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Winging It in Spain's Bird Paradise (PHOTOS)

02/18/2014 02:04 pm 14:04:54 | Updated Apr 20, 2014

"A flock of cranes...a flock of cranes!" Pointing to the noble birds flying low in the distance, guide Martin Kelsey prompted our group to aim a phalanx of two-foot-long camera lenses into the Spanish sky. "They're the last ones left, he added." For 100,000 common cranes winter holidays were ending late last February as they returned to Scandinavia to breed. For me, rapid neck swiveling was becoming a habit on a thrilling birdwatching primer in Spain's rugged, sparsely populated Extremadura region bordering Portugal.

Since my avian knowledge is about as deep as it of manatees or narwhals, it was news to me on arrival that Switzerland-sized Extremadura is one of Europe's finest bird migration belts. More than 300 species pass through or roost here on vast hunting estates, in mountainous national parks and wetland biosphere zones that lie within some five-hundred EU Special Protection Areas.

As we drove for several days through the region, British ornithologist Martin pointed out new bird-friendly measures that have been adopted, like the placement of visible markers along power lines to prevent fatal collisions by large-winged flyers.

Locals used to "persecute" magnificent birds of prey, he explained, whereas "today it's a point of pride to say you have a Spanish imperial eagle on your land." Once down to 30 pairs, the species has rebounded to as many as three-hundred.

Outside the walled city of Cáceres, we stopped to admire some sixty robust storks facing directly into a stiff wind and clacking their beaks up in their stork dormitory, a field of cellphone-like towers erected as nesting sites. All around UNESCO-protected medieval hilltop towns like Cáceres and Trujillo, where many conquistadors like Pizarro came from, white storks roost in church towers and lesser kestrels of the falcon family zip about.

Whenever he spotted, say, a shrike -- a tiny creature whose efficient killing-machine beak earned it the nickname "butcher bird" -- Martin hit the brakes for us to scan the brambles. As we bounced down country roads and over old stone bridges, he threw out one fun fact after another. No, I did not know that the black griffin vulture's nine-foot wing span is the largest in Europe; nor that the forty-pound great bustards gliding past us are the world's heaviest flying bird.

Our afternoon crane spotting took place in the courtyard of an eighteenth-century finca called El Vaqueril, whose stalls once kept toros de lidia, the famous fighting bulls. Today its white-washed ranchhand quarters are snug, rustic guestrooms.

Hiking out on the finca's classic dehesa, or enclosed woodland pasture, we stopped by a stone Visigoth tomb as Martin schooled us on the import of these lands where cork oak trees grow, ibérico pigs fatten up on acorns, and deep-red retinta cattle laze.

Along with plateaus that suddenly give way to steep ravines, dehesas are largely what make Extremadura a bird haven. After the Reconquista, the Spanish crown granted families these large woodland estates to help keep up the population in the backward region.

"If Pizarro, who was originally a swine herder, came back today," Martin said, "he'd recognize this place as it is."

As a reward for our bucolic exertions we warmed up in front of a roaring fire in the Vaqueril's restaurant and gorged on plates of jamón ibérico prepared by master carver Nico Jiménez as he elaborated on the curing and marbling of the delicately textured ham that can fetch $100 a pound in the states. Nico, it turns out, is to slicing what Nadal is to topspin -- he holds a Guinness record for having created a single 44-foot-long ribbon of jamón.

As I did every evening, I warmed up by another fire when we returned to Martin's place, an old stone house in a tiny hamlet outside of Trujillo that he and his wife Claudia converted into the Casa Rural el Recuerdo inn. Their views take in a movie set's worth of rural charms, from sheep grazing behind a low stonewall to an old church, and a dilapidated olive press whose rotted floorboards almost sent me crashing into the rusted tanks below.

Standing one early morning on a lookout we peered through high-end Swarovski telescopes to the high bluffs across the Tagus River which cuts through Monfragüe National Park on its way to Lisbon. Martin's Dutch guiding partner, Godfried Schreur, zoomed for me right in on a black vulture's powerful "fingers," its tapered wing-tip feathers. When a black stork cruised by, followed by a golden eagle, a row of other birders let out oohs and aahs.

Suddenly birds began taking off from all over the rugged cliffs, circling like drones above a narrow called the Salto de Gitano, or Gypsy's Leap.

"Everything happens at once," said Godfried as a peregrine falcon -- the world's fastest bird -- started "mobbing" a golden eagle. "Then it goes quiet and you can stand here forever."

The next chilly morning we stood at the edge of a fallow field dotted with wildflowers while a small owl sat on the roof of a stone farm shack and watched us watch him. In short order a vulture and golden eagle landed below and the owl wisely thought it best to vamoose.

On a nearby hillcrest we photographed a gorgeous Bonelli's eagle ruling over the valley from atop a power pylon. My more experienced birding mates' constant banter sounded like air traffic control: "Ah, there's a very nice black vulture coming in now to the right."

Fortified with espresso from a sleepy village café, on our last nippy morning we sat in hides by a reservoir to gaze at cattle egrets and gorgeous purple gallinules snooping around in the reeds. Right after we had piled back in the van to head to the Madrid airport, as if on cue, Godfried punched the brakes and grabbed his binocs. A small raptor was flying low with the shimmering snow-capped Gredos Mountains as a backdrop. It was a black-winged kite, he announced. Because who doesn't always brake for a black-winged kite?

(For a complete Spanish birding experience, the Extremadura Birdwatching Fair takes place Feb. 28-March 2, 2014 in Monfragüe National Park.)

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