When birders get together and talk about their favorite places to go see birds you usually hear Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador…but me? I like Europe. Don’t get me wrong, going south of the Equator has lots to offer but if you sometimes travel with a non-birding spouse who isn’t a huge fan of the outdoors, Europe can be a great compromise. And as cool as it is to be on top of a volcano after a five hour hike up uncountable switchbacks in high humidity to glimpse a guan or warbler, there’s something to be said about wandering centuries old streets where you can stop for a quick coffee and pastry watching Eurasian Kestrels and listening to the haunting song of a European Blackbird echo off of city walls. And all towns are full of rich history to add flavor to stories learned long ago in history classes.
The luck of the draw with some of my work commitments has put me in Europe twice this year. Some of my time was spent in Austria and some of it was in the fabulous Extremadura area of Spain.
Austria offers alpine birding as well as some great shorebird and marsh opportunities. I spent some time in Innsbruck and then headed over to Lake Constance. After we finished our meetings, the man who organized the trip knew that a few of us were birders and there was one particular European specialty we really wanted: a Wallcreeper! When you get into birding, you will scan field guides for birds you’d like to learn about and see. Some birds just pop out at you and you know in your gut you need to see one before you die. In American field guides these would be Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Scarlet Tanager—you get the picture.
In European field guides, it’s the Wallcreeper. Imagine a sleek looking nuthatch covered in silver with bright pink wings that likes to crawl up and down the sides of castles. I’ve tried for it more than once and every time failed. This time, our organizer knew a local bird guide who had a solid lead on a Wallcreeper spending the winter on a castle in Bregenz.
So on my final day in Austria, we found ourselves heading to Hohenbregenz Castle to look for the elusive bird. It took some time, but the Wallcreeper was found and put on quite a show on the castle walls. It started up high while foraging for insects and then worked it’s way down where we were all able to digiscope it. I even got some video and posted it to Facebook Live because really, there’s nothing quite like trolling your friends who are stuck in an office while you are watching one of the birds of your dream. Here's a video of the Wallcreeper:
About a month later, I spent some time birding in Extremadura in central Spain. Most people think birding involves being up at 4am and trudging out all day. Things are much more relaxed in Spain. We would have a lovely breakfast and then head out to Monfragüe National Park to climb up to a castle to watch Griffon Vultures soar by.
It’s not a bad uphill climb and you can take your time to see other species like European Serin and Great Tits as you go. Once at the top you get a gorgeous view of the landscape and vultures and there is a little coffee cart ready to caffeinate you while you take vulture photos in perfect sun. The birds show up late morning because they need the sun to warm up the ground to create warm currents of air they can soar on to get their large bodies floating high in the sky, on the look out for carrion. As a bonus perk, there's a tiny cafe where you purchase snacks, coffee and a beer to fortify yourself as you spend the day photographing the birds and gorgeous landscape around you. There are plenty of other areas to explore in and it's a great opportunity to view Spanish Imperial Eagle and find Griffon Vultures on nests.
Towards the end of my trip we spent time in Trujillo. The fortified castle in that town is supposed to be part of the set in an upcoming episode of Game of Thrones. When you’re at the top, you can see so much of the untouched countryside. The town dates back to 600 B.C. and includes stunning residents built by Spanish Conquistadors using their newfound wealth after returning from their colonization quests. We were on a history tour and I brought along my spotting scope and PhoneSkope kit. Every time I take along my kit and a guide says, “You won’t need that,” my response is, “I always regret when I don’t have my digiscoping set up, never when I do have it.”
And even if birds aren’t part of the official agenda, I like to use the scope to focus in on architectural details. Sometimes you find great scary faces carved in homes or in some cases a sneaky restoration professional will incorporate their favorite football team’s logo. But time in towns with a scope might also allow me a chance to get a great shot of a bird that is very common for a person who lives there but new and special for me. For years I’ve wanted a photo of a stork nest but the birding trips I’m on rarely get me to where they are nesting in good light. And as luck would have it, as we were walking around Trujillo we found a beautiful stork nest from the castle walls and I was able to get photos and video.
Don’t forget that while you are birding in a city, there are plenty of ways to celebrate from coffees, cheeses or beers.