Central Spain –Segovia; Narravedos de Gredos; Extremadura; Toldeo; and Madrid.
13th June -29th June 2015.
This had been a trip long in the planning having randomly seen a photograph of the city of Segovia. It looks like it was created by Disney. There was a long list of wants on the bird list, but the main one was White-rumped Swift having been present the morning the Pacific Swift was identified at Cley in 1993. This meant not going for the Spring extravaganza of displaying bustards, but getting in before the summer heat becomes unbearable.
Planning was mainly based on Where to Watch Birds in Spain and the Extremadura from the Crossbill Guides collection. Some reference was made to other trip reports, but given Extremadura is as big as Switzerland most people seemed to take the same routes and there was a lot of repetition even between the bird tour companies. I didn’t want to run up a list of other peoples birds. So we began to plan our own thing, which inevitably meant missing a few birds others may say are easy. However, we had a great time. If you have not been, go. If you have been, go again.
The trip report is not a hard core dawn to dusk birding fest and includes references to the other things we saw. Its in keeping to my rambles around NZ26 this year (morethankittiwakes.wordpress.com) and is intended to remind you of the joy of finding your own birds. The detail is in addition to the two books mentioned. If you go to these places it is aimed at helping you find particular landmarks that would have helped orientate us. All the birds seen are listed by area except for a pair of Egyptian vultures we found. We stopped randomly in a place that gave easy parking and it was clear these birds were agitated as soon as we got out of the car. These were privileged views of amazing birds. We did see three in other spots listed but feel reporting this site would be irresponsible.
The route we took is below.
13th June Arrived Madrid.
14th -16th June Segovia.
16th -17th June Gredos
17th -24th Pago-de San Clemente.
24th- 26th Toledo.
26th -28th Madrid (29th flew home).
We flew (13th June) Newcastle to Heathrow and Heathrow to Madrid as there were no direct flights. It makes for a long day but it was comfortable and all the baggage arrived.
We collected a hire care (Seat Ibiza from Enterprise/Atesa) and were off. Close to the airport the first holiday bird went on the list. Red-legged Partridge. In fact we saw this several times as it tried to cross the road and I circled a small roundabout 3 times trying to work out the exit we needed. It was probably, to be fair my first wild RLP, considering UK populations are influenced by gamekeeper releases so that was OK. Parakeets flying over remained unidentified at this stage as I would have crashed the car to get a clinching look. It was about 9pm local time when we got to Hotel Nuevo Boston near the airport.
14th June left Madrid as the day warmed. Headed North past El Escorial, even from a distance the 150m tall cross built by Franco is imposing and earie. I was ignorant of Spanish Civil War politics before this year. Its not essential but useful to read that part of any guide book you buy to this area. You climb up into the spectacular mountain range and then through the tunnel under the Guadarrama mountains, into Castilla y Leon proper.
Summer had not arrived on this side and the blue sky was replaced by thick high cloud. Black Kites began to increase and the first storks appeared, and then some more and then some nests. It had not taken long to get back to driving a left hand drive car and birding.
Old town Segovia is an impressive sight. Described in our guide book as, ‘appearing as a galleon with the castle at the prow and the aqueduct trailing as a rudder, with the cathedral as the sails catching the breeze’. We checked into the Parador with Serin, Black Redstart and Nightingale singing. Paradors are an arm’s length Government company that run a number of hotels across Spain. All of them are old castles, monasteries ancient forts or more recently built impressive buildings. If you other half needs to be persuaded by a bit of luxury show them this. A five night card brings down the price considerably especially if one of the paradors you use is a less popular one for us that was the next stop Gredos.
The morning remained overcast with temperatures in the high teens C. The walk into town is 40mins but the birds started to clock up immediately and by the time we reached the Roman Aqueduct we had already had two species of vulture –Booted Eagle and Lesser Kestrel. There were not as many swifts nesting in the Aqueduct as you tube videos had lead me to think would be there but it was a good introduction to this group of birds for what was to come. The sun came out the temperature reached the low 20Cs and the holiday had begun. The cathedral had an impressive set of 15th C and 16th C artwork and the tiny side streets coughed up another Black Redstart and Lesser Kestrel. Storks flew into their numerous nests in the City and set off the mediaeval impression. Light rain kept it cool on the walk back. To the NW of the parador is an area of grassland that needs to be explored singing larks and buntings and other bird sounds I did not instantly recognise. Choughs flew past our balcony window at close range as we admired the view of the City before dinner, as did Black Kite and more stork; I never got bored with them.
15th June awoke to heavy rain pelting the window and a strong wind which pushed it out to the mountains by the time we had eaten breakfast. Walking back into town we took the first road on the right which takes you down to a water mill that is being restored and not in our guide book and the square in which San Lorenzo’s church stands is a movie set for a mediaeval scene. Storks vultures and lesser kestrels were above our walk to the source of the aqueduct before it rained again. Through the town to the Alcazar where Choughs and Short toed Tree creepers were easy to see.
To the north of the castle entrance some steps lead down to the river and a Mint Museum shut on a Monday. This was OK as over the bridge we reached the Monastery Santa Maria del Parral we were heading for. Also shut on a Monday, but a guy took pity on us and showed us the grounds and then inside the Church. From a birding point of view we came out just as Rock Sparrows were ‘singing’, at least three pairs. There were also Black redstarts and Crag Martins here and an Egyptian vulture flew over at height. None of the guides or trip report prepared me for the bird life of the next couple of hours.
We walking east, upstream, along the river. Here there are two ‘power walk routes’ -orange and blue. They take you past small water features and huge poplars with singing orioles. The paths diverge and following the blue route it takes you past another monastery and to the base of the grass covered hill opposite the parador. Ignoring the blue arrow going back west we headed north across the grassy area soon moving into a variety of butterflies and my first Subalpine Warbler.
Crested Larks, Bee-eaters and Hoopoes were all in evidence. Then we crested the hill to see a huge thunder cloud ahead. We were going to get wet whether we went forward or back so we went on continuing to see new birds for the trip -two bright ‘blue’ male wheatears and also Blue Rock Thrush. Vultures and kites circled.
Luckily the cloud was moving away and we chose to spend time sunning ourselves on the lawn by the pool. It closed as the weather was too cold –low 20Cs. As the only people out there I could take bins and from here Booted eagle mobbed by a plucky L kestrel, Bee eater Nightingale vultures and storks entertained. Just before we left a male Oriole flew over -what a show. Pre-dinner drinks on the outdoor terrace and we were joined by a chough who watched us from 20 m but did not come down. This was what it was all about. Thoroughly recommend Segovia if you have a mixed interest party. The city is fabulous and there are a lot more birds out on that grassy hillside than I saw.
16th June. Awoke to thick fog and the castle was not visible and the Cathedral only every now and again could be seen, it had become the ship described in the guide book. Storks and choughs flew past and corn buntings were singing as was the Nightingale. It’s easy to forget about the Serins being a constant feature, but they are good value for money.
Eventually, we broke out of the cloud as we travelled towards Avila. The sun shone and the landscape changed from cattle to arable as we headed south to Gredos on N110. Black Kites gave way to storks and the first Southern Grey Shrike was seen. Climbing into the uplands the landscape made some dramatic changes and before we reached the broom scrub one telegraph line had three Woodchats in quick succession. We turned off to Gredos and pine forest was the next change and we were soon at the parador carpark where Black redstarts were squabbling and fighting all over the place. The males were trying to dominate the monument that stands opposite the hotel as it forms the central part of at least four territories.
We checked in, sat outside with coffee and decided to give Citril Finch a good do rather than drive up into the mountains. The path starts at the east end of the car park and drops down quickly following yellow and white way markers. This is a short circular route but you can get off this and join a track marked camping. This is a much longer walk that takes in a wider variety of habitats and this is what we did. Spoiler alert, I am not the only birder to have not got Citril here. However, good birds included Iberian Pied Flycatcher, Bonelli’s Warbler, Red Kite in the forest; and Cirl Bunting and Spanish Yellow Wagtail at the cattle farm.
There were very few residents in the hotel so early in the year and we only had to share the balcony with Black Redstarts. Looking up at the mountain tops you have are reminded that you are 1500m above sea level as the cow bells sound in the distance. Good birds here were Booted Eagle, Crossbill (family of four), Peregrine and more singing Serin. After dinner we went out to look for bats and could hear a Nightjar.
17th June No luck before breakfast with the Citril, but more Bonelli’s Warblers were seen. We drove west through dramatic scenery adding Stonechat and Golden eagle before heading South at El Barco de Avila stopping briefly there at the Roman Bridge that was surrounded by a cloud of swifts over the water and nesting in the bridge. There was a singing Melodious Warbler and Crag Martins around the church. The N-110 takes you down through dramatic woodland letting you appreciate how high up Gredos is, before bringing you to the Jerte Valley which felt like cherry capital of the world. The fruit on the trees is dramatic. Orioles flew in front of the car as did our first Iberian Magpies before Placensia. It was here we turned off to take the road through Monfrague to Trujillo. Again the landscape changed again this time to cattle ranching and Dehesa.
For some reason I imagined Villareal de San Carlos to be in a valley rather than an open hillside with crested Lark running around. Use the café (yellow building) away from the visitors centre sitting in the shade with swallows around you get your first taste of Griffon Vultures. From here you drive down to the reservoir and its cloud of House Martins that nest under the bridge and follow the road around to El Salto de Gitano.
I have to say I was underwhelmed even though the first bird through Bins was a lifer -my first Black Stork. I don’t know if it was because I had seen the image so many times or if it was the cluster of general tourists but the cloud of Griffon Vultures did not give me the wow at this first sight I was expecting. Red rumped-Swallows buzzed around and it started to feel more like birding, and then a Blue rock Thrush sang.
We stopped briefly at Arroya El Vid another Woodchat and Bee-eater, the water appeared black and lifeless. Then it was Black Kites and Storks all the way to Trujillo and on to The Kelsey’s at Pago de San Clemente. (fully recommend staying here). The planning and the travel was taking its toll so we spent the afternoon by the pool and started a great garden list with Nightingale, Hawfinch, Iberian Magpie, Bee-eaters, Booted Eagle, Griffon Vulture and a range of butterflies and wasps that I still do not know the names of. A home cooked meal, bottle of wine and a chance to settle in to start our week here. We were already having a good time.
18th June A day in Monfrague started with a Gennet going across the road in front of the car after crossing Rio Almonte was a real surprise. So much so we had to wait to get back to Martin’s library to identify what we had seen.
The plan was to do different spots in the park. First stop, the castle. We walked up from the bottom car park –Black Stork, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Blue Rock Thrush, Hawfinch and Black Redstarts. Two couples were coming down and then we had the place to ourselves at 10am. Underwhelmed yesterday, overwhelmed today as some vultures came within a few metres. As we moved between towers and THE bird of the holiday flew past –White-rumped Swift perfect. If holiday birding stopped there I would have still been happy. There was a point where three circled around the tower together. Joy of joys.
Next stop coffee same spot as yesterday (Villareal) and then on to Puerta del Tietar. Martin had pointed out the Imperial Eagle chick would by now be quite large. Parked at the car park and walked east along the road –house martins and purring Turtle Dove. First hide the constant cycling of the Griffon Vultures as they took to the air and descended was breath taking. Young birds on the rocks squeaked, but the flight of these huge birds so close was silent until the air rushed through their feathers on landing. Second hide the Imperial eagle nest was just visible but became prominent as an adult came in to do a food drop. It circled a few times after this and gave amazing views. Red-legged partridge as we went back for lunch at Villareal. You have to try Bocadillo Tortilla de Patata (a roll with potato omelette), but don’t over dose, by the end of the holiday I could not face anymore.
South from here and parked at the bridge, walking east to the house near the exposed small bridge. We surprised a Red Deer standing in the shade behind the house and an Egyptian Vulture gave great views as it circled over the water above the Alpine Swifts. At least 10 hawfinches were near the car. It had been a day that carried on giving.
Arroya El Vid had the first of two Kingfishers seen during the week. A Black Stork sat near a cattle drinking pond nearby.
19th June Merida. It’s a long drive South but the city of Merida is well worth it. To park, do not follow signs to the city centre, but just before you cross the river turn right at the roundabout and follow the road along to the white bridge. Here there is an underground car park. From here you can walk across the white bridge along the river and back over the longest Roman Bridge still in use. Cattle Egret, Night Heron, Purple Heron, Purple Gallinule, Great Reed Warbler, and Penduline Tit were highlights. The river is wide but when a farmyard goose stood up you realise it is not deep. The highlight here are 3 species of swift nesting in the roman bridge. You can check the Pallids at close range and begin to pick up subtleties in flight and shape. If you are only interested in birding just do this and walk and go up into the nearby town square and watch the swarms of swifts buzz like insects while storks feed growing young.
However, by doing this you will miss out on an amazing history and cultural lesson for that part of Spain. Starting at the Alczar a ticket here allows you entry into many Moorish, Roman and early Spanish attractions. The museum in the centre of the City is extra cost, but in the baking heat after the amphitheatre it is a welcome spend of a few extra Euros for the air conditioning. The Mosaics and the start of the road to Cordoba are just staggering while you cool down.
Later a spoonbill flew over as we went to a nearby reservoir, seeing Black-eared Wheatear on the way and seeing little Terns over this inland ‘sea’. More Alpine Swifts split the air and Storks nests on the way back to Merida along the river was more like a conurbation. Temperatures were high 30Cs for most of the day and we needed the cold beers before dinner.
20th June. Trujillo. After yesterdays heat; distance; and kilometres walked, we opted for an easy day into the local town about 11kms away. Before going into town we went 5km north of Trujillo and turned onto the minor road to Santa Marta. Park. Walk. Look. Repeat. This gave a wide range of common birds for here but rare back home so it was a delight to see Woodchats adults and juv, Bee-eaters, Corn Buntings, Crested Larks at close range. Storks nested close to the road and it was great to just generally enjoying birding.
The old town of Trujillo is another amazing town worth a visit anyway without the constant storks, lesser kestrels and two species of swift. The castle had crag martin and red-rumped swallows and more Black Redstarts. You get a perspective of the landscape from up here and it made me wonder what it would have been like to grow up there in the 15th C having never seen the sea and set sail to discover Peru as Pissarro did.
The afternoon we added to the garden list later and had a walk around Pago getting a singing Melodious Warbler and large numbers of butterflies feeding on bramble flowers along the lanes.
21st June. Caceres on a Sunday. Easy drive in on the road that runs parallel to the dual carriage way. Neither had much traffic. The first Roller was seen between km25 and km 26. The old town is as beautiful as Trujillo but it is surrounded by a modern university town. Suddenly we were seeing lots of people and bus tours following umbrellas, but this did not bother the swifts (I did not note any Pallids here); storks; and lesser kestrels overhead. The temperature reached 38C and by mid afternoon with all the sites closed the old town was empty of everyone except us and a guy singing Opera type songs just for the joy of the acoustics. Oh and M1KES, a British guy in a McLaren with personal plates who had managed to get himself into the one-way network of streets of the old town and like an angry wasp in a jar revved up and down outside the cathedral until he could find a way out.
The way back held a detour out to Santa Marta. Where the road crosses the dual carriageway you suddenly start seeing concrete nesting boxes for Rollers on all of the telegraph poles. Many of them had pairs of Rollers sitting outside and presumably baby Rollers cooking on the inside. There was a slight breeze but even that was hot. We stopped a few times but if there were any birds they were keeping out of the heat. After Santa Marta the Road to Trujillo went through steppe habitat and included Hoopoe. Later the road also produced Montagu’s Harrier, Egyptian Vulture, Buzzard, more stork and Spanish Sparrows.
22nd June. The plan for the trip had intended to include Guadalupe and a few other places from Dick Hilber’s book. But we were getting good birds in what we were doing and it was clear a trip back in Spring would be needed if we wanted to see Bustards and Sandgrouse at their best. So today was a longer walk around Pago different streets, but just enjoying the common birds. Orioles and Zitting Cisticolas were new for here and the Iberian Magpies were beginning to appear as marauding gangs pushing through the olive groves. We went back into Trujillo and even though we kept driving past the Bull Ring we did not stop there to see the Lesser kestrels nesting preferring instead to watch them fly around the Cathedral. The underside of their wings glinted like bits of silver or the shimmer of a school of tropical fish.
23rd June. 19kms along the Trujillo to Torre de Rubio road you can turn off to Monroy. This allows you to drive through different standards of Dehesa some appear over-grazed but in the best areas the birdlife was really special. Two new species were added Woodlark and my first Short-toed eagle at close range. There aren’t many places to stop but even parking in front of gates you do not need to go far from your car. This was great drive for a last day. Reaching Monroy the castle is not open but you get the impression of a frontier town looking west across open plains. House martin nests are in easy reach and the cheapest coffee you will get on your trip. Last session increased ‘our’ garden list by a second Short-toed Eagle of the day. A Booted Eagle flying over as it usually did between 4 and 5 attracted attention of swallows and their alarm calls, swifts also join in this pursuit and this was a behaviour tick for me.
24th June we left for Toledo and started to get ‘lasts’ of the trip. Last views of Dehesa and occasional an Iberian Magpie would fly across the road until we crossed a line of mountains and they were just a memory. The mountains look impressive and we saw Monroy de ???? Castle depicted in the Extremadura book and probably what I was expecting to see yesterday. Though I would not have swapped the birding from that day for another castle tour. We left the dual carriageway at junction km 107 and followed the river valley though another different landscape of arable feature shaped by the fact this valley is more fertile and presumably there is more water for irrigation. The first view of Toledo is stunning and the view from the parador restaurant even more so, but I was already missing the sky being full of large raptors.
If you stay here there is one don’t and one do. Firstly it is only a 3km walk to the bridge to cross into the old town. Easy downhill, and from the bridge there are good numbers of night herons fishing and flying past. One little egret was fishing further upstream. Not so easy back up what felt like a cliff face in 35C after you had done some sights of Toledo. Secondly, make sure that you have a pre-dinner drink on the terrace overlooking the city. By this time of day colours of the city are beautiful. We were also treated to swallows swifts, bee –eaters and bats all benefiting from whatever insects were rising from the valley.
25th june. Drove to Toledo and parked in a car park at the west end which allows you to come straight out and use the escalator inside a new city wall. Just do it! We started the day at the mosque that had been taken over by early Christians in ??? C. It is on the ‘umbrella’ tour so if you can get in between tours this small space can be fully appreciated. In Extremadura , the quote is something like You can come into the world in many different ways but everything departs it through a vultures stomach. In the mosque the angel painted on the ceiling looks pretty much like a griffon vulture (top right) which still sparks a whole host of thoughts.
Swifts swarm around the town but other birds were limited. Driving back from the bridge looking down stream of Toledo there are a large number of egrets –probably of two species (I could not stop to see). Black Kite, Hoopoe and one Griffon Vulture flew over, small birds were a bit thin on the ground but included a Sardinian Warbler.
26th June Headed out to Madrid and the birdlife became a bit more limited but still added a few things. Kestrel flew above our hotel’s roof top pool. Monk Parakeet was a new holiday species. Swifts swarmed in the morning but left the heat of the city by mid-day. Stock Dove called in the main park. And finally having been to Goya’s tomb under the cable car, seen monk parakeets up close and personal, we left the Egyptian tomb and before we got to Sancho Panzer and Don Quixote, at about 40C at the end of a hot afternoon a Robin sang. Aren’t birds amazing!
We did many cultural sights in the City I would not have been too upset if the Prado had been closed but nothing prepares you for seeing Guernica for the first time. Also look out the house of a lesser known (in England) artist Sorroya and the food market near the Plaza Mayor. The Palace is grandiose and its neighbouring cathedral has cubist art work in the windows. We also did a tour of the bull ring this is a challenge to perceptions and stereotypes which shone a glimmer of light on a world beyond our experience. Madrid is not Barcelona or any of the Costas. You have to go and experience it for yourself.
The whole trip list is below and there are more species on it that I had seen in NZ26 in the 6 months of this year.
|26||SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE||X|
|39||Great Spotted Woodpecker||X||X|
|56||Spanish Yellow Wagtail||X|
|62||IBERIAN GREY SHRIKE||X||X||X|
|69||Blue Rock Thrush||X||X|
|80||Great Reed Warbler||X|
|81||IBERIAN PIED FLYCATCHER||X|