TO MADRID & TRUJILLO
Our November birdwatching tour to Spain begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Madrid, where Fernando will be waiting to welcome us. We head west towards the rolling steppe grasslands, beautiful oak woodlands and rugged sierras of Extremadura - the 'wild heart of Spain'. The journey will take around three to four hours, but we'll stop along the way for something to eat... and maybe have a first try for the elusive Black-winged Kite. Although it is late autumn, the prospect of seeing White Storks, Hoopoes and Southern Grey Shrikes may come as a welcome surprise.
Early evening arrival at our comfortable rural retreat, a small and beautifully renovated country house hotel set amidst wonderful birding country just a few miles south of the medieval hilltop town of Trujillo. Cattle Egrets, Spanish Sparrows, Spotless Starlings and Common Waxbills forage in the fields, and exotic Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies regularly gather to roost in the hotel garden. Night Viña Las Torres
Days 2 – 5
MONFRAGUE NATIONAL PARK, THE STEPPE & SIERRAS OF EXTREMADURA
To begin our appreciation of this lovely region we only have to take a short walk outside - more than 90 species of bird have been recorded within five minutes walk of the hotel. Nearby, we might hear the eerie cries of Stone-curlew drifting over the steppe, the dry rattle of a Cirl Bunting from the hillside or watch birds of prey soaring effortlessly overhead.
North from Trujillo, our route to Monfragüe National Park passes through mile after mile of unspoilt dehesas - a park-like habitat of cork and evergreen oaks, foraged by pigs and alive with the ceaseless chatter of Iberian Magpies. Tetchy Sardinian Warblers scold us from the brush and Southern Grey Shrikes perch like sentries beside the road, while the squat form of a Little Owl may glare down at us from one of the massive erratic boulders that are so characteristic of this part of Extremadura - the ‘hard lands’.
This is probably the richest spot in Europe for birds of prey. As the immense shapes of Griffon Vultures launch themselves from sun-warmed crags to patrol the sweeping skies, we’ll watch for Red Kite, Peregrine and three big eagles: Bonelli’s, Golden and the endemic Spanish Imperial are all resident in the park. We could even be lucky to come across the huge Eagle Owl, out sunning itself on a favoured ledge. Always magical, Monfragüe’s Cistus-covered hillsides and deep plunging valleys are equally rich in small birds. Crested and Thekla Larks, Dartford Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Rock Bunting and Red-billed Chough are all likely - and we could find Crag Martin, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper, too.
To the south of Monfragüe our attention will turn to the sweeping plains, a major stronghold of the spectacular Great Bustard, which gather into flocks (or droves) at this season. We should also see the declining Little Bustard as we search for Black-winged Kite; sailing on the breeze like a giant paper plane, winter is perhaps the best time of year to see this oft-elusive resident. We’ll listen out for the distinctive Pochard-like calls of nomadic Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and the telltale ‘chuckling’ of Black-bellied Sandgrouse passing over the steppe. As we scour the fields for them, flocks of Calandra and Sky Larks, Spanish Sparrows, Corn Buntings, finches and pipits may be put to flight by the sudden appearance of a low-flying Hen Harrier or dashing Merlin - both are winter visitors here.
Come November, thousands of stately Common Cranes will have arrived from northern Europe to feast on fallen acorns and the glut of spilled food left behind in Extremadura’s harvested fields of maize and rice. They make a stirring sight - and sound - and are one of the highlights of any late autumn visit to the Spanish steppes!
No visit to this wonderful region would be complete without enjoying at least a short stroll through historic Trujillo town, with its winding cobbled streets, delightful medieval architecture and mellow pan-tiled roofs. Even in autumn, a few White Storks are likely to be attending their rooftop nests. One evening, we will take dinner at a restaurant in the town, pausing to admire the glorious views across the plains from atop the medieval battlements and afterwards dropping back down to the beautiful Plaza Mayor, with its imposing statue of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro mounted on horseback. Nights at Viña Las Torres
Days 6 - 7
LA MANCHA: WETLANDS & LAGUNAS
After breakfast this morning, we bid farewell to our hosts at lovely Viña Las Torres and travel eastwards from Extremadura, beyond Toledo (the provincial capital of Castilla-La Mancha), to the sleepy rural backwater of La Mancha. It's a longish drive but we'll pause along the way to enjoy a couple of choice wetland sites - where Western Swamphen, Spoonbill, Great Egret and Penduline Tit were among highlights on our November 2016 tour.
Like much of Spain's vast central plain or meseta, the open and undulating landscape of La Mancha is relatively sparsely populated. Scattered here and there amongst the patchwork of cereal fields and vines are numerous shallow lakes or lagunas - some reed-fringed freshwater habitats bursting with activity; others saline, sterile and seemingly devoid of life. Yet each holds it's own fascinating population of birds.
Of major importance is La Mancha's thriving population of rare White-headed Ducks - the males with their extraordinary sky-blue bills swollen like a prizefighter's nose! In November, we should also find hundreds of Red-crested Pochard and Greater Flamingos here too, along with Black-necked Grebe, Western Swamphen and good chances of Ferruginous Duck. Marsh Harriers sail low across the autumnal hems of reed, where Hen Harrier is also possible. We should hear the pig-like squealing of Water Rails (though actually getting to see one is another matter entirely!) and the 'cut glass pinging' of Bearded Tits; Cetti's Warblers shout as we pass the waterside tangles and tamarisks; Zitting Cisticolas frequent the drier margins and - if the gods are smiling - we might even encounter the highly localised Moustached Warbler here.
Seventeen Whiskered Terns put on a surprise showing for us on our last visit, when other nice finds included Avocet, the endemic Iberian Green Woodpecker, Bluethroat and Water Pipit.
Although intensively cropped, La Mancha's steppe-derived farmland still supports a surprising variety of dry country birds, with Calandra and Crested Larks, Stone-curlew, Golden Plover, and Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse to watch for as we travel between one wetland site and the next.
Our well-chosen accommodation for these two nights is Hotel Chateau Viñasoro, a comfortable rural retreat amid the vineyards of La Mancha. Nights Hotel Chateau Viñasoro
RETURN TO MADRID, FLY LONDON
We have time this morning to enjoy more of La Mancha's varied winter birding - with further chances to see White-headed Duck and the prospect of waders such as Black-winged Stilt, Kentish Plover and Little Stint - before returning full circle to Madrid.
Late afternoon flight to London, where our autumn tour concludes