Birding in Spain, the Nature Reserve of Europe
A large proportion of the foreign tourists that flock to Spain are attracted by our privileged mix of sun and sea, or by one of the most comprehensive storehouses of historical and artistic heritage in the world, or alternatively, by our fun-loving, relaxed way of life national features that have made us into the world’s second-leading tourist destination, with 58.5 million foreign visitors in 2006. Yet, in addition to these tempting and highly valued tourist resources, our country offers one more, a resource that is in growing demand now and will be in even greater demand in the future, namely, its scenery, natural areas and biodiversity.
Indeed, if Spain can be regarded as a power in terms of its supply of sun and sea or unique historical-artistic heritage, then this is equally true -or even truer- when it comes to offering nature of exceptional calibre at a European level. This is borne out by the figures showing the number and surface area of Sites of Community Importance (SCI) that this country will be bringing to the Natura 2000 network, the grid of most highly prized natural areas whose protection is to be guaranteed throughout the European Union (EU) in years to come.
Spain is to contribute approximately 1,380 SCI to this network, covering some 12 million hectares (46,332 sq. miles) or almost 23% of the nation’s territory. Citing countries such as France, with around 4.9 million hectares (18,919 sq. miles, approximately 8% of its territory), Italy, with around 4.4 million hectares (16,988 sq. miles, 14%), or the United Kingdom, with 2.5 million hectares (9,652 sq. miles, 6.5%), may just serve to highlight the relevance of the Spanish contribution to Europe’s common natural heritage.
Furthermore, if figures relating to biodiversity are taken into account, Spain is also a country that clearly excels in terms of its geographic setting. It is home to 8,000-9,000 species of vascular (ferns and flowering) plants –i.e., 80%-90% of the total existing in the EU– around 100 species of amphibians and reptiles, 360 species of birds and 158 species of mammals. Figures that are truly remarkable for a territory as transformed and long-inhabited as Europe.
Photo credit Birding Extremadura
There are several reasons for this exceptional natural heritage. On the one hand, Spain is a country situated at a geographical crossroads, at the point of transition between Europe and Africa, being separated from the latter continent by a scant 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of sea at the Strait of Gibraltar’s narrowest point.
This lends Spain a wide-ranging territorial and climatic diversity, attested to by the coexistence of Euro-Siberian ecosystems, characteristic of central and northern Europe, alongside other, typically Mediterranean ecosystems. If to this, one then adds the presence of a deeply folded relief –the second most mountainous contour in Europe, after alpine Switzerland– an 8,000-kilometre-long coastline (4,970 miles) winding along mainland Spain and the Balearic and Canary archipelagos, and the originality of the Macronesian habitats peculiar to the Canary Islands, the reason for such a varied, rich and well-preserved natural setting becomes clear.
In Spain, nature lovers will be able to find the most comprehensive representation of natural habitats in the whole of Europe. With the sole exception of strictly Arctic environments, the rest of the continent’s major ecosystems can be found in the little over 500,000 square kilometres (193,051 sq. miles) that go to make up Spanish territory. Alpine environments in the Pyrenees and Cantabrian mountains; deciduous, coniferous or Mediterranean forests in a great proportion of the country; Mediterranean high-mountain habitats in the Andalusian ranges (sierra or cordillera); steppe and semi-desert landscapes in the Ebro depression (Los Monegros and Belchite) and along Almeria’s dry watercourses or ramblas; coastal saltmarshes and salt-pans in many places along the Mediterranean and South Atlantic seaboards; and, Canary Islands laurel forest (laurisilva) and volcanic lava fields –slag deserts, scree, cone and cinder areas– (known locally as malpaís) in the Canary Islands: these are some of the many, singular habitats that can be discovered across the length and breadth of Spain’s varied geography.
Thus, Spain at its most authentic and real- and indeed, often solitary and still– awaits all nature seekers in search of excellence. This is especially true of birdwatchers, who, in Spain, have what may arguably be the best European venue for pursuing their hobby.
Photo credit: Griffon Vulture Wild Doñana
Spanish Ornithological Singularities
Those self same key geographical and environmental features that make Spain such a special natural setting, are the very factors responsible for its wealth of birdlife…with the additional attraction that the country is simultaneously a wintering place for many birds from central and northern Europe, and a route or flyway for a great part of the migratory species that travel annually between Western Europe and Africa.
Spain is host to some 280 species of breeding birds, 85 that are regularly present during the wintering or migratory periods, and close on 200 that are occasionally or fortuitously present. In all, approximately 560 species of birds have been sighted on Spanish territory.
In addition to this large number of species and, in some instances, the considerable size of their respective populations, Spain’s birdlife contains groups of birds which can be considered genuine rarities at a European level, in as much as these are species that in many cases have practically vanished from the rest of the continent or are exclusive to Spain. Accordingly, these are the major stars of Spanish birdlife and the principal goal of visitors interested in ornithology.
Among the most outstanding groups are the birds of prey. Spain is, without doubt, the great bastion of these birds in Europe. In this country, 26 species breed, with truly substantial populations of large large sized vultures, such as the Griffon Vulture (23,000 pairs), Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) (1,400 pairs), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) (1,400 pairs) and Bearded Vultures (100 pairs). The great eagles are likewise very well represented, with around 1,400 pairs of Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), 200 of the exclusive Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca) – one of the leading ornithological attractions, thanks to its endemic status and extraordinary rarity– and some 750 pairs of Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus), increasingly rare throughout Europe. Along with these larger birds of prey, other smaller-sized species are equally sought after by the birdwatcher, as happens, for example, with the Black-winged or Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus), Red Kite (Milvus milvus), Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus), Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) and Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae).
Spain is not only a country of mountains; it is also a country of infinite plains, many of which lie at high altitudes on upland moors in the interior of the plateau (meseta). Stretching away across these immense plains are huge tracts of dry-farmed cereal crops and semi steppe habitats. Beneath their apparent monotony and simplicity, these types of landscape prove to be among the most evocative for many nature lovers who visit us. Though as “modest“ and unostentatious as the backdrop that serves as their habitat, some of the species that live here are nevertheless the subject of keen conservationist interest, on being almost exclusive to this one country in Europe. Pre-eminent among these is the imposing Great Bustard (Otis tarda), the heaviest flying bird (males grow up to 15 kilogrammes), with approximately 23,000 specimens thriving on the flat expanses of wheat and maize, mainly in Castile & León and Extremadura.
Other fascinating plains birds that, in the context of continental Europe, are –practically speaking– observable only in Spain, are the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles alchata). Similarly, Spain’s dry-farmed fields, moors and shrub- and grasslands are home to very numerous populations of small steppe birds, such as the Crested and Thekla Lark (Galerida cristata and Galerida theklae), Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), and Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla and Calandrella rufescens), whose abundance in no way detracts from their interest to the foreign birdwatcher; special mention should also be made of Dupont’s Lark (Chersophilus duponti), one of Spain’s least known and most exclusive bird species and one of the most sought after by ornithologists.
No summary of Spain’s most typical birds would be complete without mentioning some of the species linked to its wetlands. Although Spain’s singular climatic conditions mean that it is not overly endowed with wetlands, it nonetheless boasts a wide diversity of such habitats. Certain types, such as the coastal salt marshes, their associated saltpans and the deltas rank among the best Spanish bird watching sites, where some of the most singular and attractive birds can be spotted. Chief among these are the Doñana saltmarshes (marismas), the Ebro Delta, the salt-pans of Alicante, Murcia and the Balearic Isles, and the northern Santoña saltmarshes.
In these coastal areas, as well as in many inland areas, such as the Malaga saltwater lagoon of Fuentedepiedra, the belt of lakes and tablas (marshy areas flooded by slow-moving rivers that overflow their banks) of the so-called wet or humid La Mancha, and the endorheic lakes of Villafáfila (Zamora) and Gallocanta (Zaragoza-Teruel), a good sprinkling of major ornithological attractions are to be seen. An example of such attractions is the colourful, eye-catching common flamingo, which in Fuentedepiedra has one of its few stable breeding colonies in the entire Mediterranean basin; moreover, flamingos are able to breed both in this lake and, depending on the water-table conditions prevailing in the other fluctuating wetland habitats, at different spots along the coast and in the interior. Another of the large and more striking species of waterfowl is the Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia); two of its main breeding sites in Europe are situated in the Huelva-based enclaves of Doñana and the Odiel saltmarshes. The Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), yet another of the star wetland birds, can be sighted in Doñana, the Ebro delta and a handful of other areas along the Mediterranean littoral.
Photo credit: Ebro Delta Birding
Thanks to their innate attractiveness and ease of observation, herons are another large ornithological group that draws the birdwatcher’s attention.
Spain is the breeding ground for practically all European herons, namely, the Grey and Purple Heron (Ardea cinerea and purpurea), Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) and Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides), Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) and Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). The country is home to sizeable populations of almost all these species, including some of the rarest and most endangered, like the Squacco Heron. Indeed, so typical is the latter of Spain that over fifty years ago it was chosen as the emblem of the then nascent Spanish Ornithological Society (Sociedad Española de Ornitología – SEO/BirdLife).
Along with herons and flamingos, Spain’s wetlands play host to other species, species that are truly singular, in some cases because of their extraordinary appearance –such as the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio porphyrio)– and in others because they are very rare, even to the point of being endangered world-wide, as is the case of the Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) or Marbled Teal (Marmaronetta angustirostris). Avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta), Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus), Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus), Whiskered Terns (Chlidonias hybridus), Gull-billed Terns (Gelochelidon nilotica), Little Terns (Sterna albifrons), and Common and Sandwich Terns (Sterna hirundo and Sterna sandvicensis) are just some more of the many attractions that our wetlands hold for the bird enthusiast. Outside the breeding season, Spain’s lakes, lagoons, saltmarshes and saltpans become a resting place or wintering site for hundreds of thousands of Greylag Geese (Anser anser), ducks of all types and most of the (limicolines) waders that cross the skies of Europe.
Enjoying pride of place among the principal wintering areas for wildfowl is Spain’s internationally best-known natural area, Doñana, which, depending on the year, can come to accommodate several hundreds of thousands of waterfowl. Following Doñana in order of importance as wintering areas for these birds are: the Ebro Delta; Valencia’s Albufera (lagoon); the Bay of Cadiz; and the Villafáfila Lakes.
Photo credit: Wall Creeper Barcelona Birding Point
Despite the great length of its coastline, Spain is not home to that many seabirds, which tend to be far more frequent in and around the fertile waters of the cold seas of Northern Europe. Yet, two very characteristic Mediterranean species are nevertheless based here, i.e., Audouin’s Gull (Larus audounii) –in numbers that make it the biggest population in the world– and the Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus) –a very rare endemic species that breeds exclusively in the Balearic Isles.
Together with the above-mentioned species, all of which can be regarded as figuring among Spain’s leading ornithological attractions, there are many others that invariably draw the attention of tourists with an interest in birds. In some cases, these are very abundant species whose wide distribution and ease of observation render them objects of interest. This is the case of the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), which can be seen nesting and attending to its young on all types of supports and structures (churches, buildings, trees, electricity pylons, boulders, etc.), very often not far from the road. In other cases, these are birds that add a certain dash of exoticism to the Spanish countryside, on account of their colourful plumage, as is the case of the multi-coloured Bee-eater (Meropidae) or the Roller (Coraciidae), more appropriate –as indeed are the bird families to which they belong– in tropical settings in African or Asia. Another species that always excites interest is the Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyana), a beautiful corvid, which is very abundant in areas of Mediterranean vegetation in the mid-west of mainland Spain, but is unique in that it can only be observed here and in China!
To download a copy and guide to birding in Spain, including leading bird sites, region information and map, click here.
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Updated: 8th November 2020