Spring Birding in Spain Apr 25—May 11, 2013
Posted by Brian Gibbons
From the sandy streets of El Rocío to the snowbank blocking our progress in the Picos de Europa, our 2013 Spring Birding in Spain tour presented an enormous variety of habitats and the birds they support. The mudflats and marshes near Huelva teemed with migrant shorebirds, and waterbirds were numerous around Doñana. The Caceres Plains hosted some chilled grassland birds like bustards and sandgrouse, and the melting snow revealed the Roman road we traversed to get the Bluethroat in the Gredos Mountains. We had a night of luxury in the Parador de Cervera and were treated to the dramatic scenery of the Picos. Finally, we ended up in the land of Wallcreepers and Lammergeiers—the Pyrenees. Our final bird, Dupont’s Lark, a Mediterranean specialty, was unusually cooperative in the Belchite Steppes; then we were off to Madrid, and it was all over so quickly, even though we had reveled in Spain’s wine, food, culture, scenery, and birds for 3,313 kilometers (2059 miles) over two weeks.
Driving into El Rocío is like driving back in time; the sandy streets, that magnificent white church, and the marsh teeming with birdlife in front of the town were spectacular. The horse culture is undeniable, with unpaved streets, rider-height outdoor bars, and of course, carriages and horses everywhere. Not to be outdone, birds were everywhere: Greater Flamingoes, Eurasian Spoonbills, shorebirds, ducks, Whiskered Terns, and the ever-present Black Kites. The coastal marshes, mudflats, and lagoons of Doñana National Park added a slew of species we wouldn’t see later on the tour. Northern Lapwing, Garganey, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed godwits, White-headed Duck (the namesake of our Hotel Malvasía), larks, Stonecurlew, Purple and Squacco herons, terns, and Audouin’s Gull were just a few of the many great birds we studied in the southwest.
Extremadura with its wide open spaces, boulder-strewn plains, and spiky outcrops, home to hundreds of vultures, was an amazing contrast. Trujillo, Pizarro’s birthplace, kept watch over the Llanos de Cáceres, home to regal Great Bustards, Sandgrouse of two species, Rollers, many larks, and harriers. Bonelli’s Eagles had two large young in their nest along a stream amongst oak trees. Monfragüe National Park hosted amazing numbers of Griffons and raptors, but the headliner was the Spanish Eagle that soared overhead to the delight of the gathered birders. Salto de Gitano always hosts a variety of songbirds in the woodlands and rock faces that three species of vultures love. Rock Bunting, Blue Rock-Thrush, Black Redstart, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Linnets, and Red-rumped Swallows were always distracting us from the big birds. Sixteen species of raptors entertained us in Extremadura!
The Gredos Mountains were shaking off the chill of a late spring snowstorm, but we enjoyed excellent clear weather while we were there. The Bluethroat made us wait, but finally skylarked several times for us and even appeared on a boulder for all to see. Alfonso’s dinners have me dreaming about next year’s dining in the Gredos already. Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush, Ortolon Bunting, Dunnock, Skylark, and Northern Wheatear make up a good portion of the avifauna of the alpine habitats of the Gredos. The Parador de Cervera hosted us for an excellent meal with fine Spanish wines. Surrounded by the mountains of Fuentes Carrionas Natural Park, the Parador is situated in an exceptional setting. A wonderful sighting of a beautiful pair of Eurasian Bullfinches was the avian prize of the Parador. Nearby, a twelfth century church, San Salvador de Cantamuda, hosted Black Redstart, as it has done for nearly a millennium. The church is a fine example of the Romanesque architecture preserved all over Spain.
The snow-capped Picos de Europa loomed in the distance, our first views of these stunning mountains. They held many key birds for us too, as well as clear mountain streams and an array of charming, tiny mountainside villages like Espinama, Brez, Obargo, and Tama. Eurasian Wryneck, Middle-spotted Woodpecker, White-winged Snowfinch, Choughs, Red-backed Shrike, Common Redstart, and Water Pipit all revealed themselves to us. We had an amazing lunch in Espinama at Casa Vicente on a rainy afternoon, another meal to look forward to next year.
We broke up the long drive to Hecho Valley in Santoña marshes and estuary. There we found some very distant Eurasian Oystercatchers and a nesting pair of Mute Swans. The Hotel Uson is truly at the end of the road, sitting at the edge of the Pyrenees with stunning Lammergeier cliffs and peaks all around. On our first morning we hunted down a pair of Wallcreepers that were apparently refurbishing last year’s nest cavity high on a cliff at the Gabardito Refuge. This was after we all had amazing eye level views of the bearded vulture—Lammergeier! During nearly the entire time we watched the Wallcreepers, the Black Woodpeckers called down in the canyon, but never revealed themselves. The next day at San Juan de la Peña Monastery (thirteenth century) we had to be content with a few fly-bys of Europe’s largest woodpecker. The lawn near the Gabardito refuge hosted numerous Citral Finches, the very beast that would never reveal itself in the Gredos Mountains. One rainy afternoon we worked on our French bird lists; mine is up to six.
Our final birding morning found us in the Belchite Steppes for one last target, El Diablo. The wind was the perfect aid for the larks; they were all singing up a storm on spread wings, but the most prominent song was that amazing warble of Dupont’s Lark. We saw them sitting on shrubs, running on the ground, and skylarking right overhead. On our final night in Madrid we dined in luxury and enjoyed some fantastic wine, too.
I hope you all had a wonderful tour of Spain, and hope to see you on your next birding adventure.