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A Winter Birdwatching Holiday in Spain

A customer travelled on our 'Spain - Extremadura in Winter' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Rainbow by David Morris

Spain - Extremadura in Winter

Good food, good wine and good wildlife. That’s what Extremadura is all about.

In my opinion, Extremadura in winter is rural Spain at its best. There are birds everywhere. Farmland birds thrive and raptors abound, largely due to what is almost subsistence farming. The days are crisp and cold, but the sun still warms our backs as we search for birds and picnic in unspoilt spots. The light is perfect; the soft rays bring the countryside to life.

Land of the cork oak

The region could easily be called land of the cork oak. Much of the area is given over to growing these oaks, whose bark is harvested for use as wine corks. Everywhere we go throughout Extremadura we see their distinctive flat-topped shape in wooded areas, known locally as the ‘dehesas’. Underneath the oaks’ shady bows many creatures take full advantage of the acorn bounty. Extremaduran pigs are fattened, the black fighting bulls of Spain grow strong and Azure-winged Magpies screech from tree to tree.

However, the real spectacle is the thousands upon thousands of Europe’s Common Cranes that spend their winter here, feeding amongst the oaks. Most of them are making their annual pilgrimage fly down from Scandinavia, risking the dangerous crossing of the Pyrenees, all to feed on acorns in the soft Spanish sunlight. They’re wary of humans; speeding past in the bus is fine, but stop and they’re off with a flap of their giant wings.

How many?

But Extremadura isn’t just about acorns. Out of the dehesa, grassy plains gently slope away and rocky mountains rise.

Out on the plains, there’s little shelter as icy winds blast across, freezing even us wrapped-up birdwatchers. But it’s worth it. For here, amongst grass cropped short by sheep, lives the heaviest flying bird in the world – the mighty Great Bustard. Huddled behind the minibuses, we are serenaded by Calandra and Crested Larks as we peer, chilled to the bone, at these oversize turkeys, decked out in orange, black, grey and white. In winter they form flocks, sometimes numbering a hundred. Here they are just forty-something strong – most people in our group have a go at counting, but all come up with a different number!

Cracks, crevices and ledges

In the mountains of Montfrague National Park, we stop at a giant piece of upturned rock, rising steeply from the river below high into the clear blue sky. It is called Peña Falcon, and our guide soon tells us it means Peregrine Rock. Weather-beaten and jagged, it’s full of cracks, crevices and ledges – the perfect place for a vulture to raise its chicks. Hundreds of Griffons and several of the gigantic Black Vultures call this cliff-face home and as the weak winter sun gently heats the day, we see them spiralling up into the sky, scanning the deep gorge and rocky outcrops below.

Then, amongst a flurry of feathers, we find out how this rock gets its name. After grabbing a passing pigeon, a Peregrine retires to the highest spot on the rock to tuck in to its lunch. Nothing troubles him as he surveys his kingdom, reigning supreme.

Home comforts

The days finish back in our homely rural retreat, watching the sinking red sun track across the sky above the dehesa, before it disappears behind the ancient castle of Trujillo, the nearest town. Then we lounge beside a roaring fire with live piano music, and are served gorgeous, home cooked food, with a dash of Spanish red, all followed by a ‘licor de bellota’. Made from acorns, this local speciality proves that the bounty of Extremadura is not just for the cranes.

Read more about our 'Spain - Extremadura in Winter' holiday.

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