Birdwatching In Spain—A great place for migrants and raptors

Many tourists visit Spain yearly for the culture, fantastic food, and landscapes. Still, for birdwatching enthusiasts, it’s a place to see some of the most exciting aviation creatures in Europe.

Having been declared the country with the most UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the world, Spain is filled with different natural environments that house over 360 resident birds, many others who migrate there for the winter, and a variety of other different wildlife species.

If you are touring Europe and can visit Spain, make sure you take some time to experience its biodiversity and observe its unique birds. Here I’ll tell you everything you need to know about birding in Spain and how to make the most of your experience.

What Makes Spain So Unique?

As mentioned, Spain has many different biospheres that have different wildlife, features, and climates. You’ll find volcanic islands, marshes, beech forests, mountains, coastline, and much more, all consisting of unique vegetation and habitats. Did you know that Spain has 80% of the European Union’s flowering plants and ferns?  

Map showing location of SpainAs a crossroad between Western Europe and Africa, Spain also serves as a flyway route for many migratory bird species that travel yearly between these two regions. It’s no wonder that birdwatchers from all over the world designate Spain as the top place in Europe to experience.   

Plan to visit the Extremadura region of the country, as it is a significant European birding destination, and 75% of the area is considered one of the Important Bird Areas of Spain. If you’re looking for the country’s endemic species, you’ll find most of them in the Canary Islands. However, regardless of what area of the country you visit, you will find a vast array of birds to watch and enjoy. 

The Strait of Gibraltar and Migration

Another unique thing about Spain is that it is separated from Africa by only 15 kilometers of Sea in the Strait of Gibraltar. This area is impressive as it experiences a mass migration of birds between the two continents during the spring and autumn.

In particular, over 250,000 migrating birds of prey cross here at these times, in addition to thousands of seabirds. Anyone who’s witnessed it will tell you that it is an experience like no other that uplifts the soul and leaves you standing in awe.

If you are lucky enough to visit the area during one of these times, you’ll see enormous formations of Black Kites, Honey Buzzards, Eagles, Vultures, and many more flying closely over your head. The sight of these birds can’t be explained adequately with words and is a bucket-list item for any serious birdwatcher.

Spain’s Endemic Birds

Although the migratory birds seem to steal the show during the spring and autumn, Spain has its own interesting set of endemic birds you can look for during your visit. Here are the country’s native birds you should watch for as you tour the area.

Dark-Tailed and White-Tailed Laurel Pigeon

Found on the Canary Islands, you’ll see the Laurel Pigeon on the rocky slopes of the Laurel Forest zone. The wings are a dark greyish-purple color, and its tail is either dark or recognizable by a pale tip. You’ll also note the red color of the eyes and the greenish neck that can seem iridescent. Although this bird is very dark, so it does not stand out from a distance, it is pretty impressive to look at close-up. It flies quickly and directly, and you’ll find its call sounds a bit like a hiccup.   

Balearic Shearwater

The Balearic Shearwater is one of the rarest birds in Europe and one of the two birds listed as critically endangered. These medium-sized seabirds are dark grey with brown underparts, a dark bill, and pink legs. Although they are migratory, you will find their breeding grounds in Menorca in the Balearic Islands, and they are particularly noticeable in the autumn months. They breed loudly at night and feed off fish and mollusks.

Canary Islands Chiffchaff

Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Canary Islands Chiffchaff

The Canary Islands Chiffchaff is another bird you will only find on the Canary Islands. It is darkish brown with a lighter brown underbelly, long legs, and a longer beak. They breed from January to June, where you’ll find them singly or in pairs. During the non-breeding months, they form small flocks and spend most of their time foraging for insect food.

Balearic Warbler

As its name suggests, you’ll only find the Balearic Warbler on the Balearic Islands. This long-tailed, dark-grey bird has a big head and a unique red eye ring. Its feet and beak are orange in color, and you’ll find it foraging on the ground in the rocky coastal areas and scrubby hillsides of the island. When it sings, you hear what sounds like short rattling whistles.

Fuerteventura Stonechat

Only found in the Canary Islands, on the island of Fuerteventura, the Fuerteventura Stonechat perches on top of things like fences or bushes. Its body shape and size are similar to a European Robin, and the males are dark brown with a whitish color underneath. The females of the species are paler in color than the male. The male’s call sounds like two pebbles hitting each other, and its song is a high twittering sound. Currently considered to be endangered, its population has dwindled in recent years due to development and predators.

Tenerife Blue Chaffinch

Tenerife Blue Chaffinch
Tenerife Blue Chaffinch

Only found in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch is the natural symbol of the island. They look similar to common chaffinches but are bigger and have a thicker bill. The females are a dull grey-brown, and the males have bright blue feathers and a grey-colored bill. Look for them in the Canary Island Pine forests, where it feeds on pine seeds, but also in pine woodland and laurel areas. It likes to be up high, usually staying around 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers.  

Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch

You’ll find the Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch on the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, mainly in the Inagua Natural Reserve living in the Canary Island Pine. It’s a medium-sized finch; the males are blue-grey and the females brown-grey. They have a repetitive song and a quiet call that sounds like a weep. Unfortunately, it is one of the most endangered species of birds on the planet, with a tiny population remaining within the island’s pine forest area.

Spanish Imperial Eagle

As one of the rarest birds in the world, you’d be quite lucky to catch a glimpse of the Spanish Imperial Eagle. This large, dark-brown Eagle is strong-looking and easily identifiable by the white border on the front edge of its wings. Only found in the Iberian Peninsula, the entire remaining population is only about 400 to 500 pairs. With conservation efforts in place, it remains hopeful that the population will continue to increase, and that the species will be able to be enjoyed for generations to come.

The Birds of Prey

As mentioned, many birds of prey migrate through Spain, but you’ll also find these birds breeding and living here as well. Twenty-six species of birds of prey breed in the country.

Among the birds of prey to look for in Spain include the following notable ones:

  • Black Vultures
  • Bearded Vultures
  • Egyptian Vultures
  • Griffon Vultures
  • Golden Eagles
  • Black-winged Kite
  • Eleonora’s Falcon

How To Make the Most Of Your Birdwatching Trip to Spain

Pay attention to the seasons as you plan your birdwatching trip to Spain. The best times of year to visit to see the most birds and activities are spring and autumn. Spring is the time of year for the migration and breeding of waterbirds. In autumn, you’ll find many birds using the parks in the country as shelter or resting stops during their migratory journeys.

Great Bustard
Great Bustard

The weather can be too hot during the summer so that the birds won’t be nearly as active. July and August are the two months when you’ll see the least number of birds. If you do visit during the summer, your best bet for birdwatching is in the early morning. 

Many different ecotourism groups in the country organize birding trips and adventures throughout the year, so you can join one that meets your interests and the timeline you are visiting. Joining an organized tour is a great way to see the most birds you can during your trip. You’ll also have knowledgeable experts available to help you identify birds and their habitats.

If you’re touring around on your own, a good field guide will help you with most of the bird identifications.

Final Thoughts

Spain is rich in sights and sounds for the aviation enthusiast as you can find birds of almost every type all over the country. Unfortunately, industrialization and predators have wreaked havoc on the country’s bird population over the past two decades, particularly impacting farmland and urban birds. These facts shed light on the importance of appreciating and conserving these beautiful creatures so that future generations of birdwatchers can also appreciate them.

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