Iberian Wolf

The Best of Spain’s Wildlife

Dominic CouzensBy Dominic Couzens
20th January 2021

Dominic is a Naturetrek tour leader and one of Britain's
best known and most prolific natural history writers.

Dominating the Iberian Peninsula in the south-western corner of Europe, Spain is one of the most famous holiday destinations in the world. Proverbially sunny, it has attracted heat-seeking British tourists for a century or more, and while the image of crowded beaches, all-day breakfasts and all-night nightclubs might not be to the wildlife enthusiast’s taste, the fact is that most of us relish a trip with the sun on our backs. And in this manner and many others, Spain delivers – maybe even in spades!

The sun-drenched coast of southern Spain is like a car park near a beauty spot; most visitors don’t wander very far from where they are based. This means that, with very little effort, wildlife-minded travellers can easily find themselves enveloped in the peaceful countryside, far away from crowds. Instantly the wildlife shows itself off to be very different from what we are used to in northern Europe. Sardinian Warblers chatter irritably from every scrubby corner, the Starlings are as Spotless as the sky, the butterflies turn big – from Swallowtails to Monarchs to the Two-tailed Pasha – and lizards and geckos scamper away with a quick rustle. And for much of the year, the Cicadas stridulate, as if the heat was directly converted into sound.
While serendipitous escape-the-crowd meetings with wildlife are a feature of southern Spain, there are many places of special importance, which can keep you happily occupied for a week or more. One of the most famous is the incomparable Coto Doñana, a vast wetland at the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivir, and one of Europe’s last few wildernesses. Much of the national park is inaccessible, but there are enough excellent places to sample the richness here, especially of birds. In the vast marshlands, alongside untold numbers of herons of many species, terns, waders, ducks and warblers are a suite of rare and exciting species such as Red-knobbed Coot, Purple Swamphen, Marbled Teal and Spanish Imperial Eagle, while there are also Stone Pine plantations full of Iberian Azure-winged Magpies, heaths with Red-necked Nightjars and large areas of sand dunes. The Coto Doñana is a marvellous place for every type of birdwatcher, from the experienced to the complete beginner.
Spanish Imperial Eagle

While the Coto Doñana is, perhaps, the jewel of the crown in the southern region of Andalucía, or even the whole Kingdom of Spain, there are many other special areas in the south. For example, Los Alcornocales Natural Park, near Tarifa, holds the largest Cork Oak forest in Spain and Europe, with its attendant Crested Tits, Short-toed Treecreepers and Western Bonelli’s Warblers; a peaceful and lush site that is barely known to most travellers. Ronda, further inland, lies between two mountain massifs, the Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra Grazalema, and attracts a superb range of rock-loving birds such as Griffon Vulture, Alpine Swift, Rock Bunting, Thekla Lark and Black Wheatear – the latter is famous for the male’s habit of collecting up to 400 small rocks to decorate the nest-site, just to impress the female! Four species of eagle breed here, including Bonelli’s, and as a bonus, Ronda itself boasts three magnificent bridges, one Moorish, one Roman and one built in the 18th century. The nearby forests are superb for raptors, including many of those heading for the nearby coast.

That coast, around Tarifa and Gibraltar, is particularly famous for the magnificent spectacle of migrating birds, especially storks and raptors, which make the crossing over the narrow (14km wide) Strait that separates Spain from North Africa. Large, broad-winged birds often have to sail the thermals on the Spanish side in autumn before they have enough height to cross, and this creates wonderful bottlenecks, “kettles” of wheeling birds, equivalent to air passengers at an airport gate. On a good autumn day up to 16 species of raptors may cross, and sometimes there are literally thousands of birds moving. There is some migration in spring, too, although less spectacular. One of the amazing experiences in Gibraltar is to take a boat trip out into the Strait and, while you are watching dolphins, Pilot Whales or shearwaters, you can look up and see migrating raptors!

It is hard to believe that, not very far from the crowded coast, in the quiet interior, there should roam something so precious as the world’s rarest cat. Yet in the Sierra Morena east of Seville, as well as in the Coto Doñana, live the two disjunct populations of the critically endangered Iberian Lynx, which number about 400. It is a shy creature and a real challenge to see, but on dedicated tours one is usually spotted – a thrill in the hinterland.

By complete contrast, while flowers aren’t as elusive as ghost-like felines, the challenge of botanising in this part of Spain, Andalucía, is simply taking in the glorious abundance of species. There are 2,300 species of vascular plants just in this region, as many as in all the UK, and a third of them are found nowhere else. One of the best ways to enjoy the flora is to go in early spring, before the heat gets too intense. The mountains, scrub and meadows are flush with Narcissi, orchids, peonies and Cistus, as well as a wide range of other blooms. While Britain is still shivering, the flowers here are shimmering.
Iberian Lynx

Well to the north, towards Spain’s capital city of Madrid, lies the region of Extremadura. This is, in some ways, a more authentic Spain than the sunshine coast, with its rural villages, mountainous backdrop and quiet atmosphere. Storks nest on buildings and every thermal seems to hold a Black Kite. For the wildlife enthusiast, and particularly the birder, the biggest attraction here is the rolling grassland. Here on the plains, seemingly left behind by modern intensive farming, Great and Little Bustards gather to display and breed, while Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse visit waterholes in the twilight and Calandra Larks sing incessantly from the bright skies. It is a kind of paradise! Other avian delights nearby, in the plains dotted with small copses – a habitat known locally as dehesa – include Great Spotted Cuckoos, Stone Curlews and Iberian Azure-winged Magpies, which simply add to the sense of bliss. Nearby, Monfragüe National Park hosts 16 species of raptors, including Spanish Imperial Eagle, Egyptian Vulture and Booted Eagle, as well as Black Stork.

Extremadura is also notably good in winter, when the larks, bustards and sandgrouse gather into flocks and can be easier to see, while the area is invaded by large flocks of Common Cranes. Most of the best birds, including the majority of the raptors, are still around.

This part of Spain isn’t only good for birds, of course. The butterflies are fabulous and the nearby Gredos Mountains are a hotspot for Spanish Ibex, as well as Red and Roe Deer. Meanwhile, the large number of local reservoirs and rice paddies have created an unexpectedly rich area for dragonflies and damselflies, with many local specialities and a clutch of new colonists from North Africa. Odonata enthusiasts will lick their lips at the prospect of Banded Groundling, Black Percher, Epaulet Skimmer and Western Spectre.
Anybody who flies over Spain, perhaps on their way to the southern coast, will notice how mountainous the interior of the country is. And of course, each range has its own characteristics of topography, geology and history, making them all somewhat individual. A good example is the Picos de Europa, part of the Cantabrian range in north-west Spain. This is an area of jagged limestone peaks, the rocks unusually pale. Containing the tallest peak in northern Spain, the Torre del Cerrado (2,648m), the Picos de Europa is a superb high-altitude site for a wide range of great wildlife, not to mention the longest cable car in Europe, accessing the Fuente Dé and its alpine flowers. The whole range is predictably superb for orchids, and you can spend an entire week ogling at the butterflies. Amazingly, 150 species of these insects have been recorded here. The slopes hold such perennial favourites as the Apollo and Purple-shot Copper, while the peaks allow for close examination of some of those tricky Erebia Ringlets, such as Piedmont and Chapman’s.

The mountains of northern Spain, especially around the foothills of the Pyrenees, have experienced intense human depopulation in recent years, owing to the economic hardship of living here. While sad in many ways, this has proven a boon to some of the shyer wildlife in these parts. And in recent years, northern Spain has become the European stronghold and an exceptional place for seeing Wolves in the wild. The main population is in the Cordillera Cantábrica, and one part of this range, the Palentian Mountains, is our base. In common with looking for Iberian Lynx, the realities of Wolf-spotting are that hard effort and patience are essential. Nonetheless, about 90% of 5-day tours manage to find the animals, usually at some distance away. However, the sheer thrill of searching for such an iconic mammal, as well as spending time in a truly rural and peaceful part of the world, is magic. There is even a chance of encountering Iberian Hare, Beech Marten, Chamois, Wild Boar and various deer.

Wolves are not the only iconic mammals that live in northern Spain. Brown Bears do, too, and although they are very rare indeed, it can be possible to see them in Somiedo Natural Park. The best time is the autumn, when these awesome animals visit the high slopes in search of berries and other pre-hibernation treats. Once again, these require a great deal of luck to see, although the trade-off is again a wilderness experience with the chance of other animals, from Chamois to Golden Eagles.

Much further east, into the region of Navarra, which reaches into the slopes of the Pyrenees, there is a heightened chance of seeing yet another exciting mammal, this time the Wildcat. In the low-intensity pastures where shepherds tend their livestock, the provision of horse feed attracts mice to these quiet valleys, and at dawn and dusk each day the Wildcats venture out from the forest for a feast of rodents. With good fortune, these animals can be seen at relatively close quarters, an experience that is vanishingly unlikely in Britain and most of the rest of Europe.

It might be counterintuitive to head to the Pyrenean slopes in the colder months, but the best time for Wildcats is very early spring, and there are other treats around here, too. The snow and cold of the high peaks render life there extremely difficult, so many of the summer inhabitants undertake an altitudinal migration, heading downhill to ride out the extreme conditions. While many birds, especially, do this, such as Alpine Accentors and Water Pipits, there is no doubt that the true sensation among them is the Wallcreeper. In the spring and summer this iconic bird, unique of mien and manner and the perfect mixture of black, grey and crimson, can be seen at very reachable altitude, often with some ease; it may even occur on buildings. The Sierra de Guara has become famous as the regional Wallcreeper capital, owing to its easily reached spectacular cliffs. The town of Alquézar is perhaps the best spot, where the bird can be seen virtually in the streets! Its supporting cast of Rock Sparrow, Red-billed Chough and Blue Rock Thrush sometimes even gets a look-in between sightings of the megastar.
Blue Rock Thrush

Nearby, the area around Zaragoza is an excellent spot for another winter spectacle. In October and February in particular, the Laguna de Gallocanta hosts a large roost of Common Cranes, often in excess of 15,000 trumpeting birds. Even without the nearby Wallcreepers, this would be enough of a treat, yet there are also Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Dupont’s Larks in the same area.

Once the summer reaches the Pyrenees, the Wallcreepers seep back into the high tops and resume their long-distance flirting with telescope-clad admirers. They are difficult, but not impossible to see. But now they share billing with a bloom of wondrous biodiversity, from the Pyrenean flora – incomparable in my view – to an explosion of butterflies, as well as many birds and mammals. There are Lammergeiers, Alpine Choughs, White-backed Woodpeckers, Snow Finches, the Pyrenean Chamois and Snow Voles. The flora includes every hue of colour and shape, from orchids to rich blue Pyrenean Irises and the improbable purplish of Ramonda. Many of the plants, and some of the butterflies, occur nowhere else on earth.

And yet despite the fact that the Pyrenees are about as far away from a beach at Torremolinos as it’s possible to be, there is still the likelihood that the sun will be on your back, the colours will be bright and you feel, somewhat deliciously and happily, a world away from home.