Q & A with Santiago [“Santi”] Villa Mendez, Founder of Spainbirds Nature Tours – Ciudad Real, Spain
“First birding tour agent accredited by the Spanish Tourism Board.” Small group birding and nature tours in Spain and Morocco plus other destinations in Europe, Africa, and South America. A highly rated company. Tours are provided in Spanish and English languages.
English URL: https://spainbirds.com
Spanish URL: www.spainbirds.es
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND.
I’m from Madrid. My father was from a small town in the Spanish countryside. Even as a young child he had to help with hard physical chores – working the farm land and caring for the animals. Years later my father moved to the city in search of better economic opportunities to support himself and his family – as did many of his generation. I did not grow up surrounded by wildlife as my father had – but through stories about his childhood, I learned all about birds and animals. I believe he passed his curiosity about nature on to me.
I’m not sure since I’ve been keen on nature my whole life! I like raptors in particular. I remember the first time I saw a Spanish Imperial Eagle on its nest during one of my first visits to Monfragüe – I was still a teenager – and I was captivated. From that point forward I took up bird-watching as a serious hobby.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT STARTING UP THIS COMPANY – SPAINBIRDS?
Actually I had a career as a sports journalist. I worked for one of the big media companies - for one of their new digital TV channels. However over time I became less happy with changes going on with my job and, worse still, I became less optimistic about my future career within the company. I definitely needed a change!
It is at this point where perhaps 90% of people dream about a different path - but don't take action. While still working my regular job, I began to guide short trips around Madrid during my holidays. At first this was like a small sideline, but by the end of 2001 I made the decision to leave my job and go full-time with my new venture.
I was a big fan of a Spanish television series called “El Hombre y la Tierra” that aired in the 1970s. These were wildlife documentaries hosted by Dr. Felix Rodriguez la Fuente. He became a very well-known celebrity – after all in those days there were only two broadcast TV channels in Spain! Many episodes focused on Spanish wildlife, and he and his crew also filmed in other countries like in Africa. He was quite an advocate for conservation long before most people had any understanding about such things. I would say this man was a major influence to me; as a guide, I try to communicate as passionately and effectively as he did.
It is quite different from other regions in Spain and in some sense unique within the world. Extremadura offers a wide diversity of ecosystems including massive open plains and steppe-like fields which are the perfect habitat for many types of birds, particularly bustards and sandgrouse. Plus there are a number of bird species that can only be found in this region. It is like a huge nature reserve with a very low density of human population.
IS IT SURPRISING THAT WOLVES AND BROWN BEARS STILL EXIST IN THE WILD IN SPAIN?
Thankfully they do. They still survive in some remote mountains of Northern Spain. There are two populations of brown bears, a small one in the Pyrenees and another in the Cantabrian Mountains. Though they are very large animals, they are also quite secretive, and observing them during our trips can’t be guaranteed. However, we often have good luck during the end of the month of August when the bears come out from the dense woods to look for blueberries, hazelnuts and the fruit of the local Alpine Buckthorns. They give in to their sweet tooth! The best time to see bears would be early mornings and late evenings.
These islands are exotic and beautiful, with beaches, aqua seas, and wonderful year-round weather! We offer 7-day trips exploring the main bird sanctuaries of the Eastern section of the Canaries – the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. While enjoying the scenery, we look for bustards, partridges, and several endemic bird species and subspecies. For some, this will become a most favorite holiday experience!
To me, this is one of the most attractive of countries. I love its nature, people, food, and culture. Plus, birding in Morocco never disappoints. It is the southernmost breeding destination for many western paleartic bird species. I would say for European birders, Morocco is a must-see. After many visits, I have developed local friends and feel very welcomed and comfortable there.
YOU SOMETIMES LEAD PRIVATE GROUPS TO OTHER FOREIGN COUNTRIES – PLEASE EXPLAIN.
This is mainly for our Spanish travelers, though all are welcome to join us! A few of the destinations we go to on a regular basis now include Norway, Scotland, Turkey, Romania, the Gambia, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Ecuador. In addition, we will be running two new tours this year - to Estonia and to Colombia. Information about these trips will be added to our English brochure very soon. The information is currently available in our Spanish brochure.
YOU ENJOY WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY, DO YOU HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR NEWCOMERS?
I would rather not suggest any one camera brand but just say you should choose from the top brands. Most manufacturers provide a 100-400 mm zoom lens, and you can also consider the 70-400 mm lens for general wildlife photography. Digital cameras have been big step forward for everyone.
Yes, all meals are included in the price, and, yes - you must absolutely try our wines! Lunches are of the “tapas” type with a nice selection of small-plate dishes. Sometimes we even order in advance to save time. Dinners are more leisurely with three-course meals: first course, main course, and then a home-made dessert. Wherever we go, you will enjoy traditional and authentic Spanish cuisine that represents a specific region.
DO YOU THINK THAT SPANIARDS TODAY ARE AWARE OF THE COUNTRY’S BIODIVERSITY AND IN GENERAL SUPPORT CONSERVATION EFFORTS?
I would say things are changing in a positive way, but still at a slow pace, and that can be frustrating to naturalists. Education is the key, and we need to make sure that the next generation learns about the importance of nature in Spain and how to protect it. Compared with other European countries, we have some catching up to do.
IN WHAT WAYS DOES SPAINBIRDS MAKE ITS CONTRIBUTION?
We have donated money to several NGOs, such as SEO/BirdLife, and in Extremadura we have donated more than 1,000 euros to the Amus animal hospital. In Morocco we have given money to protect the endangered Bald Ibis. We have given presentations to national leaders about the Iberian Wolf, Brown Bear and Iberian Lynx. In The Gambia, we support and hire local guides and always bring school supplies for the children and anything else that helps them learn more about the natural world.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS TO SHARE?
I would encourage travelers from all countries to arrange their holidays through travel agencies that are based in the destinations. Make sure local guides are used and treated fairly and that the companies follow responsible tourism procedures. Your support of local communities and the small businesses located there help them thrive in challenging economic times.
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