This year we ventured south for a taste of spring in the beautiful district of Extremadura in central Spain, southwest of Madrid, an area well known for its natural beauty and spectacular birdlife. .
The rolling hills here are still largely covered in traditional dehesas – managed or abandoned forests dominated by holm oaks, mainly holm oaks (Quercus ilex) and cork oak (Quercus suber), the latter being the source of my favorite sustainably harvested natural product. Here, cork is found in many traditional and handcrafted objects, and not just in wine bottles.
The birds and flowers in this area are truly spectacular. The medieval walls and spiers of the churches of Caceres and Trujillo are nesting sites for kestrels and magnificent starlings, while almost every tower or pylon is home to at least one nest of a pair of white storks.
I counted 10 stork nests on a roadside pylon! Loud mechanical rattling sounds drift through the air as storks greet each other in their nests, and in olive groves and gardens the soft, short calls of hoopoes drift from trees and brush.
Many pastures are unimproved and are still traditionally grazed, resulting in grasslands that have a rich diversity of wildflowers, as well as associated invertebrates such as bees, butterflies and crickets.
The striking flowers of the Purple Viper’s Bugloss (Echium plantagineum) give many fields and meadows a deep blue glow and contrast with the white and yellow of the annual daisy (Bellis annua) and corn marigold (Glebionis segetum).
On rocky hillsides, scrub in many mountain areas is dominated by gum rockrose bushes (Cistus ladaniferous) with its large white flowers and sticky foliage, as well as French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), clumps of green grass with yellow flowers (Shaggy Genista) and occasional tall spikes of delicate white asphodel (Asphodel albus).
In the open countryside on the hills and plains, groups of vultures twirl in thermals, in a setting reminiscent of Africa. Griffon vultures are common and, along with black kites, they do a wonderful job of tidying up on carrion. They can even be seen hovering above 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 the golden, short-toed, Bonelli, and the rare Spanish imperial eagle.
We also had the chance to see some of the magnificent cinerous vultures, the largest raptors in Europe, among the herds of griffon vultures in the famous Monfragüe National Park, a mountain range cut by the gorges of two rivers and an important breeding site for raptors and rare black storks.
Every evening, and often all day, we were serenaded by the nightingales, still common here though a sadly declining species at home, and the azure-winged Iberian magpies glided in small groups among the olive trees, making contact with soft, nasal calls.
This magnificent crow relative is unlike any other bird except for an almost identical species found in China, which sparked stories of its introduction to Spain and Portugal by early travelers to the Orient.
Modern studies of the genetics of the two populations, however, reveal that the Iberian birds and their Asian cousins originated in their regions and were long separated and are now considered separate species. Golden orioles were less easy to spot, but their short, melodious piper songs sometimes descended from thickets of tall trees.
Learn more about Martin Walters by visiting his author page
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Spring is here – and here are some of my favorite sounds of the season