Extremadura.A Natural Paradise
Extremadura is a beautifully conserved region, located in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula and one of the best areas in Europe for discovering wildlife, bird watching and nature in general. Coupled with its fantastic cultural heritage and photo opportunities it makes for an excellent discovery holiday. The wide range of habitats in such a short distance makes sure the keen birder gets the most out of a bird-watching visit, ranging from semi desert steppes, through high mountain ranges and leafy deciduous woodlands where the annual rainfall is as high as 1500 mm. This of course translates into a wonderful range of wildlife, where not only birds but insects, plants, reptiles, amphibians and mammals together make up this paradise for nature lovers. Although this article is principally about birding in Extremadura it should be of interest to all nature lovers who are thinking of visiting this fascinating part of unspoilt Spain. If you only have a few days to spare it may be impossible to try and cover all the areas the vast region of Extremadura offers and for this reason we are going to concentrate on showing you one of the most fascinating areas for birding in the Province of Caceres, in the north of the region, where we can observe the widest range of habitats, vegetation and plants and greatest number of species of birds on a short holiday.
Our trip is based around a mountain village, Cabezabellosa on the southern flanks of the Gredos Mountain Range in the region known as Trasierra – Tierras de Granadilla, easily accessible from Madrid, about 250 kilometres away and despite being quite remote it is easy to get to – only 7 kilometres off the main motorway. Our little village is perched on the mountain slopes 836 metres above sea level and located between two of the most beautiful valleys of the region, the Ambroz and the Jerte, this second one is world famous for it’s cherry trees and incredible snow blossom landscapes in early Spring. And what better time of the year is there to visit for bird watching? On a misty spring morning we needn’t even get out of bed here to observe the Pallid Swifts on the terrace, while over breakfast we often feast our eyes on Black Redstart, Booted Eagle, Black Vulture, Red Kite, Griffon Vulture and even more visitors like the Golden Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Black Stork and Sparrowhawk are never far away. Late evening leaves us with the Scops Owl bidding us a fluted good night after a busy day in the field.
Cabezabellosa and surroundings
Venturing outside, our little hamlet is surrounded by a mosaic of mixed meadows, mountain scrubs and old oak and holm oak woodlands populated by such forest species as Golden Oriole, Nuthatch, Tawny Owl, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Bee Eaters and perhaps more interestingly Bonelli’s Warbler, Redstart, Rock Sparrow and the Iberian Pied Flycatcher.The village is equally fascinating on an autumn birding trip when the woods are full of wild mushrooms like Amanita caesarea , Boletus edulis y Macrolepiota procera. Where the woods give way to the heath we find interesting species like Spectacled Warbler, Subalpine Warbler. Sardinian Warbler, Dartford Warbler and Rock and Ortolan Bunting. Where the heath opens out into rocky clearings we can turn over a stone or two to find great numbers of Extremadura’s two scorpions; Buthus Occitanus (yellow scorpion) and Euscorpius flavicaudis (Black Scorpion). The Thekla Lark abounds on these mountains and in the woods we can observe the role of the xilophagous insects like the Coleopteros; Cerambyx cerdo and Lucanus cervus and many varieties of moths. The springs and streams of the meadows are also home to the rare amphibian Bosca’s Newt Triturus Boscai and amongst the pastures we may even surprise Bedriga’s Skink Chalcides Bedriaga. Other reptiles have their place too, overall in the bare rocky patches between the meadows; like the Ocillated Lizard, Spiny foot Lizard and Schreiber’s Green Lizard, not forgetting the snake population which includes the Montpellier Snake, the Horseshoe Whip Snake and Lataste’s Viper. With some patience on our part the mammals may put in an appearance and we can look out for the Genet, Wild Boar, Roe Deer, Beech Marten the Garden Dormouse, the Western Polecat and our treasured mountain species the Wildcat. The meadows are a shower of wild flowers from early spring until well into summer and there are several species of orchids; Orchis champagneuxii,Dactylorhiza elata,Orchis coriophora, etc. Another interesting plant is the Drosera lusitanica, a carnivorous species found in the peat moss. All of these marvels of nature along with a benevolent climate make our small village of Cabezabellosa a very interesting centre for walking, the most beautiful months being May and November when the countryside is decked in it’s finest colours and a whole range of greens and ochres. The altitude and position of the village guarantee spectacular sunsets at any time of the year and for anyone interested in astronomy the night skies are usually clean and clear making star gazing a wonder.
Monfragüe National Park
Only 30 minutes south of Cabezabellosa we reach the famous 18,000 hectares of Mediterranean forest which make up the famous National Park of Monfragüe, emblematic for its excellent populations of raptors and some of the highest densities in the world. There are over 250 Black Vulture pairs and to date 10 pairs of Spanish Imperial Eagle nesting in the park. Other sought after sights and easily achieved here are those of Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Stork, Eagle Owl and smaller species like White-rumped Swift and Red-billed Chough.
Valcorchero and Plasencia
On the way to the ancient city of Plasencia we stop off to do some birding at the Valcorchero Nature Park, a splendid granite outcrop with ancient cork oaks and several very interesting species including; Orphean Warbler, Eagle Owl, Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting, Hawfinch and the abundant Cirl Bunting. Once in the mediavel city of Plasencia with its long historical and artistic legacy, old walls, aqueducts and ancient churches and palaces we can see the White Storks poised on their nests and one of the largest population of Lesser Kestrel in Extremadura and even the unusual instance of a Raven’s nest in the cathedral. From one of the oldest bridges of the city we can watch the Alpine Swift, the numerous House Martins the Common Swift and the Pallid Swift and a huge roost of up to 3500 Cattle Egret. Down on the River there is an interesting group of otters and at nightfall the Scops Owl livens up the twilight particularly in the park on the central island.
Tierras de Granadilla
In the region of Tierras de Granadilla enjoyable winter afternoons can be spent watching the Osprey on the Gabriel and Galan reservoirs, declared a ZEPA (area for special protection of birds) and the Black Winged Kite closer to the town of Granadilla. This wonderful walled town is one of the most renowned in the Iberian Peninsula and has a perfectly conserved castle which once belonged to the Duke of Alba and is open to visitors. From the castle’s keep there are excellent views over the reservoirs and it is a great spot to watch the Cranes in winter. Granadilla is fortunate to have been chosen as the centre for the reproduction in captivity of the Iberian Lynx in Extremadura, with the future aim of establishing a population in the dense pine woods close by. This was where the last two Lynx were officially seen in Extremadura in 2003 although the locals insist that the animal still roams the area. Whatever the truth, we are all hoping for a bright future for this almost extinct Spanish feline. Perhaps the most interesting forest birds of the area are the Crested Tit, Goldcrest, Azure-winged Magpie, Red-necked Nightjar and the European Nightjar. A quarter part of Extremadura’s Black Vulture population also resides in the area, thriving largely on the healthy population of Red Deer, Roe Deer and Wild Boar. There is a surprisingly large population of the carnivorous Egyptian Mongoose and this is also an important site for over wintering Cranes. Granadilla is also replete with olive groves – with its own variety of excellent quality olive the Manzanilla Cacereña and which shelter such birding gems as the Rufous Bush Robin – a different species to the one we see in Greece and Turkey, along with Blackeared Wheatear, Cirl Bunting and Woodlark.
Steppes of Extremadura
Venturing slightly further south along the A66 to Hinojal we can enjoy a day out to the Steppelands where we are sure to enjoy views of Great and Little Bustard, Montagu’s Harrier, Black- bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Spanish Sparrow, Greater Spotted Cuckoo and Calandria Lark , Golden Plover ,Skylark and even Dotterel. The Talavan reservoir nearby is also an excellent site for migrating waders like Dunlin, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint, Pectoral Sandpiper, Collared Pratincole and Red-necked Phalarope.
This time travelling east from our base we come across the region of Campo Arañuelo and the Arrocampo Reservoir, designated an Ornithology Park in the Saucedilla area. This is the location of the best population of Black Winged Kite and also some of the less common birds to Extremadura like the Purple Heron, Squacco Heron, Night Heron, Little Bittern, Purple Swamp Hen, Spotted Crake, Gull-billed Tern, Black Tern, Bearded Reedling, Savi’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Spoonbill, Red-crested Pochard and Garganey.
Irrigated farmlands – Alagon Valley
A trip out to the West takes us to the Alagon Valley a region of intensive farming that has its own interesting birdlife. Several species over winter here including Hen Harrier, Great Egret, Squacco Heron, Avocet, Bluethroat, Stock Dove and perhaps more interestingly Red Avadavat, Common Waxbill, Penduline Tit and the Iberian Yellow Wagtail. The rice fields of Galisteo are excellent for migrating Avocet, Curlew, Little Stint, Dunlin, Greenshank, Shelduck, Redshank and very occasionally Glossy Ibis. If we aren’t ready to go home after all this birding we can carry on further west to another area of steppes called Los Llanos de Guijo de Coria where we can see the Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and in winter the Merlin. Very close to this area we find Cancho Ramiro ZEPA with rocky cliffs similar to those of Monfragüe with its population of birds of prey including Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Egyptian Vulture, Eagle Owl and with some luck the Wallcreeper.
Going north from our base takes us up hill and follows the ancient Silver Route that crosses Spain from North to South and passes through Hervas, a beautiful old town well worth a visit for its Jewish quarter and old winding streets and fabulous Horse Chestnut Forest with its interesting bat population and the Goshawk well known in this area for hundreds of years. From Hervas we should follow the road that winds into the mountains giving us splendid views and photo opportunities and the chance to watch Ortolan Bunting, Pied Flycatcher, Coal Tit, Firecrest and Crossbill in the wild alpine pine forests.
Gredos & Bejar Mountains
If we keep going north and once we get above 1,400 metres we enter into a different habitat of sub-alpine vegetation in the Southern part of the Gredos Mountains and the bird life once again changes to the high altitude species like the Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Thrush, Iberian Bluethroat, Water Pipit, Alpine Accentor and the Citril Finch. Another interesting high altitude bird can be seen around the village of Tornavacas on the heather and bracken covered mountain slopes – the Red Backed Shrike and his more common cousins the Southern Grey Shrike and the Woodchat Shrike all getting fat on the abundant grasshopper population. This is the area where with luck the Ibex makes an appearance and is also home to the Pyrenean Desman. Amongst other reptiles the small Carbonelli’s Lizard lives here.
Cherry trees in flower. Ricardo Montero
Very close to our home base we have the Jerte Valley, a never to be forgotten experience in Spring when all the cherry trees are in flower and the local people celebrate with fiestas in every village. In winter there are interesting birds amonst the trees including the Brambling, Red Wing, Hawfinch and Bullfinch and along the rivers and streams the Kingfisher and Dipper watched over by the Black Wheatear from the granite cliffs. The Nature Reserve of Garganta de los Infiernos is a beautiful natural paradise of crystalline waters stocked with trout and waterfalls crashing between forested rocky walls, with Silver Birch and Holly, forest bats, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and interesting population of dragonflies watched closely by a Life conservation project.
Egyptian Vulture Neopron percnopterus. Jenny Viskens.
Sierra de Lagunilla & Las Batuecas Natural Park
At a lower altitude but no less interesting for our nature and birdwatching expedition is this small mountain range and Natural Park of the Batuecas and Peña de Francia Peak, bordering with the province of Salamanca to the North. Red Squirrels are common here and we can also find Carbonell’s Lizard and good Ibex populations, Roe Deer, Alpine acentor, Crossbill Peregrine Falcon, Golden Eagle and Egyptian Vulture.
Casa Carvajal birdwatching holidays
We think our Rural House is a perfect place to base a birding trip and we have enjoyed spending time with many visitors from different countries. It is very comfortable with four large bedrooms, two doubles and two twins all with bathroom. On the first floor we have a large lounge – reading room where we have all the maps and guide books you could need to explore Extremadura. Then there is a large kitchen dining room with a big table seating at least ten people. On the top floor there is another big lounge, decorated with photos from our birding trips and this leads out onto the terrace, furnished with tables and chairs but more importantly for us it has magnificent views: over the Dehesas towards the Gabriel and Galan Reservoirs and the Sierra de Francia. This is the place to have breakfast, one of the best raptor viewing terraces in the province: big eagles; vultures; kites and buzzards etc. In the evening it turns into the perfect place to watch the sunset with a relaxing bottle of Spanish wine. The road network is very good leading out of the village and there is easy access to all the main sites in Extremadura. We can run bird trips for you for up to 8 people, and even come to the airport or train station to pick you up. If you want to be independent and just rent the house you are welcome and we would be happy to point you in the right directions or locate a particular species for you. The house is a great place for nature lovers, photographers, groups of friends or families. If you come with people who don’t want to bird all the time there is lots to do and we have in the village a nice open air swimming pool surrounded by green lawns for a fresh dip on sunny afternoons, and the local bars and restaurants and traditional villages are really worth exploring. You can rent the house for self-catering or we can do the catering for you, provide the picnics or trips to restaurants. We have special deals for birders and nature lovers and whatever your plans and aims for your trip you will be very welcome at Casa Carvajal.
This article was written by Ricardo Montero Gonzalez of Casa Carvajal, a birder and guide, he has a degree from Huelva University and has spent most of his life out in the country and the last 15 years doing birding trips and working with SEO Birdlife, ADENEX and FIO.
Information and prices for the days trips.
Trips are run on the following lines:
- Duration: From a few hours to a few days. Start and finish times according to the requirements of the client, though normally leaving around 8 a.m. and returning approx. 9 hours later for a typical day trip.
- Transport: In the vehicle of the company or otherwise by arrangement (as appropriate). Pick up from hotel or meeting point as arranged.
- Food: The guide supply a simple picnic lunch and bottled water or We find good local food in one of the numerous bars in route. Special requirements need to be discussed in advance. Breakfast and dinner are not included.
- Cost: The following prices for 2015 are for guiding two persons minimun (fuel & packed lunches are included in the cost).
- ½ -day (± 4 hours): 35 Euros/pers.
- 1 day (± 9 hours): 70 Euros/pers ( Picnic is included).
- For exclusive private trip please contact us.
Michel and Jenny Viskens from Belgium with Ricardo Montero.