Birding in Galicia

Galicia, to save you reaching for the atlas, is the top left corner of Spain, the bit above Portugal. It has mountains, wooded gorges, plains and numerous ‘Rias’, where the Atlantic Ocean fingers its way into more than 1,000 miles of coastline. It was one of these Rias that was the focus of my three-night stay – the Ria de Arousa on the west coast. At the right time of the year (or is it the wrong time?) parts of this Ria attract more tourists than I want to be around, but this wasn’t an issue when I was there in March 2010, and with some shiny new birdwatching infrastructure in place, there is clearly a desire to attract birdwatchers to the area.

Galicia is not particularly difficult or expensive to get to, assuming flying doesn’t offend your ecological conscience too much. Vueling, a Spanish budget airline, flies from London Heathrow to La Coruña on Galicia’s northern coast, braking hard when it touches down on the short Iberian runway. A sample fare might be 59 Euros outbound, with a return flight five days later for just 39 Euros, all inclusive, so getting there needn’t break the bank.

A March trip wasn’t perhaps the best time to choose. A truly winter visit, one during autumn passage, or a stay in spring or early summer could have been a very different experience. When we were there the summer migrants hadn’t arrived, and the winter visitors were possibly past their most impressive, but there was still some good birding to be had. I don’t need oodles of rarities to enjoy time out with my bins and a highlight for me was the Spoonbills. I’ve seen Spoonbills in the UK and the Netherlands, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen 40 or more together before.

In this part of Galicia, they are most numerous between September and March with peak counts of over 250 – now I wouldn’t mind seeing that! I also enjoyed some of the birds that are common here, but not so common in the UK – Serin, Black Redstart and Cirl Bunting. Spotless Starling was notable, too, and with the world’s largest colony of Yellow-legged Gulls a bit further south on the Cíes Islands, you could get to know this species well, which might be useful back on your home patch. I had a pretty good look at one from my hotel room, and could see its large red gonydeal spot, a red ring around the eye, and, though my Collins guide says the bill can be darker than Herring Gull, my notes describe it as orange! Well worth studying.

Our visit was a short one, just two full days. Day one included various parts of O Grove, a chunk of land attached to the mainland by the A Lanzada isthmus. With its elevated position, a trip to the visitor centre and viewpoint at Con da Siradella, amidst pines and boulders, might help you get your bearings. You need to keep your eyes and ears open for Firecrest, and Crested Tits can also be found in the forests of O Grove. For wetland species head to one or more of the numerous watchpoints along the south-eastern coast of O Grove that overlook ‘The Bay’.

This area alone has clocked up over 200 bird species and is a top-notch wetland, part of a complex of sites that has ‘Ramsar’ status (the Ramsar convention exists to protect internationally important wetlands) and is part of the European Union’s Natura 2000 network (which includes all of the sites designated under the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive).

You’d expect shorebirds here and there were plenty – more than I could put an accurate figure to. My notebook says 2000+ but I tend to underestimate. The windswept, roadside hide provided too little shelter from the wind when I was there but the waders were impressive. Hundreds of Dunlin, with smaller numbers of Sanderling, Curlew, Turnstone, Oystercatcher, Greenshank, Redshank, godwits and plovers. Kentish Plovers can be seen here all year round though they didn’t get on to my list!

For a bit of variety, you can head for Bodeira Lake (Lagoa a Bodeira), a coastal lagoon on the north coast of O Grove. We didn’t see a lot here, with Little Grebe and a blast from a Cetti’s Warbler being the highlights, but a breeding season visit may be more productive. Sea-watching is a possibility, too. We did a little from an easily accessed viewing platform, and quickly picked up Gannets, a Long-tailed Duck and four divers (three were probably Great Northerns), and probable Common Scoters. Balearic Shearwaters can be seen all year round, but especially between April and October, when Cory’s Shearwaters are also possible. Storm Petrels and Shags are common and Mediterranean Shearwaters are sometimes seen, too.

Day two took us to the Umia Estuary, on the mainland to the east. This was a good spot, with a nice variety of birds – singing Cirl Bunting, Serin, Yellow-legged Gulls and a female Kingfisher – the first for our guide from Turgalicia. We then went on to the Caribbean-like (well the sea and sand looked good!) Punta Carreiron on the Illa de Arousa further north in the Ria.

Here there are pines and gorse, Goshawk, Mediterranean Gull, Scops Owl, Short-toed Treecreeper, Dartford, Sardinian and Melodious Warblers and Zitting Cisticolas. We saw the pines and the gorse...

Of course there is more to this part of Spain than the Ria de Arousa, and temptation rises if you add some other parts of Galicia to your itinerary. Between June and September boat trips take people to the Ons and Cies islands, part of the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park, while elsewhere there are Stone Curlews, Eagle Owls, Golden Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Capercaillies, Great Reed Warblers and Little Bustards. Not to mention Otters, Wolves, Wild Boar, Wildcat and even Brown Bear.

If you don’t want to be watching wildlife during every waking minute, there are other things you can do. Historical Cambados, north of the Umia Estuary is the region’s wine capital, and then there are Europe’s highest cliffs, the world’s oldest functional lighthouse and of course, Santiago de Compostela. It is in the cathedral there that the body of St James is believed to rest.

One thing I won’t forget in a hurry is Galician seafood. I saw countless mussel farms, often littered with Cormorants – only China is more important when it comes to growing the world’s mussels. Lunch one day included no less than five types of mollusc – clams, tellins with garlic, cockles that taste like the sea, scallops and razor clams. Plus Spider Crab pie and about half a cow! For me, seafood is the taste of Galicia.

DAVID CHANDLER


David stayed at the Hotel Louxo La Toja on Isla de la Toja. Thanks to Nuria Riutard of the Spanish Tourist Office, Arturo Rodríguez González from Turgalicia, and María Arias Rodríguez.