Choosing the Best Time for an Extremadura Birding Holiday
In the heart of Spain there’s a lesser-known region that should be high on any keen nature lover’s list.
Twice the size of Wales (at 16,075 square miles) but with a population of just 1.1 million people, Extremadura is renowned as one of Spain’s best regions for birding, and nature more generally. This is in no small part because it remains so unspoiled and empty of people.
Travelling to Extremadura
It does take a little effort to get to Extremadura because you have to fly in to Madrid, Sevilla or even Lisbon (combining your trip with some birding on the estuaries there) and then make a drive of three hours. But the rewards are high.
Whichever airport you choose, or if you’re travelling overland, the trip will take you along roads that are, mercifully, fast and largely traffic-free. And the drive gives you the chance to get used to some of the region’s more common and widespread species, such as the Corn Buntings that appear on seemingly every telephone wire, or Crested Larks that sing over every open field.
Once there you have the opportunity to find your own birds in practically every part of the region, staying in beautiful, historic towns and villages, or one of the whitewashed farms that have been converted into guest houses and dot the landscape.
Best times and places to visit for birding in Extremadura
Spring is the best time for an Extremadura birding holiday, not least because the weather is likely to be pleasantly warm, but you’ll have to get your timing exactly right to see the best of the winter visitors as well as the arriving summer visitors.
Undoubtedly the most notable of the former are the Cranes, with more than 130,000 now regularly wintering in the region between November and early February.
While some will have started to move on by the end of the latter month, large groups still remain. This period from mid-February to mid-March can be the most productive ‘crossover’ period for birding in Extremadura, with winter visitors hanging on, summer visitors starting to drop in, and many of the resident breeders particularly conspicuous as they start to sing and display.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Common Cranes
One of the great joys of the Cranes is the fact they can turn up in pretty much any of Extremadura’s habitats, other than the very urban and the rocky hills of Monfrague and the region’s northern border.
So, look for them in rice paddies (a favourite haunt), in maize stubble and on open grassland, on the stony, semi-arid plains, in the dehesa (open cork-oak forest typical of parts of Extremadura, and used to graze the region’s famous Iberian Black Pigs), around water bodies, or just trumpeting as they pass overhead.
Numbers in the region have doubled over the last decade, and the best spots to find them can vary from year to year depending on what crops have been grown where.
There’s a Crane visitor centre at Moheda Alta, to the east of Trujillo, and an annual crane festival – Festival de las Grullas – that is also held there.
Red Avadavats and Common Waxbills
The areas of rice paddies are also good places to find two unusual species that you might not have expected to find when birding in Extremadura. Red Avadavats, with red bills and a bright red plumage in spring, are native to India, while Common Waxbills are an African bird. Both species have established viable breeding populations in this manmade landscape.
Expect to find them with some of the commoner finches, plus House and Spanish Sparrows. Species such as Bluethroat and even Penduline Tit can be found in the reedy areas around some of the field edges. In late winter, too, bush and scrub areas can harbour large numbers of Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps, Meadow Pipits and the like.
These small birds often attract raptors such as Peregrine and Merlin, as well as Hen Harriers, in winter. Watch for them trying to flush potential victims.
Raptors, of course, are one of the main reasons to visit Extremadura in the first place. Specifically, the vultures of the Monfrague National Park. So any Extremadura birding route should include a visit there.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Egyptian Vulture
Large numbers of Griffon Vultures are present year-round, as well as around 400 pairs of huge Cinereous (Black) Vultures. They’re joined in spring by Egyptian Vultures (although a few birds occasionally also winter there).
The best location for seeing all of them is around the Peña Falcón escarpment, with Castillo Monfrague making the perfect viewpoint. From it, the vultures swish past remarkably close, at eye level, and with patient viewing you should also have a good chance of seeing Iberian Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle and Red Kite. Eagle Owls are also found in the gorge below the castle.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Eagle Owl
Although they can be hard to spot during daylight, Black Storks are always a good possibility here, too.
A Feast of Vultures in Monfragüe
There are three species of vulture that can be seen in Extremadura: the Griffon; the Cinereous, Monk or Eurasian Black; and the Egyptian.
Historically, this was not always the case, as vulture numbers in this part of Spain dwindled through most of the 20th century.
The use of poisons to control pests, the rise of agriculture and logging, greater density of human populations, uncontrolled hunting, nest disturbance and egg collecting all seriously affected raptor numbers until the 1970s.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Monfragüe National Park
Then, at the beginning of the 1980s, resident populations of both Griffons and Blacks began to recover, thanks to a greater appreciation of what was being lost and a programme of protecting them and their habitat.
The creation of Monfragüe National Park in 1979 safeguarded nest sites. The crags and gorges carved out by the Tajo and Tiétar rivers that converge within the park provide perfect homes for the Griffons. Their need for ledges that can accommodate their large 1m wide nests, protected by overhangs.
Black vultures, with their tree-nesting habits, also find the park inviting for its abundance of tall, broad oaks that can hold their vast collections of roughly piled sticks that can be 1.5m in diameter and 1m high. A tree of some sturdiness is necessary to hold them steady.
Monfragüe’s undulating landscape of bare rock poking out of mature woodland also lends itself to the creation of thermals, on which the birds soar while seeking carrion.
The relatively short walk up to the castle should also yield such delights as Azure-winged Magpie and Firecrest. While at the top good close-range views of Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart and Rock Bunting are all likely. Black and Black-eared Wheatear are also found in the National Park.
Late winter and early spring are also good times to look for Great and Little Bustards. The former engaging in its ‘foam bath’ display to females, in which it puffs up its throat and withdraws its head, cocks its tail and fans out its white secondary feathers. Little Bustards, on the other hand, blow raspberries from the cover of long grasses.
Modern farming practices have affected numbers of both, especially the smaller species, but some good-sized flocks can still usually be found.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Great Bustard
Great Bustards, Europe’s heaviest flying birds, are best looked for around Santa Marta de Magasca, west of Trujillo, where there’s a hide from which you can sometimes see more than 100 birds, while there’s also a hide at La Aldea del Bispo, just to the north of Trujillo, specifically for photographing Little Bustards.
The dry, grassy plains in this area are also excellent for a host of other species. Both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse can be found with a little patience, Crested Larks are everywhere, and the chunky Calandra Lark should also be easy to find. As spring wears on, expect plenty of Iberian Grey Shrikes and Woodchat Shrikes on fenceposts, phone wires and bushes, too.
Extremadura’s other wildlife
As well as being outstanding for birding tours, Extremadura boasts a wealth of other wildlife. Mammals include Red Deer, plentiful in the Monfrague area, and Spanish Ibex, mostly in the Sierra de Gredos foothills in the north, near Caceres.
Also to be found are Otter, Wild Boar, Beech Marten, small numbers of Egyptian Mongoose, and the secretive Common Genet, generally only seen around dawn and dusk, and only fleetingly.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Spanish Festoon Butterfly
There’s an outstanding variety of butterflies as spring goes on, and in summer, great opportunities for dragonfly and damselfly watching, too.
One site sometimes overlooked by birders as they speed to and from Monfrague on the A5 motorway, is Arrocampo Reservoir, near Saucedilla. It has a good-sized reedbed where you can look out for Little Bitterns, as well as Purple Heron, Purple Gallinule, and the likes of Penduline Tit and Bluethroat.
Black-winged Kites – a real Iberian speciality – are also in the area, so look out for them hovering, or perched on telegraph poles.
Birding in Extremadura’s Historic Towns
Extremadura is a very rural region, with few large towns. Merida, the capital, has a population of around 60,000. It is Spain’s most intact Roman city. While Trujillo and Caceres are full of historic buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the wealth of the conquistadors, many of whom came from Extremadura, was used to rebuild them.
They do have their own ornithological attractions, and no Extremadura birding holiday would be complete without spending some time in one of these towns. They are among the very few urban centres designated by the EU as Special Protection Areas for birds.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Lesser Kestrels
The three are home to as large a number as 15% of Europe’s Lesser Kestrel population, with the bullring in Trujillo a good spot to find them.
And all three towns, of course, have sizable populations of White Storks, with their huge nests adorning all sorts of roofs, chimneys and towers. The Acueducto de los Milagros (Aqueduct of Miracles), the ruins of a Roman aqueduct in Merida, is a particularly good place to see them, offering great photographic possibilities.
From early spring onwards, a walk round any one of the three towns should also bring sightings of plentiful Swallows, House Martins and Pallid Swifts. With the distinctively larger Alpine Swift also usually present.
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Even in the urban areas, keep an eye on the sky overhead, as soaring raptors are almost always present. Trujillo’s castle is a good vantage point from which to do this, offering superb views over the surrounding countryside, while in Merida, another historical monument is a key birdwatching site.
The Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge, connects the older part of the city with the more modern developments, divided by the Rio Guadiana. It’s the longest Roman bridge still in use in the world, and walking across its near 800m span gives you a great chance to find birds on the river and its associated floodplain and inlets.
Cattle Egrets are common here, plus Little Egret, Night Heron and Glossy Ibis. Spoonbill is a possibility too, and it’s as good a place as any to find Purple Gallinule. The bridge itself provides ample nesting nooks and crannies for the likes of Jackdaws, Crag Martins, and Alpine and Pallid Swifts.
There’s a park (the Parque de las VII Sillas) alongside the river, and possible sightings there can include Little Bittern, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Spotless Starling, Serin, Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Bonelli’s and Western Subalpine Warblers, Melodious Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Red-rumped Swallow and Stonechat.
If you can’t schedule your birding holiday for early spring, the next best time to visit Extremadura is mid-April to mid-June, when pretty much all the summer visitors (including the likes of Bee-eaters, Rollers and Great Spotted Cuckoos will have arrived).
These will be in full singing and displaying mode, and the wild flowers will be at their best.
However, pretty much every time of year has something to recommend it on a wildlife-watching holiday to Extremadura. This part of Spain is one of the increasingly rare places in Europe where man and nature still seem to co-exist in some kind of balance, and that makes for a nature holiday to remember.
Are you interested in birding in Extremadura?
To benefit from local knowledge and find your target species, check out some of the expert tour operators who can organise trips on the best Extremadura birdwatching routes.