Last years 2020 breeding season for the Iberian Imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti) has seen some excellent results with. There are new nesting pairs of Spanish Imperial Eagle in Andalusia and 138 hatchings were recorded in Andalusia with 122 leaving the nest successfully and only 13 cases of mortality. Most of the breeding pairs of the Iberian imperial eagle in Andalusia are located in the province of Jaén, where there are 50, while the province of Cordoba is in second place, with 32 pairs, and then Seville, with 27. The rest It is distributed between those of Huelva (6), Cádiz (5) and Granada (3).
This increase in new distribution areas in the provinces of Granada, Cádiz and in the Sierras Béticas of Jaén consolidates the viability of the Andalusian population, while the number of couples in Sierra Morena has grown, which has made it possible to unite the eastern and western sub-nuclei, increasing the population of the province of Seville by five pairs, where a population decline had been detected in recent years.
The breeding success of 2020 was certainly helped by the confinement due to the Covid-19 health crisis and the closure of sites where nesting took place which has reduced human disturbance to the reproductive pairs. Nesting habitat is usually dry, mature woodlands, which they utilize for nesting and seclusion, but nests are most often fairly close to shrubby openings and wetland areas where prey is more likely to be concentrated. A shy species, they normally nest only where human disturbance is quite low.
March and early April brings a great joy for lovers of the spectacular Short-toed Eagle – Circaetus gallicus -Aguila culebrera when yet again they have made it across the Strait of Gibraltar to their breeding grounds in Europe. The first single birds start appearing in the Sierra de Grazalema at the end of February but the massive migration comes in March, when clouds of birds can be seen entering continental Europe.
This eagle´s appearance and its habits make it a treat to watch, whether you are a seasoned birder, a casual nature lover or a walker who maybe has never seen an eagle before. Once you have spotted this easy-to-identify, pale, graceful silhouette against the blue Andalucían sky, hovering like a kestrel while scanning the limestone rocks and scrub to find prey, you just may become a life-long fan.
There are many features which make the European Short-toed Eagle special, probably the most defining one being its diet. This eagle is a successful snake hunter, its diet being a narrow speciality as far as birds of prey are concerned.
Where do the short-toes fit in, then?
This bird has powerful but stubby toes, covered in thick scales which protect it from snake bites. When the eagle spots a snake from above using its excellent binocular vision (its eyes are very large and facing well forward) it lunges at the reptile, grabbing it with its strong toes and pecking at the head with its sharp hooked beak. The snake, in defence, will try to crawl on the bird´s wings, damaging the feathers and the struggle can be quite spectacular as the eagle does not shy away from large snakes. Once subdued the snake is swallowed whole. The bird throws its head back and using gravity and a snake-friendly gullet, let´s the prey slide bit by bit into its stomach.
Nesting and chick rearing
The Short-toed eagle nests in bushy tree-tops, such as Holm or Cork Oaks; only one egg is laid. The Short-toed “Eaglet” hatches from mid May to the beginning of June and starts flying in August, only one or two months before it is time to migrate to the tropical zone of Africa. There are well-documented cases of both juvenile and adult birds overwintering in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, although it is more of an exception than a rule.
The young chick is first fed with small snake snacks and then taught to swallow the reptile whole like thick spaghetti. It is a fascinating sight to witness the adult eagles carrying wiggling snakes hanging from their beaks making the tricky delivery to the nest. The Short-toed will also pursue lizards, especially the large Ocellated Lizard which seems to be its favourite delicacy. When no snakes or lizards are available, it will cheat hunger with an occasional amphibian or even large insects.
How to identify the Short-toed Eagle – Circaetus gallicus – Aguila culebrera
Before you ask yourself what it is, it´s good to think what it is not. By far the most likely bird of prey in the skies around Grazalema in Andalusia is the large Griffon Vulture; however all of our resident and migratory eagles are smaller than the Griffon, even the powerful Golden Eagle. So, if it is a little smaller than a Griffon Vulture, we may want to start paying attention.
Very pale. The Short-toed eagle in flight will at first glance appear to be purely white underneath, at a closer look you will notice fine barring on the wings and chest. Young birds will often lack those fine dark lines. The wings are quite wide and the tail is long, often fanned out when the birds is suspended in the air.
If it hovers and it is much, much larger than a Kestrel, then it is the Short-toed Eagle. The wing beats are not as fast as the Kestrel’s but the Short-toed can stay suspended in one spot for quite a while.
Large, often fluffed up head, quite startled-looking large orange eyes, hooked beak and match-stick thin legs make up the image of a perched Short-toed. It will happily rest on rocks or in trees.
In the breeding season, or flying with the young, these birds can be quite vocal, uttering mournful, nasal shrieks, like someone suffering from a heavy cold. The parents and the young love play-fighting dive bombing each other in mid air.
These spectacular animals are not endangered in Spain at the moment but they are considered to be birds “of special interest”. They could start disappearing rapidly due to the progressive destruction of large forests and due to the thoughtless persecution of snakes which is still common in all parts of Europe. The bird´s survival depends on the availability of reptiles.
In Spanish, the Short-toed is called “la Culebrera”, the Snake Eagle, which is also an alternative, less used, English name for this impressive raptor.
Watch this fantastic footage from the Spanish wildlife show “El hombre y la tierra” with the unmistakeable narrative voice of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.
Iberia Nature Forum
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Alternative names / spellings: Lammergeier, Lammergeyer, Lammergeir.
The Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatus – Quebrantahuesos is one of the largest raptors in Spain and also the rarest. It has a wingspan of 2.8 m and length of around 1.10 m. The dark, narrow wings taper to a point while the tail is long and wedge shaped. The body, legs and head are a dirty white although they deliberately stain this to a dark orange colour using iron oxides contained in calcareous rock where available. They have dark feathers around the eyes and it is the long bristles draped beside the bill which leads to the English common name of Bearded Vulture.
They only live in high mountainous areas, usually between 500 to 4000m, preferring ledges on steep cliffs. They can be seen soaring through valleys in search for food. This can be live prey, carrion or the better known habit of breaking bones by dropping them from a great height onto rocks. This exposes the nutrient rich marrow and splinters the bone into smaller pieces which are also eaten.
These birds are very territorial, defending from 200 to 400 km2 against the presence of other adults. Sexual maturity is reached at 5 to 6 years old for females and 8 to 9 years for males. Nesting begins from mid December to January. Normally there are 2 eggs laid but all being well, only one will fledge in the June or July. Disturbances during the initial reproduction period are especially problematic, resulting in failure to raise chicks that year.
Human interference has pushed these birds to near extinction in many areas. Poisoning, power line collision or electrocution, shooting and encroachment have greatly reduced their numbers. There are protection, education, breeding and release programs in place to help support their numbers.
The Bearded Vulture was widespread through the main mountain chains of Spain until the mid 20th century, persecution had almost eradicated this raptor from its western European stronghold.
Bearded vultures in Andalusia
As recently as 1986 the last specimen disappeared from Andalucia but a reintroduction program has returned this stuning bird to the mountains of eastern Andalusia.
From 2006 to 2019 of the 60 odd individuals released in Andalusia 23 are still alive and being tracked. 19 are dead and the rest have lost or their transmitors are broken . However, 19 of these individuals are confirmed alive and well from recent sightings.
The Guadalentin breeding centre in Cazorla is run by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF)
Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture
This program has supplied food, mainly sheep limbs, during the winter months when chick survival is at a critical balance. In turn it has enabled the population to grow within the central Pyrenees and expand east and west into the provinces of Catalonia and Navarre. It is from these western populations that sub adults are once again expanding in search of new territories. They are reaching the Cantabrian mountains, especially the Picos de Europa, where projects are underway to prevent a repeat of the hunting / poisoning which eradicated them from here previously.
The “Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos” which translates to the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture are continuing with their protection and education schemes to ensure the expansion of this species.
There is an interesting Eco-museum / visitors centre at the Castle of Ainsa in the Aragon Pyrenees with information dedicated to these birds.
If you see a bearded vulture and are lucky enough to also note the colors and position of any rings or wing tags then you can identify the bird on the website of Quebrantehuesos.org.
According to their website there are 135 tagged released birds. Some have radio tracking systems whilst others are ringed and/or wing tagged. Not all the birds are accounted for so your observation is important for the continuing success of the re-introduction system
The Refugio de Fauna Silvestre de la Laguna de Sariñena (in Aragonese Refuchio de Fauna Silvestre d’a Lacuna de Sarinyena ) is a wildlife refuge located in Los Monegros in the south of the province of Huesca. The refuge, which has an area of 604 hectares was declared as a protected natural area for the first time on April 4 1995. It is located within the municipality of Sariñena between the basins of the Alcanadre and Flumen rivers. In 2001, the natural space was also declared a Special Protection Area for Birds (ZEPA) together with the other nearby lagoon of the Balsa de la Estación.
The Sariñena lagoon is endorheic meaning that its waters have a very high concentration of salts.
Intensive farming and using the lagoon water for irrigation during the 1970s caused the water level to drop dramatically and this in turn changed the saline concentration and the lagoon was in danger of drying up completely. However, a group of researchers and several naturalists proposed the construction of a drainage channel around the lagoon that would guarantee a similar level of water throughout the year. As a consequence of this successful campaign and work completed there is now a ring of reed surrounding the lagoon and numerous species of birds summer or winter in the environs.
This is one of the most important areas for birdlife in Aragón and serves as a shelter for numerous species of aquatic birds. It is considered to be the second most important wetland in Aragon, after the Gallocanta lagoon, and almost 12,000 birds spend the winter on its shores.
Find a hotel close to the Refugio de Fauna Silvestre de la Laguna de Sariñena
Some birds seen at the Refugio de Fauna Silvestre de la Laguna de Sariñena. (In no particular order).
European bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden eagle, Marsh harrier, Stone curlew , Common shrike , Mallard, Sandpiper, Bittern, Avocet, Long-eared Owl, Griffon Vulture, Buzzard, Purple Swamphen, Great Tit, Kestrel, White Stork, Quail, Black wheatear, Crow, Cuckoo, Raven, Little egret, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Grey Heron, Swallow , Spanish Sparrow, House Sparrow, , Tree Sparrow, Jackdaw, Goldfinch, Yellow wagtail, Barn Owl, Black Kite, Blackbird, Little Owl, Golden oriole, Wood pigeon, Linnet, Shoveler duck, Red legged partridge Nightingale, Great crested grebe, Turtledove, Swift, Greenfinch.
Tourism, Ornithology and Nature Fair – AVENATUR
This biannual Fair (normally taking place in November) has been created by the Sariñena City Council to promote the conservation of the natural environment both locally and globally and also to promote ornithological tourism in Aragón.
There is an excellent interpretation centre in the town of Sariñena and I recommend you visit there before you visit the lagoon itself. The staff are very knowledgable and will tell you all you need to know to get the best out of a visit. (Unfortunately its only open on weekends). Inside the centre you will find:
Recreation area with botanical garden.
Bird Observatory at the foot of the Lagoon.
Interpretation Center hours: Open weekends and holidays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Wildside Holidays – Spain
The top wildlife, activity and walking holiday companies in Spain. Small family companies living and working in Spain. Local guides are the best!
Spain has to rate as one of the best countries in in Europe for bird and wildlife watching. A destination with over 15 million hectares of protected areas and natural parks plus Spain is a strategic location on the avian migratory routes between Europe to Africa
Spain hosts huge forests and rocky mountain peaks where large birds of prey soar freely. There are wetlands where waterfowl find their home. Hundreds of nature parks and nature reserves teeming with birds and other wildlife.
If you need a bucket list for Spain then here is my top 10 for bird and wildlife watching in Spain. I have visited them all and would gladly return many times to all of them!
Just click the name of the park to find out much more information.
Cabañeros is considered a Special Protection Area for Birds and is protected within the framework of the Natura 2000 Network. Famous for black vulture, griffon vulture, Iberian imperial eagle, Bonnelli’s eagle and black stork. With summer residents this park teems with birdlife.
Monfragüe is, without a doubt, one of the best places in Spain for bird watching and especially for birds of prey. Every year this area also hosts the International Ornithological Tourism Fair, which attracts bird lovers from all over the world. Top of the list here is black stork, griffon vulture, imperial eagle, eagle owl, Egyptian vulture and short-toed eagle.
A Special Protection Area for birds. And, although there are many species, this national park can boast of being home to the largest colonies of shag and yellow-legged gull in the entire country. The park has strategically located hides.
The Doñana National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are more than 300 species listed. Some are sedentary and others migratory so the time of year greatly influences what species you will see. In spring there are organized visits and every year the International Bird Fair of Doñana is held. The ecosystems are varied between dunes and marshes and it is home to black storks, flamingos, purple herons, coots, bee-eaters and a seemingly endless number of different birds.
The Gallocanta Lagoon is around 1,000 meters above sea level and is one of the most important saline lakes in Western Europe. This lake is on the migratory route for the common crane. October / November and February / March are the best times to visit this area. Guided tours of the nature reserve are also organized from the Gallocanta Lagoon Interpretation Center.
An absolute biological jewel and the most important wetland in Catalonia. Famous for its large and permanent colony of flamingos plus an excellent number of aquatic birds totaling more than 325 species
This Cantabrian natural park is considered one of the places with a huge biological diversity containing around 120 different species including grebes, cormorants, herons, loons, terns, ospreys, coots and white storks.
The best time to visit the Villafáfila Lagoons is in winter or spring. This is an area of special protection for birds that make their home in the wetlands amongst the arable farmland. There are several viewpoints and hides. Grebe, white stork an cranes can be seen but the area is famous for the geese that use the area as a rest stop during their winter migration.
L’Albufera holds a great variety of aquatic birds. Its shores are protected for nesting and shelter for birds and the best months to find them are May, June, July, November, December and January. Look out for European rail, Purple galinule, common tern and black-footed tern.
Wildside Holidays – Spain
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1987 – ZEPA (Special Protection Area for Birds) – 32,549 hectares.
1989 – RAMSAR Wetland (Protection and international importance of the lagoon complex) – 2,854 hectares.
1992 – SCI (Place of Community Interest) – 4,219 hectares
Villages in the area of Reserva Natural Lagunas de Villafáfila
Cañizo, Cerecinos de Campos, Manganeses de la Lampreana, Revellinos, San Agustín del Pozo, San Martín de Valderaduey, Tapioles, Villafáfila (Includes the district of Otero de Sariegos, which is entirely inside the Natural Reserve), Villalba de la Lampreana, Villárdiga and Villarrín de Campos.
Hotels in the area of the Reserva Natural Lagunas de Villafáfila
Points of interest
Depending on the season of the year, different birds can be observed But many people visit this area just for views of the Great bustard (Otis otis)
September is a month in which you can see large concentrations of mallard and an abundance of grey herons from the breeding colonies.
October is the time of passage for migratory birds such as common sandpipers and other waders.
November is the month with the highest concentration of cranes in the reserve and the arrival of the first common geese of the season also important flocks of common sandpipers.
In December, the common goose and the frieze duck abound, being in general a good month to observe rare ducks such as the white-faced goose and the grey-faced geese.
In January there are the highest concentrations of goose and European wigeon
In February the geese begin their journey to the Nordic countries. In their place the stork start to arrive from their southern wintering grounds.
March is the beginning of the arrival of the lesser kestrels, spooonbil and it is the time of spring passage for a large number of waders such as sandpipers and plovers etc. This is also the beginning of the mating season for bustards.
In April the bustard is still in breeding season and large concentrations of male combatants emerge in their full breeding plumage.
May is the breeding season of the lesser kestrels, especially the colony at the church of Otero de Sariegos. Storks and avocets are also in full breeding mode.
June is the month of the quail song in the Reserve, cattle egrets abound and the first flights of young storks.
The heat of July makes the aquatic fauna concentrate in the few remaining wetlands. This month also gives best observations of Montagu’s harrier. The first pre-migratory concentrations of stork are beginning to appear as well.
In August, the post-nuptial passage of sandpipers and other waders begins.
Casa del Parque de las Lagunas de Villafáfila ‘El Palomar’
Ctra. Villalpando, Km. 1,5. 49136. Villafáfila. Zamora
On the N-630 road from Zamora towards Benavente. After the town of Granja de Moreruela, take a detour to the right onto the ZA-701 road, towards La Estación de la Tabla.
On the N-VI highway from Tordesillas towards Benavente leave the highway at Villalpando and at the exit of this town take a detour to the left towards Tapioles and Villafáfila.
This is an excellent information centre for the Lagunas de Villafáfila. There are audiovisual exhibitions, walkways, observation points etc and the place is staffed by very knowledgable guides. Well worth a visit!
Hours: Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays 10:30 to 14:00 and 16:00 to 19:00
Entrance price is 2 euros for adults and 1.50 for children (Children under free)