Northern Spain: The Pyrenees, Belchite Steppes and Ebro Delta

It is no secret that some of the very best European birding is offered in Spain; many know of the bird-rich southern areas of Extramadura and Andalucia, which are covered in another of our tours (Southern Spain: The Europe Introtour). What is less well known is that the northeast of Spain also offers fantastic birding all of its own, and of a very different nature to that tour. This tour runs immediately after our Spain Introtour, for those who want a longer and more complete Spanish trip, or feel they simply cannot leave the country without Wallcreeper!

This short, weeklong tour explores the best of the “other side” of Spain. Starting in the beautiful city of Barcelona, we wind our way slowly up into the high Pyrenees where we’ll especially go after Wallcreeper, Citril Finch, White-winged Snowfinch, White-backed Woodpecker, the hulking Black Woodpecker, and bone-crushing Lammergeier. We’ll then descend to the famous steppe of Belchite near Zaragoza to search for a very special target, the rare Dupont’s Lark, as well as many other species of this markedly different habitat, before making the short hop east to the often overlooked Ebro Delta, to see a plethora of wetland and coastal birds. This tour offers chances to see all three of the Mediterranean-endemic shearwaters: Yelkouan, Scopoli’s, and critically endangered Balearic.

This tour forms the perfect companion to our southern-based Spain: The Introtour, taking in the best birding sites on the Iberian peninsula, plus fantastic landscapes, superb food, and a taste of the Mediterranean way of life. Combine one or both of our Spain tours with Morocco for a truly epic journey through one of the most scenic, historic and bird-rich areas of the Western Palearctic (an ecozone comprising Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa).

The odd Eurasian Hoopoe; one of Europe's most striking birds
The odd Eurasian Hoopoe; one of Europe's most striking birds (Ken Behrens)

Day 1: Barcelona to the Hecho Valley. After meeting in Barcelona in the morning, we’ll immediately make our way toward the imposing Pyrenees mountain range, taking stops along the way for roadside Red-backed Shrikes, Eurasian Hoopoes, and perhaps too, some lingering Common Cranes, here at one of their favoured wintering areas. We’ll arrive at our base for the next three nights, the Hecho Valley, by late afternoon, in time to explore the area before dinner. The sound of singing Cirl Buntings, Firecrests, Crested and Long-tailed Tits, Red Crossbills, and Black Redstarts will follow us everywhere we go, and we’ll be sure to keep our eyes to the skies for Red Kite, Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture, Golden and Booted Eagles, and maybe our first Lammergeier of the trip. The night will be spent in the Hecho Valley.

The sound of Cirl Buntings fills the air in the Mediterranean
The sound of Cirl Buntings fills the air in the Mediterranean (Lisle Gwynn)

Days 2 – 3: The Pyrenees. The Hecho Valley is one of the premier birding sites in northern Spain, and we have two full days to explore this magical area. Besides fantastic birding among stunning scenery, we will be on the lookout for several key target species. First up, will be the powder blue-and-crimson Wallcreeper, found in narrow ravines populated by White-throated Dippers, Gray Wagtails and Red-billed Choughs. We’ll search high in the mountains for Citril Finch and White-winged Snowfinch, and higher at the French border for Yellow-billed (Alpine) Chough, Alpine Accentor, and the ermine-colored Snow Bunting. We’ll search mountain forests for the striking Black Woodpecker, and the rare White-backed Woodpecker, and enjoy puffed-up Eurasian Bullfinches, Rock Buntings, and Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrushes as we go. Lammergeier could appear at any moment, and we hope to see several during our time in the area.

Lammergeier, the bone crusher, are as beautiful as they are menacing
Lammergeier, the bone crusher, are as beautiful as they are menacing (Noel Reynolds)

At night, we’ll make drives up the valley in search of nocturnal wildlife. Eurasian Scops- and Tawny Owls are common in the area, while scarcer species like European Eagle-Owl and Boreal Owl are also possible. We may also see Pine and Beech Martens, Polecat, and European Wildcat at night, and Alpine Marmot and Chamois during the day, while the area’s wolves and European Brown Bear are unfortunately shy and rarely seen. These nights will also be in the same hotel within the Hecho Valley.

Day 4: Hecho Valley to Belchite. We have a day of travelling down to the steppes of Belchite today, but it will be broken by two great birding stops. We’ll need to leave early to reach the interesting San Juan de la Peña monastery, a short drive through the foothills, where we’ll search again for Black Woodpecker and Wallcreeper. Situated on top of a sheer cliff, the view here is magnificent, and as thermals from the plains below rise, we may be treated to arms-length passes by Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture, or even Lammergeier. This can also be a good spot for songbirds sunning themselves as the day warms, which may include Subalpine, Sardinian, or Garden Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaff, Blue Rock Thrush, and perhaps Black Wheatear.

European Robins are ubiquitous on this tour
European Robins are ubiquitous on this tour (Francis Franklin)

After leaving the monastery, we’ll make our way to the stunning town of Riglos. This small settlement is overshadowed by its world-famous rock formations, complete with towering cliffs that often play host to Wallcreeper in the winter months. We should have had good views of Wallcreeper by now, but this gives us one final chance if needed. Blue Rock Thrush is common at this site, and a large colony of Eurasian Griffon is mesmerising as they all take to the air and ride the thermals above the town. In the early afternoon, we’ll make the short hop down to the area known as the Belchite steppes, our base for two nights.

The Pyrenees are home to the incredible Wallcreeper
The Pyrenees are home to the incredible Wallcreeper (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Belchite Steppes. We have a full day on the steppes to enjoy a very different selection of birds to those we would have found in the Pyrenees. Our main target for the morning will be the rare and highly localized Dupont’s Lark. Sometimes the birds perform spectacularly well, but we have two mornings set aside to find them, just in case. There are many other distractions in the area, including Crested, Thekla, Calandra, Greater Short-toed, and Lesser Short-toed Larks, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Northern Wheatears, Eurasian Thick-knee, Sardinian, Subalpine, Dartford and Isabelline Warblers, and perhaps the last of the winter flocks of Little Bustard.

Belchite Steppes is home to super birds like this Pin-tailed Sandgrouse
Belchite Steppes is home to super birds like this Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Francesco Veronesi)

Day 6: Belchite Steppes to the Ebro Delta.We have another morning set aside in case we need better views of Dupont’s Lark, but it’s likely we’ll have succeeded already. So after a final look around the area for any missing dry-land targets, we’ll drive a couple of hours east to one of the best wetlands in Spain, the Ebro Delta.

We'll hope for some rails once we hit the coastal wetlands
We'll hope for some rails once we hit the coastal wetlands (Lisle Gwynn)

We have an afternoon and a morning to enjoy this quaint and under-watched corner of Spain with its typically Mediterranean relaxed pace. New birds for the tour will be bountiful, with an assortment of waterfowl, including the handsome Red-crested Pochard and Red-knobbed Coot, herons including Squacco and Purple, and two particularly good-looking gulls: Audouin’s and Slender-billed. The exact species present depends somewhat on which migrants have made the crossing from Africa already, but highlights could include Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Whiskered, Gull-billed, Little, and White-winged Terns, Collared Pratincole, Eurasian Hoopoe, Bluethroat, and Savi’s, Great Reed and Moustached Warblers. This evening we’ll have a look at the sea to add the Mediterranean-endemic Yelkouan, Balearic, and Scopoli’s Shearwaters to our tally. The night will be spent nearby the Ebro Delta.

We'll finish up the tour with flamingoes for company
We'll finish up the tour with flamingoes for company (Keith Barnes)

Day 7 The Ebro Delta to Barcelona (departure). The Ebro Delta is only a couple of hours outside Barcelona, so we’ll have time for a last look around this morning, before making our way to Barcelona to connect with afternoon/evening flights out.

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically be taken in the field to maximize birding opportunities. Driving between bases involves one long drive (4.5 hours Barcelona to Hecho Valley) and several shorter drives (2.5 – 3 hours). Once at our bases the driving distances between sites are much shorter. At least four lunches will be packed or picnic style lunches, and breakfast will likely be a packed breakfast on most mornings.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Nowhere on this tour is particularly challenging and so it is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. Our two days in the Pyrenees will be spent birding at up to around 6,500 ft. (2000 m.) elevation, but the walking is on fairly easy and well-established tracks. Our nights are spent much lower at around 2,500 ft. (800m.), and the rest of the tour is spent birding at even lower altitudes.

CLIMATE: As this tour runs in spring, temperatures can be on the cooler side especially in the morning and at night, with the Pyrenees portion ranging between 46°-57°F, 8°-14°C. The plains are slightly warmer at around 46°-64°F, 8°-18°C. Even this late in spring, snow can be present in the mountains so warm clothing is needed.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have good opportunities to photograph birds and scenery in the Pyrenees section of the tour. Serious bird photographers should check out our Spain Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: We usually run the set-departure tour in mid to late-spring, since certain key birds are still low enough in altitude for us to reach, while also avoiding the chance of disruptive snow in the mountains. As a custom tour, it can be run from March through until November, with March – May and late September – October being particularly productive periods, while it is a bit slower June – early September). The driest months on average are June and July, the wettest months are April, May and August, and the other months are intermediate. Even in the drier months, some rain can be expected.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and all EU European countries. Visas are currently required for nationals of many countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers (if needed) and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 6; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 7; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water between meals (tap water is safe and you are encouraged to fill your bottles whenever possible); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 7 in a suitable vehicle (with smaller groups the tour leader will drive and for larger groups there will be a driver); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.