I have never been to Spain before. I only caught a glimpse of it across the border river Guadiana during my visit to Portugal in 2019. Usually my travels are to follow the avian inhabitants of the area. But this time it was different. Our main photographic target was the local magnificent feline – the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus).

The plane from Prague landed on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Malaga, a city of more than half a million people. Already in the dark, we get into the car and head north for a three-hour journey to the small settlement of Santa Cruz de Mudela in Castile. It’s more like a few houses around a gas station with a motel. The austere hotel room also corresponds to this. Fortunately, we didn’t spend much time here. Early in the morning we leave for the Peňalajo farm. The former agricultural estate serves today with its huge area as a private reserve for the local rare cats. Even now in January, the area is completely without water. At several watering holes, it is possible to catch a brief glimpse of this king of the region – the Iberian lynx. Of course, the water sources also attract many other inhabitants of the arid, slightly rolling landscape with sparse stands of cork oak and olive trees.

After two wonderful days spent at the waterholes, we actually met a lynx on three occasions, even if only briefly. Full of experiences, we can leave Castile and head south, to Andalusia. Specifically to the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park. In the local national park, it is possible to see these rare cats in the wild without any hiding. You can wait on one of the local dirt roads and get lucky. And we were lucky. During three days, we observed the Iberian lynx ten times.

Meeting this cat is a real audience. One feels that one is allowed to be in the presence of His Highness. Although the Iberian lynx is about a third smaller than the Lynx (Lynx lynx), this does not detract from its majesty. Like any cat, the Iberian lynx does what she wants. She basks in the sun, searches for prey, performs hygiene or sleeps. And she doesn’t mind at all that even twenty people are looking at her at one moment. I got the personal impression that this beautiful cat is actually very lucky here in Spain. She does no harm in the cultivated landscape, her main food is the omnipresent wild rabbits, and many farmers and owners of large plots of land have understood that the lynx can also represent an interesting source of income for them.

In addition to the most attractive feline inhabitant of the Sierra de Andújar, we also encountered many other, mostly bird, inhabitants here. A small population of Eurasian griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) have their nesting grounds just around the corner. A strong population of Little owl (Athene noctua) has found its refuge on many rocks. The density of nesting pairs forces them to hoot and thereby defend their territory even during the day. The Iberian eagle (Aquila adalberti) also flew over our heads several times.

A very common inhabitant of the rocky slopes is the Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa). The most common bird species are the Corn bunting (Emberiza calandra) and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica). Robins (Erithacus rubecula), Whinchats (Saxicola rubetra), Black redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros) or mistle thrushes (Turdus viscivorus) are also very abundant. On the contrary, we only caught glimpses of such rarities as the Iberian grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis), the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) or the Rock bunting (Emberiza cia).

We were also lucky to see representatives of other animal species. The ubiquitous European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), the main food of the Iberian lynx, especially enjoyed the rock mazes. Red deers (Cervus elaphus) grazed on the grassy areas under the cork oaks, which will soon shed their antlered pride. His relative the European fallow deer (Dama dama) was in the same situation. And it was not rare to see the Iberian rock lizard (Iberolacerta monticola) on the heated stones. Despite the January date, the temperatures in the sun were well above 20 degrees Celsius.

After three days, we exchanged a romantic morning with sunlit mists among the hills of the Sierra de Andúchar for the picturesque town of Antequera. Its historical center under the medieval castle is a local cultural gem. Antequera is the gateway to the vast mountain range called Torcal de Antequera. It rises to a height of 1378 altitude. It is a limestone mountain range, on whose plateau floats like an island above the dry Andalusian landscape a rocky limestone city full of turrets and towers, rocky gorges and seemingly endless mazes.

It is also full of Iberian ibex (Capra pyrenaica) and, in contrast to the surrounding landscape, full of water, which is supplied by abundant clouds coming from the Mediterranean Sea. With its rain load, it then stops against the steep walls of the Torcal mountain range. Capricorns are renowned rock acrobats who have no natural enemies here. They are not in any danger even from humans, therefore it is possible to approach them at a very short distance. They are more like country goats on pasture. For them, this is mainly the leaves of the thorny bushes growing between the rocks. The loud bickering of Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) echoed endlessly among the rocks and the thickening fog. We were not lucky with the weather. The entire summit ridge was shrouded in thick clouds and the view of the ibex caught on a rock in the setting sun was obscured by thick fog. And the attempt the next day at sunrise was the same.

It’s always good to have a backup plan. Ours was an escape back to the lowlands to the wetlands of the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra Nature Reserve. Although the spring migration of birds has not yet started, we have seen many interesting bird species here. Even January’s mild temperatures did not prevent the reserve’s largest reservoir from turning into a muddy area. But the flock of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) really liked it. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and Great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) were the loudest inhabitants of smaller water bodies. On the other hand, very shy visitors were the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus).

Although our visit took place in January, almost everywhere in the interior of Castile and Andalusia it was almost spring (in the eyes of a Central European). A variety of flowers and shrubs were blooming everywhere, bees were buzzing, and the daytime temperatures allowed wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt in clear weather. But in the port city of Malaga, there could be no doubt about spring. Freshwater wetlands in close proximity to the sea are always ornithologically very attractive.

The Desambocadura Rio Guadalhorce Nature Reserve was no different. Right on the Mediterranean beach, we were greeted by a flock of about 50 ex. Sanderlings (Calidris alba). Monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) were the most conspicuous plumage in the freshwater lakes near the coast, whose population here was formed from individuals that had escaped from captivity. Their noisy flock flew together with Spotless starling (Sturnus unicolor) around the golf course. A great avian gem at the very end of our visit to Andalucia were the White-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala), beautiful ducks that only live in a few places in Spain.

Before the flight itself, we visited real spanish pizzeria with friendly service and surprisingly good beer. The half-empty plane home was compensation for the drunken Czech tourists we were “lucky” to encounter on the way from Prague to Malaga. Fortunately, they come back the next day. I’m lying all alone on a three seater and smiling. Andalusia in January is a beautiful country with nature that is very attractive to us.