Birding accommodation in Spain: make it rural!

Birders planning a trip to Spain, either to northeast Spain or elsewhere in this large and varied country, don’t only want to know where the most interesting birds are, ie. the best birding sites, but also where to stay when they are looking for the birds.

If planning a birding trip to northeast Spain then the whereabouts of those most wanted birds are well explained in “Where the birds are in northeast Spain”. Now you have knowledge of the birds, but what’s the next step? Well, choose which birding site or area is most suitable for you and then look for some suitable accommodation. But what kind of accommodation (by the way accommodation is spelt with two c’s and two m’s, and not “accomodation”)?

I often receive or see requests from foreign birders about suitable campsites, or else on trip reports read how the group stayed in a hotel in the middle of this city or town or another. My experience of birding in Spain, and tour leading too, tells me that these birders are looking in the wrong direction.

Most interesting birds are in rural areas. So why stay in a city? The traffic, the hassle of finding the hotel, the surroundings…you usually can’t just get up in the morning and start birding around the hotel grounds if you are staying in a city hotel. I’ll admit some of these establishments can be quite plush, adding however that most of them lack in local character. They don’t give you a feeling for the place you are visiting.

Campsites? OK for students on a tight budget, is that what you are?

So for me the best birding hotel in Spain is a small rural hotel, within easy reach of the sites you want to bird, with charm and character, and at a price that is usually very affordable. If you bird with Swarovskis or Leicas then why are you looking for campsites?

If you don’t know how to find these small rural hotels, the recommended accommodation for birders coming to northeast Spain, then obviously you haven’t seen or paid attention to the recommended accommodation on the web page. Of course you are free to ignore this advice – after all it’s your holiday (and your pocket).

Birding in Catalonia – Part 2

… (continued)
Rocky headlands or massifs like Cap de Creus, the Serra de Montgrí, Garraf and the Ports de Beseit are within the coast-hugger`s easy reach, and may complement the visitor`s list with the likes of Bonelli`s Eagle, Pallid Swift, Black Wheatear, Orphean Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush or the more localised Ortolan Bunting or Red-rumped Swallow.
If we head inland following the course of the Ebro we will get to the Ebro Valley steppes, remainders of which still survive within the confines of Catalonia in the vicinity of the city of Lleida. Open flat terrain in this dry area with a continental type climate is home to Catalonia`s last Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Little Bustard (at surprisingly high densities), 6 species of lark, Montagu`s Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Roller, Red-necked Nightjar, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Stone Curlew, etc. This is also the last stronghold of the Lesser Grey Shrike in the whole of Spain.

At barely an hour`s drive to the north of Lleida we will reach Montsec, a fine and impressive example of a pre-Pyrenean range with Griffon Vultures, Lammergeiers, Rock Thrush, Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting among others. Like its cousin Boumort, this is a largely depopulated area which the unwary tourist will usually pass by in a rush to reach the high Pyrenees – don`t be an unwary tourist!
Nevertheless, the Catalan high Pyrenees are a worthy attraction, holding all the species that can be seen in the Pyrenees of neighbouring Aragón, some scarcer, some more common. Although finding a Snowfinch here in the breeding season is a real challenge, other species such as Capercaillie, Tengmalm`s Owl, Ptarmigan and Citril Finch are more numerous here than further west. In the Val d`Aran, the only Spanish valley with an Atlantic watershed, breeding Middle-spotted, Lesser-spotted and Black Woodpeckers are worthy of note. Plan a visit to the beautiful Aigüestortes National Park, the Serra del Cadí or the Núria Valley to see other mountain specialities such as Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough or Ring Ouzel. And don`t forget to relax now and then and smell the flowers!

Birding in the Pyrenees

The Spanish Pyrenees stretch from west to east from Navarra, through Aragon and on to the northeast corner of Catalonia.

Birding in the high Pyrenees of Aragon

Approaching from the Bay of Biscay the Pyrenees rise gently but steadily in Navarra to Orhi, the first 2,000 m peak near the region’s eastern border with Aragón. Navarra’s beechwoods and mixed forests are home to White-backed Woodpecker and Black Woodpecker, while the high sierras and mountain passes are the migratory flyways of birds of prey, cranes and other species. Navarra also has some spectacular gorges and the westernmost populations of Lammergeier, Snow Finch and Citril Finch in the Pyrenees.

Aragón is the wildest and perhaps most spectacular part of the Spanish Pyrenees. It can lay claim to Spain’s first and one of its finest National Parks, Ordesa, and many unspoilt tracts of high mountain. Birding the Pyrenees of Aragon is a delight for the large numbers of birds of prey, especially Lammergeier, Egyptian Vulture, Golden Eagle and Booted Eagle, and for it having some of the more accessible areas with high mountain species like Alpine Accentor, Wallcreeper and Snow Finch.

The Natural Park of Cadí in the Pyrenees of Catalonia

Capercaillie, Ptarmigan, Tengmalm’s Owl, Citril Finch, and Black Woodpecker are all species that can be less difficult to see when birding in the Pyrenees of Catalonia than in those further west. Catalonia also has its National Park, Aigüestortes, a land of lakes, peaks and black pine forests. The natural park of Cadí-Moixeró is one of the easternmost points of interest for the visiting birder, who with some luck can find a good variety of the mountain specialities, perhaps even a Wallcreeper.

Griffon Vultures vs Bonelli’s Eagles in els Ports, Catalonia

Recently I went to els Ports (Beseit/Tortosa) in Catalonia to do a Common Bird Census which I have been doing for the last 5 years or so for the Institut Català d’Ornitologia. It’s a wonderfully scenic 3 km transect following the course of a river gorge. Birds are not that abundant in the gorge itself although the surrounding olive groves and pine woods make up for that. Usual species include Firecrest (also Goldcrest in the winter), Coal Tit, Bonelli’s Warbler (summer), Sardinian Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush and more. For the last two transects I’ve seen a Peregrine Falcon sitting in exactly the same place, the ever-radiant Kingfisher and a dozen or so Griffon Vultures.

What I haven’t seen for the last couple of years is the Bonelli’s Eagle. Now that’s a surprise and a shame because a territorial pair has one of its known nests in view of my transect, and 2 years ago these birds used to offer wonderful views of synchronised flying in the breeding season. Last year I scanned the area around their nest but only saw two Griffon Vultures. The same happened yesterday.

It’s a known fact that the recent recovery of Griffon Vultures has been to the detriment of Bonelli’s Eagles in some places where the two species coincide. The Griffon Vultures oust the Bonelli’s Eagles and take over their nests. Apparently the same has happened, for example in Extremadura, with Golden Eagles ousting the Bonelli’s Eagles too.

This is not meant as a harangue against Griffon Vultures. Bonelli’s Eagles (less than 750 pairs in Spain of 1,000 in all of Europe) are under threat from other sources which have a greater impact on their populations than competition from other birds of prey: electrocution, habitat fragmentation and loss, shooting and disturbance.

But it does annoy me that I can no longer enjoy the double treat of the scenery of els Ports and the spectacle of Bonelli’s Eagles.

Birding in Catalonia – Part 1

Birding in Catalonia – Part 1


Catalonia, or Catalunya, in the north-east corner of Spain, is the main overland gateway into the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. A glance at the statistics will tell us that around 7 million people inhabit its 32,091 km², at an average density of 190 persons per km², and that it is an industrialised region with a coastline largely developed to accommodate mass tourism.
Not precisely a beacon for the foreign birder, or so it would seem. But then there are the other statistics: the new breeding bird Atlas of Catalonia reveals 232 species of breeding birds – more than any other region of a comparable size anywhere else in Spain – inhabiting its numerous and varied biotopes, including wetlands of International importance, high mountains, Mediterranean type sierras & lowlands, rocky coasts & headlands, and steppes.
Catalonia`s Mediterranean coastline, for example, has 3 very interesting wetland areas, the most important of which is undoubtedly the Ebro Delta. This must be the star attraction for any visiting birder wanting to see gulls and terns, including the rare Slender-billed and Audouin`s Gulls, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, along with a wide variety of herons, ducks and waders such as Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret, Red-crested Pochard, Collared Pratincole, Kentish Plover, migrating Marsh Sandpipers and Temminck`s Stints and a few miscellaneous items such as Purple Gallinule, Greater Flamingo and Savi`s Warbler. Furthermore, its impressive list of wintering and migratory birds means that it`s not to be forsaken at any time of the year.

The Llobregat delta, on the very edge of Barcelona airport, also presents itself, although on a much smaller scale, as an interesting proposition for a 2 or 3 hour visit, with excellent hides overlooking scrapes which never fail to turn out rarities year after year. Last but not least there is the Aiguamolls de l`Empordà in the north of the region, intensively managed to enhance its wildlife interest and well placed to receive those more easterly migrants which rarely make landfall elsewhere along the coast. It`s also something of a Mecca for spring crake hunters (Spotted, Little and Baillon`s).

to be continued….

1000 unique visitors!

This January 2008 the web site has received over 1,000 unique visitors. For the first time since its creation in late June 2007.

Most visitors by far come from the USA, second in the ranking is Spain, and then the usual third is the UK, although this month it has been surpassed by Sweden and Holland.

If you haven’t visited the page then take a look at the different sections dealing with Steve West’s birder’s books, itineraries, maps and photos dealing with birding sites in northeast Spain, free birding downloads such as checklists and trip reports, bird recordings and more.

A recently incorporated section is “Hotspot Holidays” – a product offered exclusively by for birders and naturalists who prefer the slow travel concept. More about Hotspot holidays in a later post.

Spring photography and leaping bustards

April is the time when the Spanish steppes are at their yearly zenith and Little Bustards celebrate the fact with much foot pattering, leaping, wing flapping and head jerking! It’s time to impress the lady bustards and fend off male competitors and, in the opinion of the Little Bustard, there’s nothing like a bit of head jerking and raspberry blowing to do just the job. is teaming up with Jordi Bas, a renowned bird photographer who lives near Lleida, and (a local tourism agent) to offer a special trip for nature photographers who are keen to snap up the Little Bustard in one of its comic, er, dynamic postures.

And then there’s the Lammergeier sortie: we’ll take the lucky few along a long and winding path to a remote hide, we’ll drop bait for the Lammergeier and then we’ll leave the photographers alone with the birds until the following day! Lammergeiers are shy and wary but do not shun free food. So we’ll be hoping for good photographic opportunities for the Lammergeier as well as the Griffon Vulture and perhaps the Egyptian Vulture.

For the rest of the week we’ll concentrate our efforts on Bee-eaters, Penduline Tits, Blue Rock Thrushes, Little Owls, Calandra Larks… and more.

Hope you can make it! For more information go to the website and send an e-mail to Steve West.

The winter waterbirds census: counting birds or coffees?

Another mid-January is upon us and the time has come for John, Hans, Pierre, Mario and scores of other birders from all over Europe to get out and count their populations of wintering waterbirds.

Every year Wetlands International co-ordinates the European mid-winter waterbird counts and publishes the results. That way we can all see what is happening to our winter water birds and possibly even our climate.

Mind you, there’s usually little need to tell the good birders of Lleida, Catalonia, what is happening to their climate, as they can usually see it for themselves: for at these dates there is almost invariably a blanket of impenetrable fog cloaking the plain between Montsec and the mountains of Tarragona! But the birders of Lleida show their resilience and resourcefulness at such times of adversity and usually end up retiring to the nearest bar and a coffee or two to wait for the fog to lift. And sometimes it does.

Fog was predicted for this weekend. On Saturday the Lleida City Council wanted me to show a small but interested public how to conduct the winter water birds census on their local patch, the municipal park of la Mitjana, riverside woodland on both banks of the River Segre. Before leaving home I checked the small change in my pocket to make sure I had enough to buy a coffee, but when I got to la Mitjana the fog had still not descended.  And neither did it for the rest of the day.

So in the end the census participants and myself had a pleasant walk around la Mitjana. The birds we saw were the usual ones: Moorhens, Coots, Little Grebes, Mallard (and 1 Gadwall), Cormorants, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Grey Wagtail, etc. For me the highlight of the day was the ever-splendid Kingfisher perched on a reedmace head. And the obvious enthusiasm of a good number of my companions.

I must admit though, by about midday I was missing the coffee!

Catalonia Today: Eagle Owl

Birding in Catalonia – The Eagle Owl

Birding is a pastime where no two days are ever the same. Regardless of whether you want them to be or not.

I was reminded of this recently. Returning home after escorting our youngest son to school I had hardly re-entered the flat when my wife urged me to grab my binoculars and telescope and to undertake the 15-minute drive to the village of Castelldans.

A group of 4 Swiss birders were eagerly awaiting my arrival. They were keen to see some of the key birds of the drylands of Alfés, above all the elegant Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.

Before long we were all standing on the edge of an area that I knew was good for the Sandgrouse. Our first find, however, was an enchanting flock of some 20 Red-billed Choughs, strolling around and pecking at the ground in their usual lively manner. Over a nearby rocky ridge a Kestrel was kicking up a ruckus, plunging, circling and calling hysterically. I raised my binoculars to see what all the fuss was about. My eyes goggled.
eagle owl illustration
“Good God! An Eagle Owl!” I exclaimed.
My Swiss companions’ optics all immediately homed in on the magnificent bird sitting on an exposed rocky perch. So did the flock of Choughs, which before long had joined forces with the Kestrel in haranguing the unwelcome visitor. The Eagle Owl held its ground, and merely turned its head to blink at its antagonists. However, when this rather hesitant troupe was reinforced by a mixed band of cackling Magpies and determined Jackdaws the owl must have realized that peace and quiet would have to be found elsewhere, and took to flight.

There was a spring in my step for the rest of the day. For undoubtedly there had been a kind of wild, unrepeatable magic in those 5 minutes. It makes me wonder what I’ll see the next time I come here looking for Sandgrouse.

For indications about where to see Eagle Owls (and more than 100 other species) see Steve West’s first book “Where the birds are in northeast Spain”.

The Eagle Owl also lends its name to one of the chapters in Steve West’s highly-praised second book “Flying over the Pyrenees, standing on the plains”.

For further information see:

2 Species of Sandgrouse in the drylands of Alfés

Now I don’t know if it’s the first time on record, but it’s certainly the first time that I have ever seen both Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Black-bellied Sandgrouse in the same day in the drylands of Alfés.

It’s not unusual to see Pin-tailed Sandgrouse here, in fact this is the only place in Catalunya where the species breeds (some 50 pairs at most?), but seeing a Black-bellied Sandgrouse is quite another matter. For one thing there are probably no more than 10 or 15 pairs of this avian gem left breeding in Catalonia, and they don’t breed at Alfés. Secondly, actually seeing them even if they are in the area requires luck, timing and a little celestial indulgence.

Alfés is only 6 or 7 minutes from my front door so I made a short incursion, mostly to locate the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse’s favoured haunts this season in preparation for a birding trip in late March. Two British birders have booked 2 nights in la Garbinada, a splendid rural hotel in the nearby village of la Granyena, and one of the prize birds around is precisely the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. I don’t suppose the Black-bellied Sandgrouse will stay around until then, as when I last saw it it was flying directly away from me at a nifty speed!