The Iberian peninsular is famous for its population of Azure-winged Magpies, which can be surprisingly tame at times. Photo: James Lidster
There is no other Mediterranean, or indeed European country that offers such a wealth of birdwatching as Spain and this comprehensive tour is designed to take in the very best birdwatching the country can provide. We’ll travel almost the entire length of this fascinating land, beginning with the extensive lagoons and wetlands surrounding the old town of Jerez before moving on to the famous Coto Doñana to look for its equally famous birds and then visiting Extremadura, home to the highest concentration of raptors in Europe, in addition to its bustards and sandgrouse. From there we’ll make our first visit to the mountains, where Bluethroats and Rock Thrush sing from extensive golden stands of broom, before venturing into the open steppe habitats of northern Spain that are home to a suite of special birds including the elusive Dupont’s Lark, before ending our tour amidst the splendour of the forests and limestone crags of the Picos de Europa. Along the way we’ll encounter sleepy villages and shady olive groves, and see parts of Spanish life that so many tourists miss in their headlong dash to the coast.
Day 1: Our tour begins with a flight from London to Malaga from where we’ll transfer to our hotel. The journey to the hotel takes us past one of the most famous migration routes in the world, the Strait of Gibraltar, and depending on the weather conditions we’ll break our journey at various migration watch points along the way. Although the bulk of the bird migration will have passed, we should still see small numbers of Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Griffon Vultures, Black Kites and maybe the very first returning Honey-buzzards - the latter species having spent the previous year in western Africa before returning, in their third year, to breed in Europe. Migrant passerines may also be present and we may see both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Subalpine Warbler, or groups of European Bee-eaters making their way north. Night near Zahara.
Day 2: The shallow lagoons around Jerez play host to one of the country’s special birds, White-headed Duck. This will be our main target species for the day, but the first full day in a new country is always exciting and new species will come thick and fast. Wet fields, saltpans and small lagoons should hold herons, including both Purple and Squacco while Slender-billed Gulls grace the salinas and White Storks, Gull-billed Terns and yet more raptors are almost sure to feature. The White-headed Ducks can be on several small lakes, which also play host to Red-crested Pochard and in most years even Marbled Duck. The nearby woodland and scrub holds Melodious and Sardinian Warblers, Crested Tits, and Short-toed Treecreepers. On the way back to our hotel we’ll divert from the main road to check out one of Europe’s rarest breeding species, Little Swift, a common bird throughout Africa that has a toehold in Spain. Night near Zahara.
Day 3: If raptor migration is in full swing we may backtrack slightly towards Tarifa, perhaps enjoying eye-level views of Honey-buzzards as they power across the Straits of Gibraltar, whilst distant groups of Scopoli’s Shearwaters (recently split from Cory’s) enter the Mediterranean Sea to return to their island breeding grounds. There will be many Yellow-legged Gulls around the town, often forming their own welcome party for any incoming Short-toed Eagles. If the beach is undisturbed (sometimes difficult among the myriad of kite-surfers), we’ll search for Audouin’s Gull and Kentish Plover. The town itself holds breeding Pallid Swifts and Lesser Kestrels, which are ideal distractions whilst drinking a coffee, and is still the only site for the only pair of Common Bulbuls breeding in Europe! We’ll then continue our journey westwards and aim to be in the famous Coto Doñana region by late afternoon. Our hotel, settled on the shores of the marismas, is a real gem from which we could see our first Greater Flamingos and Eurasian Spoonbills within a few hundred metres of our rooms! The wetlands at El Rocio are always exciting. If the water level is low we may see flocks of Curlew Sandpipers, feeding Whiskered Terns and Collared Pratincoles hawking for insects. If the levels are high then species such as Avocet and Black-winged Stilt may find it to their liking. The reedy edges often hold singing Great Reed Warblers, and careful scanning of the shoreline often produces both Squacco and Purple Herons, sometimes Glossy Ibis, and the occasional Little Bittern. Night in El Rocio.
Days 4-5: The Coto Doñana has been described as one of Europe’s last wilderness areas and during our two days we’ll sample a little of its rich and varied habitats. Following a maze of tracks we’ll spend a whole day birding our way to the José Antonio Valverde centre. In front of the information centre is a super mixed colony of herons and egrets. Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes breed to a backdrop of noisy Great Reed Warblers. The journey there can be so full of birds that it’s difficult to know how long it will take. The roadside ditches offer a chance of Little Bittern, while Purple Swamphen, Eurasian Turtle Dove and Corn Bunting are all possible, the latter still surprisingly common. Open water areas can hold Great White Egret, as well as more Greater Flamingos, in addition to Gull-billed Terns and various wildfowl and shorebirds, whilst drier areas support Lesser Short-toed Larks. Closer to our hotel are a series of nature trails and hides that offer excellent chances of Red-crested Pochard, Iberian Chiffchaff, Azure-winged Magpie, Woodchat Shrike, Cetti’s and Savi’s Warblers, Firecrest and Tree Sparrow. If time allows we may head west towards Huelva where we have more opportunities of seeing Osprey, Audouin’s Gull, Caspian Tern, and shorebirds around the saltpans and estuary. An evening excursion aims to at least hear one or two of the local nocturnal birds, such as Red-necked Nightjar and Tawny Owl. Nights in El Rocio.
Day 6: Leaving the Coto Doñana behind we begin our journey north, stopping to look for Rufous Bush-robin and Black Wheatear at different sites along the way. Once into the hills we may start to see more vultures with Eurasian Griffon being the most likely, but both Eurasian Black and Egyptian are possible. If time allows we’ll check some steppe habitat closer to our hotel, maybe seeing our first Great Bustards or European Roller. Night near Torrejon el Rubio.
Days 7-8: We’ll have two full days to explore the wonders of Extremadura - dividing our time between Monfrague National Park, the steppes and if necessary, its wetlands and valleys. Monfrague has arguably one of the highest concentrations of breeding raptors in Europe and if the weather is favourable we’ll see Red and Black Kites, Booted, Short-toed, Golden and Bonelli’s Eagles, and hopefully the globally rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. It’s not only raptors that will grab our attention but also other much sought-after species such as Black Stork, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Alpine Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Subalpine Warbler, and both Rock and Cirl Buntings - all breeding in the park. Our day on the steppes could be no less exciting and we’ll make several stops in search of singing Common Quail, Great and Little Bustards, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Stone-curlew, European Roller, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Little Owl, Thekla and Wood Larks, and possibly Black Wheatear. A few colonies of breeding Montagu’s Harriers still hang on in the area, providing an impressive sight, and both Crested Larks and Zitting Cisticolas are common. The number of breeding Corn Buntings is a delight when considering how scarce the species has become in north-west Europe, while in Trujillo town we can again watch breeding Lesser Kestrels and Pallid Swifts. Nights near Torrejon el Rubio.
Day 9: Sometime after breakfast we’ll make the relatively short journey north to the Gredos Mountains. However, if we still haven’t seen certain species, such as Black-shouldered Kite we’ll alter our route accordingly, but still aim to get to our hotel in the afternoon. The high mountains of central Spain support several special habitats and these in turn are home to excellent populations of highly sought-after species, ranging from freshly arriving Eurasian Hobby, the recently split Iberian Green Woodpecker, iberiae race of Pied Flycatcher, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Firecrest, quirky Crested Tit and Common Crossbill in its pine forests, to healthy populations of Bluethroat, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Iberian Yellow Wagtail, Water Pipit and Ortolan Bunting above the treeline. We’ll look for these en route and also for White-throated Dipper and Grey Wagtail which are present on the small rivers. Night in Navarredonda de Gredos.
Day 10: If we didn’t make this excursion the afternoon before, our morning will largely be dedicated to walking up into a relatively easily accessible higher part of the Gredos to search for the other high mountain species, plus we have an excellent chance of seeing the endemic Spanish Ibex. Citril Finch is generally very scarce in these pine forests but we’ll make one or two specific stops to look for them, including en route to a small area of steppe-like páramo not far from the historic city of Segovia. Once close to our hotel we’ll head straight out to search for perhaps the most sought-after bird of the region, Dupont’s Lark. Contrary to popular belief there is just as much chance of seeing one in the afternoon as there is at dawn, although seeing ‘el diablo’ at any time is far from easy. As the evening sets in the song activity should increase although there will be stiff competition from Calandra and Great Short-toed Larks, Eurasian Skylark, and both Crested and Thekla Larks. Whilst waiting, we hope to see Red-billed Choughs, Red-legged Partridge, Iberian Grey Shrike, Tawny Pipit and Spectacled and Sardinian Warblers. The stunted junipers can also hold both Dartford and Western Orphean Warblers, and the rocky terrain is popular with Northern and Black-eared Wheatears. Night in Sepulveda.
Day 11: A quick look outside the hotel grounds before breakfast could produce Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, singing Golden Orioles, Common Cuckoo, European Serin, Cirl Bunting and Eurasian Hoopoe. Nearby woodland can be alive with Common Nightingales, Garden Warblers and Blackcaps, and sometimes even Eurasian Wryneck. If we didn’t succeed in finding Dupont’s Larks yesterday we’ll try again this morning, or perhaps check a nearby valley for Rock Sparrow, and Sylvia warblers. With a long journey into the beautiful Picos de Europa mountains we need to be on the road just after lunch to ensure arriving in time for dinner. Night in Potes.
Days 12-13: We wake up to a new avifauna today, with familiar northern European breeding species such as Spotted Flycatcher, Blue and Coal Tits, Chaffinch and Mistle Thrush all found around our hotel. Dependiong on the weather conditions, one morning will be taken up with one of the most memorable trips during the tour, as we take an exciting cable car ride up to the high mountain alpine pasture and bare rock habitats above Fuente Dé. This area is the realm of a small but remarkable suite of birds including Alpine Chough, Alpine Accentor, White-winged Snowfinch and that enigmatic ‘avian butterfly’, the Wallcreeper. Good weather also sees regular raptors passing over. The remaining time will be spent lower down searching for a few of its other special birds including Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, perhaps an early-arriving Red-backed Shrike and also other birds more typical of further north in Europe, including Common Redstart, Marsh Tit and Yellowhammer. Night in Potes.
Day 14: After breakfast we will start our journey to Madrid for the flights back to London, where the tour concludes.
Updated: 31 August 2016