Urban Birder David Lindo confirms why Extremadura is a popular draw for birdwatchers from all over the world
David Lindo on why Extremadura is such a popular birding destination
At twice the size of Wales, Extremadura is the fifth biggest region in Spain. Situated in the south-west of the country, it borders Portugal along its western edge. It is a sparsely populated place, with a little more than 1.1 million inhabitants and only 60,000 living in Mérida, the region’s capital. Extremadura is well known within birding circles for being one of the best places in Western Europe for ornithology. What is less well known is that its cities have the distinction of being among the very few European urban centres designated by the EU as Special Protection Areas for birds. Between them, Extremaduran cities host about 15% of the entire Lesser Kestrel population in Europe and two of the largest concentrations of breeding pairs are in Cáceres and Trujillo, cities that are more than an hour’s drive from Mérida. Although the city is not graced with a sizeable Lesser Kestrel colony sweeping above the rooftops of its old town, there is little chance of missing the numerous White Storks. They openly nest on the roofs of hotels and other buildings as well as the pinnacles of the plentiful Roman ruins that this city is so famous for. Their nests are a particularly impressive sight, nestled on top of the Acueducto de los Milagros (Aqueduct of Miracles) the ruins of a Roman aqueduct bridge. A walk around the old city in the summer would result in the sight of numerous House Martins and Swallows. Screaming Pallid Swifts chase around the buildings at breakneck speed. Aside from being subtly different to Swifts in their browner colouration and less frenetic flight on slightly broader wings, their screams are somewhat more clipped than the Swift that we know so well. With them can be the larger Alpine Swifts, and higher still drift Black Kite and occasionally Booted Eagle and both Black and Griffon Vultures. During the winter, when the swifts have departed, the Black Kites are replaced by their larger and more northern Red cousins, Lesser Black-backed Gulls criss-cross the skies, and if you listen carefully, you may hear the wild bugles emanating from flocks of traversing Cranes. Mérida is also famed for possessing the Puente Romano, or the Roman Bridge. Straddling the Guadiana River that dissects the city, separating the older quarter from the more modern side, it is the longest of all the Roman bridges still in use in the world. It is also the number one urban birding location in the city. Birders slowly walk its 792m span looking over the sides for birds. It is arguably the best place in the whole of Extremadura from which to find Purple Swamphen, and you are guaranteed truckloads of Cattle Egrets. You may also be lucky enough to see Little Egret, Night Heron, Glossy Ibis and Spoonbill that breed a few hundred metres downriver next to the more modern Lusitania Bridge. Checking the small reedbeds at the eastern end of the Roman Bridge could bring you parties
of Penduline Tit, while scanning the riverside Parque de las VII Sillas (the Park of Seven Seats) will excite your senses with possible sightings of Little Bittern, Kingfisher, Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Cetti’s Warbler, Golden Oriole, Spotless Starling and Serin. Nesting within the crevices of the bridge itself are Jackdaws, practically rubbing alulas with fellow nesting House Sparrows, Crag Martins, Alpine and Pallid Swifts. The bridge is also a good place to observe migrants during the migration periods and birds like Black Stork, Osprey and Short-toed Eagle have all been recorded.
Not to be missed
Neglect wandering the manicured confines of Parque de las VII Sillas at your peril. Recent good birds have included Bluethroat, plus Moustached and Yellow-browed Warblers. More likely are Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Bonelli’s and Western Subalpine Warblers during migration seasons. Gull-billed Tern, Crested Lark, Melodious Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Red-rumped Swallow and Stonechat that breed in or nearby the park along with literally scores of Chiffchaffs, during the winter. Counted within the Mérida Metropolitan Area are a few other sites that are worth investigating. Embalse de Proserpina or Proserpina Reservoir lies within 4km of the city centre. It is a popular reservoir, heavily used by local anglers and its southern end is very urban. Despite this disturbance it is still worth a quick visit, particularly at the dam end, which is a historical feature seeing as it was built by the Romans. Hirundines are plentiful, as are Serin and other common finches. Look out for Blue Rock Thrush on the actual dam wall itself. Embalse de Montijo is another spot well worth investigating. Totally underwatched, this site could yield almost anything. Egrets, Purple Heron and raptors, like Marsh Harrier and vultures, are a given. Finally, Casa de la Luz, which is about 9km outside of the city on the road to Alange, is an interesting, small reserve-cum-public park along the banks of the Guadiana River. The habitat consists of riverine woodland and more open scrubby areas. During the summer, this site boasts Wryneck, Red-necked Nightjar and one or two pairs of the frustratingly shy Isabelline Warbler, formally known as the Western Olivaceous Warbler. More expected are Purple Heron, Azurewinged Magpie, Golden Oriole and during the summer evenings a large roost of Black Kites gathers.
Roman Bridge, Mérida
Female Lesser Kestrel