Extremadura and Gredos Mountains, Spain. 2nd. - 11th. August 2008
To see a list of the birds seen on this trip click here
This was a brief visit to this remote part of Spain with my wife. It was a very hot trip and this limited the birdwatching to early morning and late afternoon. It was much cooler in the Gredos mountains. We flew to Madrid and hired a car for the duration of the holiday. We stayed in various Paradores in the area.
Although I have been to Spain many times before, this was my first visit to this area of Spain. I had heard excellent reports of the birdlife of the area from birdwatching friends who had been there, and, although not the ideal time of the year to go birdwatching in Spain, there was still plenty to see and photograph.
I went with my wife, flying on British Airways from Heathrow. We had pre-booked a hire car for 11 nights, and spent our time at four different Paradors. These are generally excellent government run hotels, often in spectacular settings, or in superb buildings of historical importance, and often both. We had previously stayed at four different Paradors, and this trip gave us the opportunity to check out four new ones.
After a two hour flight to Madrid, we picked up the car (a Fiat Bravo with 15k on the clock) and headed west. Our base for the first three nights was the Parador at Trujillo. It is an old castle in the middle of town. Temperatures were in the high 30s most of our stay and sometimes crept into the low 40s Celsius, but the air conditioning in the car and the hotels made things more bearable.
August 3rd 2008
On the first full day we took an early morning, pre-breakfast drive along the very quiet roads around the village of Belen, a short distance from Trujillo. This was the image of the Spanish steppes or plains that I had in my head. Horizons stretched, well, to the horizon, and the landscape was only interrupted with the occasional olive tree. Birds were very numerous, and we were soon watching a large group of that magnificent bird the Great Bustard. At this time of the year, the fields had been harvested of grain, and they were relatively easy to pick out due to their large size. A couple of Stone Curlews put in an appearance, as well as numerous Red-backed Shrikes - all juveniles, and an assortment of other birds, including Crested Lark, Spotless Starling, Buzzard and Cattle Egrets. We spotted a Little Owl on a barn roof, and returned another day to photograph it in better light. Finally, as we left, we got excellent views of the bird which in some ways, was to prove the bird of the trip - Griffon Vultures. There were about a dozen of them sitting in the morning sun warming up.
After breakfast, we headed east, and using the Crossbill Guides book on birdwatching in Extramedura, travelled to the Sierra de las Villuercas mountains north of Guadaloupe. The weather was glorious, as it was throughout the trip, with afternoon temperatures into the 40s Celsius. This made birdwatching somewhat hot, but at least the roads were quiet, as the locals enjoyed their siestas. We took a circular drive, starting at Canamero, then on to Berzocana, Solana and had a lunch stop at the beautifully situated Cabanas del Castillo. We walked up over the ridge to the back of the castle where we had more shade. The views were spectacular.
From here, we moved on to Navazuelas, and then on south to drive over the pass at 1,061 meters - with even more spectacular scenery.
During the heat of the day, birds were few in number but this was more than made up with by the wonderful views around every corner.
August 4th 2008
I took another drive along the roads around Belen this morning, before breakfast, and was rewarded with more views of Great Bustards, and this time several Little Bustards put in an appearance. The views over the steppes here was lovely, and is truly a rare sight in Europe. The wildlife here has existed side by side with man for many years and they appear to exist in complete harmony. Certainly you would not expect to see such numbers of birds in other agricultural areas in much of northern Europe.
After breakfast, we journeyed west, initially to Cacares (where we visited the Parador, having negotiated our way up some exceedingly narrow city streets wide enough for one car only - just! We had a refreshing cold drink in the bar before continuing on our way. From Caceres we visited the Embalse de Guadiola. Apart from a few Black-headed Gulls, there were no other birds, so we moved on. We took a road off the main Caceres - Trujillo road, and headed for Santa Marta de Magasca. All the time we looked out for birds, but they were few in number - not surprising considering the temperatures and time of year. We ate a picnic in the shade of an olive tree near a river. Soon, though, even we were feeling the effects of the heat and we returned to our Parador at Trujillo.
Later in the afternoon, we couldn't resist a revisit to the steppes at Belen and had a lovely couple of hours with numerous Red-backed Shrikes and also got very close views of three Great Bustards before dusk.
August 5th 2008
Today we made an early start to visit the Monfrague National Park. I had wanted to visit this park, famous for its wildlife, for a number of years, and now I was to get my chance. We drove north from Trujillo the 25 miles or so to the park. The road was almost arrow straight and deserted of traffic - a far cry from some of the roads in Norfolk! However, when we neared the famous Penafalcon area, we had to travel slower due to the numerous bends. This was no bad thing, though, as the scenery got better with every mile. We stopped a couple of times before reaching Penafalcon to admire the views and look at some of the birds of prey for which Monfrague is deservedly famous. We spotted Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Black Kites as well as the first of many Griffon Vultures.
We stopped at the small car park at Penafalcon, making sure to park in the shade of one of the olive trees. We looked over the gorge and at the face of the rock on which the Griffon Vultures breed. There seemed to be vultures on most of the ledges of the cliff face. At this early time of the day, some of the face was still in shade, and the thermals had not developed in the (relatively!) cool morning air.
We spent the next couple of hours taking in the spectacle as slowly more and more Griffons took to the sky off the rock face as the day warmed up. We had spotted some of them on rocks on our side of the road in deep shade. These birds didn't get enough heat for "lift off" until much later.
Soon after our arrival at Penafalcon, I managed to spot an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle perched on the top of the Penafalcon, higher than all the Griffons - rather appropriately! Shortly afterwards, it took off and flew away from us and was lost to view. It was easy with the telescope to pick out the white "shoulder" stripes in its plumage.
After waiting for a couple of hours, the Griffons were joined by a Black Vulture - larger even than the Griffons, and a much darker colour. Sadly for us, just like the Imperial Eagle, it didn't hang around and was soon lost to view - annoying from the photography point of view. However, compensation came in the form of a nest of Black Storks – a new species for me yesterday, when I saw one bird briefly come to land at a pool near Belen before immediately going out of sight. Now, at Monfrague, my wife found a pair of well grown chicks in a nest across the gorge. Two adults took turns to attend them, flying in periodically.
By midday, we were well and truly hot, so we drove on to the small hamlet of Villareal de San Carlos, where we had a couple of cold drinks in a bar.
After some cooling off, we then headed east to the bridge near Saldo de Torrejon, before retracing our steps back to Trujillo.
We had a lovely time in Monfrague, and we would return!
August 6th 2008
Today we moved on from our base at Trujillo to the Parador de Gredos, appropriately enough, in the Gredos mountains. This was a long drive, often on quiet roads in spectacular scenery. Our route took us north from Trujillo to Plasencia, where we took the opportunity to stock up on provisions, using the underground car park at a hypermarket. From here we took the Avila road, and climbed up through the dramatic Puerto de Tornavacas, turning off at El Barco de Avila. From here we followed the plateau to our base near Navarredonda de Gredos.
We arrived mid afternoon, and had a rest before a short walk in the forest around the Parador (which, incidentally, was the first Parador in Spain, being opened in 1928).
Temperatures here were noticeably cooler due to the altitude. We were now at over 4,000 feet and were in more tolerable 25 degrees Celsius rather than the 35 degrees we had been experiencing thus far. This hotel, indeed, did not have air conditioning!
7th. August 2008
I had developed a sore throat over the last couple of days, and now was in the throes of following it with a cold. I was certainly not feeling at my best.
We had read a little about the Gredos before leaving England, and one of the places we wanted to see was the Laguna Grande de Gredos, to the south west of the Paradore.
Accordingly, after a leisurely breakfast, we took the road to La Plataforma from the village of Hoyos del Espino. At the end of the road is a car park, which by now was more or less full. It was midday. We really only went to see the place today as a 'recce'. We parked the car, walked past the small bar at the head of the car park and walked in the direction of the Laguna. The path was excellent and easy to follow. We had four bottles of water with us and liberal quantities of sun protection had been applied.
Soon, we were climbing higher up the rolling hills. We asked a couple of other walkers how long it takes to get to the lake and were told between 2 1/2 and 3 hours.
We both were feeling OK and carried on walking. Eventually, after 2 hours we got to view the pinnacles of the mountains which surround the Laguna - with Pico Almanzor (2,592m) the tallest.
The views were superb in all directions and we sat and took it all in. Birds, it has to be said, were very few and far between. I was surprised that the commonest bird was Dunnock. However, we did see a single Bluethroat towards the top - by now in more drab plumage than no doubt he or she had been in the spring.
After a while we turned back and made our way down to the car. We returned slowly to the Parador and had a look in the vegetation as we got lower down for more birds.
8th. August 2008
We had a quieter day today, resting off our exertions of yesterday which had taken us to over 6,000 feet. We spent the early part of the day along the road to the La Plataforma, where we saw 3 or 4 Rock Buntings. Interestingly, when I played a tape to try to bring them a little closer to the camera, the first birds to react to the calls were Dunnocks. At one point they were almost sitting on the tape machine.
A couple of Rock Buntings came near, but they were juveniles. The only adult I saw was on the other side of the road and was only seen briefly.
As an added bonus, while I was photographing the Rock Buntings on one side of the road, from behind me I heard the sound like a couple of rocks colliding into each other. I immediately thought that they may be Spanish Ibex - an animal we wanted to see yesterday but hadn't. I turned and scoured the mountain side on the other side of the road and sure enough I spotted a juvenile hornless animal, soon followed by an adult. They were about 300 feet up, across a stream. They were not moving, but through the telescope I could see one animal clearly watching us. There seemed to be at least two adults and the juvenile.
I quickly changed from using the 500mm lens to the 100-400mm zoom, and made my way over the stream to begin the climb up the mountainside. I hoped that I wouldn't disturb them as I did so. I know the Ibex are wary and prone to run away at the approach of man.
I fixed the position of the animals in my mind and worked my way up, trying as best I could to keep a low profile. I had intended to work my way up a gulley between two outcrops of rock, but soon found that I was below where I thought I was. So, I had to double back once I had regained my bearings. Then I came round the last rock in the way, and to my relief they were still there. I got a few photographs before moving further forwards. After a few more shots, they moved along the ridge and were lost to view. I guess I got to within 100 yards, which is no bad thing.
From La Plataforma, we headed east to another 'gate' in the Gredos, the Puerto del Pico. This is another spectacular drive down the mountainside to the village of Arenas.
After a brief stop in the village, we made our way back to our hotel.
9th August 2008
Today, we moved from the northern flank of the Gredos to our next hotel, the Parador at Jarandilla de la Vera, which lies to the west, on the southern flanks of the Gredos. Our route took us back through the Puerto del Pico, through Avila and on to Candeleda, Madrigal de la Vera and then Jarandilla.
We arrived about mid afternoon and birding on the way we had a selection of typical Spanish birds.
After a freshen up, we decided to go back to Penafalcon for the late afternoon. We made the right decision! Parking again at the Penafalcon car park, we got astonishingly close views of the Griffons as they made their way through the sides of the gorge, at what seemed like arms' length. I had never seen them in such numbers nor so close. It was an African experience in Europe! The birds were too close for photography at times!! As a bonus, I also saw another Spanish Imperial Eagle. The Black Storks were again in evidence, coming and going from their nest. It was a thrilling experience and one well worth the effort to see.
Today we again drove to Penafalcon as it was irresistable. We had a couple of hours there taking in the vultures and other birds in the early morning, before making our way to Plasencia. Here we paid a visit to the Parador and had a refreshing cold drink. The Parador was an interesting building, with lots of history. The other amazing experience was that to enter the Parador with a car, there is a lift big enough for one car, which then took you down to garage level.
We left after an hour or so and made our way back to our Parador at Jarandilla. We had a brief drive in the early evening to the village behind the hotel, but no new birds were added.
Today we made the 150 mile trip from Jarandilla to our final Parador, Chinchon. The town lies about 50 miles south of Madrid. Most of the route was motorway, and was straightforward, especially with the help of the Satellite Navigation I had brought with me.
Arriving mid afternoon, we found the route to the Parador blocked. We had arrived on the day of the latest festival. The Plaza Major was to be the sight of a concert that day, and a bull fight the next! In the end we had to have a police escort to get to our hotel. The hotel was, as usual with Paradors, lovely, but the effort to get there was unconventional. We had a restful day, and a swim in the hotel pool. In view of the impending running of the bull through town tomorrow, followed by its death in the bullring, we decided to get a bus to Madrid tomorrow morning and have a look at the capital city on our last full day.
We got up early and took the local bus to Madrid. Leaving about 7:30 we arrived just over an hour later and had breakfast in a local café. This was excellent. On the way to Madrid, we passed several White Storks still on nests, especially on receivers of the Spanish National Radio service.
We had a look at the Royal Palace and did some shopping before heading back to Chinchon.
Today we left for the airport for our flight home. On the way, we passed the White Storks nests we had seen yesterday. We stopped and I took some photographs. As I was doing so I was surprised by a Ring-necked Parakeet which came out of a hole in the lower part of one of the Stork nests! This was a Spain tick and a fitting finale to what had been a lovely relaxing trip.
I knew, of course, that we were not likely to see a large number of species, but the scenery and relaxed pace of life here made for a most enjoyable holiday. I can thoroughly recommend it!