For wildlife travelers from the United States, Spain offers a range of interesting habitats and an equally fascinating array of species, all neatly contained in an area just slightly smaller than Texas. Because of its position, bridging northern Africa and southern Europe, Spain encompasses a diverse topography and an assortment of climates. These give rise to a unique collection of ecosystems and some of the best wildlife watching opportunities in Europe.
Spain’s regions cover globally important coastal wetlands, montane forests, savannah grasslands, deserts, garrique scrublands, broadleaf woodlands, and conifer forests. The country is also one of the major flyways for migration from Africa to northern Europe. It is home to an estimated 85,000 different animals and plants, including more than 620 species of birds and around 30 percent of Europe’s endemic species.
If you fly into Barcelona, you can easily reach the historic regions of Aragon and Navarre. Covering an area of 18,424 square miles, Aragon’s terrain ranges from permanent glaciers to verdant valleys, rich pasture lands and orchards, and to the arid steppe plains of the central lowlands.
Aragon is home to the Aneto, the highest mountain in the Pyrenees and also the River Ebro that flows into the Mediterranean via the Ebro Delta, just south of Barcelona. This rice-growing area of paddy fields and saltpans is a haven for wetland birds. Large flocks of Glossy Ibises roam the fields along with Eurasian Spoonbills, Grey and Purple Herons, Great White, Little, and Cattle Egrets, Great and Little Bitterns, and Black-crowned Night-Herons.
Few places are better to see Spain’s vulture populations than a site near the hilltop village of Alquezar in Aragon. A feeding station there attracts large gatherings of Griffon and significant numbers of Egyptian Vultures, with excellent photography opportunities at relatively close range.
Despite its small size, neighboring Navarre features stark contrasts in geography — from the Pyrenees mountain range to the plains of the Ebro River valley. It is home to some of Europe’s most spectacular birds, including Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), Egyptian Vulture, Wallcreeper, Black Woodpecker, Capercaillie, and White-winged Snowfinch.
You can also see Great and Little Bustards, plus thousands of Common Cranes on the plains during autumn and winter. The plains are also home to the very rare and elusive Dupont’s Lark. Mammals in the mountains include Pyrenean chamois, Alpine marmot, and there is the chance to find the European wildcat.
West of Navarre, the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country come between the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Mountains. This area has the nickname of Green Spain because of its lush vegetation growing in the wet and mild oceanic climate.
In the eastern range, the Picos de Europa National Park contains the most spectacular mountains, rising to 8,687 feet at the Torre de Cerredo peak. Here, there is a good chance of seeing Eurasian brown bear, as well as Iberian wolf, wildcat and wild boar. More commonly encountered wildlife include Spanish ibex, Cantabrian chamois, red and roe deer, and red squirrel.
In you fly into Madrid, the huge territory of Castile and León lies to the north and west. This consists of a large central plateau known as the Meseta, between 2,300 and 3,300 feet above sea level and surrounded by mountains. Midway between the Atlantic north and the Mediterranean south, Castile and León boasts the best of both worlds in terms of biodiversity and the country’s highest populations of Great Bustard and Iberian wolf.
Despite the existence of a large city of five million people, the countryside surrounding Madrid still retains remarkably unspoiled and diverse habitats. The area has mountain peaks rising above 6,500 feet, holm oak dehesa (open Iberian cork oak forest), and low-lying plains.
The slopes of the Guadarrama ranging to the west of the city are cloaked in dense forests of Scots pine and Pyrenean oak. The Lozoya Valley supports a large Black Vulture colony, and Spanish Imperial Eagle is found in the Park Regional del Suroeste, just south of the city.
The harsh environment of Extremadura belies the richness of the local wildlife and the historic importance of the area. The picturesque towns in this least populated part of Spain grew up around a major trading route dating back to Roman times. Here they offer an experience of heritage buildings and fine cuisine, with some top birdwatching on the plains between them.
Within the ancient town of Trujillo, in common with other urban areas in the region, a sizable population of White Storks nests among the towers and chimney pots. Another particularly good place to see them is around the Acueducto de los Milagros, the ruins of a Roman aqueduct in Merida.
Extremadura is also arguably the best place in Western Europe to see raptors, including Spanish Imperial and Bonelli’s Eagles, Black, Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, and Black-winged Kite. The best location is around the Peña Falcón escarpment and Castillo Monfragüe. From this viewpoint, the vultures swish past at eye level. Eurasian Eagle Owls are also found in the gorge below the castle.
In Extremadura, expect good numbers of Great and Little Bustards, White and Black Storks, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Iberian Magpie, Great Spotted Cuckoo, and European Roller.
Between November and early February, Common Cranes inhabit rice paddies, maize stubble, and open grassland, semi-arid plains, the dehesa, and the margins of water bodies. There’s a crane visitor center at Moheda Alta, to the east of Trujillo.
As well as being outstanding for birds, Extremadura boasts a wealth of other wildlife. Mammals include red deer, Spanish ibex, otter, wild boar, beech marten, small numbers of Egyptian mongoose, and the secretive common genet, generally only seen fleetingly around dawn and dusk.
Madrid is again your destination to reach Southern Spain, unless you fly to Portugal and cross the border. The journey time by train or car will be slightly longer than visiting the north of the country, but the rewards are great.
Andalucía offers the marismas of the Coto Doñana National Park. It features rugged mountain gorges with rich flora, the Mediterranean coast, at least 125 breeding bird species, and numerous butterflies. The biodiversity of Spain is probably at its greatest in Andalucía, and it is on a major migratory route between Europe and Africa.
At the beginning of September, the most spectacular visible migration of storks and raptors in Europe occurs, involving astonishing numbers of White Stork, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Honey Buzzard, and Montagu’s Harrier.
In the Coto Doñana wetlands, some of Europe’s most localized birds are found, including Marbled and White-headed Duck, Black-winged Kite, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Western Swamphen, Audouin’s Gull, and Iberian Magpie. Plus, you may see spectacular birds such as Greater Flamingo, Cinereous Vulture, and Golden Eagle.
Off the coast of Doñana, cetacean spotters may see orcas (mid-August to early September), long-finned pilot whales, common bottlenose, and short-beaked common and striped dolphins. A small population of Northern Bald Ibis — one of the rarest birds in the world — occurs in La Barca de Vejer in Cadiz.
Other wildlife found here include Spanish ibex, Iberian lynx, wild boar, red deer, and the chance of European mouflon and Egyptian mongoose.
Getting the best out of your wildlife holiday
The key to seeing the greatest variety of animal species wherever you choose to go in Spain is to hire a local guide.
Blue Sky Wildlife has put together one of the best collections of wildlife tours in Spain offered by local guides, making it easy to book directly your next birdwatching adventure in Spain. Day trips start from only €75 (about $88) and multi-day tours from €220 (roughly $260) per person.
Featured article sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain in New York in association with Blue Sky Wildlife.