We set off on Saturday 29 March, leaving Gran Alacant at 8.40 (with a 6 year old sat nav and a not entirely up to date map).Google maps gave us 3 possible routes. Having decided not to use the toll road, south of Madrid, we ended up on the very same. Expensive but quiet. As we headed west we began to see Black Kites and White Storks, a sure sign we were getting somewhere different. We arrived late afternoon and after checking into our hotel we headed out for a look around. We soon saw good numbers of Spanish Sparrows, Corn Buntings and White Storks. Back at the hotel it was bacon, egg and chips, washed down with a bottle of wine (brilliant at 6 euros each), in front of La Liga football on a large TV. A great start.
Day 1 – Sunday 30 March – After a cup of tea (breakfast on the hoof later) we headed for Monfrague, the jewel in the crown round here. We were soon noticing Azure winged Magpies, and Griffon Vultures as we headed into the Park. First proper stop was the car park below the Castillo de Monfrague. A Nuthatch showed well, being engaged in hole reduction, prior to nesting. A little further on an amazing cliff gorge, Salto del Gitano provided fantastic views of Griffon Vultures, Black Storks and a solitary Short toed Eagle. A Peregrine put in a brief appearance and Blue Rock Thrushes were in evidence (remarkably pale blue on top of the head when seen from above). A couple of Egyptian Vultures were picked out along with the much larger Black Vulture. Bryan seemed to be repeatedly getting Subalpine Warblers, which I never seemed to get onto in time.
Day 2 – Monday 31 March – We set off earlier today since the weather forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday was poor and so this might be the best chance of photographing some of the birds and getting the star attraction, Spanish Imperial Eagle. On the way back into the Park we stopped frequently to try to photograph the Azure winged Magpies, but they tended not to hang around for long enough. Eventually we found a pair nest building and were able to stake them out. Time consuming, but rewarding. Moving out to the far end of the road through the Park, we stopped to view the rockface at La Portilla del Tietar. Great views of Griffon Vulture and Black Vulture and then Bryan said ‘get your bins on this Trev’. A close Spanish Imperial Eagle flying by, then perching in a tree, showing very clearly the white ‘snow’ on the shoulders. After a short while it went for a fly round. At one stage it descended onto a Griffon Vulture which then turned upside down and so the birds were claw to claw. Fantastic! Then back to it’s tree top, which apparently is it’s nest site. Before the excitement of this had died down another birder asked if we had seen the Eagle Owl.
He was able to direct us to the bird, quietly roosting, some 50 yards or so from the eagle nest! It turns out that this is a regular and obliging bird. The afternoon brought scattered showers but no let up in the excitement. A tame fox entertained by taking food from near our feet. Not so keen on cream crackers but loved cheese and onion crisps! Apparently the foxes here have learnt the benefits of hanging around the parking areas. A small group of Red Deer also provided a photo opportunity. At the end of March the National Park was striking with an abundance of Rock Rose, Lavender and Broom in flower. Outside the Park the numerous ponds and streams were covered with Water Crowfoot (I think), also in flower. After a long day in the field we were ready for a decent meal. The hotel Menu del Dia at 8.50 euros was excellent (including our usual bottle of house red wine).
Day 3 – Tues 1 April – We decided the Plains of Caceres required a visit. The weather was overcast and windy with light rain, not good, but much better than forecast.
Great Bustards were relatively easy to get. Compared with Petrola, they seemed more numerous and more approachable. Little Bustards however, eluded us, despite some searching. Both Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse were seen but in each case only flying in the distance. The birds always disappearing from view and not able to be located again. Much time was spent studying and photographing larks, in particular the Thekla and Crested species. Digital photography enabled the features listed to help identify Thekla Lark (never an easy task) – a)dagger shaped bill, b)thicker base to the bill, c)bold marking on the breast, d)unmarked side of lower breast, e)’contrasty’ scapula and crest feathers. The day was turning out to be a cross between an id workshop and a bird race! Corn Buntings were everywhere. Lesser Kestrels had appeared and again id issues were considered, the white claws as opposed to black and the projecting central tail feathers would never have been seen without the digital images. Other interesting birds included numerous Calandra Larks and Spanish Sparrows with increasing numbers of newly arrived migrants such as Woodchat Shrike, Northern Wheatear and Swallows. Cuckoos were heard but not seen.
Day 4 – Wed 2 April – Our first stop at the nearby supermarket got us more than we bargained for. A tall building on the opposite side of the road had numerous Lesser Kestrels, recently arrived and looking great. This distraction led us to being on the wrong road out of town but as is often the case, things turned out just fine. Bryan called out ‘Hen Harrier, male’, but having pulled over it was soon apparent it was a Montagu’s and was not alone. Very soon we were watching a spectacular flying display of at least 6 males and 6 females. At one point 2 males locked claws and spiralled downwards like sycamore seeds. At another a Red and Black Kite soared upwards with a Montagu’s Harrier, showing clearly the smaller size and slimmer build of this elegant bird. About 30 minutes were spent absorbed by the action. Just as we were leaving this site a Cuckoo flew past, a sighting at last. As we re-navigated our way back towards Monfrague, Storks nesting on nearby buildings resulted in more stops. Heavy showers were forecast for this day so we drove directly to the site for Spanish Imperial Eagle and Eagle Owl. Both birds obliged and gave good views. A pair of Egyptian Vultures flew onto the crags and stayed for a while. A decision was made to finish the day back at the Castillo de Monfrague which did involve going up about 150 steps,loaded down with big lenses, telescope, tripods etc. Vultures, Griffon and Black would drift by, often below us, giving tremendous views. Heavy showers were clearly approaching, so we had an eye on where we might shelter. In advance of the rain a sudden breeze got up and so did the vultures. An extraordinary sight of 2 to 300 Griffon Vultures taking to the air, all at once.
The sky was dotted with vultures and there were as many below us. Within 3 or 4 minutes the rain had started and the birds returned to the crags. The shower soon passed. Bryan picked out a very high ‘v’ formation of large birds, but even digital photography could not establish identity. It turned out when manipulated on a computer screen that they were Spoonbills. An Alpine Swift was a closer fly-by. About an hour later another shower came in with the same spectacle of all the vultures taking to the air. A fine spectacle to end our visit. Our last evening was the usual Menu del Dia. We did raise a glass to the CBBC and the late Brian Conduit in particular for bringing us together and inspiring us to come to such a fantastic place.
The Thursday morning saw us head for home. We left the hotel soon after 8.30, as it happened without paying. Not by design I might add. Bryan had made the reservation with a credit card but had not realised that a payment had not been taken. The payment was made early the next day. The journey back was rather uneventful in terms of the birds seen but a few wetland species were picked up in some flooded meadows.The route taken was a more southerly one with less motorway that did include inadvertent tours of Cuidad Real and Albacete.
Details of trip – Accommodation – Hotel Peru in Trujillo, Extremadura (as opposed to the Hotel Peru in Trujillo, Venezuela, which would have been cheaper but rather more awkward to get to). 33 Euros for a double room, good value and perfectly adequate. Transport – Hire car, Seat Ibiza, diesel. Rental for 9 days, insurance and one additional tank of fuel was 265 Euros. Total distance covered – Gran Alacant to Gran Alacant – 1866 km. Time out of hotel day 1: 10.30-1900, day 2: 9.30-19.30, day 3: 9.00-19.45, day 4: 9.15-20.00.
To see more photos from this trip go to the Gallery – Birds in Extremadura by Bryan Thomas.
Species list – Mallard, Red-legged Partridge, Little Grebe, Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, White Stork, Black Stork, Spoonbill, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Red Kite, Black Kite, Marsh Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel, Moorhen, Great Bustard, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Black-headed Gull, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Cuckoo, Eagle Owl, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Hoopoe, Skylark, Crested Lark, Thekla Lark, Calandra Lark, Crag Martin, Swallow, Red-rumped Swallow, House Martin, Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Stonechat, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Blue Rock Thrush, Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Cetti’s Warbler, Wren, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Nuthatch, Southern Grey Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Azure-winged Magpie, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Spotless Starling, House Sparrow, Spanish Sparrow, Chaffinch, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Serin, Corn Bunting, Rock Bunting. Total 80 species.