The lasting impression Extremadura gives is space and an extraordinary diversity of landscapes. This is the authentic Wild Spain, a region with a surface area twice that of Wales and yet with a population of just over a million people, making it one of the most sparsely populated areas of Western Europe.
The combination of history, geology and climate creates this rich diversity. In a week’s holiday it is possible to explore a different habitat every day, each boasting its own distinctive wildlife. The region is internationally renowned for its breeding birds of prey, for classic emblematic species like Great Bustards and attracting wintering birds in huge numbers. 75% of its area is covered by Important Bird Areas – the highest proportion of any region in Europe.
Sierra de Gredos
The northern boundary of Extremadura is marked by the Gredos Mountains, rising to over 2500 metres with expanses of broom-dominated moorland redolent with the haunting song of Ortolan Buntings. The steep mountainsides are clad with deciduous forests full of Western Bonelli’s Warblers. To the south lies the basin of the Tagus River, the Iberian Peninsula’s longest watercourse. Here a dominant landscape epitomises this part of Spain: the dehesa. Extending as far as the eye can see, this is open woodland of evergreen oaks, managed as a traditional farming landscape for centuries. The trees are wide enough apart for grass to grow, providing meadows for livestock and full of spring flowers. In late autumn prime Iberian pigs alongside Common Cranes forage on acorns. It is home to the Spanish Eagle and the Eurasian Black Vulture, the latter with over 900 pairs. Extremadura is the most important breeding area in the world for this bird. The attractive and gregarious Iberian Magpies are abundant, found only in southwestern Spain and Portugal and whose nearest cousin occurs over 8000 kms away in eastern Asia.
Monfragüe National Park
Cutting through the dehesas are steep-sided valleys, with groves of wild olives and rocky outcrops, ideal for Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s Eagles and Eagle Owls. Where the Tagus River passes through ancient hard rocks, spectacular cliffs have been formed where hundreds of pairs of Griffon Vultures breed.
This is the Monfragüe National Park. No visit to Extremadura is complete without a pilgrimage to this site, well endowed with viewpoints and walking trails.
Cáceres and Trujillo
Parts of Extremadura were cleared of trees in ancient times for open-country farming and are ecologically like steppes. Pride of place goes to the Great Bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. In early spring the extraordinary courtship display of the males, when they turn themselves into brilliant white strutting pyramids, is visible across the open green fields from a great distance. Little Bustards perform their own distinctive dances. This a landscape for sandgrouse and larks, where eagles hunt. Internationally important populations of Lesser Kestrel, an exquisite small falcon, feed out on the plains. They nest in colonies in beautiful medieval towns such as Cáceres and Trujillo.
Guadiana River and Southern Extremadura
The region’s second river is the Guadiana, dominating southern Extremadura. As well as extensive dehesas and open plains, there are a network of reservoirs providing water for crops such as rice and maize. In the spring there are Collared Pratincoles and Gull-billed Terns, and after the harvest the muddy stubble fields attract duck and waders, and most significantly, Common Crane. In recent decades the numbers of this beautiful bird arriving each autumn have increased to about 140,000, making Extremadura the most important wintering region for this species in Europe. Cranes can be seen right through until late February, when the sight of their departure in noisy skeins heading north-west against a clear-blue sky is one of the most moving wildlife spectacles imaginable.
The Guadiana River passes through Extremadura’s capital city, Mérida. This World Heritage Site (one of three in the region) has a significant Roman history. Here one can easily combine culture with nature, crossing the river on the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world, and from it watching at close quarters species like Western Swamphen, Glossy Ibis, Little Bittern and Penduline Tit, whilst three species of swift nest under the arches of the bridge itself. Beautiful parks run along the river in the centre of the city, excellent for finding some of Extremadura’s 55 species of dragonfly, including some of African origin.
South of Mérida is the main wine-producing area and important too for olives. The combination of these crops provides the right habitat for the striking Rufous Bush Robin, whilst on the nearby sierras, Black Wheatears are resident. Here too are several of Extremadura’s orchid hotspots. With sixty species recorded, orchids can be found in flower from late January, right through to June (there is also one species in the autumn), although the peak is in March and April. Another great area for orchids is near the town of Almaráz in the north-east of Extremadura, where there are orchid trails and even an orchid interpretation centre.
With its easy access, excellent road system and with one of the best networks of local nature guides and choice of accommodation to be found anywhere in Spain, it is easy to understand why Extremadura attracts nature tourists from all over the world.
Monfragüe National Park, the plains of Trujillo and Cáceres, urban birding in Mérida and Trujillo, great scenery and wildlife in the Villuercas and Gredos Mountains and amazing winter birding on the rice fields and reservoirs in central Extremadura.
Extremadura is a year-round destination for wildlife, although winter and spring are the best for birds. Bustards are displaying from mid-March to late April and almost all summer migrants have arrived by mid-April. Cranes offer a winter spectacle from November to February. For people interested in groups like butterflies (over 120 species present) and dragonflies, visits in June and even July are rewarding, especially if one focuses on the milder mountainous areas of the north and east.
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Author: Martin Kelsey