Birding Tour Spain: Central and Northern Spain 2018

Duration: 16 days

Next on our birding calendar is an exciting ‘Birding Tour Spain’ adventure. Spain has long been an extremely popular destination for birders, offering as it does a wide range of typical Mediterranean habitats, along with easy, safe, and excellent birding. Many sites are in beautifully scenic settings, featuring Romanesque architecture and ancient, fortified hilltop villages. Much of interior Spain is very rural and way off the tourist trail. This is the finest region to sample a large array of southern European species and is especially good for raptors, with 23 species possible. Our very comprehensive Birding Tour Spain itinerary provides a great diversity of birds, concentrating on three major and distinct habitats: the semi-arid steppes and cork-oak dehesas (a multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system and cultural landscape) of the central and northern Spain interior, the scenic sierras and high, alpine Pyrenees to the north in Catalonia and Aragon, and the Ebro River delta wetlands and marshes on the Mediterranean coast. During spring the many resident and breeding birds of this region are joined by migrants en route from Africa to nesting areas in the north and the Arctic.

All the important bird areas in central and northern Spain are incorporated, and there has been an impressive list of birds recorded over the past 20 years. The current total is 265 species, with 220 species regularly recorded on each tour. This superb itinerary is combined with vital local knowledge of where special and localized birds are to be found each year, giving maximum chances and many backup sites for the difficult and scarce species.

First on this Birding Tour Spain adventure we visit the hills and cork-oak dehesas south of Madrid in the Monfragüe region. Our target species, which will not be found further north, include Black Stork, Cinereous Vulture, Black-winged Kite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Red-necked Nightjar, Red-rumped Swallow, Azure-winged Magpie, Spanish Sparrow, Pallid Swift, and, most importantly, Spanish Imperial Eagle – a recent split from the Imperial Eagle of Eastern Europe and the only full endemic species in Iberia.

The Ebro Delta, the estuary of one of Spain’s largest rivers, is one of the most important wetlands in Western Europe. The delta is a huge complex of easily watched coastal dunes, saline lagoons, fresh marshes, reed beds, and rice fields. Some of the many highlights include large numbers of waterbirds: Red-crested Pochard, Great Crested and Little Grebes, Water Rail, and seven species of breeding heron (Little Bittern and Purple and Squacco Herons are common). The ten or more tern and gull species include abundant Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls, both very localized Mediterranean birds. Shorebirds include a mix of breeding species such as Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Common Redshank, Black-winged Stilt, and Collared Pratincole. Migrants may include Wood Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, and Eurasian Oystercatcher. Western Marsh Harrier and Greater Flamingo are also common here. Passerine specialties include typical marshland and coastal scrub birds: Zitting Cisticola, Savi’s and Moustached Warblers, and Great and Eurasian Reed Warblers.

To the west, the Spanish steppes are a habitat rapidly being lost to arable agriculture. Certain areas have been protected by international efforts and are now splendid reserves that we will visit. It is a land of flat stony plains, mesas, scrubby river valleys, and maquis vegetation not unlike some semi-desert regions of the southwestern United States. Primary birding goals will be Great and Little Bustards, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu’s Harrier, Red-legged Partridge, Little Owl, Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Stone-curlew, Spectacled Warbler, and eight species of Lark, including the elusive Dupont’s. White Storks are common, found nesting on village rooftops or precariously perched on ancient church spires.

The Pyrenees and the foothill sierras offer some of the most spectacular scenery of the tour. At lower elevations are unspoiled habitats of box scrub, olive groves, and stunted oak forest amidst impressive steep, deep limestone gorges and massifs of pink, red, and gray. Here are many classic Mediterranean species such as Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater, Woodchat Shrike, Black-eared and Black Wheatears, European Serin, Cirl, Ortolan, and Rock Buntings, plus many Warbler species including Sardinian, Western Orphean, Subalpine, and Western Bonelli’s. Here, too, is one of the greatest concentrations of raptors found anywhere in Europe, with 20-plus species virtually guaranteed. Griffon Vultures are abundant, while we’ve never failed yet to find Egyptian Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Golden, Booted, and Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Snake Eagle, and Red and Black Kites. The area has magnificent, ancient, fortified villages, massively built of stone with immense protecting walls. And there are old cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and castles dating back to the 12th – 16th centuries, when Spain was divided into the separate states of Castile, Aragon, and Catalonia, and occupied in some areas by the moors from northern Africa. We try to make time to visit these if participants wish.

At higher elevations are true alpine habitats of coniferous forests, fast-flowing streams, open, flower-rich meadows, and splendid, craggy mountain peaks, some still snow-covered. Further specialties we hope for here are Alpine Accentor, Red-billed and Alpine Choughs, Ring Ouzel, White-throated Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Alpine Swift, Citril Finch, Black Woodpecker, and the fabulous Wallcreeper. If lucky, we may find White-winged Snowfinch, though this usually requires more serious hiking.

Your guide will be driving you in a comfortable vehicle. Optional pre-breakfast birding and after-dark owling are offered. The tour does not require a great deal of walking or steep hiking to see the bulk of the birds, though there are opportunities for longer hikes if you wish. The highest altitudes involved are usually between 1800 – 2100 meters (6000 – 7000 feet), but only for one or two days of the tour. Being a private tour, you may wish to adapt the daily itinerary and schedule, do more or less birding, or add in historical sites as you wish and as it is feasible within the given framework of the tour.

Food is generally good and plentiful, and it is customary in Spain to provide plenty of wine free with the evening meal. Your accommodations all have private bathrooms and range from 4-star to small, simple, family-run rural hotels. Many are delightfully individual in pleasant and beautifully renovated ancient stone farmhouses nestled in quiet, charming villages, where Eurasian Scops and Tawny Owls, Common Nightingale, Black Redstart, and Woodlark sing outside our windows at night!

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