The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Have I found the world’s happiest retirees?
Forget anoraks and hiding in bushes – for these 60-somethings in Extremadura, birdwatching is a glamorous, exhilarating fiesta, says Judith Woods
Iwas just two hours into my first birdwatching expedition when I managed to break the cardinal rule of Flight Club. I knew this because shrieks of appalled laughter began rippling through the assembled company as we sat enjoying an al aire libre lunch in the glorious Spanish sunshine.
“You can’t do that!” someone (everyone) cried when they saw what I was texting. I was genuinely bewildered.
“But it’s a hoopoe,” I explained. “We just saw hoopoes. They are funny and beautiful and ridiculous, and nobody at home thinks they are real. What’s so wrong with sending a picture?”
“You cut and pasted it off the internet,” said Pam reprovingly. I think she used to be a head teacher.
“Yes. Because my pictures are rubbish. All I’ve got is a tiny blurred Sardinian warbler among the brambles and the suggestion of an osprey in a dead tree.”
“That may be so, but you never pretend,” cried Glynis, who had only come as her husband’s plus one and really preferred orchids – but instinctively understood the etiquette.
Crikey. I attempted to look chastened, but it didn’t stop me, although I will concede I felt slightly uncomfortable later when my astonished friend back in Scotland marvelled at my talent for wildlife photography and suggested I change career.
Stranger things have happened. Within 24 hours of my trip to Extremadura – an inland Spanish region nobody has heard of because there is no sea and lots of vultures – I was so blissed out that, for a few short moments, I fantasised about running away from home to spend the rest of my days searching for great grey shrikes and lying in wait for Iberian magpies, even if it would mean intermittent wind, sunburn and an awful lot of weeing behind bushes.
“Bustards! I’ve just seen two great bustards!” I declared in triumph as I scanned the wide Spanish steppes with my elderly binoculars.
“No, you haven’t,” deadpanned Martin, one of the guides. “Those are gingery rocks. Again.”
Whatever. I was having a ball. A hoot, even. We clocked the bustards eventually, of course. Iberian hares, roe deer, a family of wild boars, even a mongoose. When you start actively looking, it’s amazing what you find. Or, indeed, where you find yourself.
Like a great many people, I became fascinated by my garden birds during lockdown. It seemed logical to take the next step and so I joined a beginners’ trip run by British company Naturetrek, who are experts in the field, cliff face, wetlands and woodlands of wildlife holidays across the world.
Did I say holiday? Early starts, ninehour days, a postprandial report to compile – no wonder half of us kept referring to our trip as “the course”. I was tempted to take a day off and lie by the pool, despite the vagaries of the Spanish spring weather, but, dammit, I couldn’t: fomo – fear of missing ornithology – kept me going.
Was I prepared to forgo the opportunity to glimpse a purple swamphen? How would I feel when my peers returned, raving about the unfeasibly bright-blue rollers and the blackwinged stilts? Exactly. No birder left behind. Not even a rookie like me.
Extremadura and its Monfragüe National Park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, is a three-hour drive from Madrid, and abounds with contrasting habitats, rare and endangered species and is famous as a resting point for feathered migrants heading north.
It did not disappoint. Everywhere we went, the air was saturated with birdsong; the impact was extraordinary and deeply affecting. From the gently clattering beaks of the white storks greeting one another on their church-tower nests to the squabbling congregations of sparrows in the hedgerows, the surround-sound of the natural world was balm to the soul.
I found myself with a fabulous bunch of people at least a decade and a half older than me, variously warm, wise and waspishly funny. There were couples, a smattering of singletons, a pair of friends – and the bonhomie was brilliant.
So what if I have teenage children and they have teenage grandchildren? Nobody cared that I was yomping around in my battered old trainers while they were head to toe in Helly Hansen with Salomon hiking boots, living their best lives on final-salary pensions.
Oh, and everyone (apart from me) seemed to have been to Costa Rica. And yet I had far more in common with these folk two decades older than I would ever have with those two decades younger. Maybe because culture moved slower back in the olden days.
“How shall I describe you all?” I demanded rhetorically as I surveyed these magnificently active thirdagers. “I’m thinking, slim, trim and full of v...”
“Ajax,” quipped Moira, dry and effective as an abrasive powder cleanser. “We’re all so busy, we can’t really remember how we once fitted work in.” Now that’s what I call retirement.
The break was billed as luxury, but, unfortunately, our original digs – a stately home surrounded by lush gardens and
Everywhere we went, the air was saturated with birdsong, which was balm to the soul
bathed in tinkling classical music – had failed to reopen after lockdown.
Instead, we bunked up at a boarding house. But it was spacious and spotless, and while the hearty food was at the sopa campesina (peasants’ soup) end of the culinary spectrum, nobody went to bed hungry. Exhausted, yes, but not hungry.
Moreover, when we discovered that little owls roosted in the garden, in-house storks clacked away on the roof, and flapping hoopoes had installed themselves by the main gate, it more than made up for any absence of glamour.
In its place there was joy – 10 bejewelled bee-eaters in a row on the wire fence, actually eating bees!
There was jubilation – a Spanish imperial eagle made a magnificent cameo appearance.
And jeopardy, when Jim, our other guide – burly as a brick outbuilding, but (ahhh) a licensed dormouse handler – started urgently channelling the final furlong at Aintree.
“Left! Four sandgrouse moving left. The eucalyptus tree. The barn with the red roof. Dropping down now. Left. Left! Below the grey cloud bank. Now up again. Left. Staying left. Over the pylon…”
And as the male pin-tailed sandgrouse swooped low, skimming the pond to take on water in their abdominal feathers for their chicks, we punched the air with elation. Who knew birding could be so exhilarating?
Our guides did. They had telescopes and cameras and went to great pains to ensure not just that we saw and heard, but that we understood what we were seeing and hearing.
Every evening after dinner, we made a note on our checklists, notching up about 200 birds in all, plus butterflies and more; one morning, we pulled over on a main road to visit a breathtaking array of orchids (naked man orchids, champagne orchids, mirror orchids) in a protected ancient olive grove.
Later, we stopped by a municipal park with a tiny tiled fountain to see a scops owl dozing in a tree. I took a fuzzy picture because I wouldn’t dream of downloading a generic shot – I’m now a fully-fledged birder. Can’t you tell? Next stop, the toucans of Costa Rica…