Bird watching in León (NW Spain)

Bird watching in León

Bird watching in León? Definitely yes, for 192 bird species breed in this province. The leonese city of Astorga and its privileged location between the mountains and the steppe means that both the great bustard and the Cantabrian capercaillie, two of the most sought-after birds in Europe, are within an hour from this historical city. The proximity of different habitats will allow you to watch a variety of bird species all year round. At the end of this article you will find a list of the bird species listed and when to find them.

These are our favourite bird watching areas near Astorga, both in the provinces of León and Zamora (Northwest of Spain).

  • Lagunas de Villafafila (Ramsar site -a wetland of international importance– and Special Protection Area under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds): this complex of saline lakes is home to more than 140 birds species. The star of this nature reserve is the threatened great bustard (Otis tarda), the heaviest flying bird on earth. Being a resident species, Other species found in the Lagunas de Villafafila reserve include the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), the Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus), the hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) and aquatic birds such as the greylag goose (Anser anser), the northern pintail (Anas acuta), the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), the grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the western marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) or the Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) – to name a few! December and January are the busiest months at Villafafila.
Short-toed snake eagle by Birding León

Short-toed snake eagle by Birding León – © All rights reserved

  • Aquilianos Mountains (Special Protection Area under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds): the name of this mountain range is derived from the latin word for ‘eagle’, ‘aquilia‘. The protected area has a total extension of 33,280 hectares (82,000 acres). A 969 hectares area around the village of Palacios de Compludo (2,400 acres) has been declared a bird sanctuary, and you can find a surprising variety of species all year round. Some of the raptors you can find in the area are the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), the eagle owl (Bubo bubo), the hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), the Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus), the amazing short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus), the merlin (Falco columbarius), the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo), the European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus), the red kite (Milvus milvus) or the black kite (Milvus migrans). Other species found in the SPA include the bluethroat (Luscinia svecica), the common rock thrush (Monticola saxatilis) and its close relative, the blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) or the Iberian partridge (Perdix perdix hispaniensis).
  • Villameca Reservoir: this small reservoir north of Astorga is a fabulous birding spot where you will find mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Eurasian teals (Anas crecca), great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus) or little grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis), among others. The surrounding pine woods are home to northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis), Eurasian sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus), European nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) – the list is far from comprehensive! There is also a chance of spotting the most sought-after bird in Spain, the Cantabrian capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus cantabricus), and that chance is all you need to plan your visit!
  • Jiménez de Jamuz: the steppes around this small village are home to the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax), the Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus), the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the merlin (Falco columbarius), the black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) or the rook (Corvus frugilegus).
  • Santa María del Páramo and Villadangos: both natural and artificial lakes in the area between Santa María del Páramo and Villadangos are specially busy during the winter months, mainly with migratory water birds. Some of the bird species you can find in the area are the dunlin (Calidris alpina), the grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), the green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), the northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), the northern shoveler (Anas clypeata), the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca), the Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope), the mallard (Anas platyrhyncros), the Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula), the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra), the black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), etc.

There is a good chance of watching Iberian wolves in the Aquilianos Mountains area, specifically near Mount Teleno. North of Villameca Reservoir, in Omaña, you can spot the elusive Cantabrian brown bear. León is one of the two provinces in Spain where you can see three of the four flagship species in the Iberian Peninsula: the Cantabrian capercaillie, the Cantabrian brown bear and the Iberian wolf, and Astorga, in the heart of León, is the ideal base camp. Bird watching in León is an opportunity for wildlife lovers, as the province remains unspoilt in most of its territory.

When to see the above-mentioned birds

Resident birds

  • northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) – resident
  • Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) – resident
  • mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – resident
  • golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) – resident
  • grey heron (Ardea cinerea) – resident
  • eagle owl (Bubo bubo) – resident
  • western marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus) – resident
  • hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) – resident
  • rook (Corvus frugilegus) – resident
  • peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) – resident
  • Eurasian coot (Fulica atra) – resident
  • red kite (Milvus milvus) – resident
  • blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius) – resident
  • great bustard (Otis tarda) – resident
  • Iberian partridge (Perdix perdix hispaniensis) – resident
  • great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) – resident
  • black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis) – resident
  • little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) – resident
  • Cantabrian capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus cantabricus) – resident
  • northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) – resident

Migratory birds

Some of the birds considered “winter migratory” are in fact found during eight or ten months a year, and sometimes all year round. However, they are still migratory birds and as such they belong in this category. Between parentheses, the months when the birds can be found in León.

  • northern pintail (Anas acuta) – winter migratory (from October to March)
  • northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) – winter migratory (from August to April)
  • Eurasian teals (Anas crecca) – winter migratory (from August to April)
  • Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope) – winter migratory (from October to March)
  • greylag goose (Anser anser) – winter migratory (from October to March)
  • Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) – winter migratory (from September to March)
  • merlin (Falco columbarius) – winter migratory (from October to March)
  • common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) – winter migratory (from September to April)
  • great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) – winter migratory (from September to February)
  • green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) – winter migratory (from June to April)
  • Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) – spring migratory (from March to May)
  • dunlin (Calidris alpina) – spring / summer-autumn migratory (from March to May and from August to October)
  • European nightjars (Caprimulgus europaeus) – summer migratory (from May to September)
  • short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus) – summer migratory (from March to September)
  • Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus) – summer migratory (from March to August)
  • lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) – summer migratory (from March to September)
  • Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) – summer migratory (from May to September)
  • booted eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) – summer migratory (from March to September)
  • bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) – summer migratory (from March to October)
  • black kite (Milvus migrans) – summer migratory (from March to August)
  • common rock thrush (Monticola saxatilis) – summer migratory (from April to September)
  • European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus) – summer migratory (from May to August)
  • little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) – summer migratory (from April to September); occasionally seen during the winter months as populations from France arrive to spend the winter.
  • black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) – autumn migratory (from August to November)

There is a great blog about bird watching in León, Birding León (only available in Spanish).

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