Almost thirty years ago, long before I ever noticed the birds, I did a college semester abroad in Oviedo, Spain. It was amazing. The country and the people of Spain are wonderful, and the lifestyle gets top marks. Any culture that revolves around an afternoon break/nap and cured meats is one with its priorities in order. I’d always wanted to go back, not to relive the adventures I had before, but to soak in more of Spain’s awesomeness. Happily, this spring, I was able to visit with my entire family.
We flew to Barcelona, in the separatist-curious region of Catalunya. We enjoyed a few days of modern architecture, modern art, and delicious empenadas. Then, we switched our base to Girona, about 60 miles away, towards France, near the foothills of the Pyrenees. Here, I’m going to recap the park birding we did in Barcelona. It wasn’t mind-blowing birding. The diversity wasn’t awesome. And we were a couple of weeks ahead of migration. But lifers nevertheless abounded.
Parc de Turo
In Barcelona, we shacked up in an airbnb in the grid-happy Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, centrally located near the old city and many Gaudi buildings. From the window overlooking the central gardens of our city block, I racked up five lifers: Common Wood-Pigeon, Alpine Swift, Yellow-legged Gull, Sardinian Warbler, and the naturalized Common Waxbill. I also got my first native-range sightings of European Starling, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and House Sparrow.
Our first morning in town, I got up early to go get some more lifers while my family slept off the jet lag. The most promising public park within a 15 minute walk looked to be Parc de Turo. Google maps described it as a “compact, tree-lined park,” and the satellite view looked good. It turned out to be full of birds. A European Robin greeted me as I entered the park. A Eurasian Blackbird sung from a low perch. A Eurasian Magpie stood watch atop a tall pine. In a patch of deciduous trees, I found a Short-toed Treecreeper, Coat Tit, a couple Eurasian Blue Tits and a Common Chiffchaff. The songbird I came to enjoy the most was the frantic, and sharply dressed, Long-tailed Tit.
I’ve gotten better at birding by sound. But it’s the result of hours in the field. In new places, I’m lost. So I used the vastly-improved Merlin app to help me identify the unfamiliar calls and songs I was hearing. Turn it on when a distinct bird is calling, and (assuming it’s right) you can quickly get a grasp on the common bird calls. The two birds it most often identified were the endlessly vocal Eurasian Serin and European Greenfinch. With the aid of Merlin, by Day 3 I was able to pick these common birds out by call alone. But owing to Merlin’s imperfections, I never counted anything that Merlin identified but I didn’t see.
Parc de la Ciudatella
The next park we found ourselves in was Parc de la Ciudatella. It houses the Barcelona Zoo and the Catalunya Parliament. It’s a big park, but not as densely covered in trees or bushes as Parc de Turo. And at 4 in the afternoon it was full of people. Still, I ended up with a pretty good list in just 45 minutes of walking around. A pond filled with tourists rowing little boats around had some birds, including a Black-headed Gull, Gray Heron, Purple Heron, and Cattle Egret. There were a bunch of domestic Graylag Goose wandering around with their fuzzy goslings. The park also had what I was quickly learning were the usual Barcelona bird suspects: Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Blue Tit, Monk Parakeet, Eurasian Blackbird, and Common Wood Pigeon. A Eurasian Moorhen was working the pond around the large fountain. Only one species I saw ended up being a lifer: a Spotless Starling that eluded a photograph.
The third of the parks we visited was the hilltop Park Guell (pronounced “Gway” by the locals). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site designed by famed Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. It was intended to be a master-planned community for the wealthy. But they couldn’t sell the plots, and only 2 houses were built. It became a private park, and is a pretty popular tourist destination for its cool architectural features and sweeping views of Barcelona. The forested area of the park also turned out to be a pretty good birding spot.
After we toured the monumental zone and got our views, we wandered the hilly trails. Here, at great distance, I finally got my first view of a Eurasian Hoopoe. I saw it in flight for 2 seconds. This was a target bird when my son and I visited China a few years ago, and we never saw one. Spain provided a second chance, and at least I wasn’t going to get shutout again. Happily, I got point blank views later in our trip. A small mixed flock in one section produced a couple more lifers: the sharp-looking Crested Tit, the monotonous two-note songster Great Tit, and a Common Firecrest. The Alpine Swifts were working the hills.
There were more birds to be found here. A morning visit would probably be very productive. But this was a family excursion, and we had more sight-seeing to do.
Meal times in Spain are out of whack for American travelers. Noon is not lunch time – restaurants don’t serve food until 1pm. And they don’t open for dinner until 8pm. That meant that we often did a late afternoon adventure to fill the time before sunset and dinner. One day, we headed to Plaza de España, one of those giant traffic circles where several large avenues converge. There’s an ornate fountain in the middle of the traffic circle. The so-called magic Fountain was shut down because of drought. If you pass through the two Venetian Towers and head east, you pass a convention center and climb to the National Museum of Art. At the top of the hill, known as Montjuic, there is a Joan Miró museum, the Olympic Stadium from the 1992 games, and some nice gardens.
I wandered the gardens and was able to get good looks at a few birds. A couple of White Wagtails were bobbing their butts. A Eurasian Kestrel was circling above. Curiously colorful European Goldfinches were drinking at a small fountain. And, of course, there were starlings, magpies, blackcaps and blue tits. Indeed, I saw five kinds of tits at the gardens: Eurasian Blue, Coal, Great, Long-tailed, and Crested. Not bad for a quick 45 minutes of birding near sunset.
La Sagrada Familia
While it isn’t a green city park, the mind-blowing modern marvel of Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona is a must visit. (We paid the extras euros for the tower access, and were glad we did). The inevitable crowds can’t diminish the wonder of this building, which has the most astounding stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.
This incredible gift to humanity was even giving on the birding front. While I was outside checking out the Nativity facade, I spotted a couple lifer Eurasian Crag-Martins swooping in front of the beautiful sculptures. After our visit, I checked out to the small parks next to the cathedral. I picked out 20 species, including a tagged Rose-ringed Parakeet and the less common swift in Barcelona, the Common Swift.
Birding Barcelona was much more like birding Beijing than birding Costa Rica. There aren’t a ton of birds. You find them concentrated in the parks. And you quickly learn the dozen usual suspects, which seems to be everywhere you look. If our trip had been a couple of weeks later in Europe, more migrants would’ve been moving through, and some summer arrivals would’ve showed up. But that isn’t a complaint. I added 29 lifers in Barcelona in-between tasty bites of empenadas, jamon serrano, and crepes.