As some of you may know already, my partner Ross is an avid bird watcher and I like *attempting* to take photos of our feathery friends. This means that we go to a fair amount of national parks and nature reserves in the hope of seeing something new and exciting. And also because we just like walking and being surrounded by nature. Ross had read online about Monfrägue National Park, in the Spanish region of Extremadura, and how it was supposed to be frequented by vultures. We made sure that we went there on our way to Portugal.
We’d already spotted what we thought was a griffon vulture in the Picos De Europa National Park, but it was pretty far away from us and we couldn’t be sure. So we were very eager to see a griffon vulture for definite, and to maybe take one blurry but conclusive photo (those are my current specialities). You can imagine our surprise as we drove past the sign for Monfrägue National Park and saw about ten dark circling shapes over the road!
We stopped by the visitors center in the only inhabited area in the park, Villarreal De San Carlos, to pick up a map in English and decide what we were going to do. There are several walks/ driving tours you can go on. Since we had sunny weather in the morning and the forecast said a rainy afternoon, we opted for a little walk around the village and surroundings then a drive in the afternoon. The walk was only about an hour and was beautiful, with gorgeous views of the rivers and mountains of Monfrägue. We didn’t see many birds though – just drank in the scenery.
By the time we hopped back into the van, to our surprise, it was still sunny! The drive we chose ran past the huge river Tagus and had lots of parking on the side of the road, meaning that you could stop at any time to look at some wildlife! We rounded a bend about ten minutes drive from the village, and saw a plethora of cars and excited looking bird watchers with gigantic camera lenses and binoculars. Bingo.
We parked up and looked into the sky, where there were at least one hundred massive birds of prey – the griffon vultures! There were so many of them that the braver birds amongst them even occasionally swooped right over us. It meant that I was able to fully comprehend how bloody big they are! A bit of googling informed me that the wingspan of griffon vultures is between 2.2 and 2.8 metres long… I’ll just let that sink in… They are huge! And interestingly, the females are bigger than the males.
We must have been in that space for over an hour and a half, staring upwards in awe – in flight they are at their most magnificent. But I must say, when you can see one up close and perching, you can see that they are actually rather ugly. One vulture sat on a rock near us where I could really zoom in with my amateur camera and it was not a good look for him, poor fellow.
We also managed to spot some rarer birds within the group of griffons: a couple of Egyptian vultures and some shy black storks (white storks are ten a penny in Spain), but I didn’t manage to snap any photos of them. But we were very happy that we saw them and when we pulled ourselves away from the mass of vultures, we drove down the road to go see the nearby castle of Monfrägue.
We had to park the van and walk up a painfully steep and never ending “hill” to the tiny castle at the top. The castle itself was pretty uninteresting but my goodness, the views were worth the climb. You could see across the entire national park and beyond, as well as the descending rain that was creeping towards us. We got a few photos and made our way down the hill, only to be offered a lift by the one other guy in the castle. He was Dutch and really friendly, dropping us back by our van after giving us a few birdy tips.
We then continued our drive to the other side of the park. We were about to conclude that there was nothing to see, when Ross pointed silently to the other side of the road where three does and their fawns had just emerged. The six fallow deer were delicately nibbling on the grass, with one eye on me as I took a few photos from our side of the road (gotta love that x42 zoom) and made “aww they are so cute!” faces at Ross.
That encounter was the perfect ending to our day in Monfrägue, and since no camping or staying overnight in a van/motor home is allowed on the entire park, we left to find a place for the night. I’ll never forget those vultures- it’s an experience that I will remember forever.