From the towering peaks of the Pyrenees and the frozen forests of Oulu, in Finland, to the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia, there is exceptional birdlife to enjoy at myriad sites in each and every corner of Europe. All of which are worth considering before you jet off to the opposite side of the world and spend vast sums of money in search of your next avian fix.
- High Tatras, Slovakia
The isolated and scenic Tatras, located in the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia, ascend to the lofty height of 9,000ft near the border with neighbouring Poland. Hosting extensive forest, numerous rugged outcrops and sprawling alpine pastures, they are home to a number of species typical of the Central European Uplands. Among these: Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ring Ouzel, Hazel Grouse and Capercaillie. The experience here topped off by the presence of the much sought after Wallcreeper – a cliff-dwelling species often likened to a butterfly, as opposed to a bird, due to its unrivalled beauty and grace.
2. Lake Myvatn, Iceland
An area of global importance when it comes to avian conservation, Lake Myvatin owes its existence to the volcanic springs that run beneath it. Each Summer, largely due to an abundance of aquatic insects, the lake plays host to tens of thousands of nesting ducks. Of the 13 species that regularly breed here some, such as Scaup, Red-breasted Merganser and Wigeon are commonplace; although the lake and its surrounds also hold notable populations of two Icelandic specialities: Barrow’s Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck. Two of the most exquisite waterbirds in all of Europe. Lucky visitors may even stumble across a Gyrfalcon, likewise drawn to the lake by its bounty of vibrant waterfowl.
3. Yell, Shetland Islands
Remote and sparsely populated, this island, complete with expansive moorland and a breathtaking coastline, provides the ideal place for birding in Summer. The aforementioned, 4000-acre moorland hosting noteworthy breeding populations of Whimbrel, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Great Skua and predatory Merlin, and the coastline, thousands of pairs of nesting seabirds. The lively community here comprised of countless black and Common Guillemots, as well as Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and Atlantic Puffins. This small island also provides mammal-watchers with the chance of unprecedented views of otters – a sight never to be scoffed at, even for the avian-inclined.
4. Oulu, Finland
Oulu in the icy North of Finland provides a boon to owl-lovers. The area standing as a popular breeding site for Snowy Owl, and providing an opportunity to view both Ural and Great Grey Owls – two other species perfectly adapted to life in such harsh conditions. The renowned conifer forests of Oulu also offer superb viewing of raptors, including White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard, and hold a veritable smorgasbord of woodpecker species. Among these, elusive species such as Grey-headed, Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers. The site also promises a plethora of arctic species during peak migration times in May and September, thus a visit during these months is recommended.
5. Extremadura, Spain
Extremadura is an autonomous community of Spain. It shares a common border with Portugal, another wonderful European country for bird watching, and boasts a truly exciting range of habitats rife for exploration, including expansive oak woodland, steppe, wetlands and mountain. The dehesa (wood pastures dotted with holm oak trees) is the most representative habitat of Extremadura and is home to many sought-after species including Azure-winged Magpie, Common Crane, European Bee-eater, Hoopoe and European Roller. At sites such as Monfrague National Park, large numbers of Black, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures can be seen, while elsewhere, the skies are dominated by exquisite Spanish Imperial Eagles and Black-shouldered Kites. This one location every European birdwatcher should visit at least once…
6. Pyrenees, France
Straddling the border between France and Spain, the Pyrenees are home to a host of iconic bird species. On a day’s hike through the High Pyrenees, expect to see a variety of raptors — Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Short-Toed Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, and the ever-present Griffon Vulture. Other notable species found in the region include Eagle Owl, Alpine Accentor, Snow Finch, Citril Finch, Capercaillie, Rock Thrush, Firecrest and Crested Tit. While Europe’s largest woodpecker, the Black Woodpecker, can also be observed in abundance. Perfect, eh?
7. Levos, Greece
May is the best time to visit the island of Levos, when huge numbers of birds descend on the small island at the peak of Spring migration. Here, an incredible diversity of raptor species pass through, including Pallid Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon and Short-toed Eagle; while particularly impressive songbirds to be seen here include Cretzschmar’s Buntings and Orphean and Rüppell’s Warblers. Lucky birders may even chance upon a Thursh Nightingale or Ortolan Bunting on passage, while colourful European species like Golden Oriole, Hoopoe, Common Redstart, Whinchat and Roller are widespread. Truly, you never quite know what you might find as the floodgates open over Levos…
8. Shabla Lake Complex, Bulgaria
The complex includes the lakes of Shabla and Ezerets and the Shabla Tuzla, located over Sarmatian limestones in northeastern-eastern Bulgaria. This site supports 270 bird species at different times of the year, 111 of which find themselves listed as of ‘conservation concern’. On a visit to the lake, expect to see Dalmatian Pelican, Pygmy Cormorant, Lesser White-fronted Goose, White-headed Duck and Greater Spotted Eagle. Shabla Lake is also one of the most important breeding sites in Bulgaria for Kentish Plover, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt and Red-footed Falcon; while it’s breeding populations of Ferruginous Duck and Corncrake are globally renowned.
9. Farne Islands, England
When it comes to exciting wildlife spectacles, you don’t have to travel to far-flung, inaccessible locations in Bulgaria, Spain or Finland. Right here at home, in Britain, our seabird colonies are some of the biggest and best in the world, with perhaps the greatest of these are located on the Farne Islands, in Northumberland. Situated a short boat trip from the town of Seahouses, an hour North of Newcastle, the islands provide the perfect place to observe myriad species including Atlantic Puffin, Shag, Kittiwake and Guillemot, as well as Arctic, Sandwich and Common Tern. Pay a visit to get mobbed by terns, enjoy a chorus of vocal kittiwakes and watch the life and death struggle between puffin and gull – as the clowns of the sea run the gauntlet in order to feed their dependent chicks.
European birdwatching may seem dull upon first glance, at least when compared to the sights to be seen further afield in Africa, East Asia and Latin America. The truth is, however, that the region boasts some of the most sensational spectacles to be seen anywhere in the avian world, and whether you’re interested in spectacular feats of migration, incredibly avian assemblages or simply colourful and entertaining species, Europe has something for everyone. Why not grab a pair of binoculars and get out there.
For those looking for a little more guidance when travelling in search of birds, consider booking a guided tour. Companies such as Nature Trek offer opportunities to get up close and personal with many of the species many mentioned in this post (and many more) absent need to go it alone. Check them out – you won’t be disappointed.