Catalonia, or Catalunya, in the northeast corner of Spain, is the main overland gateway into the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. A glance at the statistics will tell us that around 7 million people inhabit its 32,091 km², at an average density of 190 persons per km², and that it is an industrialised region with a coastline largely developed to accommodate mass tourism. Not precisely a beacon for the foreign birder, or so it would seem.
But then there are the other statistics: the new breeding bird atlas of Catalonia reveals 232 species of breeding birds - more than any other region of a comparable size anywhere else in Spain - inhabiting its numerous and varied biotopes, including wetlands of international importance, high mountains, Mediterranean type sierras and lowlands, rocky coasts and headlands, and steppes.
Catalonia's Mediterranean coastline, for example, has 3 very interesting wetland areas, the most important of which is undoubtedly the Ebro Delta. This must be the star attraction for any visiting birder wanting to see gulls and terns, including the rare Slender-billed and Audouin's Gulls, Gull-billed and Caspian Terns, along with a wide variety of herons, ducks and waders such as Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Great White Egret, Red-crested Pochard, Collared Pratincole, Kentish Plover, migrating Marsh Sandpipers and Temminck's Stints , and a few miscellaneous items such as Purple Gallinule, Greater Flamingo and Savi's Warbler. Furthermore, its impressive list of wintering and migratory birds means that it's not to be forsaken at any time of the year.
The Llobregat delta, on the very edge of Barcelona airport, also presents itself, although on a much smaller scale, as an interesting proposition for a 2 or 3 hour visit, with excellent hides overlooking scrapes which never fail to turn out rarities year after year. Last but not least there is the Aiguamolls de l'Empordà in the north of the region, intensively managed to enhance its wildlife interest and well placed to receive those more easterly migrants which rarely make landfall elsewhere along the coast. It`s also something of a Mecca for spring crake hunters (Spotted, Little and Baillon's Crakes).
Rocky headlands or massifs like Cap de Creus, the Serra de Montgrí, Garraf and the Ports de Beseit are within the coast-hugger's easy reach, and may complement the visitor's list with the likes of Bonelli's Eagle, Pallid Swift, Black Wheatear, Orphean Warbler, Blue Rock Thrush or the more localised Ortolan Bunting or Red-rumped Swallow.
If we head inland following the course of the Ebro we will get to the Ebro Valley steppes, remainders of which still survive within the confines of Catalonia in the vicinity of the city of Lleida. Open flat terrain in this dry area with a continental type climate is home to Catalonia's last Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Little Bustard (at surprisingly high densities), 6 species of lark, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Roller, Red-necked Nightjar, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Stone Curlew, etc. This is also the last stronghold of the Lesser Grey Shrike in the whole of Spain.
At barely an hour's drive to the north of Lleida we will reach Montsec, a fine and impressive example of a pre-Pyrenean range with Griffon Vultures, Lammergeiers, Rock Thrush, Tawny Pipit and Ortolan Bunting among others. Like its cousin Boumort, this is a largely depopulated area which the unwary tourist will usually pass by in a rush to reach the high Pyrenees - don't be an unwary tourist!
Nevertheless, the Catalan high Pyrenees are a worthy attraction, holding all the species that can be seen in the Pyrenees of neighbouring Aragón, some scarcer, some more common. Although finding a Snowfinch here in the breeding season is a real challenge, other birds such as Capercaillie, Tengmalm's Owl, Ptarmigan and Citril Finch are more numerous here than further west. In the Val d'Aran, the only Spanish valley with an Atlantic watershed, breeding Middle-spotted, Lesser-spotted and Black Woodpeckers are worthy of note. Plan a visit to the beautiful Aigüestortes National Park, the Serra del Cadí or the Núria Valley to see other mountain specialities such as Wallcreeper, Alpine Accentor, Lammergeier, Alpine Chough or Ring Ouzel. Still not interested in birding in Catalonia?
Steve West is a bird guide, author and creator of the BirdingInSpain.com website. He has lived and birded in Catalonia, northeast Spain for the last 20 years and has written two books based on his local knowledge and experience, “Where the Birds are in Northeast Spain" and the more recent “Flying Over the Pyrenees, Standing on the Plains". His acclaimed BirdingInSpain.com website offers free birding itineraries, maps, checklists and a complete and studied network of recommended rural hotels for birders coming to northeast Spain and Mallorca. See more at the BirdingInSpain.com website: http://BirdingInSpain.com