Traditionally, most birders visit the magnificent rolling steppes, rugged sierras and Cork Oak woodland of Extremadura in April and May, when the countryside is besieged by migrants, and Great Bustards are in full display. A birding visit in the crystal-clear light and relatively mild temperatures of winter, though, has its own particular, very special, merit.
We begin this holiday with a flight to Madrid, from where we head south-west through rolling hills, olive groves and woodland to the central plateau of Extremadura, where we find extensive sheep-grazed grasslands and the Cork Oak forests known locally as ‘dehasa’. For all six nights we will be based in a delightful country house a short distance from the beautiful medieval town of Trujillo. With a lounge complete with open fire in front of which to complete our daily bird log, a warm Spanish welcome and an enviable garden bird list, this is an ideal locality from which to explore the adjacent steppes and Monfragüe National Park.
Due in part to the shorter grass at this time of year and the absence of any heat haze, Extremadura’s many attractive resident birds are much easier to see in winter than at any other season. Stately Great Bustards (the world’s heaviest flying bird) congregate in flocks in their winter quarters, the males busily exercising their wings in readiness for the annual springtime battle for a mate. Little Bustards congregate too, and as we scan the fallow steppes for bustards, we may find Black-bellied or Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, and flocks of larks. Great Spotted Cuckoos, too, may be seen, for they return from Africa as early as mid-January, while Stone Curlews, Calandra and Thekla Larks, Corn Buntings, Southern Grey Shrikes, Little Owls, Hoopoes, Spotless Starlings, Spanish Sparrows, Woodlarks, White Wagtails and magnificent far-reaching winter vistas complete the picture out on the plains.
We’ll also enjoy watching the unforgettable evening spectacle of Common Cranes, in flocks of 10,000-strong, as they fly in to their night-time roosts. The sight of these Cranes coming in at dusk as the winter light slips beneath the horizon will be a highlight of the tour. Elsewhere, the region’s lakes should hold large numbers of wildfowl, Purple Gallinule, Black-necked and other Grebes, plus Cattle, Little and a few Great White Egrets. Water Rails, Cetti’s Warblers and the occasional exquisite Bluethroat emerge to forage at the fringes of the wetlands and in damp channels, all so much easier to see than ever they are in Britain! Patches of woodland and scrub hold Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Azure-winged Magpies, Blackcaps, Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Firecrests, Short-toed Treecreepers, Crested and Iberian Long-tailed Tits, Serins, Siskins, Hawfinches and Cirl Buntings. In fact many of these species may be seen within a stone’s throw of our accommodation! On the higher ground Alpine Accentors overwinter, while Chough, Black Redstart, Raven, Rock Sparrow, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting and Black Wheatear are all on the cards along with the resident and omnipresent Crag Martins.
No mention of birding in Extremadura, however, can be made without reference to the magnificent raptor-watching opportunities. The onset of winter sees the Black Kite being replaced by the Red, and by January Spanish Imperial Eagles are displaying over their nest sites — a breathtaking sight. Although the Short-toed and Booted Eagles will not return from Africa until early March, there is still plenty of variety, with Golden Eagles starting to nest and airborne Griffon and Black Vultures drawing our attention to any carrion in the area. Bonelli’s Eagles soar in bonding pairs, with Buzzards having arrived for the winter by the thousand from elsewhere in Europe. Other residents include Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and, of course, the stunning and much sought-after Black-shouldered Kite, another species with a tendency to form winter groups. Eagle Owls have mated by late December, with the female usually incubating by January, calling for the male at dusk to bring her food. We hope that a late afternoon visit to a special site will provide a fitting climax to our holiday.