Wildlife Holiday News

Extremadura in Winter

An entry to the Naturetrek 2018 Writing Competition. Gareth Williams relates his fabulous experience from our 'Extremadura in Winter' tour.

Travelling hopefully

Six days flashed by in a flurry of feathers and checklists, and in no time we were sitting around the long table for our last supper. Afterwards, we were asked to name our top two highlights of the holiday, and it quickly became clear that something strange had happened.    

We certainly hadn’t been sold short on birds, the focus of ‘Winter in Extremadura’: Bustards (Great and Little) and Sandgrouse (Pin-tailed and Black-bellied), sometimes in the same binocular field. Cranes in their thousands (literally), sailing in over our heads at dusk and filling the sky with cries that evoked the frozen north rather than the plains of central Spain. The Blue Rock Thrush, previously a faraway starling-like blob, was now close enough to prove how pathetically inadequate the adjective ‘blue’ can be. The Zitting Cisticola was transformed from a dot bouncing through the air into a charismatic little character with attitude and a sardonic stare. And there were show-stopping performances from raptors, including a Spanish Imperial Eagle posing on a telegraph pole, a fly-past by a Black-winged Kite – and vultures.

I’ve always been impressed by vultures, going back to the days before the black ones became ‘cinereous’. Now, en masse and near enough to feel the downdraft of their wings, they were stunning. At close quarters, Griffon Vultures look fabulously sinister, as if a crazed transplant surgeon has stuck the wrong head and neck on an eagle’s body; feeling their gaze on you is a powerful incentive to keep moving. We watched them spiralling down to join the lunch queue, ripping the innards out of some unfortunate creature. It was carnage, but even vultures have standards; at one point, a huge cinereous glided in, strode into the fray and chucked out one of the griffons, as deftly as a bouncer at a dodgy nightclub.

Extremadura provided many diversions other than birds: a whip snake, beautifully patterned but the victim of a hit-and-run accident and therefore not quite alive enough to be added to the checklist, armour-plated Moorish Geckoes, pond tortoises from the Age of Reptiles, brick-red crayfish that looked pre-cooked but moved and a brilliant assortment of dragonflies. At night, our hotel pulled in hundreds of moths, and the carpet of moss under the trees came alive with Marbled Newts, exquisite little jewels that Fabergé might have crafted from jade and black onyx.

And so to our last supper and the list of highlights. Surprisingly, the birds were nearly outscored by non-avian items – the hotel, the home-cooked Extremaduran specialities with ingredients ‘from the garden’, the moths and even the newts. Near the top was ‘ambience’, which embraced top-class leaders, excellent outings, companions who were fun to talk to and learn from, and a perpetual buzz of anticipation.

Going through the photos to jog my memory made me think about what makes a great wildlife holiday. You should travel hopefully and tick off most of your expectations. Time must be spent so well and in such good company that you forget the miseries of present-day travel, such as watching everyone else’s luggage going round the carousel at Heathrow. And your curiosity should be stimulated as well as satisfied, leaving you restless for more.

‘Winter in Extremadura’? All the above.

To find out more about our 'Extremadura in Winter' holiday, click here.