traverse scree slopes with an agility and sure-footedness that can leave one breathless.
Later in the day, we will head northwards into the dry plains to Sepulveda for a two nights stay. This evening we will have the first opportunity to look for Dupont’s Larks as they start to sing before dusk.
Wild Spain: Day 7 Unless we had great views yesterday, we will make an early start in order to be in position on the steppe-like plains for dawn (fortunately, Spain’s adherence to the Central European time zone means that this is a relatively painless experience!). Our target in these sandy wastes will be the localized Dupont’s Lark, a species that is confined to Spain and North Africa and one that is notoriously difficult to see well as it is usually either hiding in the low vegetation or running rapidly between hiding places. This unusual species usually sings only around dawn and dusk and these are by far the best times to locate it.
We will also travel to the Valladolid region today in order to look for Iberian Chiffchaff, another regional speciality.
Wild Spain: Day 8 We will drive up into the Sierra de Guadarrama to look for Citril Finch in this rugged mountain range before we must return to Madrid airport, where the main section of our Wild Spain birding tour ends around midday.
Wild Spain (Mallorca): Day 1 The extension to our Wild Spain birding tour begins with a flight from Madrid to Palma airport on the island of Mallorca. From there we will drive to our hotel at Albufera where we will stay for three nights.
Wild Spain (Mallorca): Days 2-3 The Parc Naturel de S’Albufera and the nearby Albuferata wetlands will be almost on our doorstep. One of the largest areas of marshland in the whole of the Western Mediterranean, this superb reserve has excellent infrastructure for visitors and plenty to look for. It is perhaps best known for its large population of the localized Moustached Warbler and we should have little trouble seeing this generally elusive species. They share their reedbed habitat with chuntering Great Reed Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers and Zitting Cisticolas, whilst the tiny Little Bittern, Black-crowned Night, Squacco and stately Purple Herons share this environment. Water Rails can often be heard, though seeing one is another matter!
Overhead, Alpine, Common and Pallid Swifts and delightful European Bee-Eaters feast on the abundant insects, whilst Western Marsh Harriers patrol the reeds and an occasional Western Osprey appears overhead. The numerous pools, overlooked by a network of hides, attract good numbers of waterfowl, waders and other wetland species. The rare Marbled Duck is present here, as is the attractive Garganey, and three species that were formerly driven to extinction, namely Red-crested Pochard, Red-knobbed Coot and Western (or Purple) Swamphen, have been successfully reintroduced to the reserve and are now easily seen.
A variety of migrant and breeding waders are likely to include Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, the smart Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper and Little and Temminck’s Stints. If we’re lucky a Collared Pratincole will appear, or a flock of migrant ‘marsh terns’ which could include Whiskered, Black and even White-winged Terns.
The nearby paddocks are often home to the cryptic Eurasian Stone-curlew, delightful Eurasian Hoopoes frequently pop-up, and the local ‘Spanish’ form of the Western Yellow Wagtail may be joined by migrant ‘Blue-headed’, ‘Western Grey-headed’ and ‘British Yellow’ Wagtails.
Other common species we may well see around the wetlands include Common Shelduck, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Little and Great Crested Grebes, Western Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Great Cormorant, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruff, Black-headed Gull, Common Tern, Common Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Common House Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Common Blackbird, Common Nightingale (should be in full song!), House Sparrow, White Wagtail, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, Common Linnet, European Goldfinch and Common Reed Bunting (of the endangered form witherbyi).
During our stay on Mallorca, we will also visit some saltpans, and here, as well as another chance for migrant ducks and waders, we’ll have a good chance of finding Greater Flamingo, and with luck, we will find Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls.
Other regularly occurring species that we are likely to see on Mallorca include Red-legged Partridge, Common Pheasant, the scarce Red and Black Kites, Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Raven, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Song Thrush, European Stonechat, Eurasian Wren, Serin, Corn Bunting and the local form of Red Crossbill which can be surprisingly common. Migrants we may well encounter during our rounds of the island include European Honey Buzzard, the lovely Montagu’s Harrier, Sandwich Tern, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, the scarce European Roller, Red-backed Shrike, Eurasian Golden Oriole and Northern Wheatear.
On our second full day, we will make an excursion to Cabrera Island, off the southeastern tip of Mallorca. We will start early and drive to Colònia de Sant Jordi before making a short ferry journey across to the island. The delightful and localized Audouin’s Gull is common along the coastline here, sharing the coast with numerous Yellow-legged Gulls and the Mediterranean form of European Shag. As we cross the small strait that separates Mallorca from Cabrera, we should get some good views of the endangered Balearic Shearwater and Scopoli’s Shearwater.
Cabrera is a small (approximately 16 square kilometres) uninhabited island. The main island is adjacent to several nearby islets that hold good Scopoli’s Shearwater and Mediterranean Storm Petrel colonies (though the latter are very difficult to see in the daytime). Together, these islands form Cabrera National Park.
The island attracts relatively few visitors due to its remoteness and somewhat difficult access, but it is definitely a birder’s heaven and a must for a visiting birder. The endemic Balearic Warbler has a very healthy population here and is much easier to see than on mainland Mallorca, and we will enjoy some time with this attractive little warbler. Other Balearic specialities such as (Balearic) Woodchat Shrike, (Balearic) Spotted Flycatcher and Moltoni’s Warbler are all fairly common, while dashing Eleonora’s Falcons, Western Ospreys and Booted Eagles are regularly seen overhead.
During spring and autumn, Cabrera acts as an excellent migrant trap, with some impressive passerine falls regularly taking place, even when little migration is apparent on the main island! Thousands of northern European birds on their way to the breeding grounds pass through, including European Pied Flycatchers, Common Whitethroats, Whinchats and Common Redstarts, all in stunning breeding plumage, and other migrants such as European Bee-eater, Pallid Swift, Wood and Western Bonelli’s Warblers, the delightful Western Black-eared Wheatear, Tawny Pipit, Greater Short-toed Lark and the attractive Ortolan Bunting should all be found. This is also the best place for vagrants in Spain.
Wild Spain (Mallorca): Day 4 After some final birding, we will transfer to Palma airport where the Mallorca extension to our Wild Spain birding tour will end this afternoon.