North Spain's natural paradise

Varied and unspoiled habitat makes Asturias a must-visit for British birdwatchers.

It would be hard to think of a better slogan for the ecotourism possibilities of an area like Asturias than ‘Natural Paradise’ – that’s exactly what you’ll find in this vibrantly green principality, lapped by the waters of the Cantabrian Sea, and including mountains, forests, and a variety of other biodiverse habitats. In fact, although it only includes 2% of the land area of Spain, it is home to 67% of the country’s species of vertebrates.

Protected natural areas cover more than a third of the principality, including a National Park (Picos de Europa), five nature parks, and a host of other reserves, including Spain’s first marine reserve.

The rich natural environment includes forests such as Muniellos, the largest and best preserved oakwood on the Iberian peninsula and one of the most important forest areas in Europe, while in other areas Beech, Yew and Cork Oak all dominate, each with their corresponding signature species.

Birding in Asturias

A total of 385 bird species have been listed in Asturias, ranging from seabirds such as Storm-petrel and Shag to mountain-dwellers such as the afore-mentioned Wallcreeper.

Perhaps most emblematic among them is the Cantabrian Capercaillie, an endemic subspecies that is a little smaller than the nominate race. Its rarity, and the necessity to protect it, means that sightings are rare, but its forest habitat is shared with species such as Middle Spotted Woodpecker, itself a must-see for British birdwatchers.

In the Picos de Europa, the majestic Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture, shares the skies above with Golden Eagles, while Wallcreepers, beautiful ‘butterfly birds’, can also be found in the same habitat as well as on cliffs on the coastal plain.

In the central mountains, in the municipalities of Aller, Mieres, Lena, Morcin, Riosa and Ribera de Arriba, birding highlights can include the likes of Griffon Vulture, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Black Woodpecker, Crag Martin, Alpine Accentor, Dartford Warbler, Alpine Chough, Chough, Snowfinch and Rock Bunting, joined in the summer by Honey Buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle, Nightjar, Wryneck, Black-eared Wheatear, Iberian Chiffchaff, Red-backed Shrike, and Western Bonelli’s Warbler.

Coastal areas provide a quite different set of avian attractions. Breeding species along the Gijon coast include Shag and Yellow-legged Gull, while species seen on migration and during the winter include Great Northern Diver, Great, Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm Petrel, Pomarine Skua, Snow Bunting, Dotterel, Tawny Pipit and Scops Owl, while this is also a good area to view migrating seabirds such as large numbers of Gannets.

Best sites

Probably the best single area for birding in Asturias (and one of the best in Spain, a country not short of outstanding sites) is the Ria de Villaviciosa, an estuary and wetland of great international importance.

Here you can watch the likes of Osprey, a wide range of waders, Stone-curlew, large numbers of seabirds and wildfowl, Purple Heron, Spoonbill, Bittern and Squacco Heron, while the Eo Estuary is home to a similar range of birds, but is particularly rich in wildfowl and rarer grebes such as the Black-necked.

Finally, a visit to the La Reina Lookout is a great idea if you want to see and photograph birds of prey at relatively close quarters. Griffon, Egyptian and Bearded Vultures are fed here, and it also attracts Red Kites, Golden Eagles, and corvids.

Other wildlife

It isn’t only birdlife that will thrill you on a visit to the principality, though. Land mammals found here include Brown Bear, Wolf, Otter and Ibex, and as many as 25 species of cetaceans are found offshore – combined with the often breathtaking scenery they ensure that you’ll rarely be able to put your binoculars or camera down!

It all adds up to exactly what we began by talking about. A wealth of birds and biodiversity in general, in a beautiful, unspoiled landscape. A Natural Paradise indeed.