Of all the many countries in Europe, few can boast such a variety of birds and other wildlife as Spain. From lammergeiers to Spanish imperial eagles, and Iberian lynxes to Eurasian brown bears, Spain is a must-visit destination for any keen bird and wildlife watcher.
The key to Spain’s huge array of wild creatures is the variety of habitats. From the Atlantic coast in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, and the mountains of the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa to the marismas of the Coto Doñana, Spain is packed with great places to watch birds and wildlife.
More than 600 different kinds of bird have been recorded in Spain, of which more than 400 are residents or regular visitors. These include some of the rarest and most sought-after species in Europe.
The country is the continent’s hotspot for raptors, with large and thriving populations of 26 different species, many of which can be seen throughout the year. All four European vultures – griffon, black, Egyptian and the bearded vulture or lammergeier – breed here in good numbers.
Eagles, too, abound: with five species, including the huge golden and Spanish imperial, as well as the smaller booted, Bonelli’s and short-toed varieties. Depending on the time of year, all these species can be found in the Pyrenees.
Bearded vulture or lammergeier photo credit Barcelona Birding Point
You can also enjoy Spain’s birds in more unusual settings. One of Europe’s rarest birds-of-prey, the elegant lesser kestrel, breeds on churches and cathedrals in cities such as Seville and Trujillo, while peregrines nest on Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Another Spanish speciality, easy to see in many towns and cities, is the white stork, which returns from Africa each spring to build its huge nest out of sticks on prominent buildings.
One reason why birds-of-prey are so common and widespread is that Spain boasts the second highest average altitude of any European country – beaten only by Switzerland. Away from the costas, most of Spain is either hilly or mountainous, with ranges running mostly from west to east across the country, interspersed with flat, open plains which have their own special birdlife.
So, the keen birder can spend the morning on the high tops, searching for high-altitude specialists such as wallcreeper, alpine accentor and snow finch; before descending onto the plains. Here they can find great and little bustards, pin-tailed and black-bellied sandgrouse – all species which are either absent or hard-to-see in the rest of Europe.
The plains are also home to a host of larks, including the huge calandra, the tiny lesser short-toed, and the rare and elusive Dupont’s lark, which usually requires a visit before dawn to catch it singing – and even then, it can easily be missed. In winter, vast flocks of cranes – migrants from northern Europe – can also be found here.
Further south, the cork oak forests of Extremadura and Andalucía are home to more raptors, including the mighty Spanish imperial eagle. This very rare species, found only in the Iberian Peninsula, has come back from the brink of extinction in recent years. At one point, the world population was down to as few as fifty pairs; but today, thanks to careful conservation measures, there are almost 400 breeding pairs. Contact Birding Extremadura
Spanish imperial eagle photo credit Birding Extremadura
These forests are also home to another regional speciality, the azure-winged – or Iberian – magpie. This gorgeous pink bird, with its blue wings and tail, and black cap, is usually found in noisy, sociable groups. For keen birders, eager to add new species to their world lists, the Iberian form of the common magpie has recently been elevated into a full species, as has the Iberian green woodpecker.
Another prime habitat in Spain are its wetlands, which support a huge variety of waterbirds, from waders to ducks and herons to flamingos. Of these, perhaps the best known is the Coto Doñana, south of Seville, made famous by a series of expeditions in the 1950s to what was then Europe’s largest wilderness.
Since then, much of this precious wetland has been lost to intensive agriculture, but a vast area still remains. The marshes – which are formed by the River Guadalquivir as it heads towards the sea – are home to one of the largest colonies of greater flamingos in Europe. There are also at least eight species of herons, egrets and bitterns, along with spoonbills, glossy ibises and red-knobbed coot – a rare African species whose only European stronghold is southern Spain. Contact Wild Donana.
Eurasian spoonbill photo credit Wild Donana
At the southern point of Spain – and one of the southernmost points of Europe – the Straits of Gibraltar are a twice-yearly hotspot for migration. Here, at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, you can look across to Morocco and see flocks of raptors heading north in spring and south in autumn, often in their thousands.
The most frequently seen species are black kite (up to 150,000 each autumn), honey buzzard (90,000-100,000), short-toed eagle (more than 15,000) and booted eagle (up to 14,000). You may also see marsh and Montagu’s harriers, ospreys, hobbies and black storks, all of which are heading south to spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa. Contact Inglorious Bustards.
White storks photo credit Inglorious Bustards
Spain is of course best known as Europe’s most popular holiday destination. But just behind the beaches there are some top birding sites – especially on the Balearic Islands. Mallorca is one of the easiest places in Europe to see a good range of resident and migrant birds, including specialities such as Eleonora’s falcon and Audouin’s gull.
With all this richness of birds, it would be easy to ignore Spain’s other wildlife. But it’s worth spending time seeking out some of the rarer and more elusive mammals, such as brown bears in the Cantabrian mountains, Iberian wolves in Galicia, and Europe’s rarest species of cat, the Iberian lynx. This charismatic feline almost went extinct during the late twentieth century, but like the Spanish imperial eagle, it has been brought back from the brink, and there are now several specialist companies taking visitors on ‘lynx tours’. Contact Iberian Lynx Land.
Iberian lynx photo credit Iberian Lynx Land
Spain is also easy to get to, with great food and drink and wonderful history and culture. So, whether you want to search for mountain specialists or wetland spectacles, rare birds or mammals, then Spain is the ideal holiday destination for you.
Other specialist Spanish tour operators to consider include More Than Birds
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Birder, author and wildlife TV producer