Spring Birding in Central and Northern Spain Apr 25—May 11, 2009
While it is exciting to be in birding areas where the list is huge and there are always new birds to find, it is also very satisfying to lead a tour where you can say, "Okay, we've seen just about every bird species possible—from the commonplace to the specialties—and now we can relax and take time out for other interests." So it was with my 16th Spain tour. Alberto, my Spanish co-leader on every one of those 16 tours, had one or two new suggestions and inside information about where the more scarce and sought-after birds might be. This, along with a tried and tested itinerary, and a vast experience of exactly where we might find our birds and which species to prioritize at any given time, allowed us a fairly clean sweep of almost all the hoped-for birds—with time to spare. In fact, we recorded 217 species, 212 of them seen. A total of 22 raptor species and 15 warbler species was exceptionally good.
Our delightful and appreciative group found it difficult to decide which areas we visited and which of the spectacular birds we saw were their favorites. The Monfrague area is perhaps the most classically Spanish, with its wonderful variety of cork oak dehesas, gorse and box-clad hillsides, ancient hilltop towns such as Trujillo, and more rugged areas of rock and stone. It holds so many special birds, all seen quite well. The gathering of 60 or more Great Bustards was memorable as they stood grouped on the skyline. The babbling loose groups of Azure-winged Magpies and mating Black-shouldered Kites in the dehesas were classic "Extramadura." An adult Eurasian Eagle-Owl in perfect composition on a cliff ledge with two large fluffy chicks was picture-postcard perfect, and the endemic Spanish Eagle put on an excellent display this year.
The Ebro is much more brash with its vast rice fields, but these, the coast, and remnant wetlands provided perhaps the biggest bird spectacle of waterbirds, ducks, herons, gulls, and shorebirds of the tour—with the localized Audouin's Gull at the top of a star cast including many summer-plumaged Arctic shorebirds such as Curlew Sandpiper and Temminck's Stint. The Spanish steppes, in the cool dawn redolent with the fragrance of crushed herbs as the sun cast orange and ochre patterns on the mesas, as we stood quietly listening and looking for the elusive and enigmatic Dupont's Lark, must surely be high up there on the scale. But this area in particular is a sad reminder of our ravages against scarce habitats that seem "unimportant" to non-naturalists—a declining, fragmented habitat destroyed by conversion into unneeded cereal fields.
The Pyrenees are of course the best-known and most obvious natural feature, and never fail to impress. This year the snow cover was more than usual, providing an even more impressive backdrop of snow-clad mountain peaks above the thick forests and extraordinary deep red sandstone gorges of the pre-Pyrenean ranges. The birding here was as good as ever, with most of the classic Pyrenean birds showing up exceptionally well: Black Woodpecker, Lammergeier, Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Yellow-billed Chough, and all those subtly different warblers—subtle in their plumage differences, song pitches, and preferred habitats. Of course, the number one wanted bird for many will always be the Wallcreeper. We worked hard for it this year, but eventually had stunning looks at a pair cavorting and dazzling us with their crimson wing flashes in the awesome and aptly named "Boca del Infierno."
All this with some great food and great accommodations in such wonderfully rich and historic settings, amidst fields of brilliant glowing red poppies, and with time to enjoy both the birds, their environment, and a few bits of history along the way, such as the ancient monastery at San Juan de la Pena, the clifftop church of Alquezar, and the more recent and sobering site of the Spanish Civil War at Belchite.