Wildlife in Spain
Spain has a diverse array of native animals, including a wide variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The country is home to some renowned species, such as the Spanish ‘Big Five’: Bearded Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Iberian Lynx, Iberian Wolf and Eurasian Brown Bear.
Other distinctive mammals encountered in Spain include Common Genet, Wild Boar, Barbary Sheep and Spanish Ibex. While, on the coast, cetaceans, otters and seals may be seen. The country has the second largest number of mammals in Europe, with 115 different species recorded.
Spain is home to 635 bird species, including kites, vultures, eagles, storks, flamingos and bustards. The impressive abundance of birds that can be found in Spain is due both to its geographical location (it is a natural route between Europe and Africa) and its varied landscapes and climates. Several native Spanish species are recognised as endangered. One of these is the Iberian Lynx – the most endangered cat in the world – with fewer than 100 adults remaining in Spain as of 2014. Other endangered species include Spengler’s Freshwater Mussel, El Hierro Giant Lizard (Canary Islands) and Mediterranean Monk Seal. This varied collection of wildlife may be attributed to its diverse ecosystems and, as defined by the WWF, the ‘Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub’ biome covers most of the country.
The historic regions of Aragon and Navarre in Northern Spain are home to some of its most dramatic scenery. Covering an area of 18,424 square miles, Aragon’s terrain ranges diversely from permanent glaciers to verdant valleys, rich pasture lands and orchards, through to the arid steppe plains of the central lowlands. Aragon is home to many rivers – most notably the river Ebro, Spain’s largest river in volume, which runs west-east across the entire region through the province of Zaragoza. It is also home to the Aneto, the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. Despite its relatively small size, neighbouring Navarre also features stark contrasts in geography, from the Pyrenees mountain range that dominates the territory to the plains of the Ebro river valley in the south.
Amongst some of the most scenic mountains and plains in Europe, Northern Spain is home to some of Europe’s and the world’s most spectacular birds including Bearded Vulture, Wallcreeper, Griffon Vulture, White Stork and White-winged Snowfinch. There is also the chance of seeing Great and Little Bustards, plus thousands of Common Cranes on the plains during the winter. During the summer, it has one of the highest diversities of butterflies in Europe and a rich Pyrenean flora that includes many orchids. The Pyrenees supports one of the highest diversities of butterflies and moths in Europe, including Apollo, Clouded Apollo, a great diversity of blues and fritillaries, Spanish Moon and Giant Peacock Moths. During mid-July, it is possible to see 120 species of butterfly in a week. Mammals to be seen in the mountains include Pyrenean Chamois, Alpine Marmot (introduced) and there is the chance of Wild Cat. Lastly, the Ebro Delta near Barcelona is not too distant from the Eastern Pyrenees. Typical birds to be seen there include Greater Flamingo, Squacco Heron, as well as Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls.
Best sites: Laguna de Gallocanta, ‘Belchite Steppes’ including El Planeron Ornithological Reserve (near Zaragoza), Los Monegros (steppe between Huesca, Lleida and Zaragoza), Sierra de Guara, Pyrenees – Aragon (Jaca, especially the Hecho Valley) and Navarra (Isaba), Bardenas Reales National Park.
Timing: The peak time to visit Laguna de Gallocanta for cranes is usually late February when the greatest numbers are normally present – between 20,000 and 50,000, prior to their northbound migration over the Pyrenees to their breeding grounds in Northern Europe. This is also a good time to look for wintering Wallcreeper in the Sierra de Guara. The best time for butterflies and flowers in the Pyrenees is from mid-June to the end of July, which is also a good time for birds although mid-May to mid-June is usually the peak time for birds during the summer.
Despite the existence of a large city of five million people, the countryside surrounding Madrid still retains some remarkably unspoilt and diverse habitats and landscapes. The area is home to mountain peaks rising above 2,000 metres, Holm Oak dehesa and low-lying plains. The slopes of the Guadarrama mountain range are cloaked in dense forests of Scots Pine and Pyrenean Oak. The Lozoya Valley supports a large Cinerous Vulture colony and one of the last bastions of the Spanish Imperial Eagle is found in the Park Regional del Suroeste in hills between the Gredos and Guadarrama ranges. The recent possible detection of the existence of Iberian Lynx in the area between the Cofio and Alberche rivers is testament to the biodiversity of the area.
To the north and west of Madrid lies the huge territory of Castile and León, which consists of a large central plateau known as the Meseta, lying between 700-1,000 metres above sea level , surrounded to the north, east and west by the Cantabrian, the Urbion and the Gredos mountains respectively. Midway between the Atlantic north and the Mediterranean south, Castile and Leon boasts the best of both worlds in terms of biodiversity, and has the highest populations of Great Bustard and Iberian Wolf.
North of that, the Cantabrian Mountains form north-western Spain’s natural border with Castile and Leon. This is ‘Green Spain’ (from east to west – Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country), the name given to the strip of land between the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Mountains, so called because of its particularly lush vegetation, due to the wet and moderate oceanic climate. The climate is strongly influenced by Atlantic Ocean winds trapped by the mountains; the average annual precipitation is about 47 inches. In the eastern range, the Picos de Europa National Park contains the highest and arguably most spectacular mountains, rising to 2,648 metres at the Torre de Cerredo peak. Other notable features of this predominantly limestone range are the Redes Natural Park in the east, with the central Las Ubiñas-La Mesa Natural Park and the Somiedo Natural Park in the west. The coastline of north-western Spain is extensive, with hundreds of beaches, coves and natural sea caves.
Amid some of the finest mountain scenery in Spain, there is a good chance of seeing Eurasian Brown Bear, as well as Iberian Wolf, Wild Cat and Wild Boar. More commonly encountered wildlife in Spain include Spanish Ibex, Cantabrian Chamois, Red and Roe Deer, and Red Squirrel. Spectacular birds seen in this region include Great Bustard, Cinerous and Griffon Vultures, Black and White Storks, Montagu’s and Hen Harrier, Wallcreeper and White-winged Snowfinch, and the rare Dupont’s Lark. Butterflies are plentiful – there are 154 species alone in the Picos de Europa, in the Cantabrian Mountains. The rich flora of the same mountains, which includes gentians and many orchids, is usually at its best in June.
Best sites: Guadarrama Natural Park and the Iruelas Valley, Upper Rio Duero (especially around Fariza), Villafafila (near village of San Agustin), Sierra de la Culebra, Mayorga, La Nava Lagoons, La Bañeza, Somiedo Natural Park (from the village of Pola de Somiedo), Picos de Europa National Park, Boca de Huergano (near Riano), Fuentes Carrionas y Fuente Cobre National Park and Meseta Plains.
Timing: The peak times to look for bears are dawn and dusk in early July, when they venture out of the forests to forage on spring grasses, and late August to mid-September when they do the same in search of bilberries and blackberries. June is the peak time for butterflies, flowers and most birds. Wolves may be seen virtually all the year round, especially at bait stations (muladares) where dead donkeys and horses are put out, mainly for vultures. Wild Cats are most likely to be seen in late August or early September when they have kittens and the farmers cut hay, which makes hunting small mammals easier, enticing the cats out of the woods, especially during the first hour after dawn and the last hour before dusk. Those wishing to see Great Bustards displaying should visit between March and May.
The harsh environment of Extremadura was the cradle of the conquistadores, men who opened a new world for the Spanish Empire. Remote beforehand, Extremadura enjoyed a brief golden age when its heroes returned with their gold to live in splendour. Trujillo, the birthplace of Pizarro, and Cáceres were built with conquistador wealth, the streets crowded with an array of perfectly preserved and very ornate mansions of returning empire builders. Then there is Mérida, the most completely preserved Roman city in Spain, and the monasteries of Guadalupe and Yuste, the one fabulously wealthy, the other rich in imperial memories. Even the local eagles are imperial here.
Extremadura is arguably the best place in Western Europe to see raptors (including Spanish Imperial and Bonelli’s Eagles, Cinereous, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, and Black-winged Kite) and for bustards (with good numbers of Great and Little present). If that wasn’t enough, one could find some of Europe’s other most spectacular birds, such as White and Black Storks, Eurasian Eagle-owl, Roller and Iberian Magpie. All these are to be found against the backdrop of one of the wildest and therefore avian rich locations left in Europe, with its wide open semi-arid stony plains, hills and open Iberian Cork Oak woodland known as dehesa.
Best sites: Extremadura including Caceres Plains (northeast of Caceres) and Serena Steppes (southeast of Trujillo), Monfrague National Park and Sierra de Gredos (just outside Extremadura).
Timing: Mid-March to mid-April is the peak time for displaying bustards, although they do display later, mid-April is the peak time for flowers, and mid-April to early June, especially late April-early May, is the best time for most birds.
The popular image of Spain as a land of the flamenco, sherry and ruined castles derives from Andalucía, the southernmost territory and the most quintessentially Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula. In some superb settings, from the marismas of the Coto Doñana where 127 bird species breed, through rugged mountain gorges with a rich flora and numerous butterflies, to the Mediterranean, the biodiversity of Spain is probably at its greatest in Andalucía. More than 400 of the 630 vertebrate species extant in Spain can be found in Andalucía. Spanning the Mediterranean and Atlantic basins, and adjacent to the Strait of Gibraltar, Andalucía is on the migratory route of many of the numerous flocks of birds that travel annually from Europe to Africa and back. Here, the most spectacular visible migration of storks and raptors in Europe, involving great numbers and great views of White Stork, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Honey Buzzard and Montagu’s Harrier.
In wetlands, such as Coto Doñana, some of Europe’s most localised birds including Marbled and White-headed Duck, Black-winged Kite, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Western Swamphen, Audouin’s Gull and Iberian Magpie are to be found. Added to which are some of Europe’s and the world’s most spectacular birds such as Greater Flamingo, Cinereous Vulture and Golden Eagle. Off the coast, cetacean spotters have a good chance of seeing Killer (mostly mid-August to early September) and Long-finned Pilot Whales, as well as Common Bottlenose, Short-beaked Common and Striped Dolphins.
Other wildlife found in this beautiful region includes mammals such as Spanish Ibex, Wild Boar, Red Deer and the chance of European Mouflon (introduced) and Egyptian Mongoose. Reptiles too are well-represented by Common Chameleon, Common Wall Gecko, Large and Spanish Psammodromuses, as well as Ocellated and Spiny-footed Lizards. There are over 2,300 vascular plant species in Andalucía alone and the flora is particularly rich around Ronda where there are many orchids, narcissi, fritillaries, saxifrages and toadflaxes. Butterflies abound including Monarch and Two-tailed Pasha. Also of note, the Cueva de la Pileta near Benaojan has some superb stalactites and stalagmites, as well as some impressive Palaeolithic cave paintings.
Above all, Andalucía probably provides the best chance in Spain to see Iberian Lynx – one of the rarest cats in the world. The Iberian Lynx is a small, well-camouflaged cat, up to about a metre long and sixty centimetres at the shoulder. It is highly elusive but there is a very good chance of seeing one in Sierra de Andujar Natural Park, just two to three hours by road from Malaga or Seville. To stand a chance though, it is best to be prepared to spend many hours scanning distant wooded, rugged, rocky slopes with binoculars and telescopes from roadside viewpoints, especially early and late in the day when it can be chilly, so warm clothing and something to sit on are recommended.
Best sites: Sierra de Andujar Natural Park (Sierra Morena), La Laguna de Fuente de la Piedra, Sierra de Aracena Natural Park, Coto Doñana, Laguna de Medina, Bonanza Saltpans, Chipiona, La Janda, Tarifa (including boat trips), Gibraltar and Ronda.
Timing: Early September is one of the best times to visit Southern Spain, because the beginning of September is normally the time when the greatest numbers and variety of storks and raptors migrate over the Straits of Gibraltar; Killer Whales are most likely to appear from mid-August to early September; and it is almost as good a time as any to look for Iberian Lynx (the best being late September to March (the peak time for spring flowers), especially December-March, possibly because the breeding season usually starts in December-January and the cats are more active).
The spring migration of birds through Southern Spain usually peaks between mid-April and early May, when the Coto Doñana is arguably at its best. After dry summers the marismas of this wonderful wetland may be almost dry.
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