TO MADRID & MONFRAGUE
Our spring birdwatching tour to central and southern Spain begins with a morning flight from London Gatwick to Madrid. We transfer west by road toward the rolling steppe, beautiful oak woodlands and wild sierras of Extremadura. It's a three to four hour journey, but we will pause along the way to enjoy a delicious tapas lunch and to scan the flowing spring grasslands for Montagu’s Harrier and Bee-eater - and maybe have a first try for the elusive Black-winged Kite!
Early evening arrival at our comfortable rural hotel, a wonderfully situated 'Hospederia' that lies right on the approach to magnificent Monfragüe National Park. This will be our base for the first four nights of the holiday. Cattle Egrets and White Storks forage for lizards and grasshoppers in the pastures, handsome Spanish Sparrows and Spotless Starlings nest in numbers about the scattered Extremaduran farmsteads, and Black Kites float effortlessly over the grasslands. Night at a hotel overlooking Monfragüe National Park
Days 2 - 4
MONFRAGÜE & THE STEPPE GRASSLANDS OF EXTREMADURA
Beautiful Monfragüe National Park and the surrounding steppe grasslands are typified by mile upon mile of unspoilt countryside, where centuries of traditional land management have created the unique dehesas: a timeless, park-like habitat of cork and evergreen oaks, foraged by pigs and alive in spring with calls of Hoopoes, Woodlarks, Rock Sparrows, Woodchat Shrikes and exotic Iberian Magpies. Rocky fields and roadside verges brim with an exuberance of wildflowers at this season, Sardinian Warblers give their scolding ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ call at almost every halt and pink-chested Southern Grey Shrikes perch boldly beside the road.
This is perhaps the finest spot in all of Europe for birds of prey and we can expect to encounter a dozen or more different species during our stay. Immense Griffon Vultures patrol the skies, along with Egyptian Vulture and the even more massive Black Vulture, Red and Black Kites, Peregrine and up to five species of eagle: Short-toed Snake, Booted, Bonelli’s, Golden and Spanish Imperial. The latter is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered raptors but we have good chances of seeing one here. The scarce Black Stork is perhaps easier to see well at Monfragüe than anywhere else we know, and we’ll check a favourite location for the powerful Eurasian Eagle Owl, too. Several of these species breed on or around the dramatic rock pinnacle of Peñafalcon, which lies at the heart of the park and we will spend some time enjoying the spectacle.
Truly a magical place, Monfragüe’s Cistus and herb-scented hillsides, rocky ravines and plunging valleys are equally rich in small birds. Crag Martin, Thekla Lark, Blue Rock Thrush, secretive Dartford, Subalpine and Western Orphean Warblers, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and Red-billed Chough are all present in spring. Parties of ‘bibbling’ Alpine Swifts sweep the skies and if we are lucky we could find the scarce Black Wheatear, too.
The sweeping plain that stretches away to the south is a vital stronghold of the aristocratic Great Bustard. Early mornings (don’t worry, it doesn’t get light here until about seven!) offer the best chance to see these magnificent birds, before the grasslands are lost beneath a sea of shimmering heat-haze. With Hoopoes, Stone-curlews and Calandra Larks calling all about us, from our vantage point overlooking the steppe we shall scan for the dominant males as they perform their extraordinary display. It’s one that culminates in the great birds shaking and turning themselves ‘inside-out’ to become a mass of white feathers - variously described as looking like a foaming bath or a giant chrysanthemum, visible at tremendous range! We should also see and hear plenty of the smaller Little Bustards, blowing raspberries at one another with their inflated ‘Newcastle United-stocking’ necks!
The grasslands are interrupted by bands of low rocky sierras and slow-flowing rivers, and for sheer variety of birds this whole region is hard to beat. Little Bittern, Night Heron, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Greater Short-toed Lark, Spectacled Warbler, Penduline Tit and Golden Oriole are among many that await our discovery. Spanish Sparrows are actually rather scarce in Spain, but can be locally common here with flocks of several hundred sometimes seen. We may also hear the harsh rattling cackle of a Great Spotted Cuckoo, watch Red-rumped Swallows swooping low or find the squat form of an 'angry' Little Owl glaring down at us from one of the massive boulders so characteristic of Extremadura's ‘hard lands’.
We’ll drop by at a wetland site that is home to Purple Heron, Savi’s Warbler and Purple Swamphen, and have further chances to look for that troublesome Black-winged Kite. Out in the region’s rice fields, we may encounter two tiny introduced finches: Common Waxbill and the startling Red Avadavat - in their white-spotted breeding plumage, males of the latter look not unlike a fast-flying strawberry!
Before leaving Extremadura, we’ll pay a visit to nearby Trujillo and spend a little time wandering the narrow cobbled streets of this historic old town. The Conquistadors may have long since departed this famous place but there are still plenty of White Storks, Lesser Kestrels and Pallid Swifts to enjoy over a quiet drink in the beautiful main piazza. Bring your camera - on a clear day, the views across the plains from atop the medieval battlements are superb! Three further nights at a hotel overlooking Monfragüe National Park
SOUTH TO ANDALUCIA & COTO DOñANA NATIONAL PARK
We bid a reluctant farewell to Monfragüe this morning and travel south over good roads towards Seville - no doubt breaking our journey with one or two birding stops along the way.
From Seville, we swing west and continue on to reach our second hotel in the sleepy Andalucian village of Villamanrique de la Condesa, with its characterful white washed buildings overlooking the famous Coto Doñana National Park. We will aim to arrive at our hotel in time to enjoy some late afternoon birding in the marismas (marshes) close by. Night Villamanrique de la Condesa
Days 6 - 7
COTO DOñANA NATIONAL PARK
Covering an area of almost half a million acres, the marismas at the mouth of the Guadalquivir comprise one of the most important wetlands in Europe. Our birding here might well begin with a look at nearby wetland areas as well as the Park’s visitor centres. Fernando was born and raised in Andalucia and this is a region he knows especially well.
Amongst a rich diversity of birds, Doñana boasts many that are rare or absent elsewhere in Europe and, if the water levels are right, the marshes can be crammed with birds. Spoonbill, Purple Heron, Little Egret, Whiskered Tern, Collared Pratincole and many migrant waders are among those to be seen, as well as regional specialities that include Greater Flamingo, Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis and Western Swamphen. Depending on water levels, we may also visit some less well-known minor lagoons around the fringes of Doñana that can hold specialities such as Red-knobbed Coot, Black-necked Grebe, White-headed Duck and Marbled Duck.
No visit to the Coto would be complete without a trip to the protected zone of the Corredor Verde and the Dehesa de Abajo. The former is always a great place to watch for raptors and is one area where the rare Black-winged Kite and Booted Eagle, Europe’s smallest eagle, hunt. The Dehesa de Abajo is a sight to behold in spring, with large expanses of flowering meadows where Bee-eaters sweep low, feeding over multi-coloured carpets of scented flowers. The surrounding wild olives or acebuche trees hold one of the largest concentrations of White Storks nests in Spain, where the birds actually nest on top of the trees. A flooded lagoon at the edge of the dehesa can hold large numbers of duck, including Red-crested Pochard, as well as Gull-billed and Black Terns hawking for insects.
As the day progresses, we can enjoy visits to various hides and take a walk through the resin-scented pinewoods and shady Cork Oak groves. Flocks of Iberian Magpies flit through the lower branches, Crested Tits and Firecrests work through the canopy, and furtive Dartford and Sardinian Warblers scold us from the scrub.
Along tracks to the José Antonio Valverde Visitors' Centre on the fringes of the northern marshes, migrant Spectacled and Subalpine Warblers can often be found, along with Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos. The sandy tracks that bisect the drier, drained farmlands hold all the southern European larks. Crested Larks are our constant companions, their melancholy song given in flight, and others we could see include Thekla, Calandra and both Greater and Lesser Short-toed Larks.
Migrants passing through the area in spring can include Night Herons in the tamarisks, Hoopoe, Black-eared Wheatear and Red-rumped Swallow. Alert Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes survey the scene and, as the daytime temperature starts to rise, birds of prey become more noticeable. In April, these can include Red Kite and the ubiquitous Black Kite, Marsh Harrier and Short-toed Snake Eagle. With luck, we may find the endangered Spanish Imperial Eagle, which nests in the national park. Two further nights at Villamanrique de la Condesa
COTO TO SEVILLE, FLY LONDON
We have time to enjoy some final birding around the Coto today. Afternoon transfer to Seville for our evening flight back to London Gatwick, where our spring birdwatching holiday to central and southern Spain concludes.