To appreciate the birds of Spain and why it should be a country on every wildlife lover’s list of places to visit, you have to understand what makes this southern European country such an important place to encounter the wonders of the natural world.
A large proportion of the foreign tourists who flock to Spain are attracted by the country’s compelling mix of sun and sea or its storehouse of historic and artistic heritage and fun-loving, relaxed way of life. However, Spain’s natural environment and exciting animal species have to be added as an equally huge draw for wildlife lovers. Together, these tempting features have put Spain into the position of one of the world’s leading tourist destinations.
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Spain’s Importance in Numbers
Spain is a power in terms of the area and number of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs)a designation for the most highly prized natural areas the protection of which are guaranteed throughout the European Union (EU) for the future.
Spain contributes approximately 1,380 SCIs to this European network, covering some 12 million hectares (46,332 sq miles). This represents almost 23% of the country’s territory. By comparison, France lists around 4.9 million hectares (18,919 sq miles or approximately 8% of its territory), Italy around 4.4 million hectares (16,988 sq miles or 14%) and the United Kingdom 2.5 million hectares (9,652 sq miles or 6.5%).
Spain also excels in biodiversity. It is home to between 8,000 and 9,000 species of flowering plants and ferns. This is upwards of 80% of the total existing in the EU. It is also home to around 100 amphibians and reptiles, 360 resident birds and 158 mammals. These figures could be regarded as remarkable for a territory that has had such a long history of human habitation and modern development.
Photo credit Birding Extremadura
What Sets Spain Apart from the Rest of Europe
Spain is situated at a geographical crossroads, the transition from Africa to Europe across a scant 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) of sea at the narrowest point of the Straits of Gibraltar.
It has a wide-ranging territorial and climatic diversity, with Euro-Siberian ecosystems characteristic of central and northern Europe sitting alongside typically Mediterranean ecosystems. Spain has the second most mountainous profile in Europe after alpine Switzerland, an 8,000km coastline (4,970 miles) winding along mainland Spain and the Balearic and Canary archipelagos and the Macronesian habitats peculiar to the Canary Islands. In Spanish territory, therefore, you will find the most comprehensive array of natural habitats in Europe.
Spain’s varied environments
- Alpine habitat 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 River 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
- 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. These varied habitats are especially compelling for birdwatchers, who will find in Spain arguably the best European venue for pursuing their hobby.
Photo credit: Griffon Vulture, Wild Doñana
Spain’s Special Birds of Prey
Those key geographical and environmental features make Spain a special natural setting for a wealth of resident birdlife. And there is the additional attraction in that the country is a wintering place for many birds from central and northern Europe and a flyway route for a great many migratory species that travel annually between Western Europe and Africa.
Spain is host to some 280 species of breeding birds, 85 of which are regularly present during the wintering or migratory periods, and close on 200 that are occasionally 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 in European terms. Many of these are either endemic to Spain or are species that have effectively vanished from the rest of the continent.
One of the outstanding groups to note are the birds of prey. Spain is, without doubt, a great bastion of these birds in Europe. Twenty six species breed in the country, including substantial populations of large vultures – Griffons (23,000 pairs), Black Vultures (1,400 pairs), Egyptian (1,400 pairs) and Lammergeier or Bearded Vultures (100 pairs).
The great eagles are likewise very well represented with around 1,400 pairs of Golden Eagle and 200 pairs of the illusive Spanish Imperial Eagle – one of the leading attractions for keen birdwatchers thanks to its endemic Iberian status and extraordinary rarity. There are also some 750 pairs of Bonelli’s Eagle, which is increasingly rare throughout Europe.
Other, smaller raptor species are equally sought by the birdwatcher interested in the birds of Spain. For example, the Black-winged or Black-shouldered Kite, Red Kite, Montagu’s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel and Eleonora’s Falcon.
The Birds of the Spanish Plains
Spain is not only a country of mountains, it also features infinite plains, many of which lie at high altitudes on upland moors in the interior of the plateau (the meseta). Stretching away across these immense plains are huge tracts of dry-farmed cereal crops and semi steppe habitats. Despite their apparent simplicity and monotonous aspect, these landscapes are important habitats for a wide range of evocative bird species. Pre-eminent among these is the impressive Great Bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds in the world – males can grow up to 15kg. There are approximately 23,000 Great Bustards thriving on flat Spanish expanses of wheat and maize fields mainly in Castile & León and Extremadura.
Other fascinating plains birds are the Little Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Similarly, Spain’s dry-farmed fields, moors, shrub and grasslands are home to very numerous populations of small steppe birds such as the Crested and Thekla Larks, Calandra Lark, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks. Special mention should also be made of Dupont’s Lark, one of Spain’s least known and most exclusive birds.
The Birds of the Wetlands
No summary of the birds of Spain 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, those it has are outstanding. Coastal salt marshes, their associated saltpans and river deltas rank among the best Spanish birdwatching sites, places where some of the most singular and attractive birds can be spotted. Chief among these wetlands are the Doñana saltmarshes of southern Spain, the Ebro Delta south of Barcelona, 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 locations such as the Malaga saltwater lagoon of Fuentedepiedra, the belt of lakes and tablas (marshy areas flooded by slow-moving rivers) of La Mancha and the endorheic lakes of Villafáfila in Zamora and Gallocanta in Zaragoza-Teruel, a good sprinkling of major ornithological attractions can be seen. An example of these are the eye-catching Common Flamingos, which in Fuentedepiedra has one of the few stable breeding colonies in the entire Mediterranean basin. Depending on the water-table conditions prevailing in the other fluctuating wetland habitats, flamingoes also breed at different spots along the coast and in the interior.
Another large and striking species of waterfowl is the Spoonbill. Two of its main breeding sites in Europe are situated in the Huelva-based enclaves of Doñana and the Odiel saltmarshes. The Glossy Ibis is yet another of the wetlands’ star birds that can be sighted in Doñana as well as in the Ebro delta and a handful of other areas along the Mediterranean side of the country.
Photo credit: Egrets are birds of Spain’s wetlands Ebro Delta Birding
Spain is the breeding ground for practically all of the European herons, namely the Grey and Purple Herons, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, Night Heron, Bittern and Little Bittern. The country is home to sizeable populations of almost all these species, including some of the rarest and most endangered such as the Squacco Heron. Indeed, so typical of Spain is the latter bird that over 50 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 such as the Purple Gallinule. Some species are very rare, to the point of being endangered worldwide. These include the Ruddy Duck and Marbled Teal. More common are the Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers, Whiskered Terns, Gull-billed Terns, Little Terns, and Common and Sandwich Terns that are present in good numbers.
Outside the breeding season, Spain’s lakes, lagoons, saltmarshes and saltpans become a resting place or over-wintering site for hundreds of thousands of Greylag Geese, ducks of all types and most of the waders that migrate across the skies of Europe. Enjoying pride of place among the principal wintering areas for wildfowl is Spain’s internationally well known natural area, Doñana National Park, which can accommodate several hundred thousand waterfowl in the season. Following Doñana in order of importance as a wintering area for the wetland birds of Spain are the Ebro Delta, Valencia’s Albufera, the Bay of Cadiz and the Villafáfila Lakes.
Photo credit: One of Spain’s important birds, the Wall Creeper, Barcelona Birding Point
Seabirds and Inland Species of Spain
Despite the great length of its coastline, Spain is not home to so many seabird species. Yet two very characteristic Mediterranean species are based there – Audouin’s Gull in numbers that make this the biggest population in the world and the Balearic Shearwater, a very rare endemic that breeds exclusively in the Balearic Isles.
Together with the above-mentioned species there are others that invariably draw the attention of tourists to Spain with an interest in birds. This is the case with the White Stork, which can be seen nesting and attending to its young on all types of supports and structures in urban settings. Nests can be found on churches, municipal and office buildings, park trees and electricity pylons leading to towns, very often not far from the road.
There are also other birds that add a certain dash of exoticism to the Spanish countryside on account of their colourful plumage. For example, the multi-coloured Bee-eater or the Roller. These birds might more appropriately belong in a tropical setting in Africa or Asia. Another bird species that always excites interest in Spain is the Azure-winged Magpie. This beautiful corvid is very abundant in areas of Mediterranean vegetation in the mid-west of mainland Spain. It is unique in that it can only be observed in Spain and in China!
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Originally Published: 13 Jan 2019; Updated: 16 Dec 2021