Extremadura: The Lords of the Plains

Locally nicknamed the 'Lords of the Plains', the Bustards of Extremadura are one of the major attractions for birdwatchers from around the world and, in my opinion, understandingly. The two species that roam the steppes in this region certainly deserve their nickname, and the respect they get from both the people around them, and the travellers who come to see them.  

As one of my favourite birds, and one I have only ever seen once before, the Great Bustard was a steppe species I really wanted to see. The plains around Trujillo and Caceres make the perfect habitat for these charismatic birds, so it wasn't long before we caught our first glimpse. Whilst driving through the plains along a dusty country lane, we were met by a small group of Bustards, in flight, travelling towards us. Luckily for us, they landed on the far side of the field next to us, allowing us to get out and have a look. This group were all females, and soon were sat down in the long grass, with only their heads just about visible. It was great to see these birds again, but we knew we could find plenty more, so we headed off, leaving the bustards in peace.

Great Bustard
Female Great Bustard

At this time of year, in March and April, the impressive male Great Bustards begin their display dances; coming together in spots called leks. Here, they puff out their feathers, and strut around the fields in the hope of attracting a mate. In Spain, this extraordinary display is called the rueda, meaning 'the wheel'. The male Great Bustard is an impressive sight regardless of whether it's displaying or not at this time of year, when their plumage is golden, their tails are up, and their feather 'moustaches' are clearly visible. The male certainly looks like a lord as it struts over the pasture, looking strong and heavily built, but regal at the same time. There is no doubt they're powerful birds, the males being the heaviest flying bird in the world, weighing up to 15kg. Impressive.

Our luck was in again the next day, when we spotted a second group of Great Bustards flying over our car. Unfortunately, these birds didn't settle very close, but gave us a good view on their flyby.

Great Bustards in the air

It was on our last day on the plains that our chance came to see an adult male Great Bustard in all his glory. Whilst driving along a long, straight road, heading for Trujillo, we spotted our third group of Great Bustards flying overhead. This time though, they were all males. All but one of the males flew out of sigh over the field. The one who didn't positioned himself right on the horizon, giving us a great view of him and all his courtship feathers. Unfortunately, he didn't display, but I was happy enough just watching him as he strutted across the horizon.

Male Great Bustard

It was a real treat seeing these birds so well in the wild in Extremadura. These birds appear to be doing well on the steppes and plains of Spain so if you want to see Bustards up close, Extremadura is a great place to visit.

If you want to learn more about their reintroduction to the UK, visit the Great Bustard Group: http://greatbustard.org/

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The second species of Bustard on the plains is slightly harder to see. The Little Bustards of Extremadura are more secretive than the Great Bustard, and being smaller and better camouflaged, these birds are more tricky to find on the plains.

We only came across these birds once over our couple of days spent on the plains, and we only got a glimpse as a pair flew over the road behind our car. I scrambled for the camera and managed to grab a couple of ok photographs - good enough to identify the bird from at least. The photos show quite clearly the black and white markings on the neck of the males as they were flying, confirming the pair as Little Bustards.

Little Bustards
Little Bustards

It was great to see both bustard species on offer - especially given the difficulty of seeing a Little Bustard around Trujillo when compared to other birds.

Extremadura lived up to its title as one of the best places in Europe for bustards. But the bustards and the raptors made up only a small portion of all the species we saw in this remote, yet lively region of Spain.

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