Spain's central region of "Castilla y León" has one of the richest bird communities in Europe. Its variety of landscapes, the lack of human intervention and the species protection policy have helped to preserve this diversity. Within "Castilla y León" the Gredos Mountains and surrounding habitats stand as one of the most interesting natural parks of Spain from a biological point of view.
The Gredos mountains have been designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is part of Red Natura 2000. It is the home of important landscape, cultural and biological values.
Its wide diversity of birds, over 120 species between residents and summer and winter visitors, is the result of the diversity of ecosystems concentrated in a fairly small area as a result of climatic and altitudinal factors.
Spanish Imperial Eagles, Golden Eagles, Black Vultures and Bluethroats, are amongst some of Europe?s rarest birds that can be watched in this unspoilt landscape. Hoopoes and Kites are very abundant and seem specially appreciated by English visitors.
Any visitor to Piedrahita is struck by the amazing number of Stork nests. There are about 15 nests just on the church in the square. They arrive around January time, starting work on repairing existing nests or building new ones. Once the business of chick rearing is done they leave us at the end of July to return to Africa. Their food source is invertebrates and small reptiles and amphibians. They lay their eggs around March and the chicks are born a month later. There are two particularly interesting events to watch: when they start learning to fly and you can see them flapping their wings frantically until they finally take the plunge and leave the nest for the first time and just before they are ready to start their migration when they have their group meetings and it is common to see hundreds of them gathered in one field or flying together in a huge gaggle.
White stork, Grey Heron, Red and Black Kites, Griffon- Black and Egyptian Vultures, Common and Honey Buzzards , Peregrine Falcon, Common kestrel, Booted Eagle, Golden Eagle, Imperial eagle, Little Owl, Partridge, Bee-eater, Jay, Hoopoe, Kingfisher, Swift, Crag and House Martins, Swallow, Crested lark, Yellow and White Wagtail, Dipper, Wren, Robin, Shrike, Golden Oriole, Bluethroat, Alpine accentor, Tits, Nuthatch, Crow, Raven, Starlings, Sparrows, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Serin, Blackbird. Lactarius Deliciosus
There are many more, but I am only mentioning some. They have been all been spotted by us and on many occasions we have flown alongside them on our paragliders.
Central Spain is very hot and dry in the summer and very cold in the winter, but in between, in spring and autumn when the rain falls, the landscape comes to life.
One of the most interesting characteristics of this region is how the colours change with the seasons. In the spring the abundance of wild flowers paint the fields and hills in red, purple or yellow, particularly when some of the most abundant ones bloom in a specific period of the year. The contrast with the green of the grass is a very colourful experience indeed.
Some of the species that you can find here are: Lavender, poppies, yellow broom, peonies, wild lilies, columbines, cornflower, thyme, rockrose, wild rose, sea cushion, toadflax, wild daffodils, wild orchids?
Some of the plants that are abundant here are also aromatic: lavender and thyme everywhere, oregano and mint in the forests and pastures, the sweet smell of the yellow flowers of the mountain broom.
In the autumn however, it is time for harvest, and the colourful flowers give way to colourful fruits, red and purple over a background of yellows and ochre. Blackberries, sloes berries, chestnuts, acorns, and of course, mushrooms. There is a popular tradition of mushroom picking in the Gredos region. Some of the most appreciated ones are Porcini, King Oyster mushroom and Saffron Milk Cap.
It is said that the Gredos Mountains have a greater variety of amphibians and reptiles than the whole of the British Isles.
The amphibians are a group of animals very sensitive to contamination and habitat destruction, because of their permeable skin and their need of water. These factors, together with the wide environmental and climatic range, make this region particularly rich in the number of species. The same can be said about the reptiles with nearly 30 species in this area. The "isle effect" created by the isolation of these mountains has developed some interesting species endemic to this area.
These creatures however, are all rather shy and not easy to spot. Some are nocturnal and most of them are secretive, they all avoid human contact. Some of the most representative species, or the ones more frequent or easy to find are:
Several visitors I have met along the years pointed out that there doesn't seem to be much wildlife here, but what they really should have said is that there aren't many medium or large sized mammals on display other than cows or horses. I have pointed out already the huge variety of birds, reptiles and amphibians, but it is mammals that people tend to find more interesting, perhaps because they more directly related to ourselves.
Most of our mammals are nocturnal, rather shy or not very conspicuous. Unlike birds, which are active during the day and use primarily their sight, mammals can't see colours and have other means of finding their way. The result is that we can easily see and identify lots of birds, but for the rest we have to rely on indirect signs or clues of their presence: tracks, excrement and footprints?
One iconic creature in these mountains, very abundant and worth looking at with more closely is the mountain goat.
The Spanish Ibex (Capra pyrenaica), known as "Cabra montés" in Spanish, is particularly abundant in the Gredos mountain range. The one found here is a subspecies called Capra pyrenaica victoriae, or Gredos Ibex. In 1905 there where only 24 specimens living here, but when the king of Spain decided he would like to come and hunt them, the area was declared a Royal hunting reserve causing an exponential rise in their number, since everybody else was forbidden to kill any. He used to come and stay in his hunting lodge near Navarredonda de Gredos, today a luxury hotel. In 1970, Gredos was finally declared a National Hunting Reserve. Figures of 8000 individuals have been recently estimated.
They are generally shades of brown around the body with black markings on the chest, flanks and legs in the males, whereas the females are paler. The adult males can reach a weight of 80-100 kg and are approximately double the size of the females. Both sexes have horns with a maximum length of 30cm in the females, while those of the males grow to far greater dimensions, reaching 80cm to 1 metre in older examples.
These ungulates (mammals with divided hooves) live mainly on the edges of open rocky areas, but they favour higher reaches during the warmer months, where they can show considerable skill in climbing onto seemingly impossible cliffs and descend for improved shelter during the winter. The position of herds on a mountain side will also be dictated by the available grazing and domestic stock or human interference.
During the rut, males fight against each other for the alpha position and therefore the right to mate. Younger, weaker specimens will be filtered out by this process which involves rearing up and clashing horns repeatedly. The males and females live in separate herds, except when they mate in November-December. They give birth in late April- mid May, coinciding with rich spring plant growth yielding good milk production. It is easy to see them in big groups, and they have become quite sociable and not that afraid of humans.
Other species that you can find here if you are lucky or patient enough:
This is a farming community; in fact, the cattle raised here produce some of the best quality meat in Spain. That is due to the way the animals are raised and bred, not indoors on big farms, but in the fields and in the mountains. In the summer cows ramble on the high ground pastures, in the winter they are taken down to the plains of Extremadura, where the climate is more benign. Not so long ago, the men would ride for weeks with their cattle across the mountains at the beginning of autumn to the winter settlements and would bring them back up in spring. There is one breed of cows only found in the Gredos, the "Avileña" cow, it is completely black and to the untrained eye it may look like a bull, since in Spain cows still have their horns, but they are peaceful creatures, usually seen chomping away as you walk by, not even bothering to look up at you.
On the Salamanca plains, in the wide holm oak forest "dehesas", is where we find the bullfighting bulls. These are better avoided, but In that same environment, sometimes sharing the fields with the bulls, the "pata negra" (or black leg) pig can also be found. The ham from these pigs, fed with the acorns from the oak trees, is one of the most valued hams in the world.
Last, but not least, are the horses and donkeys. They are seen everywhere on the fields and mountains. The locals are very keen on their horses, they breed them and they are still used to help with the work on the farms.