Southern Spain: The Europe Introtour

Birders often ask “If I take one trip in Europe where should that be?” The answer is simple: Spain. This Iberian country is steeped in fascinating history, with ancient Roman, Gothic and Islamic pre-hispanic cultures and a unified Spain dating back to the early 1500s. On this tour we visit the region of Extremadura, frequently referred to as one of Europe’s finest birding areas, offering an eclectic combination of plains birding on Spain’s Llanos de Cácares, along with the exciting raptor watching in the mountains of Monfragüe. The timing of our visit to Extremadura is strategic; this is when hulking male Great Bustards perform their extraordinary displays on the plains, while we also have a good shot at an enigmatic Iberian endemic, the Spanish Imperial Eagle, which headlines a varied cast of raptors at Monfragüe, like including Cinereous and Egyptian Vultures, and Bonelli’s and Booted Eagles. After Extremadura, we explore Doñana, one of Spain’s most famous parks, where a mosaic of habitats provides some of Andalucía’s longest bird lists; we’ll search for the endangered White-headed Duck, and host of other species like flocks of Greater Flamingoes, Red-knobbed Coot, the rare Marbled Duck, Audouin’s Gull, Iberian Magpie (formerly Azure-winged), and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.

The short trip begins in Madrid and ends in Seville, two absorbing Spanish cities with plenty to offer culturally, meaning that short cultural side-trips can be easily arranged too, at either end of the trip. It is also a trip in which only two places are used to stay-three nights each in Extremadura and on the edge of Doñana, meaning you only have to unpack twice.

This Spanish sojourn follows our exciting Marvelous Morocco tour and, therefore, both have been designed as perfect stand-alone or combination tours, for those with plentiful vacation time. Morocco offers something entirely different; North Africa in a nutshell, with visits to the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, and the bird-packed coasts bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

Day 1: Arrival in Madrid. After arrival, you will be transferred to a hotel for one night. There is no birding today (many people like to rest up after what is often a long flight).

Day 2: Madrid to Trujillo (Extremadura). After arrival in Spain’s capital, we will meet up at the airport in the morning, and then head west towards the city of Trujillo in the region of Extremadura. On the journey west we’ll stop off at Arrocampo Reservoir, a famous birding hotspot with a comfortable blind for birders. In addition to a host of waterbirds like Water Rail, Spotted and Baillon’s Crakes, Eurasian Spoonbill, and both Great and Little Bitterns, we will also be on the lookout for Bearded Reedlings and Penduline Tits foraging in the reedbeds. In the afternoon, we’ll arrive in Trujillo for a three night stay. Trujillo is wonderful, with a rich historical center, a section of the city that we will visit in order to see the Lesser Kestrel colony in particular. Trujillo also acts as a superb base for exploring the Cácares Plains to the west, and the mountains of Monfragüe to the north. In the afternoon, we may have time for an initial foray onto the plains. At night we can look for European Scops-Owl close to Trujillo.

Great Bustard, one of the world's heaviest flying birds
Great Bustard, one of the world's heaviest flying birds (Ken Behrens)

Eurasian Spoonbill is common in the Odiel Estuary
Eurasian Spoonbill is common in the Odiel Estuary (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Monfragüe National Park. This national park will offer something completely different. Monfragüe is set within a small mountain range. The craggy cliffs and rock faces offer a magnificent environment in which to bird that offers vital habitat for a variety of breeding raptors in particular. Chief among these is the rare and local Spanish Imperial Eagle. However, plenty of other raptors occur besides in this legendary park, which is regarded as something of a raptor Mecca among European birders, with long-established viewing points to pick up eagles, hawks and buzzards on the wing. Among the plentiful birds-of-prey there, we’ll be searching for Cinereous, Eurasian Griffon, and Egyptian Vultures, as well as Golden, Bonelli’s and Booted Eagles; other birds on site include the powerfully built Hawfinch, Cirl Bunting, and Rock Petronia, the ultimate “plain Jane”. In the evening we look for the immense Eurasian Eagle-Owl to emerge from its daytime roost, within the multitude of crags that splinter the rock faces. The world’s largest owl would certainly be an impressive way to end the first full day’s birding of the tour, before we backtrack to Trujillo for another night.

Day 4: Cácares Plains. Our base in Trujillo puts us within easy reach of the plains of Extremadura to the north, home to good numbers of Great Bustards, one of the undoubted celebrity birds of the entire tour. While the displays of the huge males are sure to the highlight of the day, as they dwarf any interested females, the day will be filled with many other exciting avian possibilities as we bird the open country on Spain’s largest plateau, the Llanos de Cácares. The ornithological importance of the area is highlighted by the fact that no less than four different Special Protection Areas there. Corn Buntings, Spanish Sparrows and both Calandra and Thekla Larks are numerous, while larks abound in general, with Greater Short-toed and Crested Larks also possible. While Great Bustard is sure to impress with both its size and display credentials; its smaller cousin also occurs on the plains in good numbers, and the male Little Bustard is no less impressive when seen in display, when it ruffles its pied neck feathers and leaps into the air, crossing its legs as it does so! We will also be on the lookout for the clean-cut Black-shouldered Kite, also found on the plains, and is often conspicuous as they stand sentry on some of the highest perches. At the end of the day we’ll return to the city of Trujillo for a final night.

Calandra Lark is a steppe specialty
Calandra Lark is a steppe specialty (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Trujillo to El Rocío (Andalucía). On this day, we will leave Extremadura behind, heading south into the region of Andalucía. Although it may appear like a travel day, in reality it is merely a birding day with wheels! We expect to stop numerous times as we travel south, as we enter into great birding habitats and areas. While there has been a long history of agriculture in the area, with grazing long established, the area is alive with birds, which use both the heavily modified areas, as well as the natural habitats that dot the landscape, comprising Holm Oak groves, stands of Spanish Lavender, and brushy areas of Broom. While journeying south, we’ll be on the lookout for Little Owl, Iberian Magpie (formerly Azure-winged), Southern Gray Shrike, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock-Thrush, and Rock Bunting; while if any winter flocks are still present these should contain good numbers of European Serin, European Goldfinch, and European Greenfinch. El Rocío will be our final stop that day, right on the edge of Doñana National Park. While Doñana has been compared to France’s Camargue, it is ecologically unique, attracting up to half a million birds at its peak. In the afternoon, we will explore some local sites around El Rocío for wetland and open country birds, like Greater Flamingo (sometimes numbering in the hundreds), Little Egret, White Stork, Common Shelduck, Collared Pratincole, Red-crested Pochard, Little Ringed Plover, Spotless Starling and Hoopoe. Three nights will be spent in El Rocío.

Every Extremaduran bar has a leg of ham on a custom-built rack
Every Extremaduran bar has a leg of ham on a custom-built rack (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Doñana National Park. Today we’ll visit one of the most important parks in the Mediterranean. Dominated by the grand Guadalquivir River, which feeds into the nearby Atlantic Ocean, it is fringed by a series of lagoons and marshes. Although this is a wetland of international importance, it is much more than that. Nearby, there is a mosaic of other habitats including woodland, sand dunes and “maquis”, (a shrubby Mediterranean heath-like vegetation comprising oaks, junipers, sages, myrtles and olives). So while wetland species will comprise some of our main targets, including Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Red-knobbed Coot, Gadwall, Eurasian Thick-knee (Stone Curlew), Cetti’s Warbler, and the elusive Marbled Duck; we will also be on the lookout for other species like Short-toed Treecreeper in the woods, Griffon Vultures on the wing, and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse foraging on the open ground. At the end of the day we’ll return to El Rocío for another night.

European Goldfinch takes to the wing
European Goldfinch takes to the wing (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Odiel Marshes. While Doñana tends to hog the birding headlines in this part of Spain, this is a little unfair on Odiel, which is one of the best wetland sites in all of Andalucía, and a biosphere reserve of international importance. The beauty of visiting this region, is that both Doñana and Odiel are in close proximity (within thirty minutes drive), and can therefore easily be combined. Odiel is located near to the city of Huelva, another important historical location as one of the oldest cities in Spain, dating back to 3000BC. Unlike Doñana, Odiel is tidal, and therefore attracts a host of shorebirds and other wetland species that prefer a tidal regime. What this also means is that in drought years, when Doñana may dry out, Odiel still holds plenty of water, and therefore wetland birds too. Odiel comprises saltpans, forests, lakes, sandbanks, tidal channels, and rivers, as well as marshland. It is one of the best protected areas in all of the Iberian Peninsula, and offers a heady mix of birds, like Audouin’s Gull, Western Marsh-Harrier, Osprey, Eurasian Spoonbill, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Common Redshank, Common Crane and Eurasian Moorhen. The pans are also a great place to get large flocks of Greater Flamingos, which can number into the hundreds during this exciting season. March is also a time of migration, which makes things a little unpredictable in terms of what migrants may be found, although Woodchat Shrike, Montagu’s Harrier, Subalpine Warbler, and Common Redstart are all good possibilities. We’ll also visit a nearby site where one of Spain’s rarest and most threatened birds can sometimes be found, the White-headed Duck. This endangered species is resident in Spain, but has long been threatened with extinction, from hybridization with the closely related, and introduced, American Ruddy Duck. In order to preserve the fragile White-headed Duck population, vast number of Ruddy Ducks were culled in Western Europe during the late 1990s-early 2000s; an expensive, very controversial and highly-divisive conservation program. At the end of a birdy day we’ll return to our base in El Rocío for another night.

Iberian Magpie is a regional endemic, and a real looker
Iberian Magpie is a regional endemic, and a real looker (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: El Rocío to Seville. After some birding near El Rocío, we will transfer to Seville, the Capital of Andalucía, where we spend the final night.

Day 9: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the Seville airport. This tour also links with our Northern Spain tour too. For those joining this tour, this will be day 1 of that tour, and you will need a morning flight to Madrid – you may book it yourself or we can help you book it on request.

For those who are interested in the cultural aspects of Spain’s rich history, we highly recommend spending a day or two extra to explore the city of Seville, which is packed with historical attractions. Seville boasts a long list of magical sights right within the city. This quaint and attractive city is very well maintained, and well worth a visit. Among the many attractions are the Alcazar Palace, the Baroque architecture of the Palace of San Telmo, and the General Archives of the Indies, which gives detailed insights into the Spanish Empire in the Americas and the Philippines. If you need help arranging a cultural tour of these sights and more please contact the Tropical Birding office.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding in the plains and open wetlands is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically be taken in the field to maximize birding opportunities. There are two three-night stays on the tour, meaning we don’t have to pack and unpack as much as on many other tours. The driving isn’t too bad, with the longest being two drives of 3-3.5 hours; some birding will be done from vehicle in Doñana National Park and the plains around Trujillo to cover maximum ground, while also using the vehicle as a make-shift blind for the best views possible. At least two lunches will be good picnic-style lunches taken in the field, and breakfast will likely be a packed breakfast on at least half of the days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Nowhere on this tour is particularly challenging and so it is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness, though you need to be able to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) a day on average. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. One optional walk within Monfrague National Park is along a more strenuous track, however those not wishing to undertake it can relax at the vehicle where there is ample birding to be done, or continue behind the group at their own pace. The entire tour is spent at low altitudes, with the highest point being approximately 1300 ft (400 m) above sea level.

CLIMATE: As this tour runs in spring, temperatures can be on the cooler side especially in the morning and at night; later in the day it usually warms up to “t-shirt weather”. Throughout the tour we can expect temperatures ranging between 46°F-72°F (8°C-22°C).

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

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have decent opportunities to photograph a number of species at close range. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Spain Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: We usually run this tour in mid-spring to make the most of certain key birds being most active, and also to coincide with peak migration. However, if you are thinking of doing this trip as a private/custom tour, it can be run from March through until June and throughout September, with April and May being particularly productive periods. Birding is much slower in summer (June – September). The driest months on average are June, July and August, however they also feature the slowest birding. Throughout Europe weather can be unpredictable and we should expect some light rain regardless of when the tour runs, however it usually does not last long.

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 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9 (if you have a very early flight on day 9, you may miss the included hotel breakfast); 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 gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 8; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 8 in a suitable vehicle (the tour leader usually drives the vehicle); one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other tour participants); entrance fees to birding 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.

Blue Rock Thrush on the Castle of Monfrague
Blue Rock Thrush on the Castle of Monfrague (Ken Behrens)

Eurasian Hoopoe is a tremendous bird
Eurasian Hoopoe is a tremendous bird (Ken Behrens)

Wildflowers, wetlands, and idyllic towns full of good food and wine
Wildflowers, wetlands, and idyllic towns full of good food and wine (Ken Behrens)