In Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, when Mistress Quickly says, "Her husband goes this morning a-birding", she actually means he's gone hunting rather than birdwatching. But now the term 'birding' is often used in preference to 'birdwatching', as it allows for the fact you don't always need to see a bird to identify it. If you do want to see your 'prey', though, you should arm yourself with a good pair of binoculars and head out before the sun gets too high and the viewing spots too busy. Here are just a few of the best areas for birding in Spain:
Laguna de Gallocanta (Zaragoza/Teruel)
The brackish waters of the largest natural wetland in the Iberian Peninsula seem like a mirage in the midst of the surrounding fields. When the first autumn chills taint the air, and again in February, thousands of Cranes make a stop-over here on their migration route, an event celebrated as the Fiesta de la Grulla. As many as 60,000 of these elegant and graceful waders have been counted here, alongside a host of wetland birds including Mallards and Common and Red-crested Pochard.
The visitor centre and the Gallocanta Bird Museum will both help orient you to which birds you can hope to see, but your time is best spent in enjoying the panoramic views from the viewpoints at Berrueco castle, the road between Gallocanta and Tornos, and at the Buen Acuerdo Romanesque hermitage near Gallocanta itself. If you are lucky enough to coincide with the Fiesta de la Grulla, you'll find all sorts of other events and activities organised around this migration stop-over spectacle.
The Gallocanta Visitor Centre (Tel. 978 73 40 31) is located between Bello and Tornos. The Gallocanta Tourist Board also offers information about visits to the lagoon and access to the Bird Museum. As well as the twice yearly Fiestas de la Grulla, the Amigos de Gallocanta – 'friends of Gallocanta' – organise guided trips, courses and other ornithologically focused events.
Monfrague National Park (Caceres)
The Monfrague National Park has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and a Special Protection Area (SPA) for bird-life, making it an essential destination for any birdwatcher. The park's 18,000 hectares are cut in half by the Tagus River and extensively covered by holm oaks. The world's largest colony of Eurasion Black Vultures breed here, as do three different eagles – the Golden Eagle, the Spanish Imperial Eagle and Bonelli's Eagle. There is also a large colony of Black Storks, as well as Herons, Cormorants and nocturnal birds such as the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Tawny Owl.
There are a number of good observation points around the park, but the viewpoints of the Salto del Gitano – 'gypsy's leap' – la Portilla del Tietar and la Tajadilla offer some of the best viewing opportunities. Each year, at the start of spring, the small village of Villarreal de San Carlos hosts the International Birdwatching Fair (FIO), a chance to go birding alongside ornithologists and naturalists from around the world. The Monfrague National Park Visitor Centre is located in Villareal de San Carlos.
Laguna Fuente de Piedra (Malaga)
Spain's second largest wetland after Gallocanta, the Laguna Fuente de Piedra is home to one of the biggest populations of Flamingoes in all Europe. Up to 30,000 pairs of the astonishing pink birds gather to breed at Fuente de Piedra in February and March. This gives rise to the summer festival at the end of July, or beginning of August when researchers check on, measure and ring the newly hatched young. There are other, smaller wetlands in the area, such as Laguneto, las Palomas and los Abejarucos. The best observation points are the marked trails leading to Laguneto or Vicaria. The Fuente de Piedra Visitor Centre is located on the small high ground alongside the lagoon known as Cerro del Palo,(Tel. 952 11 17 15/670 94 38 94). The Fuente de Piedra Town Hall also provides information.
Lagunas de Villafafila (Zamora)
The flat plains of the Zamora's Tierra de Campos are dominated by the yellow of cereal fields, to which the waters of the Lagunas de Villafafila bring a welcome brightness. Each autumn sees the arrival of tens of thousands of birds fleeing from the colder winter in the north of Europe, making it a paradise for ornithologists. Over a hundred species of bird are to be found here, including some 20,000 Geese and 2,500 Bustards as well as Black Storks, Grey Herons and Cranes. The Villafafila Nature Visitor Centre (Tel. 980 58 60 46), on the road between Villafafila and Tapioles, organises visits and can recommend the best itineraries available.