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crossbill guides

Extremadura spain


crossbill guides

Extremadura spain


Crossbill Guides: Extremadura - Spain (second edition) First print: 2006 Second print: 2011 Initiative, text and research: Dirk Hilbers Additional research and information: Kim Lotterman, Adri Mulder Editing: John Cantelo, Brian Clews, Jack Folkers, Cees Hilbers, Riet Hilbers, Kim Lotterman, Albert Vliegenthart Illustrations: Chris Braat, Horst Wolter Maps: Dirk Hilbers, Horst Wolter Type and image setting: Gert Jan Bosgra, Oscar Lourens Print: GVO / Ponsen en Looijen, Ede ISBN 978 9050 1138 16 This book is printed on paper of FSC and PEFC certified sources.

Š 2011 Crossbill Guides Foundation, Arnhem, The Netherlands All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by print, photocopy, microfilm or any other means without the written permission of the Crossbill Guides Foundation. This book is published in association with WILDGuides, KNNV Publishing and the Saxifraga Foundation. This book is created with the support of Swarovski Optics. www.crossbillguides.org www.wildguides.co.uk www.knnvpublishing.nl www.saxifraga.nl SAXIFRAGA foundation


crossbill guides foundation This guidebook is a product of the non-profit foundation Crossbill Guides. By publishing these books we want to introduce more people to the joys of Europe’s beautiful natural heritage and to increase the understanding of the ecological values that underlie conservation efforts. Most of this heritage is protected for ecological reasons and we want to provide insight into these reasons to the public at large. By doing so we hope that more people support the ideas behind nature conservation. For more information about us and our guides you can visit our website at: www.crossbillguides.org


highlights of extremadura

4

Highlights of Extremadura

1

Visit Monfragüe and see the rugged landscapes, the many vultures and other birds.

Griffon Vulture

2

Follow the old tracks and trails through the mountains of La Vera and Villuercas.

Footpath in La Vera

3

Go birdwatching in the steppes of Cáceres or La Serena.

Great Bustards

4 Cork Oak dehesa

Explore the dehesa – the unique and birdrich oak groves of Extremadura.


highlights of extremadura

5

5

Explore one of the many river valleys, such as the Almonte, and discover a wealth of wildflowers, reptiles and amphibians.

Almonte river

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Go Crane watching in the winter time and be amazed at how green Extremadura can be.

Cranes

7

Visit one of the calcareous outcrops and enjoy the wealth of orchids and other wildflowers. Champagne Orchid

8

Visit the ancient cities of CĂĄceres, Trujillo, MĂŠrida or Guadalupe and marvel at the historic buildings and lively Extremaduran culture.

Trujillo by night


about this guide

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About this guide This guide is meant for all those who enjoy being in and learning about nature, whether you already know all about it or not. It is set up a little differently from most guides. We focus on explaining the natural and ecological features of an area rather than merely describing the site. We choose this approach because the nature of an area is more interesting, enjoyable and valuable when seen in the context of its complex relationships. The interplay of different species with each other and with their environment is astonishing. The clever tricks and gimmicks that are put to use to beat life’s challenges are as fascinating as they are countless. Take our namesake the Crossbill: at first glance it’s just a big finch with an awkward bill. But there is more to the Crossbill than meets the eye. This bill is beautifully adapted for life in coniferous forests. It is used like scissors to cut open pinecones and eat the seeds that are unobtainable for other birds. In the Scandinavian countries where Pine and Spruce take up the greater part of the forests, several Crossbill species have each managed to answer two of life’s most pressing questions: how to get food and avoid direct competition. By evolving crossed bills, each differing subtly, they have secured a monopoly of the seeds produced by cones of varying sizes. So complex is this relationship that scientists are still debating exactly how many different species of Crossbill actually exist. Now this should heighten the appreciation of what at first glance was merely a plumb red bird with a beak that doesn’t close properly. Once its interrelationships are seen, nature comes alive, wherever you are. To some, impressed by the “virtual” familiarity that television has granted to the wilderness of the Amazon, the vastness of the Serengeti or the sublimity of Yellowstone, European nature may seem a puny surrogate, good merely for the casual stroll. In short, the argument seems to be that if you haven’t seen a Jaguar, Lion or Grizzly Bear, then you haven’t seen the “real thing”. Nonsense, of course. But where to go? And how? What is there to see? That is where this guide comes in. We describe the how, the why, the when, the where and the how come of Europe’s most beautiful areas. In clear and accessible language, we explain the nature of Extremadura and refer extensively to routes where the area’s features can be observed best. We try to make Extremadura come alive. We hope that we succeed.


how to use this guide

How to use this guide This guidebook contains a descriptive and a practical section. The descriptive part comes first and gives you insight into the most striking and interesting natural features of the area. It provides an understanding of what you will see when you go out exploring. The descriptive part consists of a landscape section (marked with a red bar), describing the habitats, the history and the landscape in general, and of a flora and fauna section (marked with a green bar), which discusses the plants and animals that occur in the region. The second part offers the practical information (marked with a purple bar). A series of routes (walks and car drives) are carefully selected to give you a good flavour of all the habitats, flora and fauna that Extremadura has to offer. At the start of each route description, a number of icons give a quick overview of the characteristics of each route. These icons are explained in the margin of this page. The final part of the book (marked with blue squares) provides some basic tourist information and some tips on finding plants, birds and other animals. There is no need to read the book from cover to cover. Instead, each small chapter stands on its own and refers to the routes most suitable for viewing the particular features described in it. Conversely, descriptions of each route refer to the chapters that explain more in depth the most typical features that can be seen along the way. In the back of the guide we have included a list of all the mentioned plant and animal species, with their scientific names and translations into German and Dutch. Some species names have an asterix (*) following them. This indicates that there is no official English name for this species and that we have taken the liberty of coining one. We realise this will meet with some reservations by those who are familiar with scientific names. For the sake of readability however, we have decided to translate the scientific name, or, when this made no sense, we gave a name that best describes the species’ appearance or distribution. Please note that we do not want to claim these as the official names. We merely want to make the text easier to follow for those not familiar with scientific names. An overview of the area described in this book is given on the map on page 13. For your convenience we have also turned the inner side of the back flap into a map of the area indicating all the described routes. Descriptions in the explanatory text refer to these routes.

7 car route

walking route

beautiful scenery history

interesting flora interesting invertebrate life interesting reptile and amphibian life interesting birdlife visualising the ecological contexts described in this guide


table of contents

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Table of contents Landscape Geographical overview Geology Habitats Dehesa Streams, rivers and reservoirs Steppes Mediterranean evergreen forest The mountains History Nature conservation

11 12 16 18 19 33 39 46 52 58 66

Flora and Fauna Flora Mammals Birds Reptiles and amphibians Insects and other invertebrates

73 76 89 92 104 110

Practical Part Exploring Monfragüe National Park Route 1 Monfragüe NP round trip Route 2 The castle of Monfragüe Route 3 Cerro Gimio and the Malvecino stream Additional things to do in Monfragüe Exploring the plains and dehesas of Cáceres Route 4 The surroundings of Talaván Route 5 The plains between Trujillo and Cáceres Route 6 Los Barruecos Additional things to do in the plains of Cáceres Exploring central Extremadura Route 7 Around Alburquerque Route 8 The mountains of Montánchez Route 9 The wetlands near Mérida Route 10 Cornalvo Exploring La Serena Route 11 The vast steppes of La Serena Route 12 The castle and the mountains of Benquerencia

117 118 121 127 132 135 136 138 141 145 147 148 150 153 156 159 161 163 167


table of contents

Route 13 To the old mine and beyond Exploring Sierra de Las Villuercas Route 14 Touring the heart of Villuercas Route 15 The Viejas Valley Additional things to do in Las Villuercas Exploring La Vera and the Jerte Valley Route 16 Car trip through La Vera Route 17 Garganta de los Infiernos Other sites in and around Extremadura

Tourist information and observation tips Birdwatching list Acknowledgements Picture and illustration credits Species list and translation

169 171 173 178 181 182 184 187 191

List of text boxes Extremadura, what’s in a name The rocks of Monfragße The aesthetics of the dehesa A unique form of land use The cycle of the dehesa Products of the dehesa Birds and the puzzle of the original vegetation La Matanza Transhumance: forgotten practice, forgotten culture Nature versus the Environment Rockroses: a Mediterranean delight The oaks of Extremadura Orchid list Extremaduran specialities The lost family of the Azure-winged Magpie Reptiles and amphibians of Extremadura

193 200 206 207 208

12 17 22 25 26 30 50 59 64 70 81 85 88 92 97 107

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Landscape

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Paradise. That is the shortest description of Extremadura in spring. Old, majestic oaks in a rolling green carpet of pasture. Little lambs frolicking through endless orchards, their mothers standing knee-deep in wildflowers. In the pools, happy black pigs are up to their bellies in mud. Little ribbons of white flowers dangle from their snouts. A stork glides down to its nest on an old church, where it is greeted by its partner and the rest of the stork community, numbering a dozen or more. Welcome to Extremadura. Extremadura is a remote region in southwestern Spain, bordering Portugal. Its infertile soil kept Extremadura on the periphery of civilisation. For a long time, it was scorned by the Spanish and disregarded by the rest of the world. But this attitude has taken a 180-degree turn since eco-tourism became in vogue. And with good reason, for the region has great things in store for all sorts of travellers. If you enjoy birdwatching, Extremadura offers you skies filled with eagles and vultures, and steppes alive with Little and Great Bustards. If you love to search for beautiful wildflowers, the high number of Mediterranean species will dazzle you, especially in the mountains. In the endless orchards and along the flower-fringed streams you’ll find yourself in the Garden of Eden. Nearby rocky mountain slopes and merciless steppes show a beauty of a much more rugged kind. Remote regions invite you for a hike, and in the evening you can quietly enjoy a wonderful meal in an old plaza while watching the geckos hunt around the streetlights attached to medieval houses and palaces. Extremadura is a rollercoaster for every nature enthusiast, not only astonishing in its diversity but also in its genesis. If you have come to see a wilderness without a trace of human influence, you have chosen the wrong spot. The majority of Extremadura’s valuable natural areas evolved through the interaction between the land and its inhabitants. This makes the region into a must-see example of the way nature and culture can enhance each other. This nature guide will introduce you to the natural splendours of this beautiful region, explain the mechanisms behind them, and direct you to the best places to witness it all for yourself.

landscape

There are few landscapes as picturesque as the Extremaduran dehesa in spring.


introduction

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Extremadura, what’s in a name? Read the general introduction on the previous page, it is hard to believe that ‘Extrema-dura’ is Spanish for ‘extremely harsh’. While the name brings to mind images of cracked clay and barren mountains, we spoke of green pastures and rolling hills. People unfamiliar with the region but familiar with the meaning of its name are often utterly surprised when they see the green side of Extremadura. Expecting to enter a desert, they stumbled upon an oasis instead. The origin of the name ‘Extremadura’ is unknown, but it is unlikely that it refers to the harsh climate. The low-lying region is strongly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, and is thus more humid than many other parts in central and eastern Spain. The unfriendly name is more likely a reference to the soil, which is acidic and poor in nutrients: bad conditions for agriculture. The soil implies a hard life in the country. But then again, it might refer to something entirely different. ‘Extremadura’ might not mean ‘extremely hard’ at all. Another reading is that it is a corruption of ‘Extremo Duero’, meaning the extreme (or other side) of the Duero, a river north of Extremadura. Currently, this is the most accepted explanation of the word. Shepherds came from the north and took the sheep to ‘los extremos del Duero’, the other side of the River Duero, to find pasture in the winter, when in the north all was withered and frozen.

Geographical overview

The three faces of Extremadura: Holm Oak dehesa near Torrejón el Rubio (top), steppe in La Serena (centre), and the mountains in Sierra de Las Villuercas (bottom).

Extremadura is an autonomous region in southwestern Spain, bordering Andalusia to the south, Castilla-León in the north and Castilla-La Mancha in the east. On Extremadura’s western border lies Portugal. Geologically, Extremadura is part of the great Iberian plateau or Meseta. The plateau consists of a northern and southern Meseta, which are divided by a large mountain range, the Sistema Central. These mountains, often referred to as ‘the backbone of Spain’ form the northern border of Extremadura. The highest mountains are the Sierra de Gredos, just west of Extremaduran territory. The Almanzor peak reaches 2,592 m. The Extremaduran part of the Gredos mountains is known as La Vera (page 182), which still reaches altitudes in excess of 2,000 metres. Further west, lie Las Hurdes and Sierra de Gata, with peaks rising up to 1,400 metres. The southern Meseta is divided into two by the Sierra de Guadalupe –

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geographical overview

Sierra de Toledo range, of which the Villuercas (see page 171) are a part. The Sierra de las Villuercas, with peaks just reaching 1,700 metres, forms the eastern border of Extremadura, and effectively places the region on the western part of the southern Meseta. With altitudes around 400 metres, the plains of Extremadura are much lower than those further east and north, giving rise to a climate, flora and fauna with a distinct Mediterranean-Atlantic character (sometimes referred to as the Lusitanian region; see page 74). Extremadura is a large region of 41,602 km2, roughly the size of Switzerland. It is, with little over one million inhabitants, only sparsely populated. Nevertheless, one could qualify Extremadura as an urban society. Nearly all Extreme単os, as the residents of Extremadura are called, live in very compact villages and towns, leaving large regions uninhabited, except from a loose scatter of farmsteads, called fincas. Villages can be over 30 km apart. The in-between areas take the form of empty steppes, vast dehesas (oak orchards, see page 19) and rough mountain ranges.

landscape

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geographical overview

14

The autonomous region of Extremadura consists of two provinces: Badajóz in the south and Cáceres in the north. In both provinces, there are large areas with great natural beauty, although Cáceres is the most visited. For this reason, we decided not to make a guide that sends you off to all the remote corners of the region. Instead, we narrowed the area down to what we believe are the most beautiful areas with the most special flora and fauna. In total we describe 6 regions in detail: Monfragüe National Park (page 118), Plains and dehesas of Cáceres (page 136), Central Extremadura (page 148), La Serena (page 161), Sierra de las Villuercas (page 171) and La Vera and Valle de Jerte (page 182). The beating heart of Extremadura (from a naturalist’s point of view) is Monfragüe National Park (routes 1, 2 and 3) between the towns of Plasencia, Cáceres and Trujillo. Monfragüe is also labelled a ‘Biosphere Reserve’. It comprises a small and rocky mountain range along the Tagus river. The village just south of the Park, Torrejón el Rubio, has always been the most favoured point of departure for a visit to Monfragüe, but recently the picturesque hamlet of Villarreal de San Carlos has opened some rural lodges as well. Villarreal is the only settlement within the National Park. Monfragüe lies like a rocky island in a sea of Mediterranean dehesa (see page 19). The dehesas stretch out in all directions for kilometres on end (routes 1, 4 and 5). Towards the north they merge with the foothills of the Sistema Central. This region is known as La Vera (routes 16 and 17). Towards the southeast the dehesas give way to the Sierra de las Villuercas (routes 14 and 15), another mountainous area, larger and more rugged than Monfragüe. South and west of Monfragüe, the plains with dehesas are broken by large areas of steppe. These plains are known as the Llanos de Cáceres (route 4, 5 and 6). Cáceres and Trujillo are the major towns in this area. South of Cáceres lies a long, east-west mountain range, which separates the province of Cáceres with that of Badajóz. The western part of these mountains are known as the Sierra de San Pedro (route 7) and the east the Sierra de Montánchez (route 8). This whole region is a remote and underpopulated area with Holm and Cork Oak dehesas and has a birdlife similar to that of Monfragüe. South of this range lies the fertile plain of the Guadiana river, with Extremadura’s capital Mérida (route 9) and its largest city, Badajóz. Following the river upstream to the east, it again enters an area of poor soils and vast steppes, known as La Serena, which is Extremadura’s prime steppe area.

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geographical map

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Embalse de Gabriel y Galán

jerte

La Vera

EX203

A66

ar

Tiét

plasencia

La Vera Map on p. 182

Alogón

A1

navalmoral

Monfragüe talaván

Al

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P l a i n s of Cáceres

cáceres

Tajo

torrejón el rubio

A5

EX208

jaraicejo

Monfragüe Map on p. 118

A58

Sierra de Las Villuercas

trujillo

guadelupe

Plains of Cáceres Map on p. 136

Si

er

Sierra de las Villuercas Map on p. 171

ra

de

montánchez

Sa

nP ed

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Guadiana

badajóz

mérida Central Extremadura Map on p. 148

villanueva don benito

Embalse de la Serena

La Serena

Embalse de Alange A66

cabeza del buey

castuera

La Serena Map on p. 161

N

mountains dehesas

extremadura

steppes 0

10

other 20

madrid

30

km

landscape

Overview of Extremadura


habitats

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Habitats Oscar Wilde once said, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Unravelling this mystery, or trying to do so, is a fascinating pastime, to say the least. To get anywhere near an understanding of the visible natural world – in this case of Extremadura – you will need a concept as a framework into which you can place what you see around you. For a biologist such a concept is that of a ‘habitat’.

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A habitat is best defined as a tight interaction between plants, animals, soil and climate in a given area. The latter two form a landscape where a specific set of plants and animals feel at home. Habitats are the cornerstone of the way a biologist looks at a landscape and understands it. It is an extremely useful tool, not only for experts, but also for first-time visitors. Without this tool the occurrence of plants and animals seems a matter of chance, and the presence of patterns and structures in the landscape remains unexplained or even unnoticed. But if you look at

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Schematic crosssection of the habitats of Extremadura, from the mountains of La Vera in the north (page 182) to the steppes of Cáceres in the south (page 141).


habitats

a landscape in terms of habitats you will get an understanding of that landscape and of the challenges, curses and blessings it brings to its inhabitants. The behaviour of birds, the shape of flowers, the colour of leaves and even the smell of the landscape can be understood when seen in the context of habitats and habitat adaptations. Of course this brings up a truckload of new questions. The fascinating thing about unravelling Oscar Wilde’s mystery is that it makes a lot more visible. That is, it enables you to find plants and animals and to discover principles and processes that would otherwise have remained hidden to you. With all of this in mind, this guidebook has been organised around the habitats of Extremadura. The routes we suggest to you have been carefully chosen to give the best possible introduction to all the habitats in the region, thereby optimising your chances of seeing all the plants and animals.

Dehesa Extensive Holm Oak dehesas are part of the landscape of routes 1, 4, 5, 7, 10 and 14. Old Cork Oak dehesas feature on routes 1, 7, 10 and 14.

Pick any road or track around the Monfragüe National Park. Go from Torrejón to Serradilla. Or to Monroy. Or to Jaraicejo. Gnarled oak stems curl out from behind ancient stone walls, fringed with Foxgloves and Asphodels. Above the gentle breeze you hear Hoopoes calling and Thekla Larks singing from several directions. A squadron of Griffon Vultures glide by, directly followed by a Short-toed Eagle. This is not an exaggeration, but a real image of the dehesas of Extremadura: a paradise for nature enthusiasts.

What are dehesas?

The gently rolling, tree-dotted hills and plains of Extremadura are called dehesas. They undoubtedly form the most typical, and special, landscape of Extremadura and never fail to impress the visitor. That said, the dehesa landscape is hard to define. There are no good comparisons with better known landscapes that really catch the essence of the dehesa. Sometimes they are called Mediterranean forests, but that is not quite right. There are but few dehesas that are so densely covered with trees that they really resemble a forest.

landscape

19


dehesa

20

In more scientific circles they are referred to as Mediterranean savannah, which comes closer. However, this is still not quite satisfactory, because the vast majority of dehesas are not as spacious and open as the only savannah that is familiar to all of us, the African savannah. However, many dehesas are rather more lush and colourful than the African savannah, so convey a more secluded feel. We think dehesas are better compared to parklands. If asked for a one-sentence definition of a dehesa, it would be that the dehesa is a huge, never-ending evergreen oak parkland with scrubby pasture or crops.

The dehesa, a rolling parkland with evergreen oaks, is Extramdura’s most typical landscape.

Dehesas in Extremadura consist predominantly of Holm Oak, which is replaced by Cork Oak on the richer, more humid soils at the base of the mountains. Occasionally, you can also encounter dehesas consisting of Lusitanian and Pyrenean Oaks and, more rarely, Narrow-leaved Ash as well. These oddly orchard-like stands of oak cover about a fourth of the land of Extremadura, but are rare outside the region except in adjacent Andalusia and Portugal. Extremadura holds about 50% of the world’s dehesas and is therefore called the ‘heartland’ of the dehesa.

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dehesa

The perfect man-nature hybrid

Dehesas are not a natural landscape in the sense of being free from human influence. On the contrary, they are a man-made landscape: moulded, modelled, reshaped and touched up over centuries of hard country life. The change from the original forest cover to the more open dehesa happened slowly and long ago (see page 58). Since then, changes have been relatively minor. Of course the dehesa has seen many shifts in landowner regime, increases and decreases in livestock densities and so on, but these hardly compare to the transition agriculture went through in central Europe. The Extremaduran soil simply cannot support intensive agriculture – it is too thin (Although socio-economic changes in the second half of the 20th century did change the face of the dehesa; see page 63). As a result, management of the dehesas leaves natural processes a prominent role. During the

landscape

21

Dehesas come in many different forms, such as Holm Oaks in cereal fields (top) and Cork Oaks over scrubland, in this case French Lavender (bottom).


dehesa

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The aesthetics of the dehesa For the sake of nature conservation, Extremadura has been extensively researched. But the investigations have concerned more than nature alone. Believe it or not, you, dear visitor, have been put under the microscope as well — and the results are interesting indeed. The aesthetic perception of landscapes has become a considerable subject of psychological research. The research identifies which landscapes are generally considered beautiful and attempts to explain the underlying reasons. In this context the dehesa not only entered the beauty pageant, but more or less became Miss Landscape. Environmental psychologists have studied people’s perception of landscapes and discovered that the dehesas are aesthetically ‘perfectly correct’. They exhibit many aspects of the ideal, pastoral landscape and score high on four accounts: their visual depth, their naturalness, their moderate complexity and the presence of water. Depth in a landscape is a proven winner. In numerous tests, research participants have been shown a variety of open and closed landscapes, ranging from endless flat fields to dense walls of vegetation. The landscapes with depth of view, a pretty foreground and a good view into the distance, invariably came out first. The apparent naturalness of the landscape is a very interesting factor in aesthetic appreciation. Natural landscapes are perceived as more beautiful than man-made landscapes, regardless of whether they really are natural or not. In several research projects, respondents have been asked to rate natural and planted forest landscapes on the basis of a number of photographs. They were informed in advance about the type of landscape shown to them. Almost invariably, the natural ones were much more highly valued. A next group of participants was asked the same question, only this time the managed forest was said to be natural and the natural said to be managed (one of those nasty tricks of psychologists). This time the group preferred what they thought was natural even though it was actually the managed forest. This test shows that it is much more the idea of naturalness than naturalness itself that influences nature appreciation. Dehesas appear to be natural, even though they are in fact an agricultural landscape. Another factor influencing appreciation is complexity. A landscape shouldn’t be so complex that it is difficult to grasp, but also not so empty that it becomes boring. Beautiful landscapes are often thought to be the most ecologically valuable. And therein lies the problem that makes the psychological journey into landscape aesthetics so interesting: is nature conservation a question of preserving

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dehesa

what we consider the most beautiful nature or that which is most ecologically valuable? The first nature reserves protected wild and dramatic landscapes, featuring sheer cliffs, exciting wildlife and bursting waterfalls. The advocates of nature conservation could therefore count on a broad public support. But when conservation became more technical and started to focus on more mundane

23

landscapes with high ecological values, things became more difficult. Suddenly the link between the beautiful and the ecologically valuable was less evident. Hence, an interesting question arose, namely whether such a link between scenic beauty and ecological value really exists. Fortunately, the outcome of the research has not shown an evident clash between the two approaches. Water-rich areas are often of great importance for nature as well as creating beautiful landscapes. Structure-rich landscapes offer homes to many plants and animals. Landscapes that appear natural or harmonious are usually rich in species. And so on. Landscape aesthetics doesn’t have all the answers. There are so many other reasons why landscapes can be beautiful and many of them are very personal or specific to a certain group of people. So, getting back to you again, dear reader, there is nothing wrong with you if you prefer the empty, ploughed fields over the softer and friendlier dehesas. But then, since you are in Extremadura, home of the dehesa, you might have a problem...

The most beautiful dehesas offer a deep and panoramic view, whilst retaining a feeling of seclusion, and a natural appearance, despite their man made origins. The flowerrich pasture, in this case Spanish White Broom, is a particular feature of the dehesa.

landscape


dehesa

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gradual conversion to dehesa, nature was able to develop according to the changes in the landscape, adapting itself to new lifestyles, with species that exist in harmony with traditional human practise. Today, the dehesas support a number of very rare and endangered animals, such as the Spanish Imperial Eagle and Black Vulture, as well as numerous others that are becoming increasingly rare in other areas in Europe.

How do dehesas work?

Vultures have almost completely devoured this cow. Only the bones and skin remain, now dry and mummified in the summer sun.

The dehesa ecosystem revolves around the establishment and disappearance of pasture. If you were to photograph a single dehesa over the years, you would see it change from a loosely planted cereal field into a pasture and then into scrubland (see illustration on page 27). The traditional system of land use is simple. Grain is sown every four to seven years with barley, wheat and – on very poor soils – oats as the dominant crops. They serve primarily as animal fodder. The thin layer of soil can produce only one harvest, then it is exhausted, turned to pasture and left to recover. Occasionally the land is sown with Yellow Lupin or clovers to enrich the soil. After that, the sheep, cattle and pigs invade the now fallow land. Via the wool and droppings of grazing sheep, plant seeds also arrive, much to the satisfaction of the farmer, who doesn’t have to worry about sowing the fields anew. The wind also lends a hand in the spreading of plant seeds. But the livestock does not only bring grasses and edible herbs with them.

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dehesa

A unique form of land use

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One hardly ever notices it, but a very traditional approach to land use has silently disappeared from the scene of Europe’s countryside: agro-forestry, the marriage of forest and farmer, animal and acorn, cattle and coppice. Today, except in a few nature reserves, forestry is strictly separated from husbandry. Forestry takes place in plantations and forests, husbandry on the pastures. But this was not always the case. In the middle ages cattle often grazed in open, park-like forests. The German word Hudewald translates into ‘tending-forest’ and refers to a forest that was used to feed cattle and to provide fodder, charcoal and wood. In the New Forest in southern England the locals, known as the commoners, are still allowed to give their cattle, ponies, and pigs free range in the open forest. The timber was reserved for the Crown. These forests look quite a bit like dehesas, with grasslands between groups of trees and bushes. Indeed, dehesas also provide both pasture for grazing cattle and timber products such as cork, firewood, acorns and charcoal (see text box on page 30 for further detail). The Extremaduran dehesas are a fine specimen of the open-air museum of agricultural practice, forming one of the last agro-forestry systems that is still up and running. But there is more to it. Strictly speaking, the dehesas are an agro-sylvopastoral landscape. They involve a third form of land use, the growing of cereal crops. As such, the dehesa is one of a kind, the only landscape in Europe that combines three forms of land use in one space. The significance to nature of this triple land-use agriculture is summarised in the figure on page 27 Thus, even if stripped of its scenic value and its rich flora and fauna, the dehesa would remain of interest for its unique form of agriculture.

landscape

The Black Vulture is common in many parts of Extremadura.


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Shrubs such as French Lavender, Spiny Greenweed* (Genista hirsuta) and Gum Cistus invade the pasture. And of course Holm and Cork Oaks germinate from the plentiful acorns. Gradually the dehesa starts to become trees-over-scrub instead of trees-over-pasture, until the farmer intervenes. He cuts or burns the entire undergrowth, ploughs the ground and sows grain anew. Thus, the dehesa shows a continuously shifting pattern of different stages of fallow land, pasture, scrubland and grain fields. Each stage attracts its own flora and fauna. Cereal-planted dehesas have Quails and Corn Buntings, open, fallow dehesas support Little Bustards, Stone Curlews and the reptiles of open land. The shrubby dehesas form perches for Woodchat Shrikes and Dartford Warblers. Now, if you adopt a bird’s eye view to examine the dehesa landscape as a whole, instead of a single plot, you see a patchwork of shifting cultivation. The dehesa landscape shows a continuously changing pattern of fields, pastures and scrublands underneath the open canopy of evergreen oaks. Every plot of dehesa is in a different stage in this cycle. The dehesas over poor soils take six or seven years to complete the cycle, whilst the more fertile ones are back to barley again within three to four years. In this continuously changing system, the trees, rocks and pool sides form a constant factor. They are not ploughed and thus remain rough patches regardless of the state of the surrounding dehesa. During the periods of the dehesa life cycle that are more unfavourable to wildlife, The cycle of the dehesa The cycle of the dehesa – Once every six to ten years cereals are planted in the dehesa. In years that follow, the land is left fallow and sheep and cattle graze the pasture. Gradually, the dehesa is invaded with scrub, until it is clear and cereals are sown again. Rocky patches and river valleys escape the cycle and function as a retreat for plants and animals. Each stage of the cycle supports its own flora and fauna (e.g. Quail in the cereals, Black-eared Wheatear in the open pasture, Dartford Warbler in low scrub and Woodchat Shrike in tall scrub). The cycle of the dehesa sets the pace for a unique and varied ecosystem. The agricultural developments of recent decades has made it increasingly difficult for farmers to maintain the dehesa cycles, making it an ecosystem in distress.

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Dehesa with pasture

Dehesa with cereal cultivation

Dehesa with pasture and low scrub

Dehesa with scrubland

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these spots function as a refuge for smaller and less mobile animals, such as lizards and insects. Unfortunately, the dehesa cycle is under pressure. The cereal plots are disappearing from the scene. Today’s estimate is that only 10% of the dehesa is still regularly ploughed and planted. Some dehesas are abandoned altogether and get overgrown with a thick scrub of Gum Cistus. Conversely, other dehesas are severely overgrazed by herds that are bigger than the vegetation can sustain (see pages 66-67). By and large, however, the dehesa is still maintained and functions in the traditional way.

Flora and fauna of the dehesa

The result of this joint enterprise between man and nature is impressive. The flora and fauna of the dehesas are extremely rich. The birdlife is probably richer than that of the steppes and also outranks that of the Mediterranean evergreen forest. Within the dehesas, species proper to steppes, forest, small-scale agriculture land and scrublands meet. Forest birds like Chaffinches and Great Tits can be found

The flowery pasture of the dehesa (top) harbours a rich fauna. One fairly common animal here is the Hooded Praying Mantis* (Empusa pennata; bottom).

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alongside scrubland species like Sardinian Warblers and open land species like Corn Buntings and Stone Curlews. However, the true dehesa birds are those that favour small scale agriculture landscapes with lots of seeds and insects. Old stonewalls, derelict sheds, patches of Gum Cistus scrub and the old trees create a highly diverse landscape. Add to this the warm climate, and it should come as no surprise that the numbers of reptiles and insects are very high. The insects are a principal food source for the Thekla Larks, Woodlarks, Hoopoes, Woodchat Shrikes and Azure-winged Magpies. Little Owls also take reptiles. Not surprisingly, all these species reach very high densities in the dehesas of Extremadura. Most raptors are more associated with the rocky crests of Monfragße and the other mountain ranges in Extremadura. However, their numbers would never be so high if it wasn’t for the dehesa (and the steppes). Booted, Short-toed and Spanish Imperial Eagles hunt over the dehesas and steppes in exceptional numbers. The high densities of vultures are, in large part, also the product of the vast areas of dehesas and steppes. These are the prime grazing grounds of Extremadura, and in these endless plains and hills a sheep or cow easily comes to grief. The combination of a juicy twig, an unstable escarpment and a ravine will do the trick. An unfortunate rest on a scorpion’s den in combination with old age or a disease will do as well. While there are countless ways to leave this world, animal flesh in Extremadura has but one: through the stomach of a vulture.

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The Pink Catchfly* (Silene colorata; top) is a common dehesa flower. During the day the petals shrivel (centre) to avoid evaporation. The Spiny Greenweed* (Genista hirsuta; bottom) is a frequent dehesa shrub.


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Products of the dehesa In comparison to central European agriculture the dehesas are unique, because they do not yield a single crop, but produce a whole package instead: grazing ground for cattle, forestry products such as cork and charcoal, fodder, barley, honey, as well as game and birds to hunt. Here is a short description of the broad array of products and services from the dehesa. Pasture and grain fields: food for livestock The prime product of the dehesa is the pasture it provides for sheep, cattle, pigs and game. The pasture is hardly comparable to central European grasslands: less green, much scantier and much less productive. The number of plant species, however, is much larger and includes several grasses, medicks, daisies and hawksbeards. Still, the extensive land of Extremadura supports a good number of grazers. At present, there can be up to 4 sheep per hectare, which are few in comparison to central Europe, but too many for the dehesas, which had an average of 1.5 sheep per hectare 60 years ago. The pasture only provides food in the winter months. In summer the cattle are either herded away during the transhumance (text box on page 64) or fed with supplements, such as the fodder from the grain fields.

Holm Oaks play a vital role in dehesa agriculture. One of their many functions is to provide shade.

Trees: climate and soil regulation The trees provide a whole series of services and products. Very important in the Mediterranean climate is that they provide shade for the animals. When hiding under the canopy, the sheep droppings add nourishment to the pasture and to the tree itself. Another important service is slowing down erosion. Rain in Extremadura often comes in the form of fierce deluges. Without a strong canopy to block the force, the sudden downpour would eat away the thin layer of fertile soil and flush it down into the streams and rivers. The broad canopies block the rain and let it through at a gentler pace. The extensive root system fixes the soil and pumps up nutrients from the underground, making them available for other plants and animals as well.

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The rain may be less fierce under the canopy, but it continues for a longer period of time. Long after the sun has chased away the clouds, the water still drips from the leaves. By spreading out the duration of the actual fall of water, trees enable the ground to take up more of it. In summer, the oak leaves capture the early morning moisture from the air. In the afternoon they effectively seal off the leaves to prevent evaporation. So all in all the trees increase the humidity and the fertility of the land. Trees: acorns, cork, fodder, wood The holm and cork oaks also provide a product directly, namely acorns. Holm Oak acorns are edible, have a sweet taste and are considered a delicacy by some. In the past, people also used them to make flour for baking bread. Today, acorns are primarily used as food for pigs. The famous Pata Negra ham comes from the black acorn-fed pigs of Extremadura (Pata Negra means black leg). The crowns of the oak trees are pollarded (thinned) in such a way that the crown becomes very broad and produces many acorns (In this shape it also performs optimally as a soil and climate regulator). Cork Oak acorns are of lesser quality, but the oak itself is in obvious demand for its cork. Cork is an ancient product, used long before it became the favourite stopper for wine bottles. Its capacity to float on water was much praised. Cork was turned into floats for anglers and fishing nets and as floatation aids to prevent children from drowning. Cork was also converted into tiles and used as insulation for roofs and footwear. Cork Oaks are larger than Holm Oaks and are important nesting trees for Black Vultures and Spanish Imperial Eagles. In economic terms, Cork Oak dehesas lean heavily upon cork production, which is an extra incentive to uncork that next bottle of wine (and not buy screwtop bottles). The wood of the oaks is usually not used as timber, because their branches are too small and too gnarled. However, leaves are used as fodder and wood is used for cooking and heating. Livestock: Pigs, sheep, goats and cattle The Spanish love pork. There is no part of the pig that cannot be used and almost no part that cannot be eaten. Among the hams from Extremadura are the famous air-dried Jam贸n Serrano and the prize-winning Jam贸n Ib茅rico, to which belongs the Pata Negra. The latter receives its taste from the acorns of the Holm Oak on which the pigs feed. The quality of the ham is categorised by the drying and salting process and by the time the pig spent feeding on acorns. The Iberian ham is the most exquisite dehesa product, except maybe for the Merino wool.

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The best routes to see vultures, eagles and other birds, are routes 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. Dehesa birds are present in large numbers on routes 1, 4, 5, 10, 14 and the sites given on page 147. Bird-rich wetlands feature on routes 1 and 9. Explore the birdlife of the steppes on route 4, 5 and sites C and E on page 147, but better still is La Serena (routes 11 and 13). Birds of cliffs and rock slopes are best found on routes 1, 2, 7, 14 and 15. A comprehensive list with the best sites for each bird species is given on page 200.

Spotless Starlings, endemic to NorthAfrica and the Iberian Peninsula, are common in the dehesas and villages of Extremadura.

In a poll for the most popular birdwatching destination in Europe, Extremadura would be a hot favourite to win. There will not be many “serious” birders who haven’t either visited Extremadura or dreamt of doing so. And rightly so, for Extremadura combines a large diversity of bird species – many of which very striking whilst others are rare or

Extremaduran specialities Azure-winged Magpie Endemic to the centre and southwest of the Iberian Peninsula Black-winged Kite Within Europe, only in southwestern Iberia Spanish Imperial Eagle Endemic to the southwest of the Iberian peninsula Great Bustard Largest European populations in Iberia, of which large populations in Extremadura Little Bustard Within Europe, only in France and Iberia; significant populations in Extremadura Pin-tailed Sandgrouse Within Europe, only in France and Iberia; large numbers in Extremadura Black-bellied Sandgrouse Within Europe, only in Iberia; large numbers in Extremadura Lesser Kestrel Threatened Largest European populations in Extremadura and Andalusia Black Vulture Rare everywhere except Extremadura, with largest densities in the world Griffon Vulture Very conspicuous bird with very large numbers in Extremadura Black Stork Outside Eastern Europe, (almost) only in Extremadura, where large numbers occur White Stork Very conspicuous and numerous bird White-rumped Swift African species occurring only in Extremadura and Andalusia Spotless Starling Within Europe, only in Iberia Iberian Grey Shrike Endemic to Iberia and southern France

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absent elsewhere in Europe – plus a bird density that is not equalled by many other regions. The sheer numbers of raptors, birds of steppes and of small-scale arable land are simply unsurpassed by any region in Europe.

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Vultures

Regardless the rarities and Iberian specialities Extremadura has to offer, the one bird that never fails to impress because of its great size and large numbers is the Griffon Vulture. Granted, over much of Spain, these magnificent flyers are a frequent sight, but the sheer numbers in which they inhabit the rocky sierras of Extremadura is something special. Monfragüe National Park alone supports over 500 pairs, and most, if not all, other mountain ranges in the region have their own colonies. The endangered Black Vulture breeds with more than 200 pairs in Monfragüe alone. It is even bigger than the Griffon. With a wingspan of nearly three metres, they are the world’s largest birds of prey, apart from the American condors. Black Vultures breed on large tree crowns with nests scattered over the more remote and densely-wooded parts of the province, such as Monfragüe, Sierra de San Pedro and Sierra Morena in the south. The Black Vulture is growing in numbers again, after decades of decline. Extremadura and nearby areas were, together with a small area in north-east Greece, once the last stronghold for this impressive bird. However, over the last 20 years, the population has increased and spread due to a combination of better protection and reintroduction projects in other areas in Europe. The third vulture is the much smaller and rarer Egyptian Vulture. Still it is not at all an uncommon bird in the region, breeding in isolated pairs in rock ledges throughout the region. The reason for the large numbers of vultures lies both in the land use and in the geology of Extremadura. The vast plains are the perfect scavenging ground, whereas the many mountain ranges and undisturbed woodlands

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The Griffon Vulture has a wingspan of up to 280 cm and is after the Black Vulture the biggest raptor of Extremadura.


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offer plenty of nesting sites. The ability to cruise for more than a hundred kilometres from the nesting site enables them to exploit a vast area in which to find carcasses.

Other birds of prey

Monfragüe and Sierra de San Pedro support some of the world’s largest populations of Black Vultures.

Vultures are not the only scavangers. Black and Red Kites too, prefer the easy meal over the hassle of catching live food. Kites often go for the roadkill, sometimes giving spectacular shows as they swoop down to the tarmac. Red Kites are numerous in winter, when a large part of the central European population moves south to flee the cold and lack of prey. From March onwards, most Red Kites disappear and are replaced by thousands of Black Kites. During spring and summer the Black Kite is the most numerous raptor in Extremadura, vastly outnumbering the ‘common’ Buzzard, which is not very frequent. There are five species of eagle in Extremadura. Booted and the Short-toed Eagles are widespread in the dehesas and steppes. The beautiful and endangered Spanish Imperial Eagle is endemic to the central and southwestern part of the peninsula and one of Extremadura’s star birds. Centuries of persecution made it rare and the subsequent outbreak of myxomatosis, a deadly disease that wreaked havoc amongst the eagle’s main prey, Rabbits, nearly brought it to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, the population has restored itself somewhat and

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numbers of breeding birds are gradually growing again. The Spanish Imperial Eagle is a typical dehesa bird, breeding, like the Black Vulture, on well developed tree crowns (and more and more on pylons). The Bonelli’s Eagle is a species of rocky sierras, where it breeds on remote ledges. It is rare overall, declining and so usually the most difficult of the Extremaduran eagles to spot. The Golden Eagle too, is rather thinly spread. It is most frequent in the mountains, but breeds just as happily in the lowlands, as demonstrated by the pair in the steppes in Talaván (route 4). Another bird many people come to search for is the Black-winged Kite. This feisty small raptor is an active and agile hunter, feeding mostly on rodents. It is originally from Africa, but spread into Iberia in the middle of the 20th century. The first records were from Portugal. Breeding was proven in Spain in 1975 where it is now a widespread bird. Extremadura was one of the first areas to be colonised. Here it is associated with cereal plots and scattered trees and bushes. It hovers frequently and often perches on wires, but, despite this conspicuous behaviour, it can remain elusive. A roughly similar habitat is preferred by Montagu’s Harriers – grain fields and steppes. Montagu’s Harriers have declined almost everywhere in Europe, including Extremadura, but here, the numbers are still fairly high. The rare all-black form is more common (3-5% of the total population) in Spain than anywhere else in Europe. Another avian highlight of Extremadura is the Lesser Kestrel. This handsome little falcon breeds in loose colonies in old buildings. It is rare throughout Europe except in central and southern Spain, where is has sizable colonies in most cities and villages (e.g. Trujillo, Cáceres, Guadalupe, Cabeza del Buey). It is one of the group of birds that feeds on large insects and small lizards (like White Stork, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Roller, Woodchat Shrike, Iberian Grey Shrike, Hoopoe), which does so well in Extremadura. Breeding raptors of Extremadura Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard (mountains only), Red Kite, Black Kite, Black-winged Kite, Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Common Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon

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Woodchat Shrike (top) and Bee-eater (bottom) are two common and colourful birds of the dehesa.

Dehesa and woodland birds

Paradoxically, because Extremaduran soils are poor in nutrients, they offer plenty of food for birds. The rocky, shallow soil is not very suitable for growing crop, and precisely because of that there is a lot of rough scrub, different species of grasses and wildflowers that provide seeds and nourishment for insects. And this is the food for the birds of the dehesa and steppes. Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Great Spotted Cuckoos and Woodchat Shrikes are all present in numbers that are unprecedented elsewhere in Europe. Another bird, the Azure-winged Magpie (see box on opposite page), is also largely restricted to the dehesa and similar open, orchard-like terrain. Other typical birds of dehesas are Woodlark, Thekla Lark, Orphean Warbler and Cirl Bunting, although the latter two are not very common. Shrubby areas in the dehesa, often near streams, are frequented by Dartford and Sardinian Warblers. Where dehesas become denser and take on the form of a Mediterranean forest, woodland species, more associated with central Europe, become more frequent: Chaffinch, Hawfinch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Nuthatch, tits and woodpeckers. This may not be the group of birds for which you’ve come all the way down to Extremadura, but they certainly add to the avian diversity of this extraordinary landscape. Just as there is not a clear division between dehesa and forest, neither is there regarding the more open vegetation types. More open dehesas support Little Bustards and Stone Curlews, and lean towards being steppes. Typical and conspicuous dehesa birds Bee-eater, Cirl Bunting, Short-toed Eagle, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Hoopoe, Thekla Lark, Woodlark, Azure-winged Magpie, Red-necked Nightjar, Little Owl, Scops Owl, Red-legged Partridge, Woodchat Shrike, Serin, Spanish Sparrow, White Stork, Red-rumped Swallow, Short-toed Treecreeper, Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Orphean Warbler, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Black Kite, Red Kite, Booted Eagle

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97 The lost family of the Azure-winged Magpie There is something strange about the Azure-winged Magpie. Within Europe, it is only found in the southwestern part of Iberia, and here it is restricted to dehesas and other open forests. In Extremadura and parts of Andalusia and Portugal it is common, but that’s it. Nowhere else in Europe will you see anything like this engaging and clever bird, and nowhere else in the world except… eastern Asia. Walk around in a city park in Beijing and there it is again – a little more drab-coloured, but that is more likely due to dust and exhaust fumes than to anything else. Iberia and then again East Asia. How is that possible? There were two explanations for this strange disjunctive distribution. The first was that the Azure-winged Magpie once lived throughout Europe and Asia, but for some reason disappeared everywhere except in the far eastern and the far western parts of its range. The second explanation is that the Azure-winged Magpie was brought from China by Portuguese travellers. Molecular biology has provided an answer to this problem. A research group compared DNA from the Spanish and Chinese birds and it turned out that they were very different. So different, in fact, that the two populations are now officially considered two different species. As some parts of the DNA evolve at a known rate, it provides a ‘molecular clock’ allowing an estimate of when the two populations separated: some 50,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene. In other words, quite a bit before the Portuguese sailed back and forth between China and Portugal. Final confirmation came in 2000 when fossilised remains of this species, discovered in Gibraltar amongst the remains of Neanderthal man and his tools, were scientifically dated to over 40,000 years ago. The Pleistocene period is well-known for its ice ages, which rudely shoved all life southwards. In the glacial ice age the climate was especially harsh. In its coldest period, the land ice reached all the way down to central Europe. The only areas in Europe and Asia that maintained a tolerable climate were the extreme southwest and the extreme southeast: roughly the areas which correspond with the present distribution of the Azure-winged Magpie.

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Azure-winged Magpie – an attractive bird whose unique distribution is a testament to how speciation occurs.


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Birds of riversides and wetlands

The rivers and streams of Extremadura are hotspots for birds. Depending on the slopes and riverside vegetation, there can be a good variety of species. Gentle slopes with Holm Oaks and bushes support a birdlife reminiscent of that of the dehesa and scrubland, with lots of warblers, Cirl Butings and other typical dehesa birds. Bee-eaters and Rock Sparrows, although not exclusive to river sides, reach the highest densities in slopes close to streaming water. Along more gently flowing streams, where trees and bushes grow that require a more permanent water supply (e.g. brambles, Narrow-leaved Ash), the loud and exuberant songs of Rufous Nightingale and Cetti’s Warbler are frequently heard (the latter is called Ruisenor bastardo - bastard nightingale in Spanish).Along the streams themselves, Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper are frequent, joined by Kingfisher in places where there is sufficient water. Extremadura is not traditionally a great spot for watching wetland birds. The lack of shallow, well-vegetated waterbodies, made them very rare. Only along the gentle Guadiana river there were breeding colonies of herons and reedy shores with chanting Great Reed Warblers. However, the creation of the reservoir in the 20th century (see history section) created, besides numerous deep and lifeless lakes, accidentally a few reservoirs with muddy and reedy shores (see routes 1, 4 and 9) and these are teeming with birds. Various egrets and herons have established small but stable populations and even the impressive Purple Galinule colonised the region about two decades ago. Other reservoirs have small sandy islands, with breeding Black-winged Stilts, Little and Gull-billed Terns and Collared Pratincole. Even though there are larger and much more important wetlands in Spain (e.g. Coto Doñana just south of Extremadura), the presence of these Birds of riversides Grey Heron, Black Stork, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Bee-eater, Cetti’s Warbler, Rufous Nightingale, Rock Sparrow, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail Birds of wetlands with reedy vegetation Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Cormorant, Little Bittern, Night Heron, Purple Heron, Little Egret, Marsh Harrier, Purple Galinule, Fan-tailed Wabler, Savi’s Warbler, Great Reed Warbler Birds of reservoirs with muddy shores Collared Pratincole, Little Tern, Gullbilled Tern, Black-winged Stilt

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small sites is a great contribution to the diversity of birds in Extremadura, not to mention an excellent opportunity to see some magnificent species.

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Steppe birds

The typical birdlife of the arid plains of Extremadura is yet another big draw for birdwatchers. Spain is, within Europe, the best place to find steppe birds and Extremadura has one of the four great Spanish grassland expanses (the others being the steppes of the Ebro basin in northern Spain, various sites on the great mesetas in the centre of the country and the arid south-east). On a bright morning in spring, the skies of the steppes resonate with the high-pitched songs of Calandra Larks and the jingling tunes of Corn Buntings, both of which are very common here. Crested Larks too are easily spotted, but for the other birds you have to search a little more carefully. Perhaps the most sought-after bird of the steppes is the Great Bustard. This big bird has the reputation of being (together with the African Kori Bustard) the world’s heaviest bird still capable of flight. The males are of the same length as a stork, but, even though they don’t stand so tall, may be two, three or even four times as heavy! In groups they stride through the wavy high grass like the Spanish Armada on a breezy sea (they seem to float because their legs don’t show in the high grass). The Little Bustard is much smaller and, in the breeding season, highly territorial. With calling males in many parts of the grassy steppes and open dehesas they are fairly easy to find in spring. Both bustard species are highly endangered throughout their range,

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The Great Bustard is widespread on the steppes of Cáceres, Trujillo and La Serena.


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Black Storks breed on rock ledges and tree canopies in undisturbed mountain ranges throughout Extremadura. Unlike White Stork, it is a shy bird that avoids human settlements.

except in Spain (although they are declining here as well). The exact figure is unknown, but Extremadura, together with the plains of Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla-Leon, support the vast majority of the European population of these birds (what is still present in central Asia is anyone’s guess). Both bustards are cryptic birds, but even better camouflaged are the Black-bellied and the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Even though their plumage is colourful, they blend in so well that they are very hard to spot on the ground. The easiest way to locate them is by listening for their typical calls. Pintailed Sandgrouse prefer the very scanty, stony steppes, whereas the Black-bellied prefers fallow and ploughed soils. In more bushy and rocky steppes, Blackeared Wheatear, Little Owl, Great Spotted Cuckoo and Iberian Grey Shrikes are frequent birds. Stone Curlews are present throughout the arid plains, but their cryptic plumage makes them a challenge to find. Typical and conspicuous steppe birds White Stork, Cattle Egret, Montagu’s Harrier, Black-winged Kite, Lesser Kestrel, Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Red-legged Partridge, Quail, Collared Pratincole, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Hoopoe, Roller, Crested Lark, Short-toed Lark, Calandra Lark, Black-eared Wheatear, Iberian Grey Shrike, Corn Bunting

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Birds of the mountains

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The mountainous regions form the 4th birding hotspot. The rocky ridges of the lower and hotter mountains like Monfragüe and Sierra de las Villuercas accommodate a number of beautiful and typically Mediterranean birds. This is where most big raptors breed such as Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures plus, although fairly rare in Extremadura, the Peregrine Falcon. In addition, Eagle Owl breeds on the rock ledges here. It occurs throughout the region, both in rocky sierras and in steep river valleys. The latter are also home to Black Storks, a largely eastern European species with a small outpost in south-west Iberia. In Extremadura, the Black Stork is not rare, breeding in usually isolated and well-wooded river valleys in, for example, Monfragüe, Sierra de San Pedro, Sierra de las Villuercas, La Vera and Sierra de Gata. Rocky terrain offers home to many smaller birds as well. Very typical and frequently seen birds of such habitats are Rock Bunting and Blue Rock Thrush. House and Crag Martins inhabit the cliffs whilst Birds of low, Mediterranean sierras Griffon Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Eagle Owl, Alpine Swift, Whiterumped Swift, Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Blue Rock Thrush, Subalpine Warbler, Red-billed Chough, Raven, Black Wheatear, Black Redstart, Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting Birds of the higher mountains Golden Eagle, Honey Buzzard, Nightjar, Nuthatch, Green Woodpecker, Wryneck, Dipper, Bonelli’s Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Melodious Warbler, Ortolan Bunting

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Alpine Swift (top) and Rock Bunting (bottom) – two frequent birds of mountainous areas.


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under the overhanging rocks Red-rumped Swallows build their iglooshaped nest. The latter’s nests provide homes for a recent colonist; the rare, essentially African, White-rumped Swift. It breeds in low numbers in southern Spain. This bird’s late arrival (in late May or June) means that it is often missed by spring birdwatchers. Other swifts too, prefer rocky habitats. The big Alpine Swifts seek out the larger cliffs, both at high (the peaks of the Villuercas mountains) and low altitudes (the bridge of Mérida!). Another southern species that is high on most birdwatcher’s wish list is the Black Wheatear. It lives in the driest and least vegetated parts of the sierra. For unknown reasons the population of this Ibero – African bird is in decline. Higher up in the mountains, another group of birds enter the frame. In the heath scrubland, Subalpine Warblers are frequent and from 1500 metres, Rock Thrush gradually replaces the Blue Rock Thrush.

Birds during the winter months

Thousands of Cranes winter in the dehesas of Extremadura. They feed on the acorns of the Holm Oaks.

A winter birding trip to Extremadura is still not very popular, which is perhaps for the best because when you go, you have the countryside pretty much to yourself. And watching thousands of Cranes fly over in across a setting sun on a deserted dehesa is an amazing experience that works best in the winter quietude. It is then that the beautiful call of the Cranes is at its most evocative. The Cranes are no doubt what makes the birding in Extremadura in winter. These majestic birds mostly come from the Scandinavian countries, where they breed in bogs and swamps. They visit Extremadura between November and March to feed on the sweet acorns of the Holm Oak. It used to be the case that the population that migrates westwards

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(another group heads east), the lion’s share overwintered in Extremadura and the western part of North Africa. Today, more and more spend the winter ‘half way down’ in northern Spain and France. The mild winters and the maize stubble there has made a further travel unnecessary. Nevertheless, with overall numbers of Cranes increasing, there is no clear evidence of numbers dropping in Extremadura. When travelling through the dehesas in winter, you’ll encounter small groups of them every now and then. Usually they are families consisting of a couple and one or two young. In the evening, these scattered groups take off and head for the nearest reservoir to spend the night. They do so in predictable flyways, joining together in a narrow band close to the roosts. Seeing, and hearing, these bands flying low over your head is unforgettable. The best spots to witness this are given on page 201. Besides cranes, other northern and central European birds ‘invade’ Extremadura in November. Red Kites are the most numerous birds of prey during the winter months. Chiffchaffs enter the forests and dehesas. Thousands of Wood Pigeons, Stock Doves, Song Thrushes and Chaffinches occupy the dehesas, pleasing predators such as Peregrine Falcons and Merlins. On the arid plains, thousands of Lapwings, Golden Plovers, pipits and Skylarks rummage about in the open fields. Meanwhile, the permanent residents of the steppes huddle together in large flocks and keep a low profile, thus becoming much harder to spot than in spring. Mixed groups of thousands of larks and groups of House, Spanish and Rock Sparrows travel around like nomads. Both Little and Great Bustards form large flocks, or droves, in winter. Thus, although spring is the time when birds are most plentiful, the wintertime also offers a lot of interesting birds. Wintering birds Great Crested Grebe, Gadwall, Teal, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Red Kite, Merlin (rare), Common Crane, Stock Dove, Wood Pigeon, Kingfisher, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Northern Wheatear Interesting resident species Cattle Egret, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Golden Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Great Bustard, Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Calandra Lark, Woodlark, Dartford Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Iberian Grey Shrike, Spanish Sparrow, Rock Sparrow, Rock Bunting

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exploring monfragüe national park

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Exploring Monfragüe National Park Monfragüe is without doubt the flagship of natural Extremadura. If this is your first visit to Extremadura, it should be your first and prime destination. This National Park and the surrounding land of superb Cork and Holm Oak dehesas set a standard to which the other areas in Extremadura are best compared. Apart from the supreme wildlife and scenery, it is also the birthplace of Extremaduran nature conservation and nature tourism (see nature conservation section on page 66). Monfragüe camp site A1

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Overview of Monfragüe. The numbers refer to the routes and the letters to the sites on page 135.

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Monfragüe was founded as a natural reserve in 1979. In 2003, the title ‘biosphere reserve’ was added and in 2007 it became a National Park, the highest protective status. The name Monfragüe is a corruption of the latin Mons Fragorum, meaning dense scrub or wood. And that is not an ill-chosen name. The National Park (over 18,000 ha) encompasses a series of low, rocky hills along the Tagus River (Tajo in Spanish), with a remnant of dense Mediterranean forest on its north-facing slopes. The inaccessibility of the terrain has kept this area in a pristine state that you will have a hard time finding elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. The forest consists of nearly impenetrable tangles of a variety of shrubs and trees, especially oak. The north slopes, in particular, are covered in a Mediterranean

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exploring monfragüe national park

evergreen forest of a quality that has become rare (see page 46). The climate underneath its canopy is surprisingly pleasant and humid. Surrounding Monfragüe lies a vast area of superb dehesa, which seamlessly merge with the National Park and make it seem much larger than it actually is. Monfragüe’s fame lies mostly in its incredible number of birds of prey, which surpasses any other area in Europe. They are drawn to the park because of the generous supply of quiet and remote nesting facilities for both rock and tree nesting species, and because of the abundance of prey in the surrounding dehesas and steppes. Short-toed, Booted, Bonelli’s, Golden and Spanish Imperial Eagles all breed in an area of only about 10 by 30 kilometres. Hence they can be observed anywhere in and around Monfragüe. In 2009, 10 pairs of Spanish Imperial Eagles, the rarest and most localised of the European eagles, were found here. Much more visible, though, are the vultures which breed in astonishing numbers. Griffon Vultures are found in scattered colonies on cliffs, while the larger Black Vultures breed mainly on old Cork Oaks throughout the park. With over 300 pairs (and rising), it is probably the densest population of Black Vulture in the world. On days when the conditions are favourable, it is nearly impossible to look up to the sky and not see at least one vulture soaring over. Other important breeding birds include Egyptian Vulture, Eagle Owl and Black Stork (see box on next page). Most of the National Park is strictly off-limits to visitors. Only the western part is open and easily accessible through a number of short way-marked walking trails (described as routes 2 and 3). The best introduction to the

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The Mediterranean woodlands and rocky ridges offer some excellent opportunities for walks, such as here along the Malvecino stream (route 3).


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The Peñafalcon is a spectacular gateway to Monfragüe (route 1 and 2). Over 50 pairs of Griffon Vultures breed on the cliffs, together with Egyptian Vulture and Black Stork.

area is the car trip we describe as route 1. There are three main landmarks in the western part. First, the downright spectacular Salto del Gitano or Gypsy’s Leap (route 1 and 2), which is a large breach through the rocky southern sierra of Monfragüe. The west side of the breach is dominated by a large rocky escarpment, the Peñafalcón or Falcon’s Rock. It has, amongst other birds, a large Griffon Vulture colony and the constant soaring of these massive birds add to the drama of this site. A little further east, on a protrusion of the same ridge lie the ruins of a small castle, which forms the second highlight of Monfragüe. From the castle tower the views and birdlife are stunning. The Griffons of the Peñafalcón circle round the castle or pass you by at eye level. The third site is Villarreal the San Carlos (routes 1, 2 and 3), a tiny, single street village, which forms the centre Important breeding birds of of the park. Monfragüe National Park There are (pairs counted in 2009) bars, facilities, a visitors centre, and it is the deGriffon Vulture: 514 parture point for most routes. Further Black Vulture: 312 afield lies another top site, the Portilla Egyptian Vulture: 33 del Tiétar (route 1), which is a smaller Golden Eagle: 7 version of the Salto del Gitano, but usuSpanish Imperial Eagle: 10 ally has more birds. Bonelli’s Eagle: 7 There is also a downside to Monfragüe. Booted Eagle: 30 Once your awe at all the riches and the Short-toed Eagle: 20 dramatic scenery of this National Park Common Buzzard: 34 subsides, you’ll notice that the number Black Kite: 163 of walking routes available here is limRed Kite: 76 ited. And that in spring, this area is Black-winged Kite: 3 crowded with tourists. By then the time Eagle Owl: 9 comes to spread one’s wings and disBlack Stork: 29 cover that Extremadura is full of ‘Monfragües’ which hardly anyone ever visits.

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route 1: monfragüe np round trip

Route 1: Monfragüe NP round trip

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full day or more 85 km Diverse drive along streams, scrub-covered mountains and Cork and Holm Oak dehesas. Extremadura at its best – for birdwatchers, naturalists and other nature lovers. More vultures than you can count and many, many more birds. Habitats: Cork and Holm Oak dehesa, streams, cliffs, wetlands, limestone outcrops, Mediterranean evergreen forest Selected species: Black Vulture, Black Stork, Eagle Owl, Black-winged Kite, Purple Galinule, Ocellated Lizard, Spanish Festoon, Naked-man Orchid, Mirror Orchid

This beautiful trip leads you along the highlights of Monfragüe National Park and has enough to keep you spell-bound from dawn till dusk. The area is versatile and includes mountains, dehesas, Mediterranean forests and wetlands. Well-known sites alternate with rarely visited ones. A1

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The birdlife is simply spectacular, and the flora (particularly orchids) and all other groups are very well represented too. If this is your first visit to Extremadura, this is the route to start with.

Departure point Torrejón el Rubio Leave the village in northern direction, signposted Monfragüe and Plasencia.

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Through the fine Holm Oak dehesas, you drive to the stream Arroyo de la Vid which will be the first stop. Along the way, look for typical dehesa birds such as Hoopoes, Azure-winged Magpies, Thekla Larks, Woodchat Shrikes, vultures and eagles. Some years a pair of Spanish Imperial Eagles breeds in the dehesa between Torrejón and Monfragüe. Park at the bottom of the valley and stroll along the stream. Check the puddles and slow-flowing parts which are excellent for Spanish Terrapins, Viperine Snakes and amphibians. Meanwhile, don’t forget to check the skies for passing Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures and other cliff dwellers, which breed along the cliffs of the Arroyo. Griffon Vultures galore at the Salto del Gitano.

Continue along the road until you reach the edge of the Tagus reservoir and encounter a car park on your left hand side.

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This is the Salto del Gitano, Monfragüe’s grand entrance. The impressive escarpment is the Peñafalcón, the famous vulture rock. The many Griffon Vultures that circle around the rock are the immediate eye-catcher of this site. The colony on the Peñafalcón is one of many in Monfragüe. Once the air starts to warm up in the morning, the vultures depart

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route 1: monfragüe np round trip

on their carrion raids and sometimes soar right over your head. One or two pairs of Egyptian Vulture breed as well in some years. Black Storks breed in the fissures just above the water line. To see their nest you have to walk a little further on, go around the corner and then look back to the rock. Other birds that can be seen near the Peñafalcón include Rock Bunting and Blue Rock Thrush (on the slopes close to the car park), Red-rumped Swallows and, in the sky, Black Vulture, Peregrine and perhaps Golden Eagle.Botanists can enjoy the endemics Spanish Adenocarpus* (Adenocarpus argyrophyllus) on the cliffs and Pink Foxglove* (Digitalis thapsi) in the roadside. Continue to the little village of Villarreal de San Carlos. This village, with bar and visitors’ centre, is the only settlement in the park and consists of one big car park and one small street. Villarreal was founded by King Carlos III to house royal guards, who had to ensure the safety of the travellers in this dangerous and desolate region. After Villarreal, take the first right, in the direction of Saltos de Torrejón.

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The Iberian endemic Pink Foxglove* (Digitalis thapsi) flowers in May and is fairly common on rocky soil.

At the Portilla del Tiétar, the Tiétar river enters Monfragüe. This is one of the best birdwatching sites of the National Park (point 5).


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The scrubby hills you cross en route are covered with young Holm Oaks and scrub. They are not very interesting, but ironically they are the reason that Monfragüe received its protective status. These hills were planted with Eucalyptus for the paper industry. Originally, all of Monfragüe was to be destroyed like this, but strong opposition from the germinating Extremaduran conservation movement prevented this ecological disaster. Young Holm Oaks were replanted to restore the original Mediterranean forest.

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Just before reaching the dam in the Tiétar River there is a viewpoint on the right – the Mirador de la Tajadilla. It overlooks a small Griffon Vulture colony. On the other side of the dam lies Saltos de Torrejón, a village that was built to accommodate the workers of the dam.

A Cork Oak near the Portilla del Tiétar. A year after the cork is stripped, the trunk gets a beautiful, velvety red colour.

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From the bend in the road you overlook the Portilla del Tiétar, Monfragüe’s more modest but still very scenic ‘back door’. Its Griffon Vulture colony is smaller than that of the Peñafalcón, but closer. In some years, Eagle Owl, Egyptian Vulture and Black Stork breed on 0 400 m the cliffs and nearby rock escarpments and are easily seen. The surrounding Cork Oak dehesa is a breeding site for Booted, Short-toed and Spanish Imperial Eagles. Their nest sites tend to shift every now and then, so ask around what is breeding where this year. Other birds here are Blue Rock Thrush and Red-rumped Swallow. Continue on foot to the restaurant a few hundred metres ahead.

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Continue until you see the Tiétar river on your left. The next site is the rocky outcrop you see ahead. Stop at one of the parking spaces and continue on foot.

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This walk leads through an excellent patch of Mediterranean forest with Strawberry Trees, Tree Heath, Laurustinus and Palmate Anemone. A stile over the fencing on the left allows you to enter the Cork Oak dehesa on the edge of the river – an excellent opportunity to explore this habitat from up close. One-leaved Squill* (Scilla monophyllos) flowers in wet spots, and Spanish Festoon (a species of butterfly) is freqent in spring. Return to the car and continue along the road, taking the first right to Serrejón. This road passes through beautiful dehesa again. After Serrejón, continue to Almaráz and then direction Saucedilla.

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Two kilometres out of Almaráz you pass the edge of the Embalse de Arrocampo, a small but excellent wetland. Just before Saucedilla there is a small information centre from which a trail departs to three hides which overlook the lake. Look here for Purple and Squacco Herons, Spoonbill, Little Bittern, Great White Egret, Purple Gallinule, Marsh Harrier, Savi’s Warbler and Great Reed Warbler. Move from hide to hide to search for Black-winged Kite and Lesser Kestrel. Beeeaters and Zitting Cisticolas are fairly common. In the lower vegetation, look for Tongue Orchids.

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The Arrocampo marshes near Almaráz are Extremadura’s prime spot for wetland birds, with species like Squacco Heron and Purple Gallinule.

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Return to Almaráz, take the turn for the motorway and at the roundabout, follow the minor road towards Valdecañas de Tajo. Once underneath the motorway, take the second dirt track left. A sign here describes an orchid route. Follow it. almaráz

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The hill, clad in olive groves, is a limestone outcrop – a rare substrate in northern Extremadura. It supports a magnificent flora, including at least 11 species of orchids. If you follow the indicated route you should be able to locate quite a few of them. Mid-April is the best time. The richest areas are the grazed, grassy olive groves without tall herbs. valdecañas de tajo Naked-man Orchid is the most numerous species, but locally, Mirror, Yellow Bee, Woodcock, Conical and Champagne Orchids are also common. Small-flowered Tongue, Giant and Dyris Orchids* (Ophrys dyris) are present in lower numbers. There is also a Bee-eater colony and Ocellated Lizards are frequent. Return to Almaráz and follow the road south to Casas de Miravete and further on to Jaraicejo. From Jaraicejo, turn right towards Torrejón el Rubio.

8 Woodcock Orchid (top) and Naked-man Orchid (bottom) are two of the eleven species of orchids to grow abundantly at the limestone hills of Almaráz. The latter receives its name from the peculiar, and suggestive, shape of the flower.

The dehesas between Jaraicejo and Torrejón are again excellent. You can stop at the small chapel just outside Jaraicejo and explore the surrounding dehesa. Azure-winged Magpie, Woodchat Shrike and other dehesa birds can be found, and sometimes Rock Sparrow is seen here. The very last stretch of dehesa before hitting the Trujillo-Torrejón road is very scenic in April for its masses of flowering French lavender. Turn right to Torrejón. If you fully explored all the stops along this route, it must be midnight by now.

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route 14: touring the heart of villuercas

Route 14: Touring the heart of Villuercas

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6 hours / full day 110 km Beautiful and quiet route through an authentic mountain landscape. Beautiful vistas, castle ruins, ancient Cork and Holm Oak dehesas and mountain forests. Habitats: dehesa mountain streams, pine plantations, Pyrenean Oak forest, Chestnut Groves, heath scrub. Selected species: Peregrine, Bonelli’s Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Western Peony, Spanish Festoon, Spanish Adenocarpus* ( Adenocarpus argyrophyllos), Small-leaved Milkwort* (Polygala microphylla)

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This scenic route is a perfect first introduction to the Sierra de Villuercas. The small villages are isolated, even by Extremaduran standards. The orchards and dehesas are still used in a very traditional way. Along the way, you will pass a number of beautiful sites, with an interesting flora and a good assemblage of birds. This route offers ample possibilities to stop along the way and wander off into the mountains. Be aware that this is one of the few routes where there is no place to eat along the way.

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Leave Guadalupe in the direction of Cañamero.

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1

The road from Guadalupe passes along a south-facing slope, covered with dehesa and stands of Gum Cistus. The occasional Azurewinged Magpie flies by to confirm the Mediterranean character of these south-facing slopes – a strong contrast with the landscape ahead. In Cañamero, follow the signs ‘Berzocana’. After leaving the village you climb to the Berzocana pass at 910 metres.

The Cork Oak dehesas near the village of Solana are magnificent.

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Park at the pass (easily recognisable by the roundabout). The mixed forest of pine and Pyrenean Oak harbours central European forest birds and a large population of Bonelli’s Warbler. The Pyrenean Oak stand between the roundabout and the tower is of interest for its flora. Between the masses of Asphodels, there are Western Peonies and Lusitanian Milkvetch. The forest is fenced but these species can easily be found by walking along the fence. Continue in the direction of Berzocana and just before reaching the village take a sharp right towards Deleitosa.

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The stretch before the village of Solana leads through a beautiful, centuries-old Cork Oak forest with a thick undergrowth of Common

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route 14: touring the heart of villuercas

and Spanish White Broom. There are various places where you can stop and wander into the dehesa. Perhaps the best is just before reaching Solana, where a track departs to the right and leads up (and even over) the mountain. Park here on this track and explore. Lange’s Orchid* (Orchis langei) is frequent, but there are many wildflowers, reptiles and butterflies to discover here.

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Beyond Solana, the road leads away from the mountain a little and after a while the Cork Oak dehesas are replaced by Holm Oaks. Birdlife is more Mediterranean at these low altitudes, with Woodchat Shrikes and Azure-winged Magpies. Turn right towards Cabañas del Castillo.

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The Castle of Cabañas del Castillo (bottom) is home to Peregrine, Alpine Swift, Blue Rock Thrush and Griffon Vulture. The endemic Spanish Adenocarpus* (Adenocarpus argyrophyllos; top) grows between the rocks.


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Cherry grove in the Almonte valley near Navazuelas.

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The site of the old castle ruins of Cabañas del Castillo can rival those of Monfragüe. From the village, walk towards the little graveyard on the southern end of the village. From here, you can cross the mountain ridge and climb up to the castle from the other side. The scenery is downright spectacular and the birdlife is rich. For many years now, this has been a reliable site to find Peregrines which breed on the inaccessible rock slopes south of the castle. Vultures, eagles, Black Storks and Alpine Swifts may all soar by whilst Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush and Subalpine Warblers occupy the cliffs and scrubs around the castle. On the rock face, Dwarf Sheep’s-bit* (Jassione crispa) and Spanish Adenocarpus* (Adenocarpus argyrophyllus) grow in good numbers. Continue along the road. A little further ahead it crosses the Almonte river. Just after the bridge, turn right on the new road towards Roturas. The Almonte River is now on your right-hand side. Park in the broad shoulder of the road near the small, wooden sign ‘Camino del Molino’ (careful, easy to miss). From here a dirt track leads down to the river.

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The trail leads to an old mill at the base of the impressive breach of the Almonte through the mountains. This spot is reminiscent of the Peñafalcón, the breach of the Tagus through the mountains of Monfragüe. Along the trail you can find Portuguese Heath, Lusitanian Milkvetch, Western Peony, Spanish Bluebell and Pallid and Hoop-petticoat Daffodils. If you haven’t already had lunch at the castle of Cabañas, the Almonte breach is a good picnic spot.

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Continue along the road through Roturas and onto Navazuelas.

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The village of Navazuelas offers a good opportunity to explore the mountain forests on foot. At the bar ‘Cuatro Caminos’, a trail departs to the right, down to the Almonte and then up into the mountains. The valley is covered with cherry orchards (beautiful in April). In the chestnut copses on the mountain slope you can enjoy the flowers of Western Peony, Sicilian and Early-purple Orchids, Narrow-leaved Helleborine and several other plants. You can walk all the way to the top if you wish, and even continue to Solana village. Continue along the road further up into the mountains.

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The road leads up to a narrow pass at 1,061 metres before descending to the Puerto de Berzocana. The higher up you go, the more the landscape becomes dominated by Spanish Heath. Botanists might want to look out for Smallleaved Milkwort* (Polygala microphylla), a beautiful purple flower, confined to the Iberian Peninsula. It grows in clumps on the side of the road, not far outside Navazuelas. From Puerto de Berzacona, retrace your steps to Guadalupe.

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The roadside flora south of Navazuelas includes Winged Greenweed* (Genista tridentata; top) and Small-leaved Milkwort* (Polygala microphylla; bottom).


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Nearby destinations worth a visit

Extremadura is larger than the area described in this guidebook. Several other spots within the region are briefly described on page 191. When you decide to cross Extremadura’s borders, the most interesting nature destinations are to the north or to the south. When southbound, you enter Andalusia in the dehesa-clad Sierra Morena (a little similar to Sierra de San Pedro) before descending to coastal plain of the Guadalquivir river. On the Atlantic coast lie the extensive marshes of Coto Doñana. This bird hotspot presents nature in a completely different guise with an atmosphere determined by wide open mudflats and dusty, sun-baked Umbrella Pine forests and vast open skies. The best spots to visit are described in the Crossbill Guide to the Coto Doñana. Just east of the Coto Doñana, there is a series of beautiful natural areas in the mountains known as ‘Serranía de Ronda’. These mountains near the Mediterranean coast are renowned for their scenic beauty, unique flora (including many orchids) and vivid culture. The Serranía de Ronda, plus Tarifa and the Straits of Gibraltar, is extensively described in the Crossbill Guide to the Andalusian Sierras. The traveller going north finds a very different landscape. First of all, there is the Sierra de Gredos reserve, which can be reached by driving through the Jerte valley and then turning east at the town of El Barco. The reserve can be entered from the village of Hoyos del Espino. The Sierra de Gredos is a high altitude reserve with of number of trails by which you can enjoy its wild landscape, flora and fauna. Being such an isolated mountain region, the Sierra de Gredos has a number of unique plants and animals, including the Iberian Ibex. Further north you travel through the huge upland plain of Castilla la Mancha, where you can see even more Great Bustards than in Extremadura. The best area is near the town of Villafáfila. From here, the Picos de Europa are no longer very far. For naturalists, it would be interesting to compare the Picos de Europa – a high altitude mountain range with a distinct Alpine character – with the Mediterranean mountains of the Sierra de Gredos. Travelling east from here you come to the Pyrenees and the dry plains of the Ebro river; both of these gems of European nature are described in the Crossbill Guide to the Spanish Pyrenees and steppes of Huesca.

Finding snakes, spiders, scorpions and the like

For the uninitiated, this is how you do it. Find yourself a stony field or dehesa and start turning the stones. Underneath them you will find a wonderful hidden world of creatures that appear on too many menus to be able to afford themselves a place in the sun. They come out at night to hunt and avoid being hunted by crawling under a rock.

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Turning stones is rather like unwrapping Christmas gifts: it is exciting, highly addictive and there is always one more ahead that must hide something good. Mostly you will find ants and their nests, but every now and then you will find Scorpions, Tarantulas, Scolopendras, Scutigeras* and snakes. Toads, Western Spadefoots and Sharp-ribbed Newts are other possibilities and if you are lucky you might even stumble upon a Worm Lizard. Turning flat stones of over 20 by 20 centimetres yields the best results. Lift them up to one side, turn them over and step back. Be aware that some animals have a painful sting or bite. Never hold the stone you turned in your hand, because the animal might be underneath it and crawl up. Turning stones is very invasive for the animals that live beneath them. Many of them worked hard to create an underground nest. Therefore, make sure that you don’t disturb the subterranean life too long and place the stone back in exactly the same position as you found it. Some snakes are active at night (see reptile and amphibians section on page 104). These often warm themselves on the surface of small country roads. A drive or walk at dusk can reveal Ladder, False and Southern Smooth Snakes. In spring these places are also used by other snakes and lizards to warm up for the day.

Birdwatching in the steppes

Even though they are open and there is little to restrict your view, finding the birds of the steppe is a challenge. To maximise your chances, make sure you go out early in the morning. You need to be out and about at sunrise, and later again just before sunset. Birds are most active and vocal at these times of the day, but also, in the middle of the day the heat haze makes observations more difficult. Added advantage of rising early is the beautiful light over the steppes. The best way to find birds is to drive slowly along the small steppe roads. In spring, roll down your windows to hear the bird sounds (this is the way to find Little Bustard and both sandgrouse). To help you recognise the calls download them in advance onto your mobile phone or MP3 player (see for downloads the excellent site www.xeno-canto.org/europe). Stop at good vantage points (e.g. hill tops) and take your time to scan the area with your binoculars to find birds on the ground. A telescope makes birdwatching in the steppes easier and much more interesting. Birds are easily frightened off by movement. It is best not to leave your car, but if you do, stay low and next to the car to prevent the birds from detecting your movements. If you want to explore the steppes on foot, you’ll do best to choose a spot with a little water and some ‘dog’s teeth’ rocks. Here is most to see in terms of insects, reptiles and plants and less to disturb in the form of vulnerable steppe birds, such as Great Bustards.

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Birdwatching list

The numbers between the brackets () refer to the routes from page 121 onwards: Geese and ducks In winter and early spring, there are Mallard, Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Pintail, and, more rare, Wigeon and Red-crested Pochard. Best areas are the shallow reservoirs of Almaráz (1), Talaván (4) and Canchales (9). Grey-leg Goose is an uncommon winter visitor. Partridges Red-legged Partridge is frequent in any shrubby terrain. Quail breeds in areas with cereal plots (e.g. 4, 5, 11). Grebes Great Crested is common and Little Grebe fairly rare on reservoirs with vegetated shores (1, 4, 9). Cormorants, herons and egrets Cormorant and Grey Heron are most frequent on large reservoirs. Little Egret is present every now and then along streams and reservoirs. Little Egret, Night Heron, Little Bittern and Purple Heron breed in reedbeds (mostly 1 and 9, less so 4). Squacco Heron breeds in Arrocampo (1) and in the Guadiana (9). Cattle Egret associate with herds in plains and steppes (5, 9 and 10). Storks and Spoonbill White Stork breeds in good numbers in almost any town and village. Particularly beautiful nest sites are on 4 and 6, and in the town of Trujillo. Black Stork is a frequent, but shy, breeding bird of almost all mountain ranges. Monfragüe (1 and 2) are the easiest to find them, but 3, 7, 8, 14 and 16 offer a good chance as well. In September they congregate in large numbers on the edges of the reservoirs of Guadiloba (5) and La Serena (11). Spoonbill breeds at Arrocampo (1) and is often present at Los Canchales (9). Vultures Vultures cover long distances and can be spotted anywhere, even from a terrace on the Plaza Mayor in Trujillo. The best views of Griffons and Black Vultures are on routes 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 14. Egyptian Vulture is most easily seen on 1, 2 and 7. Eagles Booted and Short-toed are widespread and can be seen anywhere (Booted perhaps best on 1, 4, 5 and 8). There is a nest of Golden Eagle on route 4; other good routes are 1, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Spanish Imperial Eagle breeds with several pairs in Monfragüe, the dehesas around Torrejón el Rubio (on pylons) and Sierra de San Pedro. Try routes 1 – 4 and 7 but most importantly, ask other bird watchers on the spot. Bonelli’s Eagle is the most difficult eagle to find (it is rare and spends more time on the ground). Good routes are 1, 3 and 7. Other birds of prey The Osprey is frequent during migration but rare in winter, mostly on shallow reservoirs (1, 9). Montagu’s Harriers are fairly frequent in arid fields (5, 11, 13, Belén; page 147) during spring and summer; Hen Harrier takes its place in winter. Marsh Harrier is frequent on a few wetlands such as Almaráz (1). Its numbers are expanding. Red Kite is common in winter and widespread, but

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scarce, in spring and summer. Black Kite is the most numerous bird of prey from March onwards. Both species may turn up anywhere. Black-winged Kite prefers cereal fields in open dehesas and small-scale agricultural land. Route 4 is the classic route; route 9 and the not too intensely cultivated grasslands north of Mérida and between Mérida and La Serena hold this bird as well. Common Buzzard and Sparrowhawk are uncommon, but widespread, birds of dehesas. Goshawk and Honey Buzzard are raptors of the mountains, mostly in La Vera and to a lesser degree in Las Villuercas (15, 16, 17). Falcons and kestrels Lesser Kestrel is locally common (e.g. 1, 5, 7, 12, town centres of Guadalupe, Cáceres, Plasencia, Trujillo and Cabeza del Buey). Common Kestrel is an uncommon breeding bird of open terrain. Merlin winters in small numbers in the steppes (5, 12, 14). Peregrine is a rare resident which breeds at Cabañas (14). Rails, crakes and gallinules Purple Gallinule, Water Rail and Moorhen breed at Almaráz (1). Coot is frequent on shallow reservoirs (1, 4, 9). Common Crane and bustards From November to early March Cranes feed in small family groups in dehesas (frequent from Monroy to Jaraicejo). The morning and evening commutes from and to the night roosts offer great views at the Embalse de Talaván (4) and the Puerto de Mejoral (11). Both Great and Little Bustard are best seen on routes 5, 11, at Belén (page 147) and Cuatro Lugares (page 147), but occur elsewhere in the steppes as well. In winter, bustards form large groups and occur very locally throughout the steppes. Waders, Stone Curlew and Collared Pratincole Common Sandpiper is fairly common along streams. Little Ringed Plover frequents open reservoir shores (e.g. 5, 9). Black-winged Stilts are very local but fairly easy to find on routes 6 and 9. Other waders (e.g. Little Stint, Dunlin, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper) occur on passage or in winter on muddy reservoir shores (best 9). Stone Curlew occurs throughout (best on 5, 11, 13). Collared Pratincole features on routes 5, 9 and 11. Lapwing is frequent in winter in the open steppes. Golden Plovers occur in groups in the arid grasslands in winter. There are also a number of records of trips of Dotterel. Gulls and terns Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls occur in winter. Gullbilled and Little Terns breed locally on sandy islands in reservoirs (5, 9). Whiskered Tern is a rare breeding bird. Sandgrouse Black-bellied Sandgrouse is the most common species, preferring fallow and recently ploughed fields (mostly La Serena 11, 13, Cuatro Lugares; page 147). Pin-tailed Sandgrouse occurs in stony and short-grass steppes (mostly 11, 13, also 5, Cuatro Lugares, page 147). Sandgrouse are mostly detected by flight call. Pigeons and doves The dehesas are important wintering grounds for Wood Pigeon and Stock Dove. Turtle Dove is a fairly common summer visitor; Collared Dove is resident in many towns.

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Cuckoos Common Cuckoo is common throughout. Great Spotted Cuckoo is most frequent where its host, the Magpie, is found. This is mostly in areas of bushy steppes and granite boulder fields (5, 11 and near Belén, page 147). It is most visible in early spring, between February and April. Owls Little Owl is common on the steppes, in areas with granite boulders and frequent in dehesas (4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 13). Barn Owl is frequent in villages. Both Tawny and Scops Owls are hard to spot, but their typical calls are very frequently heard throughout Extremadura. Eagle Owl is fairly common on rock ledges in the mountains and along rivers. There has been a nest at the Portilla de Tietár (1) for years. Nightjars Red-necked Nightjar is common in the dehesas and scrubby fields throughout. A good spot is the Embalse de Torrejón (page 147) at dusk. The repetitive “coo-tuk-coo-tuk” call is unmistakable. Common Nightjar is much scarcer with thinly scattered populations throughout the area. Most are found along the border with Castilla-León. Swifts Both Common and Pallid Swifts are common in the towns (both are easy to spot, if hard to distinguish, over, for example, the Plazas of Cáceres, Trujillo and Alburquerque ). Alpine Swift is fairly common in the mountains (1, 2, 9, 14, 15, 17). White-rumped Swift is occasionally seen near the Castle of Monfragüe (2), but arrives late in the year. Another reliable site for this species is at Hornachos in southern Extremadura (page 191). Bee-eater, Roller and Hoopoe Hoopoe and Bee-eater are very common in the dehesas, the latter particularly near streams (e.g. 1, 4, 7). Roller is a very localised steppe bird. Best route is 13 and the road out of Cáceres towards Torrejón. Woodpeckers Great Spotted Woodpecker is common and widespread. Green is fairly common. Lesser Spotted is a rare bird of old mountain forests (8, site A on page 181). Wryneck passes through in low numbers and breeds in La Vera (16, 17). Larks Woodlark and Thekla Lark are frequent dehesa birds (e.g 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 14). Crested is common on roadsides throughout the lowlands, particularly in the steppes. Calandra Lark is common in the steppes (4, 5, 12, 13 and Cuatro Lugares, page 147). Short-toed Lark is rather rare and occurs in very scanty steppes (11, 13). Skylark is a common winter visitor. Swallows and martins Swallow and House Martin are common throughout. Redrumped Swallow is common in rocky areas near water (e.g. 1, 2, 5, 11, 14). Crag Martin is present in any rocky terrain (e.g. 1, 2, 5, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17). Sand Martin is very localised (1). Pipits and wagtails Tawny Pipit is a rare breeding bird (11, 13, Cuatro Lugares, page 147). Meadow Pipit is a winter visitor. White Wagtail is common, Yellow Wagtail is seen on passage (e.g. 9) and Grey Wagtail breeds in the mountains (15, 16, 17, site A page 181). Dipper and accentors Dipper breeds in mountain streams, mostly in La Vera but

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also a few in Las Villuercas (15, 16, 17, site A page 181). Both Dunnock and Alpine Accentor are winter visitors. Thrushes, chats, wheatears, blackstarts and allies Song and Mistle Thrushes are common winter visitors of the dehesa, although the latter also breeds here. Blackbird and Robin are fairly common residents, Nightingale is a very common summer visitor to damp areas with bushes. The resident Blue Rock Thrush is rather common in rocky sierras (1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 12, 14, 15), but Rock Thrush, a scarce summer visitor, breeds higher in the mountains (15, 17). Stonechat is a common breeding resident, particularly of dry terrain. Whinchat is frequent on migration. Blackeared Wheatear is a fairly common summer visitor to rocky and bushy dry areas (4, 5, 6, 11, 13, Cuatro Lugares page 147). The resident Black Wheatear is declining, but used to be typical of dry, rocky areas (8, 12, Hornachos in the south). Northern Wheatear is frequent at high altitudes (17) and, in winter, in the steppes. Black Redstart is common in the villages and Redstart is an uncommon bird of La Vera (16, 17). Bluethroat breeds in scrubland in the Sierra de Gredos and the highest parts of La Vera. Rufous Bush-robin is a rare breeding bird of southern Extremadura, where it breeds in olive groves and agricultural terrain, such as near Zafra. Sylvia warblers Six species occur, only three of which (Sardinian and Dartford Warbler and Blackcap) are resident. Sardinian occurs in nearly any kind of scrubland; Dartford Warbler mostly in low scrubland, often with isolated trees. Blackcap is common in the Mediterranean forest and mountains (2, 16, 17). Subalpine Warbler is most common in mountain scrubland (e.g. 8, 14, 15). Orphean Warbler is an uncommon bird of trees and olive groves in the lower mountains (7, 13). Whitethroat breeds in high altitude scrub. ‘Brown’ warblers Zitting Cisticola (Fan-tailed Warbler) occurs in damp meadows (1, 4, 9) and Cetti’s Warbler in bushes near streams (1, 2, 3, 9). Melodious Warbler is typical of scrub of the lower mountains (7, 8, 12). Chiffchaff is a common winter visitor. The very closely related, and only recently ‘split’, Iberian Chiffchaff is a summer visitor to La Vera. Bonelli’s Warbler breeds in coniferous forests in the mountains (14, 16). Great Reed Warbler breeds in marshlands (1, 9); Reed Warbler in similar terrain (9). Firecrest and Wren Firecrest breeds in coniferous woodlands of La Vera; Wren is frequent throughout. Flycatchers Spotted Flycatcher is an uncommon breeding bird. Pied Flycatcher occurs as a migrant throughout Extremadura and is a summer visitor to the mountains of La Vera. Tits Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits are frequent throughout well-wooded parts of Extremadura. Crested Tit also occurs throughout but is more affiliated with stands of coniferous trees (14). Penduline Tit breeds at Almaráz (1). Coal Tit is found in La Vera and in the forests along the border with Castilla-Leon.

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Nuthatch and Treecreeper Nuthatch is common in the older, more densely wooded dehesas and mountain forests. Short-toed Treecreeper is fairly common throughout. Shrikes Woodchat Shrike is common in dehesas (e.g. 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16). Iberian Grey Shrike occurs much more local in steppes and granite boulder fields (5, 6, 9, 11, 13). Crows and allies Azure-winged Magpies are common in the dehesas (e.g. 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 14). They are usually shy, but at the Monfragüe campsite (close to the railway station; see map on page 118) they are easily approached. Raven (1, 7, 14-17) and Red-billed Chough (12, 13, 15, 17) prefer mountains and rock slopes. Jackdaws, Jays and Magpies are frequent in their preferred habitat (although the first is declining in Spain). Starlings Spotless Starling is common in villages. In winter it is joined by common Starling. Golden Oriole is frequent in tree-lined streams (e.g. 1, 2, 15, 16). Sparrows House Sparrow is common. Spanish Sparrow is locally common (4, 9, 11) and Tree Sparrow is thinly spread throughout the region. Rock Sparrow is scarce and most likely to be found in dry river beds in dehesas and steppes, particularly in Cáceres province. Finches and allies Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Serin and Linnet are all common or fairly common in their preferred habitat. Hawfinch are uncommon but fairly widespread in open woodlands (e.g. 2, 14, 16). There are isolated breeding records of Crossbill in or near La Vera. Citril Finch, which has a small population in the Sierra Gredos, may breed occasionally in Extremadura. Buntings Corn Bunting is very common in any lowland, dehesa or steppe. Rock Bunting is fairly common on rocky slopes (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 12, 14, 15, 17). Cirl Bunting is a rather uncommon bird of the dehesas, often on slopes near water (e.g. 7, Almonte river; page 147). Ortolan Bunting breeds locally in bushy terrain in the mountains (7, 16, 17).

Typical dishes of the dehesa

Usually menu recommendations are outside the scope of our guidebooks, but for Extremadura we make an exception. The reason is that the valuable dehesa ecosystem is firmly tied to the farming products deriving from it. Dehesas can only survive if these products have a thriving market. Here are a few dishes that are very typical, tasty, and support the ‘dehesa economy’ on which so much of the Extremaduran nature depends. Jamón ibérico de bellota The famous air-dried ham of Extremadura. A world-famous variety of ham, but very expensive. The ‘de bellota’ part means acorn-fed. Less expensive, but still very

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region

The wealth of birds and the splendid scenery has given Extremadura the status of a natural paradise. The rugged mountains, steppes and Mediterranean woodlands of this once unknown backwater in Southwest Spain, are now one of the most appreciated destinations for wildlife enthusiasts. With this guide you will discover why.

The guide that covers the wildflowers, birds and all other wildlife Routes, where-to-watch-birds information and other observation tips Insightful information on landscape and ecology www . crossbillguides . org

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Extremadura - Spain | www.crossbillguides.org  

The wealth of birds and the splendid scenery has given Extremadura the status of a natural paradise. The rugged mountains, steppes and Medit...

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