Vultures at the Hoces del Duratón

Why visit the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park?

Fantastic scenery looking into this 25km long miniature ‘Grand Canyon’ in the middle of Spain – Hoces = gorges/canyons

  • 400-500 pairs of red-billed chough
  • 500 pairs of griffon vultures
  • golden eagles, peregrine falcons
  • Summer visitors include Egyptian vultures, goshawks, booted and short-toed eagles, and bee-eaters
  • Blue rock thrush, eagle owl,
  • Herons, kingfishers and dippers along the river
  • Dupont’s lark and black wheatear on the plains above the gorge.

Easy walking along the river

Abundant flowers and butterflies in the spring and summer

About the Hoces del Rio Duratón Natural Park

Along some 27 kilometres of its course, the Duratón River cuts through the limestone rock, reaching a depth of over one hundred metres in some places. The cliffs hosts huge population of cliff-nesting birds. An area of over 5000 hectares was declared Natural Park in 1989 to protect these birds. It is a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive, and is included in the Natura 2000 network.

Hoces del Río Duratón Natural Park lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Segovia, or two hours north of Madrid.

The canyon of the Duraton has been dammed to provide water for Madrid.

How to enjoy nature at the Hoces del Duratón

Information centre in Sepúlveda

I’d usually start by visiting an information centre, but I was with an organised group and local guides, so did not need to visit. There are mixed reviews of the Casa del Parque de las Hoces del Río Duratón in the Iglesia de Santiago (separate to the Sepúlveda tourism information centre), and the website is in Spanish only. You have to go there to get a permit for hiking through the restricted areas in the vulture breeding season. They do provide maps, leaflets, and guides on-line as well as at the centre itself. Displays include information about the geology and nature of the park, and in particular of the griffon vulture, or the EL BUITRE LEONADO as it is called in Spanish.

From Sepúlveda it is a 20 minute hike to the Puente de Talcano – an old Roman Bridge – from where you can join the footpath alongside the river. The landscape here is pleasant, the walking easy, and there is plenty for the nature-watcher to linger over. The path goes 10km to the Puente de Villaseca where there is a cafe, and then you return via the same route.

The Puente de Villaseca.

Of course you can do the above walk in reverse, starting at the Puenta Vellaseca. Or you can take a shorter hike along the Senda de la Mollinilla further downstream from here. There is limited parking space, so our coach dropped us here, and went off somewhere else for most of the day.

It was amazing to get out of the coach and be face-to-face with a griffon vulture (above) – almost too close to photograph with a long lens. It was probably a young bird, inquisitive about the world around. When it flew off, it tried landing in a tree, and found itself stuck there amongst the branches for a while, but eventually managed to escape.

The area between the bridge and just beyond the cafe is more open, and is an excellent area for plants, butterflies and other insects.

View of the 12th century Romanesque chapel of San Frutos

The Hermitage of San Frutos

Watching the vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park is easy, even if you don’t want to hike along the river. Further downstream, and not far from the dam across the Rio Duraton, an ancient hermitage sits on a rock promontory. It overlooks a look in the part of the canyon and the views are fantastic. It is a popular place for general visitors, so a large car-parking area has been provided about 1km away.

Cardinal Butterfly Argynnis pandora

The track from the car park proved to be good for butterflies. This Cardinal was the biggest of them. Unfortunately at the end of October, most were looking quite worn and tatty. Nine species (including hermit, Bath white, mallow skipper and Spanish chalk-hill blue) during our short visit is surely an excuse to go back for more. There were few flowers to provide nectar at this time of year, but a visit earlier in the year will be productive.

But the real stars of the show were the griffon vultures. They flew above the cliffs, below the cliffs, and zoomed past at head height almost close enough to touch. Some cliffs still held nesting pairs – or at least the chicks that were now almost full grown. It was very hot, with hardly any wind, so the cliffs were baking. For the vultures, the best place to be was high up, circling in the thermals, reaching for the cooler air at higher altitudes.

A kettle of vultures, circling overhead

If you’ve never seen a griffon, or any other vulture, close-up, this is the place to come. You won’t see them fighting over carcasses because the food is out on the plains. They can travel vast distances in search of food, and will return to the nest with as much as they can carry in their crops (this is a chamber in the throat – so they don’t carry food in their talons/feet) to feed the chicks.

A dipper in the stream at the bottom of the canyon

In search of other birds

Three main habitats dominate the area – the riverine woodland, the cliffs, and the plains above the canyon. In the spring and summer, the woodland is full of a variety of birds. Even in October, we managed a respectable list here – including short-toed treecreeper and dipper.

The open plains have a more specialist range of birds, including Dupont’s, Calandra and Thekla larks, stone curlew, and several kinds of wheatear. There is little shade here, except in the patches of pine and juniper woodland. But these woodlands do provide for hoopoes, owls, Iberian (azure-winged) magpies, amongst many others.

Theckla lark keeping an eye out for danger

So there you have it

We were in Segovia for a conference, and this trip to watch vultures at the Hoces del Duratón Natural Park was organised as part of that. However, it is easy to visit by car, and day trips by coach are available from Segovia and from Madrid – check at the tourist information centres.

Obviously, visiting under you own steam means you can do more exploring. Our guide pointed out the general area for Dupont’s larks – best looked for in spring when they are singing. We just missed the Egyptian vultures, as they were on their way south for winter. For these and the other summer visitors, we need to visit earlier in the year.

However, note that the main vulture breeding areas are not freely accessible from January to June. Contact the visitor centre in advance if you are planning to visit at this time. Of course, you’ll still be able to see the vultures in the air at any time.

November to March can be decidedly chilly. May to September can be hot. Even early October was hot. As we headed back to the coach at 5pm, the heat was going out of the day. More and more people were streaming along the path to the Ermita de San Frutos to look at the vultures.

Useful resources:

  • Local tour guides – Vultour Naturaleza – I don’t know anything about them, but their website suggests they could be worth trying.
  • Wingspan Bird Tours do short break trips from the UK to the Madrid area. Again I don’t know anything about the company.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including Duraton. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

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The Green Belt of Segovia

Why Segovia?

The old city of Segovia is almost surrounded by a green belt of shallow ravines, with easy walking/running paths, through trees and along a river – a lovely sheltered way to enjoy the birds, butterflies and botany, not forgetting the frogs and lizards.

Segovia is home to a unique population of urban red-billed choughs. Over ninety pairs nest in buildings and natural sites, and several hundred come to roost in the city each night.

The Roman aqueduct is probably the best-known of the ancient monuments, but there is also the cathedral, the Alcazar and a host of other cultural (and culinary) delights to the city.

The Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral in Segovia. You can watch griffon and black vultures, and other birds of prey, while enjoying refreshments in the main square.

About Segovia

Segovia lies about 100km by road to the north-northwest of Madrid, along the Camino de Santiago de Madrid – the old pilgrim route from Madrid to Galicia. Segovia is 300m (1000ft) higher in altitude than Madrid, and thankfully therefore a few degrees cooler in summer.

It is an old city, dating back to pre-Roman times. It gives the impression of a hilltop town, yet only the cathedral shows above the surrounding landscape. That’s because the ‘hill’ is a promontory within a canyon. The city walls are integrated with the rock face. The Roman aqueduct towers across the lowest part of the old city. The cathedral is said to be the last Gothic Cathedral built in Spain (16th century). If the medieval Alcázar (fortress) of Segovia looks familiar, then you’ve probably seen the Walt Disney film ‘Cinderella’. The narrow streets give the place an ancient feeling – drive a car here at your peril! There is plenty to keep the history and culture buffs happy.

Inevitably there is a new part to the city, sprawling into the distance. And new industrial areas too. But tourism seems to be the main function.

Nature-watching in Segovia

Red-billed choughs coming to roost in the evening

Red-billed Choughs

We were in town for a three-day workshop about red-billed choughs. Hard to imagine that a city could hold more breeding pairs than the whole coast of Pembrokeshire (where we live). They breed and roost in many of the old buildings, including the cathedral and the aqueduct. During the day they are mostly out feeding in the surrounding countryside. Outside the breeding season (this was a warm October) they are most easily seen returning to roost in the evening. The main roosting site varies, but from the Plaza Mayor you can see if they are heading for the cathedral, further west to the Alcázar, or any of the other tall buildings.

And while you are looking up for choughs, there’s a good chance of seeing black and griffon vultures, booted eagles, peregrines, any other birds of prey in season. Of course, there are the ubiquitous house sparrows and town pigeons – the latter causing problems for the choughs as they also nest in cavities in buildings and people want to keep them out.

The Green Belt

The path through the green belt

According to an information board, the green belt of Segovia (formed by the Eresma and Clamores rivers) was declared an area of outstanding beauty in 1947. The Green Belt comprises a series of linked parks, gardens, cemeteries, rough ground, and the rivers Eresma and Clamores. A network of compacted gravel tracks run through the green belt, alongside the rivers, through the various parks, etc, so it is all very accessible. There are also a number of drinking water fountains en route.

We started at the Terrazas de San Valentin, on the south side of the city. Here, the Clamores river is not much more than a trickle, emerging from the rocks under Segovia. It continues through the Huertas de la Hontanilla, past St Andrews Gate, through scrub and shady trees.

Then through the Area natural del valle Clamores, from where you get a glimpse of the Alcázar high up on the city walls. Even higher up, there were griffon vultures drifting across. Then the Clamores becomes a larger river, shallow and slow, with Iberian water frogs at the edge.

Just beyond the Alcatraz, the Clamores joins the Eresma, the path goes along the south bank, over a bridge, and back along the north bank, through Pradera de San Marcos.

Further along is the old Royal Mint, with a weir across the river. In the background, the Alcazar dominates the skyline.
A kingfisher posed nicely – not at all bothered by people – and a few mallard inhabited the shadier areas.

The Alameda de Parral is more formally laid out, but is still home to plenty of butterflies, birds, and lizards. Beyond that, the Senda de los Molinos continues on the south side of the Eresma, or you can follow tracks closer to the old city. The most easterly part of the green belt is the Parque del Santo Angel de la Guarda around the cemetery.

St Mary of Parral’s Monastery from the city walls at St Cebrian’s Gate

Even in October, we found some 30 species of birds along the route. Not many plants in flower at this time, except for ivy. The powerful scent of its flowers attracted a variety of butterflies, bees, and other insects.

Other nearby places of natural interest

Shady woodlands in the gardens of the Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso

Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso

This Royal Palace lies some 12km south-east of Segovia – and as a popular destination, it is accessible by bus. The palace is huge, and the gardens are amazing. Tucked into the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, this was a summer residence. The gardens are wooded – there are specimen trees several hundred years old – and the water features are extensive. This makes it a relatively cool shady place.

The Palace itself is only open in the summer, but the gardens are open all year round and provide a pleasant general nature-watching experience. There are plenty of eating places in the village, and we had an excellent meal of local dishes at a small restaurant opposite the Calle des Jardines.

Ski resort at the Puerto de Navacerrada in the Sierra de Guadarrama, south of Segovia.

Sierra de Guadarrama

Designated a National Park in 2013, some parts of the park are accessible by bus from Segovia. It is the fifth-largest National Park in Spain, covering nearly 34,000 hectares. The Puerto de Navacerrada (37km south of Segovia) is a small ski resort with plenty of parking space, and a variety of footpaths through the woodland or over the open mountain areas. Also accessible by train from Madrid or Segovia. We found rock buntings and citril finches here, and a few late mountain flowers. Mushroom-collecting is a popular past-time. Cerule’s Rock lizard – a local species – was much in evidence – and there was an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets.

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park

An hour’s drive to the north of Segovia takes you to the village of Sepúlveda and the incredible Gorge of the Duraton River. From the Talcano Bridge there is a gentle path alongside the tree-lined river. The walls of the gorge got higher as we went, and we had occasional glimpses of griffon vultures above, and dipper in the river.

Read a post about watching the vultures here

From the big car and coach park closer to the Hermita de San Frutos (Patron Saint of Segovia), the view is quite different. A stark landscape with the river in the gorge below, and griffon vultures by the dozen, the score, no, by the hundred! And flying past within ten metres at times. If you want to photograph griffon vultures, this is the place to do it. Then there were the butterflies – unfortunately mostly at the end of their seasons and often looking quite tatty, but proof that this site would repay a much longer visit at some other time.

Griffon Vulture

So there you have it

I wouldn’t normally go nature-watching in a city, but did so here because of the chough event. It turned out to be much more than I had expected, and there is plenty more for a future visit. I would imagine that spring is a good time – before it gets too hot. There is plenty of scope for birds and butterflies, and probably for botanising too, along the paths of the Green Belt. We explored only a small part of this.

Segovia is also a good base for visiting sites further afield, though if you hire a car, the old city is not an easy place to drive in, with its narrow streets, semi-pedestrianised areas and one-way routes. Buses and taxis seem to be the best way to get around, and there are coach trips to more distant areas.

If you (or your travelling companions) are into history, culture and/or culinary delights, there is plenty to keep you occupied here.

Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Segovia area. Click on the covers for more information.

Buying books through these links brings a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that helps with the maintenance of this website.

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