Protecting habitats for birds in Extremadura

The visionary conservation of this wild region’s mountains, valleys, meadows, waterways and towns nurtures spectacular avian life – and avid birdwatchers

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© Birding in Extremadura

© Birding in Extremadura

In the leafy slopes of Extremadura’s high mountains, in its glacial valleys through which crystalline rivers flow, and across its golden dehesas (wooded meadows) rolling on to the distant horizon, silence prevails. Despite its rich natural and cultural heritage, this kaleidoscopic region, nestled between the cork oak groves and vineyards of Portugal and the windmills of La Mancha, goes largely unnoticed – by humans, that is.

Seen through a bird’s eyes, though, the diverse landscapes and well-preserved ecosystems of Cáceres and Badajoz – Spain’s two largest provinces, which comprise Extremadura – are highly desirable for the 385 avian species recorded here. Indeed, the region has become a sanctuary for species rarely seen in the Iberian Peninsula, such as the Spanish imperial eagle, cinereous vulture, black stork and black-tailed godwit.

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

In Extremadura, protection of the natural environment is tightly linked to bird conservation.

Almost 75% of its territory is classified as Important Bird Areas, including 71 Special Protection Areas for birds (SPAs) covering over 26% of the region. In addition, EU-financed nature conservation and management projects of the LIFE Programme have contributed to the recovery of various endangered bird species in the Iberian Peninsula by improving their habitats in Extremadura. For example, the LIFE Iberian Agrosteppes project succeeded in bringing together nature conservationists, livestock breeders and farmers to safeguard steppe birds.

More work is needed, though, particularly for species dependent on agricultural environments. In recent years, little bustard numbers have declined by over 60% in La Serena and Sierras Periféricas, Extremadura’s largest SPA.

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

Already, though, the region has led the way in protecting various bird habitats. Recognising that some species now prefer to nest in human constructions – cathedrals and churches, or spaces in other buildings – Extremadura became the first European region to designate as SPAs several of its urban centres hosting nesting colonies of lesser kestrel, one of Spain’s smallest breeding birds of prey.

Add the Villuercas-Ibores-Jara UNESCO Global Geopark, three Biosphere Reserves – Monfragüe, Tajo Internacional and La Siberia – and the Protected Landscapes of Monte Valcorchero and Castañar Gallego, and it’s clear why Extremadura is the birding paradise of southern Europe.

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

Extremadura's best birding spots

Venture into the dense chestnut and oak forests among the southern foothills of the imposing Sierra de Gredos, in Extremadura’s far north-east, and you’ll be serenaded by the murmur of water and the whisper of wind through the treetops mingling with the melodious songs of blackcaps, chiffchaffs and nuthatches.

Descend from those picturesque highlands into the valleys of La Vera, Jerte and Ambroz to hear the calls of bluethroats and golden orioles (so rarely seen in the UK), and to spot goshawks, European honey-buzzards, Thekla’s larks and great cormorants.

Around Plasencia, further to the south, you might spot vultures, buzzards and eagles flying over the area’s characteristic cork oaks and glittering granite formations. This is where I grew up, and I remember with nostalgia the croaking of the graceful white storks perched on their nests in the cathedral complex, and the swooping flight of lesser kestrels above the Plaza de San Vicente Ferrer.

The Tagus River snakes around the rocky outcrops of Monfragüe National Park, some 30km south of Plasencia. Standing at the lofty Salto del Gitano lookout in the far west of the park, you might spot Egyptian and griffon vultures, red kites and eagle owls soaring over the Peña Falcón crag. The sight of these majestic birds of prey circling above the 300m cliff, or perching to feed their chicks, is one of Extremadura’s most unforgettable images.

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

Just east of Monfragüe National Park stretches the Arrocampo reservoir, created in the late 1980s to provide cooling water. It now hosts numerous species that relish its warm waters and nest among its abundant bulrushes. It’s home to Extremadura’s largest populations of purple swamphen, black-crowned night heron and purple heron – indeed, eight species of heron nest here.

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town of Cáceres makes a memorable base from which to head out birding in the surrounding plains, known as the Llanos de Cáceres, and across the wider province.

La Siberia Biosphere Reserve, in north-east Badajoz province, encompasses vast steppes, dehesas, mountains, Mediterranean forest and irrigated areas. It also features five reservoirs, including La Serena - Spain’s largest – and Orellana, a Ramsar site hosting a large colony of gull-billed tern and an estimated 65,000 wintering waterfowl each year. Despite gradual changes in Extremadura’s steppe systems, they remain refuges for pin-tailed and black-bellied sandgrouse, singing calandra larks, nightjars, stone-curlews and bombastic great bustards.

Mérida – another city boasting World Heritage-listed archaeological sites – is considered one of Spain’s finest settings for urban birding. From the Roman Bridge over the Guadiana River you can watch swallows, penduline tits, European bee-eaters, black- winged kites, and graceful Iberian magpies flying over the ninth-century Moorish Alcazaba.

The capital of Extremadura is also a fine base for exploring the ancient Roman reservoirs of Proserpina and Cornalvo or the rocky Sierra Grande de Hornachos mountains, and for birdwatching in Zafra and quaint villages among the vineyards and olive groves towards the Andalusian border.

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

© Extremadura Tourist Board

Need to know

When to go

Birdwatching in Extremadura is wonderful at any time of year. Mid-autumn to late winter is the best period to see most of the resident and wintering birds, including impressive flocks of egrets and cranes feeding and relaxing in the dehesas. Extremadura Birdwatching Fair is held in Monfragüe National Park each February. At the most important ornithological tourism fair in southern Europe, you can take guided tours, attend talks from specialists and enjoy creative workshops focused on bird conservation.

Getting there

Cáceres, Plasencia, Mérida and Badajoz are all accessible by bus or train from Madrid. Buses also run direct from Lisbon to Badajoz, Mérida and Cáceres. Travelling by public transport from cities to villages can be challenging. Ask at bus stations or tourist offices for local timetables, or check the websites of regional transport companies such as Cevesa and Leda; another handy website providing information on multiple transport providers is movelia.es/en. Carry cash to pay for services.

Events

Visit in spring or summer to enjoy diverse local festivals celebrating the history, culture and exuberant nature of Extremadura.

The Cherry Blossom Festival, held in the villages of the Jerte Valley from late March to early April, marks the arrival of these delicate blooms with exhibitions, medieval markets, open-air celebrations and tasting sessions.

Martes Mayor, held in Plasencia on the first Tuesday in August, reputedly dates back to the 12th century. Celebrations begin on the Monday night with parades and music. Then, on the Tuesday, the walled centre is transformed into a boisterous medieval market showcasing the best of the area’s local produce, particularly vegetables and fruits, while locals dance to the music of the flute and the tambourine.

Glossary

Sustainability

The quality of being able to continue over a period of time, or the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance (Camrbdige Dictionary).

Biodiversity

This refers to 'the variability of living organisms, between and within species, and the changeability of the ecosystems to which they belong' (The Convention on Biological Diversity).

Responsible Tourism

According to the Responsible Tourism Partnership, ‘Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, and take action to make tourism more sustainable. Behaviour can be more or less responsible, and what is responsible in a particular place depends on environment and culture’. The concept was defined in Cape Town in 2002 alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Rewilding

The process of protecting an environment and returning it to its natural state; for example, bringing back wild animals that used to live there (Cambridge Dictionary).

Zero-kilometre Food

A movement reducing the distance between producers and sales and consumer establishments to a radius of under 100 kilometres, with the aim of minimising the effects that large-scale industry have on the planet, including soil erosion, water pollution, and habitat loss for wild species.

Green

Being ‘green’ is used to describe actions or initiatives that are conducted in a sustainable way, in an attempt to reduce impact on planetary resource limits. However, the word can be used to describe actions or initiatives that do not actively do this, but rather convey an ethos of being planet-friendly; eg being outside, walking or riding a bike. This can be considered 'greenwashing' (when an individual or company paints an action as credibly sustainable when, in fact, it is an action that beenfits them, or that should be considered the bare minimum).
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