For wildlife travelers from the United States, a wildlife holiday in Spain offers a wide range of interesting habitats and an equally fascinating array of species, all neatly contained in an area just slightly smaller than Texas.
Spain encompasses a diverse topography and an assortment of climates because of its position bridging northern Africa and southern Europe, with the Atlantic to its west side and the Mediterranean to its east.
Each aspect of the country’s physical geography has contributed to form a unique collection of ecosystems, and therefore some of the best wildlife watching opportunities in Europe.
Photo credit: Birding Tarifa, Spanish Imperial Eagle
In terms of accessing all of these wildlife-rich areas, Spain is criss-crossed by excellent rail and road systems, with plenty of traditional small towns and villages offering good-value lodging with a true Spanish flavor.
And there are many local English-speaking wildlife guides who can shortcut the search for any particular animal you have flown over to see and help you add some interesting species to your life-list. These local specialists can also introduce you to the real Spain, off the well-traveled tourist routes.
Aside from its compelling wildlife, Spain is a melting pot of cultures and religious influences. It has played a big part in the history of the world and, in fact, Spanish is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world after English, Mandarin and Hindi.
Photo: Granada, Andalucía, Spain
Spain’s famous historic and cultural sites can be combined with a wildlife-focussed trip to give an all-round experience of a unique country. You will return home with photographs and memories to last a lifetime!
So if you fly direct from the States into Barcelona or Madrid in northern and central Spain, or choose a route via a European capital to Malaga in the south, what can you expect to find on a wildlife holiday to this fascinating country?
Spain is a hugely biodiverse country
Spain’s regions cover globally important coastal wetlands, montane forests, savannah grasslands, deserts, garrique scrublands, broadleaf woodlands and conifer forests.
Photo credit: Geoface, Asturias, Spain
As a result of its geography and climate, the number and variety of animals to be found in Spain is vast. In fact, it is home to an estimated 85,000 different animals and plants, including more than 620 species of birds. Around 30 percent of Europe’s endemic species can be found there.
The mountains of the north – the Pyrenees that lie between Spain and France and the Cantabrian range that rises above the northwest coast – shelter animals that are now rarely found anywhere else. In particular, the Picos de Europa National Park that lies within the Cantabrian Mountains is a destination famous for its hiking trails and wildlife-watching opportunities.
The world-famous wetlands in Spain, such as the Ebro Delta in the north east of the country just south of Barcelona and the Coto Doñana National Park in the south close to Seville, provide a feast for the eyes of birdwatchers.
Photo credit: Al Henderson, Ebro Delta Birding, Ebro Delta
The high plateau of Castille and León and the open grasslands and semi-arid plains of Extremadura afford the ideal habitat for some of Europe’s top predators, Iberian wolf, Iberian lynx, and many different species of raptors.
The south of Spain, particularly Andalucía, is the area to go for the mass migration of birds in spring and autumn. This corridor between two continents sees the movement of an astonishing range of migrating birds. The number of eagles alone is awe-inspiring.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Spanish Festoon
The mountain gorges and forests across the country also offer suitable conditions for a wide range of wildflowers and plants to delight the botanist. They also promote a great biodiversity of invertebrates, especially butterflies.
Spain’s varied array of animals
Visitors from the US are drawn to Spain for its birdlife, more than any other types of animals. The variety of birds of prey alone is a big draw. From the majesty of the Bearded Vulture, the Lammergeier or Bone Breaker, to the delicacy and rarity of Dupont’s Lark, Spain can satisfy the most ardent birder.
Photo credit: Roger Sanmarti, Photo Logistics, Bearded Vulture
Griffon, Egyptian and Black Vultures soar over the mountainsides and into the gorges, along with Spanish Imperial, Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles, Black-winged Kites and Eurasian Eagle Owls.
Great and Little Bustards, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Eurasian Cranes roam the grasslands, while Capercaillie, Black Woodpeckers and Azure-winged Magpies inhabit the woodlands and White and Black Storks build their nests on the roofs of townhouses.
In the wetlands, Greater Flamingos share salt pans and rice paddies with Glossy Ibis, Purple, Squacco and Black-crowned Night Herons, Spoonbills and Little Bitterns. Lakes and their margins house Red-crested Pochards, Black-winged Stilts, Avocets and Collared Pratincoles. In the reedbeds there are Zitting Cisticolas, Cetti’s and Savi’s Warblers, and Eurasian Penduline Tits.
Photo credit: Iberian Lynx Land, Iberian Lynx
But although the birdlife is mouth-watering, the mammals that live here are also more than worthy of note. Spain has been at the forefront of conservation attempts to return the Iberian lynx to some of its traditional hunting grounds. Much work has gone into restoring habitats and working with local people to raise awareness of the importance of these predators in the landscape.
Photo credit: More Than Birds, Brown Bear
Other interesting mammals found in Spain’s mountainous regions are brown bears, Spanish ibex, red and roe deer, Cantabrian chamois, wild boars, Alpine marmots, European mouflon and red squirrels.
The woodlands, river valleys and plains shelter Egyptian mongoose, otters, beech martens, wild cats and common genets, among others.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Long-finned Pilot Whales
As far as marine life is concerned, more than 30 cetacean species pass along the coasts of Spain and whale and dolphin trips run from Galicia into the Bay of Biscay and from eastern and southern Spain into the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar is a pinchpoint, concentrating passage of sperm, fin and minke whales, and common and bottled-nosed dolphins from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Featured Tours: Bird Migration Flyways and Cetaceans Tour, Andalucía, Spain, Spring Birding in Spain Tour, Extremadura and Gredos Mountains – Brown Bear Trip, Cantabria – Raptors Paradise Birding Trip, Andalucía – Iberian Lynx and Wildlife Conservation Tour, Andalucía – Vulture Birdwatching Highlights Trip, Menorca
Birds aplenty and a migration hotspot
Returning to the avian delights of Spain, one of the reasons why it has such an abundance of interesting species is its position on one of the major flyways for birds traveling from Africa to northern Europe.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, White Storks
The food-rich landscapes of the country are the ideal stopping-off point for birds that have just crossed the inhospitable desert regions of north Africa. Spain affords them rest and respite before they continue their journeys to northern Europe to breed.
On the return trip, Spain’s bounty allows them to fatten up for the long hop to their over-wintering grounds.
As a result, whether you choose to go in spring or fall to witness the passage of thousands of birds, you will be rewarded with views of an eclectic mix of species that aren’t normally seen together.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Rüppell’s Vulture
Add to that the chance of standing under the flightpath of literally thousands of raptors as they navigate their way across southern Europe and you have the birdwatching event of a lifetime to enjoy!
This is where specialist knowledge and local knowhow play such an important part. Years of experience of the best places to look, or where to position yourself for the most impressive spectacle, is the invaluable element that a wildlife guide working on the ground can offer.
Hidden birding gems in Spain
The trick to making the most of your journey across the Atlantic to Spain is to employ the knowledge of a local in finding the best places to see the wildlife on your list.
Spain is full of secret places, off the beaten track, where you can enjoy a crowd-free day soaking up the sight of new species. Nowhere is that difficult to get to, as Spain has good communication links and a well-maintained road system, but you have to know where you’re going.
The other aspect of successful wildlife watching is choosing the best time of year to go. Ideally, making contact with a local guide while you are in the planning stages of your trip can ensure you hit the target time for the species you want to see.
You can research in broad terms with a Google search, but you can’t beat personal contact. So once you know what you want to see, consult with a Blue Sky Wildlife tour operator to really hone in on your trip of a lifetime.
Opportunities for photography
Of course, you are not just going to want to see Spain’s wildlife. You’re going to want to photograph it as well, whether simply as a record or as an exhibition-quality shot.
Photo credit: Roger Sanmarti, Photo Logistics, European Roller
For those who are keen to capture an image of a specific species, or spend quality time experimenting with light conditions, angles and exposures, a customized wildlife photography trip is what’s required.
Many Spanish wildlife tour operators run specialized photography trips of varying lengths. These can often be customized and can include access to areas not available to the general public. Local knowledge offers good opportunities of finding animals that are hard to photograph otherwise.
There are also designated photo hides in many of the National Parks that get you close to the action with a range of species. The vulture feeding station near the hilltop village of Alquezar in Aragon, for instance, is a great opportunity to see these wonderful birds perched within a short distance of your lens.
Photo credit: Birding Tarifa, Griffon Vultures
Similarly, the ramparts of the castle in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura are the ideal places to get shots of Griffon Vultures in eye-level flight. And some operators provide canvas hides so you can choose your location in areas where there is no natural cover.
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Spain is a year-round wildlife holiday destination
European spring and fall are the times to choose if you want to get the full effect of the many migrating bird species that pass through Spain. Temperatures will generally be pleasant then for wildlife watching across the country, in the mountains and on the plains, as well as visiting the towns and cities.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Great Bustards
Although there may be rain in some parts of the country at those times, this swells the rivers and floods the wetlands so that you see these fascinating ecosystems at their best. In spring the Spanish grasslands are colorful blankets of wildflowers. In fall, the woodlands turn to yellows and golds, and as the trees lose their leaves, the birdlife becomes easier to see.
Summer can be hot in central Spain, but the nights are warm and so this is a good time to catch views of some of the country’s nocturnal creatures. It is also the best time for butterflies and finding some of the rarer orchids.
In winter, Spain is a good wildlife-watching destination to choose for some of the European bird spectacles. Thousands of Common Cranes gather on the plains of Extremadura and La Mancha in winter. In Doñana National Park in southern Spain the marshes are at their optimum water levels and alive with ducks, geese and wading birds. Even in December and January temperatures can be warm and pleasant this far south, and the winter light is great for photography.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Common Cranes
Winter is also the time to enjoy some of the subalpine birds down at lower levels – Alpine Choughs and Alpine Accentors, for instance, will descend until the snows melt.
Eco-friendly travel companies
Spanish wildlife tour operators are leading the way in ecotourism, encouraging good practice in preserving the natural habitat and wildlife watching in an ethical and non-damaging way.
There is widespread awareness of the impact of tourism on the environment and positive efforts to minimize single-use plastics, reduce food waste and avoid squandering resources.
Many companies take part in education projects to encourage children and young people to care for the environment and respect its animals. They also contribute to conservation initiatives, giving their time and ecological expertise as well as helping with fund-raising, often by donating a percentage of their profits.
In addition, support for the rural economy goes hand-in-hand with running their businesses. This includes providing local employment, patronizing nearby businesses and sourcing food supplies from regional farmers.
Spain’s abundance of National and Natural Parks
There are 11 National Parks on the Spanish mainland, with another five on its islands. Surrounding them are areas of Natural Park lands that provide a buffer zone to protect the indigenous animals and preserve biodiversity.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Monfragüe National Park
Within the National Parks human development is strictly controlled and the landscape is managed to benefit nature. Nevertheless, ecotourism is encouraged, as these Parks are open to all to enjoy the natural beauty of the country.
The Parks are also a focus for conservation, with many taking part in re-introduction programs and habitat restoration to encourage a return to historic levels of diverse species. For example, the Ebro Delta Natural Park, just south of Barcelona, was re-colonized by Greater Flamingos as recently as 1992, following efforts to improve the conditions for these birds.
Photo credit: Al Henderson, Ebro Delta Birding, Greater Flamingo
Thanks to careful land management, Iberian wolves have been re-discovered in Guadarrama National Park, close to Madrid, when they had been thought extinct. Meanwhile, a small number of Iberian lynx have been introduced to Doñana National Park, in the hope that the habitat will sustain these important predators.
It’s not just wildlife watching that the National and Natural Parks of Spain offer the visitor. There are many signposted and well-maintained hiking trails suitable for all levels of walker. The Parks are perfect places for star gazing, with clear skies most of the year, untroubled by light pollution.
Photo credit: Birding Tarifa, Bonelli’s Eagle
In some there are caves to explore, in others beaches, and white-water rafting, kayaking and skiing may be available, as well as wild camping.
For those who prefer slightly more home comforts, a lot of the Parks have guesthouses and offer the chance to sample regional Spanish cuisine.
Featured Tours: Birdwatching in Doñana Trip – Sierra Magina Golden Eagle Birding Tour, Jaén – Albufera des Grau Birdwatching Trip, Menorca – Birding in Serranía de Ronda & Grazalema – Butterflies of Asturias Trip
For culture vultures
You may choose Spain as a top destination for wildlife watching, but you can’t ignore the rich historical and cultural experiences you can also have on a vacation here. It is the perfect place to combine birdwatching and gastronomy in one enjoyable vacation, for instance. Or organize a day trip to a photo hide for one member of the family while the others take in a grand palace or a magnificent cathedral.
Photo credit: Valery Egorov, Shutterstock.com, Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain
The major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia and Zaragoza are full of interesting architecture and important international art galleries and museums. Just strolling around the streets soaking up the atmosphere of these vibrant European centers is mind enhancing.
Venture out of the cities and each of the regions has its own unique character and tradition, moulded by its location and history. From Galicia, Aragon and Navarre in the north to Andalucía and Murcia in the south, the way people speak, what they eat, their buildings, music and dance are all particular to their area.
Photo: Alhambra, Granada, Andalucía, Spain
So a trip to Spain is not just about visiting one of Europe’s premier wildlife watching destinations; it’s also about an all-around southern European experience. The country exerts an appeal to not just the die-hard birdwatcher, the keen botanist or the butterfly buff, but also everyone else in the family who enjoys learning about a different culture and exploring new and exciting landscapes.
Are you interested in a wildlife holiday in Spain?
For more information, contact one of our specialist wildlife tour operators and companies in Spain to book directly your next wildlife holiday.
Sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain in New York