Spain: Birds & Art in Catalonia Apr 14—22, 2016
Posted by Rick Wright
Of all of western Europe’s natural and cultural landscapes, it is hard to imagine one more rich in contrast and contradiction than Catalonia. No tour, far less one of little more than a week, could hope to sample all of that bewildering variety, but we made a good effort during our time together and were rewarded with sights and insights denied to those who cast their touristic nets more narrowly.
As the environmental hook on which we hung our ambitious itinerary, the birds of Catalonia provided the most obvious look into the region’s diversity. We began in the marshes of the high Empordà, where Aiguamolls Natural Park preserves scrubby forest, fields, and wetlands nestled between the sparkling Mediterranean and the looming Pyrenees. Our time in the thoughtfully placed blinds gave us incredibly close looks at courting Little Grebes, while the quiet trails offered equally close—if usually more tantalizingly fleeting—views of the Common Nightingales and Cetti’s Warblers shouting at us from every damp tangle. A flock of a dozen flycatching Collared Pratincoles was an early highlight.
The famous White Storks, occurring here in densities unparalleled anywhere in western Europe, were nearly as noisy; even more impressively outlandish, a few dozen Greater Flamingos fed quietly among the Camargue Horses on the pastures, their dignified manner at odds with their implausible shapes and colors.
Closer to our Barcelona base, the scattered marshlands of the Llobregat Delta were equally bird-rich. The Audouin’s Gull colony at Cal Tet continues to thrive, with more than 100 individuals of this still rare species squealing on the river during our visit; a Squacco Heron, more common but much harder to see, broke its oath of secretiveness to perch at eye level in a dead tree while great gaudy Western Swamphens poked through the phragmites beneath. Those and the many other birds we saw there were welcome but unsurprising—especially in comparison with that astonishing Rosy Starling, a seventh regional record, which emerged from the grass as we prepared to leave the area.
These lowland wonders could not have been more strikingly different from the feathered denizens of the cereal steppes near Lleida. Here, our early rising was rewarded with amazingly good views of trilling Calandra and Thekla larks, flatulently displaying Little Bustards, and big-eyed Stone Curlews; it was on these wide-open spaces that we saw the tour’s first European Bee-eaters, too.
Our weather on the steppes and wetlands had been perfect, warm and bright, but the Pyrenees had something else in store for us. Light rain in Barcelona turned into light snow, then an honest-to-goodness storm, as we approached the 6,800-foot Coll de Pal. We sheltered on the balcony of the ski chalet, watching Northern Wheatears, Wood Larks, and Mistle Thrushes before slipping and sliding back out to the main road; a fine male Rock Bunting and two dashing Alpine Choughs welcomed us back to pavement.
All of this avian diversity played out in a landscape of equally breathtaking cultural richness. Alpine Swifts swooped low across the vast ruins of Greek Empúries, where we wandered among walls raised two-and-a-half millennia ago on the shore of the dazzling sea. Puig-Reig, north on the Llobregat, might have been just (!) another medieval fortress city if not for the White-throated Dipper that appeared, as if (but only as if) on command, on the river below the town’s soccer fields, leading us a merry chase up and down its linear territory until all of us had had good looks at this spirit of the tumbling waters.
Even in Barcelona itself, our experiences of the city’s architectural and historic monuments were enriched by our understanding of their connections to their natural setting. The glorious Ciutadella Park, across the street from our hotel and an important landmark in the endless struggles between Catalonia and foreign powers, meant all the more to us for the Spotless Starlings and Common Sandpipers we found there. Our visit to the mountaintop and monastery of Montserrat lent a strange familiarity to the marvelous organicizing forms of Gaudí’s awesome Sagrada Família, a masterpiece that grew—that is still growing—out of the architect’s rootedness in the natural and cultural world of his native Catalonia; cartoonish in the photographs, this church, from the Wild Turkeys of the Nativity Portal to the numerological games of the Passion Portal, is powerfully moving, even sublime, in person.
In person is also the only way to experience the variety of human inhabitants that spice up the flatlands and mountains, the cities and the villages. This year we experienced the full range, from an unwelcome glance at Barcelona’s criminal underbelly to the kind good nature of nearly everyone else we met on this tour. Among the most memorable of the many human moments: the copious liquid breakfasts we saw consumed in a warm café in the Pyrenean foothills; that lovely lunch of our own in a stunning olive cellar in Belianes; the Barcelona waiter whose eager answer to every question was an obliging “yes, no, no, maybe”; and above all, the delighted children at Aiguamolls, their joy at the sunshine and the flamingos matched only by our own.
I hope that your memories of this tour remain as vivid as mine are sure to. I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to enjoy everyone’s good company again—if not in Catalonia, then surely in another landscape every bit as complex and as contradictory.