TO MADRID & MONFRAGUE
Our May birdwatching holiday to central Spain begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Madrid, where Fernando will be waiting to welcome us. We travel west towards the rolling steppe, beautiful oak woodlands and wild sierras of Extremadura. The journey should take around three to four hours, but we'll pause along the way to enjoy a light tapas lunch at a nice little venta Fernando knows and to scan the grasslands for Montagu’s Harrier and Bee-eater - and maybe have a first try for the ever-elusive Black-winged Kite!
Early evening arrival at our hotel for five nights, a wonderfully situated Hospederia that lies right on the approach to magnificent Monfragüe National Park. 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 - 5
MONFRAGUE, STEPPE GRASSLANDS & SIERRAS OF EXTREMADURA
Monfragüe National Park sits amidst 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 beautiful Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies. Rocky fields and verges brim with an exuberance of wild flowers at this season; Sardinian Warblers give their scolding ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ call at every halt; and dusty, pink-chested Iberian Grey Shrikes perch boldly beside the road.
Monfragüe is arguably the finest place in all Europe for birds of prey and we can expect to encounter a dozen or more different species. Immense Griffon Vultures patrol the skies, along with Black and Egyptian Vultures, Red and Black Kites, Peregrine and up to five species of eagle: Short-toed, Booted, Bonelli’s, Golden and Spanish Imperial. The latter is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered raptors. The scarce Black Stork is perhaps easier to see well at Monfragüe than anywhere else we know, and we’ll check a favourite spot for the powerful Eurasian Eagle Owl - both species should have young at this time.
Truly a magical spot, Monfragüe’s plunging valleys and Cistus and herb-scented hillsides are equally rich in small birds. Crag Martin, Thekla Lark, Blue Rock Thrush, Dartford, Subalpine and Western Orphean Warblers, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and Red-billed Chough will all be about in spring. Parties of ‘bibbling’ Alpine Swifts sweep past beneath us to their nests and, with luck, we will find the scarce and declining Black Wheatear, too. The very rare White-rumped Swift is an essentially African species that we have often seen at Monfragüe in the past, and a late arrival to Europe that's best looked for from the middle of May onwards.
The sweeping plain that lies to the south of Monfragüe is a major stronghold of the aristocratic Great Bustard. Early mornings offer the best chance to see these magnificent birds (don’t worry, it doesn’t get light until about seven!), before the grasslands disappear beneath a sea of shimmering heat-haze. With Hoopoes, Stone-curlews and Calandra Larks calling all about us, from a vantage point overlooking the steppe we shall scan for the dominant males as they perform their quite extraordinary display - one that culminates in the great birds shaking and turning themselves ‘inside-out’ to become a mass of white feathers that's variously been likened to a foaming bath or a giant chrysanthemum - and visible at tremendous range! We should also see and hear the ‘raspberry-blowing’ Little Bustard, with its distinctive Newcastle United-stocking neck!
Extremadura's flowing grasslands are interrupted by chains 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, Short-toed Lark, Spectacled Warbler, Penduline Tit and Golden Oriole are among many that await our discovery. Spanish Sparrows - which despite their name are actually rather scarce in Spain - can be locally common here, with flocks of several hundred sometimes seen. We may also hear the unmusical rattling cackle of the Great Spotted Cuckoo (which lays its eggs in the nest of Magpies), watch Red-rumped Swallows swooping low to their nest in a culvert beneath the road, or come face to face with the squat form of a Little Owl glaring down at us from one of the massive ‘erratic’ boulders that are so characteristic of these ‘hard lands’.
We’ll also drop by at a productive wetland site that’s home to Purple Heron, Western Swamphen and Savi’s Warbler, and have further chances to look for Black-winged Kite. Out in the region’s rice fields we may encounter two tiny finches: Common Waxbill and the startling Red Avadavat - both have been introduced here. In breeding plumage, the male Avadavats can resemble a fast-flying strawberry!
Before leaving Extremadura, on one day we'll pay a visit to Trujillo and spend a little time wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of this historic hilltop 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 as we sip an ice cold beer in the beautiful main piazza. Bring your camera - on a clear day, the views across the plains from atop the medieval battlements are superb! Nights at a hotel overlooking Monfragüe National Park
Days 6 - 7
SIERRA DE GREDOS
Bidding a reluctant farewell to our hotel this morning, we travel north, passing once again through spectacular Monfragüe National Park. Along the way, we’ll watch for raptors such as Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles, and have further chances to try for Western Orphean Warbler, White-rumped Swift and other of the region’s more elusive inhabitants. If it is hot, we may picnic in Monfragüe beneath the shade of some fine old Cork Oaks, with bill-clapping White Storks and Nightingales to serenade us.
From here, we continue into the delightful Gredos Mountains, where the creaking, oak-boarded corridors of our second super hotel - and a whole suite of new birds await!
With views out across a patchwork of upland meadows and bottle-green pines to distant snowy peaks, the imposing Parador de Gredos makes the perfect base to conclude our tour. The sound of cowbells drifts up the hillside from fields below, Firecrests and Western Bonelli’s Warblers breed nearby and Honey Buzzards clap their wings in Nightjar-like display high above the forests. For those who can manage to tear themselves away from the comfort of their hotel room, a pre-breakfast amble nearby might well be rewarded with the likes of Crag Martin, Crested Tit, Black Redstart and Cirl Bunting.
We’ll devote the whole of Day 7 to birding in the mountains, soaking up what is surely some of the loveliest countryside in all Spain. Iberian Green Woodpecker, Melodious Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Crossbill frequent the pinewoods that flank the tumbling streams in the valleys, with pastel-coloured Ortolan Buntings to tempt us up on to the higher slopes.
Higher still, we will search for the extremely localised Bluethroat (unusually, the birds found here have an all blue throat), while on alpine hillsides heavy with scent and laden with yellow-flowering Spanish Broom we should add Rock Bunting and Water Pipit. The handsome Rock Thrush breeds here too, with the exquisite spring males resplendent in chestnut, white and blue. The elusive Citril Finch is another possible treat in store - and we may even end up sharing our picnic with a rare and imposing Spanish Ibex! Two nights at the Parador de Gredos
DESCEND TO MADRID, FLY LONDON
After another hearty Parador buffet breakfast and a last chance to look for the likes of Citril Finch, Hobby and Dipper this morning, we head down from the mountains towards Madrid.
Our route may take us past the fortified medieval town of Avila, with its castellated pink stone walls looking for all the world as though they must have been built for some blockbusting Hollywood epic. Though our birding is all but over, we may still be lucky to spot the odd vulture, Booted Eagle or Red Kite along the way.
Arriving back in Madrid, we catch a late afternoon flight to London Heathrow, where our spring birdwatching tour to Spain concludes.