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The natural beauty and spectacular bird life of Extremadura in central Spain



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We ventured south this year to sample spring in the wonderful district of Extremadura in central Spain, south-west of Madrid, a region deservedly well-known for its natural beauty and spectacular bird life.

The undulating hills here are still largely clothed in traditional dehesas - managed or abandoned woodland dominated by evergreen oaks, mostly holm oak (Quercus ilex) and cork oak (Quercus suber), the latter the source of my favourite natural, sustainably-harvested product. Here cork finds its way into many traditional and artisanal objects, and not just wine bottles.

The birds and flowers of this region are truly spectacular. The medieval ramparts and church spires of Caceres and Trujillo are nesting sites for lesser kestrels and superb starlings, while almost every tower or pylon boasts at least one nest of a pair of white storks.

White stork, Caceres. Picture: Martin Walters (56660384)
White stork, Caceres. Picture: Martin Walters (56660384)

I counted 10 stork nests on one roadside pylon! Loud, mechanical rattling sounds drift through the air as the storks greet each other at their nests, and in the olive groves and gardens the soft, short hooting calls of hoopoes drift from the trees and scrub.

White stork. Picture: Martin Walters (56660386)
White stork. Picture: Martin Walters (56660386)

Many pastures are unimproved and are still grazed in traditional fashion, resulting in grassland that has a rich diversity of wildflowers, together with associated invertebrates such as bees, butterflies, and crickets.

Spring meadow flowers. Picture: Martin Walters (56660382)
Spring meadow flowers. Picture: Martin Walters (56660382)

The striking flowers of purple viper’s-bugloss (Echium plantagineum) lend many of the fields and meadows a deep blue sheen and contrast with the white and yellows of annual daisy (Bellis annua) and corn marigold (Glebionis segetum).

On rocky hillsides the scrub in many upland areas is dominated by bushes of gum cistus (Cistus ladanifera) with its large white flowers and sticky foliage, along with French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), clumps of yellow-flowered spiny greenweed (Genista hirsuta) and occasional tall spikes of the delicate white asphodel (Asphodelus albus).

Gum cistus. Picture: Martin Walters (56660380)
Gum cistus. Picture: Martin Walters (56660380)

In open country over the hills and plains, parties of vultures circled in thermals, in a scene reminiscent of Africa. Griffon vultures are common and along with black kites they do a splendid tidying-up job by feeding on carrion. They can even be spotted gliding high over the picturesque medieval buildings of Caceres and Trujillo.

This part of Spain is one of the best places in Europe to see birds of prey. Booted eagles are common, and the list includes golden, short-toed, Bonelli’s, and the rare Spanish imperial eagle.

Griffon vulture. Picture: Martin Walters (56660378)
Griffon vulture. Picture: Martin Walters (56660378)

We were lucky also to see a few of the magnificent cinereous vultures, Europe’s largest raptors, amongst the hordes of griffon vultures at the famous Monfragüe National Park, a mountain range cut by the gorges of two rivers and a major breeding site for birds of prey and for rare black storks.

Each evening, and often through the day, we were serenaded by nightingales, still common here though sadly a declining species at home, and Iberian azure-winged magpies glided in small groups amongst the olive trees, contacting each other with soft, nasal calls.

Azure-winged magpie. Picture: Martin Walters (56660372)
Azure-winged magpie. Picture: Martin Walters (56660372)

This beautiful crow relative is quite unlike any other bird, except for an almost identical species found in China, prompting stories of its introduction to Spain and Portugal by early travellers to the orient.

Modern studies of the genetics of the two populations however reveal that both the Iberian birds and their Asian cousins are native to their regions and long separated and are now regarded as distinct species. Less easy to spot were golden orioles, but their short, melodious fluting songs drifted down occasionally from groves of tall trees.

Read more from Martin Walters by visiting his author page

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