One of the very best places in Europe to see big, spectacular and rare wild animals is Spain – especially birds and mammals. These range from easily visible species, such as bee-eaters, hoopoes and griffon vultures, which can be seen at the right time of year across much of the country, to far scarcer and more localised creatures. As with any other destination, if you want to see a range of species, and connect with the really special ones, local knowledge is absolutely essential – so check out our guide to wildlife in Spain which includes birdwatching sites, best times to travel and recommended local wildlife specialists to book directly with here.
Remember that although many local wildlife tour operators and companies specialise in birding tours, they will always try to include Spain’s other target species, especially the big mammals.
Must See Wild Animals in Spain
Here is our guide to the ‘Special Spanish Seven’ – the birds and mammals that are on every visitor’s ‘must-see’ list.
1. IBERIAN LYNX
The Iberian (or Spanish) lynx is one of the most endangered wild cats in the world. Found only in the wilder regions of Spain and Portugal, it has distinctive tufted ears, a short tail and long legs. Iberian lynxes prey mainly on rabbits, which have declined because of diseases such as myxomatosis. They also suffered from the loss of their scrubby habitat to development. In recent years, numbers have bounced back from the brink of extinction, rising from just 100 pairs at the turn of the millennium to more than 300 pairs today. This is thanks to the efforts of conservationists to provide the right habitat and stop the animals being hunted and killed. Its main strongholds are in the south and west of Spain, especially Andalucía and along the border with Portugal. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you an Iberian Lynx here.
Credit: Jose Luis Sanchez – Iberian Lynx Land
2. SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE
This huge bird of prey – one of Europe’s largest and most impressive species of eagle, with a wingspan of more than two metres, and weighing up to 3.5 kg (nearly 8 lbs) – is another species that has come back from the brink of extinction. Found only in Iberia, numbers of this majestic raptor dropped as low as 30 pairs towards the end of the twentieth century. But thanks to careful conservation measures, the numbers have since risen to more than 300 pairs, mostly found in southern and western Spain. This eagle preys on a variety of other creatures including rodents, birds, hares and even foxes. The best places to see the Spanish imperial eagle are Parque Nacional de Monfragüe in Extremadura, southwest of Madrid; and the Coto Doñana in Andalucía, to the south of Seville. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Spanish Imperial Eagle here.
Credit: Martin Kesley Birding Extremadura
3. LESSER KESTREL
This tiny falcon – just 27-33 cm long and with a wingspan of about 65-70 cm – is one of Europe’s smallest birds of prey. Lesser kestrels are often found in cities, especially those in the south and west of Spain, such as Trujillo, Caceres and Seville, where they nest on tall churches and cathedrals. Unlike most other raptors, they are sociable birds, gathering in flocks of several dozen or more to feed for flying insects, which they catch using their claws before transferring them to their beak. In Seville, they have also learned to hunt for moths by night, using the lights illuminating the cathedral to see their prey. Globally, lesser kestrels breed across southern Europe, southwest and central Asia, and migrate to Africa for the winter, returning to Spain in February to start breeding. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Lesser Kestrel here.
Credit: Simon Tonkin – Inglorious Bustards
4. EURASIAN BROWN BEAR
One of Europe’s largest and heaviest mammals, the Eurasian (or European) brown bear can still be found in the mountainous regions of Spain. In the Pyrenees, along with the French border, there are just a handful of bears (perhaps as few as 30) remaining, though thanks to conservation measures they are now on the increase. But in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain, in the neighbouring provinces of Cantabria and Asturias, there are two populations of bears numbering about 250 individuals in total. Brown bears weigh between 85 and 200 kg, with the females being noticeably smaller and lighter than the males, and can reach two metres in length. Despite their large size, these are shy and elusive animals, so are rarely seen, except with the help of an expert guide. In the wild, brown bears live to about 25 years old. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Eurasian Brown Bear here.
Credit: Manuel A. González – More Than Birds
The lammergeier – also known as the bearded vulture – is a very unusual bird of prey, being the only wild creature in the world that feeds almost entirely on bones. Found in the mountains of Europe and Asia, in Spain it is confined to the Pyrenees, where it can often be seen soaring high over crags in search of carrion. Along with its cousins the Egyptian, griffon and black vultures, the lammergeier also visits special ‘vulture feeding stations’, where meat and bones are put out to attract the birds so that birders and photographers can get spectacular close-up views. In appearance, this species looks more like a giant falcon than a vulture, with long, narrow wings, a long, wedge-shaped tail and a distinctively feathered neck. Elsewhere it can be found across much of the highland regions of southern Europe and Asia, east to Tibet. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Lammergeier here.
Credit: Carles Oliver Dorado – Barcelona Birding Point
6. BLACK VULTURE
The European black vulture is Spain – and Europe’s – largest bird of prey. With a wingspan of more than three metres, and weighing up to 14 kg, its huge shape is unmistakable as it floats high into the sky, using thermal air currents to gain height. Like other vultures, they feed mainly on carrion, though will take also live prey from time to time. Also known as the monk or cinereous vulture (to avoid confusion with the much smaller American black vulture), its numbers have fallen during the past century or more due to persecution and lack of food. However, in Spain, the black vulture has bucked the trend, with healthy numbers in the Pyrenees and Extremadura, and the reintroduced birds on the island of Mallorca now fully established. However, there is no cause for complacency, as the total world population of this magnificent raptor is just 5,000 individuals. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Black Vulture here.
Credit: Martin Kelsey – Birding Extremadura
7. SPANISH IBEX
The Spanish ibex – also known as the Iberian ibex or Spanish wild goat – is perfectly suited to life on the steep, rocky slopes of mountains. As one of Europe’s most mountainous countries, Spain provides plenty of habitat for this sure-footed creature, but even so, numbers have fallen in recent years, and two of the four races (in Portugal and the Pyrenees) have become extinct. The male ibex is far larger than the female, and also has huge, curved horns which the males use in fights against rivals, to win over the females. Females have horns, too, but they are much smaller than those of their mates. The best places to see these animals are in the Sierra Nevada and other hilly regions of Andalucía; they can also be found in the mountains of central Spain and along the Mediterranean coast as far north as Catalonia. There are a few small, outlying populations in the north of Spain. Check out which local wildlife specialists could show you a Spanish Ibex here.
Credit: Carles Oliver Dorado – Barcelona Birding Point
For more information about guided tours where you can see these amazing creatures, check out our unique directory of local wildlife specialists in Spain where you can book directly to secure a better deal for yourself and the local economy. These are local specialists who can make the difference between success and failure – making sure that you have the very best chances of getting unforgettable views of a creature you have always yearned to see!
Are you interested in visiting Spain?
For more information, contact one of our specialist wildlife tour operators and companies to book your next wildlife adventure in Spain directly.
Birder, author and wildlife TV producer
Originally Published: 1 Mar 2020