Monfragüe National Park, A Vulture Lover's Paradise

Let me tell you about about vultures...and Iberian ham...

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

Birders looking badass as hell climbing up to Monfragüe Castle to do some birding in Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 

I recently visited Extremadura which is in the southwest region of Spain and bordered by Portugal. It's an "autonomous community" meaning that even though it's inside Spain, it governs itself. Extremadura is fairly wild and remote and offers tremendous birding opportunity as well as Roman ruins. I've written a little bit about castle birding over at the PhoneSkope blog which includes this region. If you are looking for a unique birdwatching experience, Monfragüe National Park has it.

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

Griffon vultures roosting on one of the may rocky cliff faces in Monfragüe. 

The big show while I was at the park was the large population of griffon vultures...which are a bit different than the turkey and black vultures we have in North America. This Old World species is ancient looking and gigantic, they make turkey vultures look practically anorexic. To give you an idea, a turkey vulture weighs about 3 - 4 pounds. A bald eagle can weigh anywhere from 8 - 12 pounds. A griffon vulture...now that beast can weigh as much as 25 pounds! Wrap your head around that for a minute--a soaring 25 pound bird! That's about the weight of a trumpeter swan!

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

Griffon vultures pair up for life and nest in breeding colonies along rocky cliffs. Spain hosts the largest breeding population for this species and Monfragüe National Park is a great place to view them. 

One morning while we were out birding, there was a griffon vulture perched on a rock in the field. There was no way to stop to get a photo, but you could clearly see the bird was almost as tall as me, at least four feet tall. Our guide said the bird was probably feeding and when the afternoon faded to evening there were no thermals or warm currents of air for the bird to use to soar up to the cliff, it had to spend the night on the ground because it's too big to flap up to the cliffs in a powered flight like a common buzzard would be able to do. I asked if there was any danger of predators getting a vulture and our guide smiled and said, "No, not a bird that big."

When I used to do eagle surveys, I always knew they would be one of the last birds to hit the thermals and I wouldn't really see them lift off until after 9:30am since they are a bit heavier than hawks and other soaring birds. If vultures are your target in Spain, you can sleep in before you go watch them. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

The castle in Monfragüe National Park offers dynamite views of griffon and black vultures as well as song birds on the trail up to it. 

It's one thing to go birding in a beautiful park with a rugged landscape. Monfragüe ups the adventure by offering tours from a castle on top of hill and looking into the valley below. When you get there, you go out on the roof and survey the landscape. Vultures start to rise and it isn't long until they're on the thermals and soaring 15 feet away from you and your eye to eye with this massive, winged beast. To make it even more decadent, there's a vendor with a cart who will sell you some espresso or beer to enjoy while you take in the view.

Below are some more highlights:

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Griffon vultures rely on soaring to keep their massive weight in the air, since their heavy bodies would burn too much energy for flapping in powered flight. They soar high looking for dead livestock. 

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Imagine returning from vacation and a coworker asks, "What did you do?" and you can answer, "I stood on top of a castle in Spain watching vultures soar past me while I sipped an espresso."

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

Other species of vulture can be possible too, depending on the time of year. These are black vultures with my lifer Egyptian vulture mixed in. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

European serins serenaded us on the trails in the national park. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

Eurasian wrens are one of my favorite singers. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

One of the prized species in this region is the Spanish imperial eagle. My picture got photobombed by a griffon vulture. 

Black stork.

Black stork.

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

The park a mixture of scrub habitat among rocky cliffs and and small oak forests. One tends to think of Europe as being mostly historic cities and villages but there's a warm wildness in Extremadura that is unique to Europe. You can find spots and feel like you're in a true wilderness. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

If you are not a vegetarian, make Iberian Ham a priority when visiting Extremadura. 

Speaking of the small oak forests, one of the best cured meats I've ever put in my mouth can be found in Extremadura. Pigs are left to wander the oaks during an acorn mast for six months before they're killed. The meat is then cured for three years, but may linger in shops for another two years before purchase. It's buttery soft and can be put on the traditional breads, but I enjoyed it on it's own. I thought Austria had a handle on making my favorite cured meats, but Iberian Ham blows it out of the water. It's the sort of food after tasting it where I thought, "I have to come back here, I can't imagine never eating this ever again. I know a lot of birders like to celebrate a life bird with "lifer pie," but if you're in Spain and you're a carnivore then make "lifer ham."