Psst… wanna know the real reason why the Spanish take siestas? It’s not because of hot days or Rioja-lubricated lunches – although both may contribute, I admit. No, the actual reason is that birdwatching in Spain is so exciting that you need an hour’s downtime to recharge batteries before enjoying it all over again. More pertinently, it is this quintessentially Spanish combination of rest and recreation that makes the country such a convenient place to ease into birdwatching as part of a family holiday – or to combine a business trip or city break with a bird-filled walk.
While most tourists lounge on beaches, ever more are exploring Spain’s wild side. In Spain’s remarkably varied countryside, vultures soar around mountain peaks, larks compete for their aerial symphonies on never-ending grasslands, and bubblegum-pink flamingoes make seaside lagoons blush. Moreover, this land of avian plenty funnels migrant birds between the continents of Europe and Africa. There is simply no finer European country in which to start or deepen an interest in birdwatching. But amidst this feathered wealth, is there really a best birding trip in Spain?
Winter in Extremadura
Europe’s mightiest congregation of Cranes – 130,000, all in – crafts Extremadura’s winter soundscapes, their rippling calls recalling fragile, forlorn oboes. There are myriad joyous ways to experience these lissom supermodels. Watch a family tiptoeing along a rice-field catwalk. Admire a score lazing under silvery-green, Afro-coiffured holm oaks. Or gawp at thousands seeking collective security in a lakeside roost. Then search for grassland-loving specialties on savanna-like plains near Trujillo. A Pin-tailed Sandgrouse whirrs overhead, purring its arrival. A close-knit party of Little Bustard huddles between sheep. And Europe’s heaviest flying bird, Great Bustard, strides imperiously, proclaiming ownership and generating gasps of awe. View local wildlife specialists offering Extremadura trips here.
Photo credit: Common Crane, Martin Kelsey Birding Extremadura
Coto Doñana in spring
So crowded with feather are pools at this famous Andalusian wetland that unoccupied water can be a rarity. Herons jostle with egrets for fishing rights. Terns swoop elegantly over the lake surface. Big and bright, Purple Swamphens fluster where blue-green reedbeds cede to open water. At their back, a medley of warblers chunters territorial rights from blue-green reedbeds. And rarities such as Marbled Teal and White-headed Duck secrete themselves on clandestine waterbodies to which only local experts are privy. View local wildlife specialists offering Doñana trips here.
Photo credit: White-headed Duck, Manuel Morales Birding Tarifa
Picos de Europa in summer
Flopping butterfly-like from steepling cliff to gargantuan boulder, the Wallcreeper dazzles with its white-spotted, crimson and black wings. There is nothing on Earth remotely like it – and nowhere more convenient than Spain’s Picos de Europa to revere it. Take the cable car to Fuente Dé to enter montane paradise. Here Alpine Accentors scurry at your feet and White-winged Snowfinches grant close approach. Such avian mountaineers are joined by extrovert Alpine Choughs – ragamuffin crows performing dare-devil flights – and Lammergeier, the bone-breaking, extravagantly moustached vulture. View local wildlife specialists offering Picos de Europa trips here.
Photo credit: Wallcreeper, Manuel A. González More Than Birds
Migration at Tarifa in late summer
After several misty days, the skies have cleared. The celestial blueness above Tarifa is rapidly filling with scores – nay, hundreds – of long-winged forms. There are White Storks, elongated bill and legs protruding front and rear. There are Honey Buzzards, languid and long-tailed. There are Booted Eagles, muscly and compact. There are Black Kites, uncompromisingly swarthy. And there are Griffon Vultures, immense and cavalier. All are harnessing thermals of sun-warmed air before soaring southwards towards wintering grounds in Africa. Nothing can prepare you for witnessing such migratory marvels. View local wildlife specialists offering Tarifa trips here.
Photo credit: White Storks, Simon Tonkin Inglorious Bustards
Aragón and Catalonia in autumn
Griffon Vultures also star at Mas de Buñyol’s showtime. Gaze from the comfort of an observatory as 400 carrion-munchers harrumphs onto an earthen stage ringed by sheer cliffs. As a wheelbarrow brimming with carcasses, off-cuts and offal are emptied onto the ground, so the famished birds belly their way to the impromptu dining table – gobbling and squabbling until all is gone. This cues your own departure to the Ebro Delta on the Catalan coast. Spain’s mighty wetland is renowned for long-legged waterbirds. A spectrum of herons and egrets is complemented by thousands of shimmering Glossy Ibises. And yet still the vast collective of pink – several thousand Greater Flamingoes – contrives to steal the limelight. View local wildlife specialists offering Aragón and Catalonia trips here.
Photo credit: Griffon Vultures, Carles Oliver Barcelona Birding Point
Mallorca in autumn
If you associate Mallorca only with cheap package holidays, think again. From the tourist town of Port de Pollença, wander seawards down the Boquer Valley. Crag Martins flicker past a cliff face from which a Blue Rock Thrush serenades. A Balearic Warbler scolds your approach; this spiky-headed, fiery-eyed bird lives nowhere else in the world bar the Balearics. Then twist along hairpins to reach Cap Formentor lighthouse. Sandy cliffs jagging downwards are the domain of the sharp-winged, cliff-nesting Eleonora’s Falcon, a hunter so aerially adept that it snatches migrating songbirds in mid-air. Mesmerising! View local wildlife specialists offering Mallorca trips here.
Photo credit: Blue Rock Thrush, Javi Mendez Menorca Walking Birds
Whether you are picking up binoculars for the first time or are an established birdwatcher keen to explore a new region, you simply cannot go wrong in Spain. With such bounteous avian riches, the only difficulty is deciding where to go. Oh – and making time for that siesta.
James Lowen is a nature and travel writer.
Recent books include 52 European Wildlife Weekends (published by Bradt Travel Guides), which won the Adele Evans Award for Travel Guidebook of 2018, and Birds of Spain (Bloomsbury). His work also appears regularly in magazines such as BBC Wildlife and Bird Watching plus newspapers such as The Telegraph. James blogs at http://jameslowen.com and is on Twitter and Instagram as @JLowenWildlife