Europe offers some wonderful birds and mammals, but can be challenging for photographers, as many of these marquee beasts are quite shy and unapproachable. Thankfully, the recent creation of a range of well-positioned hides (the European word for what many of us call “blinds”) in Spain offers a solution to this problem, and a chance to photograph some of the best birds on the continent. This short tour starts and ends in Madrid, and we are based in a single, comfortable hotel throughout. We stay in an idyllic Spanish village in Castile and León, and enjoy wonderful home-made traditional cuisine and world-class Spanish wine every night. Most of our time is spent in a variety of hides that give excellent chances to photograph Eurasian Griffon, Black Vulture, Golden and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Red Kite, several other raptors, and a variety of wetland species. Visiting feeders may also allow us to photograph some smaller subjects like Great and Crested Tits, Iberian Magpie, European Robin, and Common Chaffinch. We’ll also spend a full day exploring a high mountain range where we hope to encounter the magnificent Iberian Ibex, and some tame passerines, and where we’ll certainly enjoy spectacular snowy landscapes.
This short trip begins and ends in Madrid, an absorbing city with plenty to offer culturally, meaning that cultural side-trips can be easily arranged at either end.
Day 1: Arrival in Madrid. Madrid to Avila. The group will assemble at the Madrid Barajas Airport, then drive west into the ruggedly beautiful landscape of southern Castile and León. Our base for the duration of the tour will be an idyllic small town just south of the larger city of Avila, a UNESCO site that is renowned for its ancient churches and the towering walls that encircle the old town. The surrounding scenes of snow-covered mountains, Mediterranean woodland, and rolling agricultural fields perfectly fulfill a stereotypical European idyll. If our arrival time allows, we will spend some time in the afternoon visiting bird feeders where there are chances to photograph species like Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpie, Crested, Great, and Blue Tits, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dunnock, European Robin, and Chaffinch.
Days 2-3: Eagle hides. The first two days are focused on visiting two different hides: one for Golden Eagle and one for Spanish Imperial Eagle. In order to get close to these incredibly shy creatures, we have to leave very early, and enter the hides while it is still dark outside. Thankfully though, the late hour of Spanish winter sunrise means that our wakeup time won’t be too ridiculously early! Eagles are not the only possibilities at these hides, which also attract Eurasian Griffon, Black Vulture, Carrion Crow, Common Raven, and Red Kite. At this time of year the eagles have fresh plumage, and show up spectacularly in the soft, clean, winter light.
Day 4: Gredos Mountains. After two days of working out of hides, we’ll enjoy a more open-ended day of exploring the beautiful Gredos Mountains, which tower over 8000 feet and dominate the surrounding landscape. Our main montane target is the remarkable Iberian Ibex, which can be quite tame and approachable. The birds are also quite accommodating, and we have chances to get excellent photos of Dunnock, Rock Bunting, and perhaps Alpine Accentor. The snowy alpine Gredos are also excellent for landscape photography, with deep gorges full of evergreens, and peaks piled high with immaculate snow.
Day 5: Vulture hide and feeders. We will again focus on hides, but with a different set of targets. One full morning will be in a hide that is set up to attract vultures, namely the massive Eurasian Griffon and Black Vulture. This is a special time of year for the Black Vultures, with aggressive encounters and courtship behavior often making for wonderful behavioral photos. The vulture hide sometimes also attracts Spanish Imperial Eagle, for more chances to photograph this incredible creatures. We’ll eat lunch near some bird feeders which often have species like Blue Rock Thrush, and the massive-billed Hawfinch. They will also give additional chances at widespread but photogenic birds like Crested, Blue, and Great Tits, Iberian Magpie, Dunnock, Rock Bunting, and a variety of finch species.
Day 6: Steppe raptor hide. Yet another hide gives us chances to photograph yet another spectacular set of shy subjects which are normally very difficult to approach. Our main targets are Red Kite, plus chances at Common Buzzard, Western Marsh Harrier, and maybe even more Spanish Imperial Eagles. One of the great features of these hides is the chance to see and photograph intimate parts of the lives of these raptors. You never know what kind of encounter or interactions might occur, and our hours in this perfectly positioned hide are sure to fly by.
Day 7: Flexible day. We have a “flex day” built into this tour in case there is something that we missed earlier in the tour, or which participants want to photograph further. In particular, eagles can be difficult, so this day may be spent at either the Golden or Spanish Imperial Eagle hide. Alternatively, we might branch out and search for a new subject such as Eurasian Sparrowhawk or Little Owl.
Day 8: Oso Lagoon hide. The last day of our short tour may actually be the most productive in terms of the number of species photographed. We spend the whole day in a large, comfortable hide that is next to the Oso Lagoon. We hope for close encounters with wetland species including Greylag Goose, various ducks, Eurasian Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, and sometimes even raptors like Merlin, Common Buzzard, or Marsh Harrier.
Day 9: Avila to Madrid. Departure. If time permits, we have a final morning for some photography around our hotel, or at nearby bird feeders, before driving back to Madrid to connect with our outbound international flights.
CLIMATE: The winter timing means that temperatures will be cool to cold on this tour, often below freezing, especially on our day in the high Gredos Mountains. Warm clothes are essential, especially for time spent in hides, which do not have heating.
DIFFICULTY: Easy; there are no difficult hikes on this trip, no especially long drives, and no difficult physical exertions anywhere on this tour. Most days of this tour will be spent in photo hides.
ACCOMMODATION: We spend the whole tour at a single very comfortable hotel, in a gorgeous, picturesque village. All rooms have en-suite bathrooms, and full-time electricity and hot water. The owner of the hotel prepares delicious, home-made, traditional Spanish meals for us.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: The majority of our photography will be from well-positioned hides that maximize our chances to photograph scarce marquee subjects like vultures and eagles. Secondarily, we’ll be seeking out subjects at productive feeding stations, and on a one-day excursion into the Gredos Mountains, where we’ll mainly seek out subjects on foot. Birds are the main target, though there are some chances for mammals as well. There are also good opportunities for landscape photography.
GEAR: At the hides, the distance to the subjects varies from very close to about 80 feet (25 meters). So it is good to have both a long lens (400-800mm), and a shorter lens for capturing action and very close subjects. Tripods are essential, as there can be cloudy days without abundant light. Flashes are not very useful on this tour. A wide angle lens for landscape photography will prove useful.