Urdaibai Bird Center

The Urdaibai Bird Center is a nature museum for enjoying the world of birds. It offers a unique observatory of marshland in the heart of Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve in Euskadi in northern Spain.

The Center is called a “living” museum because what it has to show depends on the life of the marshland and the birds who choose to visit. You can see some of that in the webcam below.

As the Northern Hemisphere winter approaches, food supplies for birds dwindle and most begin to migrate south. Coming from as far west as Greenland and as far east as Russia, they head towards western Europe, then down towards the border between France and Spain. With the Pyrenees blocking their path to the east and the Bay of Biscay a barrier to the west, they funnel through a narrow path that takes them through Euskadi, the Basque country of Spain.

Education programs linking children throughout the world

Education programs linking children throughout the world

This is the East Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration system linking breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra with wintering grounds in Mauritania, and stretching from northern Russia to southern Africa.

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve preserves an age-old oasis for these birds. From here, they head south through Spain, many going to the Doñana National Park in Andalusia, across the Mediterranean to Morocco, then down the west coast of Africa to wintering grounds in the Senegal and Niger deltas, with some going as far as South Africa.

The constructed marshland

The constructed marshland

The Urdaibai Bird Center has exhibits, AV shows, interpreters, and more to explain all of this. In addition, they have observatories from which you can see the birds who are there on a given day (as in the webcam).

The birds are wonderful to see and their stories are often amazing. The migration routes sometimes extend thousands of miles. One especially interesting case is the red-backed shrike.

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Like other birds this shrike heads south from northern Europe, stops over at Urdaibai, and then goes to southern Spain. But instead of heading directly south to the west coast of Africa, it turns east to Italy, or even Greece, then turns south through central Africa. Further breaking the mold, it returns by a different route. It goes further east, through the horn of Africa, Arabia, and Turkey, before turning west.

After exploring a bit in some ornithology journals, I learned that individual red-backed shrikes break the pattern even more, often following idiosyncratic paths and ending up hundreds of miles apart in South Africa.

It’s behavior like this that makes the work of a bird center like Urdaibai both challenging and wonderful.

Completing the circle

Matthew replica

Matthew replica

We’re staying near Bonavista, possibly where John Cabot landed his ship, the Matthew, in “New Founde Lande” on June 24, 1497. There’s a plaque in the cottage commemorating “the 500th anniversary” with celebrations held in 1997. However, the human presence here is much longer than that celebration suggests.

Newfoundland is famous for its dramatic, detailed, and precise record of life on earth. This includes two of the most important GSSPs, or Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Points, one of which we saw at Green Point. Its record of human life is becoming more fleshed out as well.

Recreated long house

Recreated long house

This shows that the cultures of Newfoundland are intertwined over many millennia, just as the mixed forest, slips into tuckamore, then tundra, building upon and shaping each other. That’s true everywhere of course, but the connections seem more evident here, and are notable for a relatively small, non-urbanized population.

For example, Newfoundland was one of England’s oldest colonies, reflecting Cabot’s voyage in 1497. However, in the 17th-century it was more French than English. Those French were largely Normans, Bretons, and in the western area we first visited, Basque. The English kept the French place names, but chose to pronounce them in the English, or sometimes the uniquely Newfoundland way.


English and French records show that during this time Mi’kmaq families were active along the Western coast. They incorporated the island of Newfoundland along with Cape Breton into their domain of islands. I was surprised to learn that in discussions of cultural eras, they’re often now grouped with the European period, due to the timing, their close interaction with the Europeans, and the fact that many were Roman Catholic.

The long history of Newfoundland with its connected cultures can be seen at L’Anse aux Meadows, a site at the far north end of the Northern Peninsula. It was discovered only in 1960. The settlement probably supported Leif Erikson’s attempt to establish the colony of Vinland, 500 years before Cabot’s voyage. This makes it the best evidence for first contact between peoples of Europe and America and the most famous site of a Viking settlement in North America outside of Greenland.

World Heritage Convention symbol at L'Anse Aux Meadows

World Heritage Convention symbol at L’Anse Aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows might have been presented as the beginning before the beginning–the voyage that was 500 years before what we had earlier celebrated as the first one. Instead, the site today rightly talks about those who came to greet the Vikings, who they were and where they came from.

Tracing back, it shows how early modern humans left Africa 100,000 or more years ago. Some dispersed across Asia then moved into North America and eventually Newfoundland from the west. Others went north into Europe, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually from the east.

L’Anse aux Meadows thus represents many things. But one of the most significant is the reconnection of these streams of humanity. The metaphor of “completing the circle” symbolizes the completion of human migration around the world. The Vikings and the Dorset or Late Palaeo-Eskimos were the front people in this re-encounter.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its story aptly reflects the World Heritage Convention symbol, with its emphasis on global connection.