Now on with Spain!
This is the first of two posts I will use to recap my recent travels to and birdwatching experiences in Extremadura, Spain (Feb 18-28, 2017)! This first post will introduce you to the region and highlight some of its history and demographics. I will also outline some general birding expectations for your visit. In my second post, I will review the precise birding areas I visited and the exact species that I observed in each. OK, let's get going!
Extremadura is 1 of the 17 autonomous units within Spain, and, with a population just over a million, is one of the least populated regions of the country (Spain has 46 million people total). Agriculture and livestock are the major industries, though deer hunting and ecotourism are growing rapidly in popularity. At 16,000 square miles, Extremadura is quite small; It is quite possible to bird most of it in 4 or 5 days (for those from the US, Massachusetts is 10,500 sq mi and and West Virginia is 24,000). A central or semi-central location will leave only 2 hours driving time to all of the birding locations that I will describe in the second installment. Extremadura itself is less than a 3 hour drive from Madrid or Lisbon, so reaching the destination from either Spain or Portugal is very straightforward. Roads are easy to drive and in good shape. I wouldn't hesitate to rent a car and drive myself around on a return visit.
The regions of Spain with Extremadura highlighted.
Madrid is dead center.
Extremadura is comprised of two provinces,
Cáceres in the north and Badajoz in the south.
To fully appreciate the amazing bird watching opportunities in Extremadura, it is first helpful to understand at least a small amount of Spanish history and how it contributed to present day demographics. Prior to the arrival of the Romans in the second century BC, the Iberian Peninsula was loosely inhabited by many groups including - among others - Iberians, Celts, Basques, and Phoenicians. The Romans conquered and subjugated these various folks and, in 27 BC, established the province of Lusitania. This municipality encompassed present day Extremadura as well as neighboring Portugal. Mérida was designated as the provincial capital in 25 BC and was subsequently used as a retirement community for Roman Legions (soldiers). The Romans ruled Lusitania until the early 8th century when the region was conquered by Muslim armies. Christians retook the region in the 13th century and held the territory until the arrival of the Napoleonic forces in the 18th century.
Roman bridge in Mérida
Roman amphitheater in Mérida.
This was built before Rome's Coliseum!
Roman theater in Mérida - all but 3 columns are original.
The square towers of Trujillo's fortress
identify it as Islamic
identify it as Islamic
Catholic Church in the
religious center of Guadalupe
This rather turbulent history manifests itself in a demographic unlike that of anywhere else I have traveled. It seems as though absolutely everyone lives in established villages and towns, none of which sprawl or have any sort of suburbs. This was historically done for protection, and today guarantees that the vast majority of the Extremadura landscape is unsettled. This means lots of habitat is available for birds!
Trujillo and Extremadura countryside beyond.
A large festival associated with Carnival
can be seen at town's center.
Contemporary habitats range from rocky ridges, to mixed oak woodlands, to forested grazing pastures, to open farmland in the plains, or steppe, regions. Hundreds of small dams create an equal number of artificial ponds and lakes that attract a host of water birds. This variety of habitats regularly supports ~280 species, and over 350 species have been recorded in the region. My visit occurred in late February, a time when wintering species, most notably cranes and waterfowl, are still present and the first spring migrants are arriving.
If traveling a long distance to Extremadura (i.e. from the US), I would suggest a visit sometime between mid-April and early May. This will guarantee that more of the migratory, southern European and Mediterranean specialty birds are present. A solid week of spring birding should yield ~175 species, virtually all of which will be new for birders making their inaugural European venture. Weather in late February was pleasant but not particularly balmy. Temperatures rise as spring progresses, but so does the chance of rain. I had no rain of consequence in 9 full days of birding, so that's one huge perk to coming a bit earlier. Lodging fills faster later in the spring, so coming earlier will make finding places to stay a bit easier. Bustards and sandgrouse might require a bit a more work later in the spring as the steppe grasses grow in with the spring rains. I've been told though that finding those species in April/May is still possible, so please don't let this qualification dissuade you from coming later if you wish to see those species. Summer is very hot and should be generally avoided.
Biking for Birds, Spain edition!
With basically zero traffic, getting from place to place is a snap. We spent several nights in Torrejon El Rubio (Adjacent to Monfragüe National Park) and a few more in Trujillo. There's not much lodging between towns, but staying anywhere basically gives you access to everywhere. Most of the lodgings are boutique hotels or converted family estates. Airbnb is a possibility as well and would offer a similarly immersive lodging experience. Everywhere we stayed had character and contributed to our experience in ways that staying in some big box hotel chain would not have. At one place, the owner's son played his clarinet while we ate dessert. It was super classy an reminded me of my clarinet days as 14 year old - except that I was beyond awful at it.
Hotel lodging in Torrejon El Rubio
Our guest house outside Trujillo
I hope that this post gives you a general overview of what to expect in Extremadura. The real beauty of birding in Extremadura is that there is so much history and culture to experience beyond the birds. In that respect, Extremadura (and Spain, more generally) is an idea destination if you've got a non-birding spouse in tow. In the next installment, I will focus on those birds and the locations where one can view them. Please stay tuned for that in the next few days!