Trip to Iceland – 25 June to 4th July 2010

First of all, I must explain that I am a beginner to birdwatching, so please pardon any errors I may inadvertantly make in this report.
I mooted the thought of a trip to Iceland to my wife, Margaret, who only just tolerates my birding (she likes the sound they make but doesn’t care what it is that is making it) and she said that she would come too, but it would have to be a normal tourist trip and not a twitch. Well, I thought, if it meant not going to Iceland otherwise, then so be it, so we arranged a date 25 June for our departure. As time drew nearer, up went that volcano (you know, the one nobody can ever pronounce) and everything was grounded and I wondered if I would ever set off. However, the day came and there was no trouble at all getting there.

Having got through all the formalities at the airport arrivals, we took a very scenic drive north to the Borgarfjordur valley. There we visited the splendid waterfalls of Hraunfossar, where the water tumbles out of the lava into a passing river. The first thing I noticed was the abundance of Redwings, and also fieldfares, the Redwings appeared to be as common as our blackbirds are back home.

Passing Icelands’s largest hot spring Deildartunghver, we drove westwards past the crater Eldborg, through fertile farming land, lava fields into the north of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We decided to stay two rnights at Helinar, and I am jolly glad we did. Bearing in mind that Iceland’s summers are 24 hrs light, the birdlife appeared to be on amphetamines – non stop, busy, busy, busy. After supper, I went for a walk down to the tiny harbour below our hotel to see what birds were around. There were the inevitable oiks, and some ringed plovers on the foreshore; one cormorant drying its wings on a rock out in the bay, and hundreds of kittiwakes circling the cliffs which rise 300 feet from the beach on either side of the harbour. Whilst I was watching these, Margaret shouted, “Hey, what’s this red and greyish thing on the water over here”, pointing down the far side of the quay wall. Much to my astonishment, a solitary red-necked Phalerope was feeding just underneath the harbour wall, and I couldn’t believe my luck (No 1, want’s list ticked off). I watched it and photographed it for about half an hour, watching its antics – just like a busy bee, pecking insects or crustaceans from just below the surface, scuttling in circles and zig-zags – I really do not know how it does not become dizzy. It almost made me giddy just watching it. I also took a short vid of it to play back when I got home. A beautiful little dainty creature which I could have kept watching for hours.

On my way back to the hotel, I was buzzed by a flock of Redshanks, and they appeared to be attracted to some food source or other in a meadow on the cliff-top. My wife was starting to get impatient, believing that I had spent enough time birdwatching, so had to leave them behind. However, not before I got off a nice shot of one perched on a fencepost. The following morning, as we had decided to stay for two nights, and as it was a Sunday, we decided to take a picturesque walk along the cliff-tops to a village called Arnstapi, where we were told, unusual columnar basalt rock formations had been eroded by the pounding waves. Apparently, and this interested me particularly, there was a charming little harbour for local fishing boats there – and bird cliffs, home to Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns.

We set off along the cliff tops, and very soon the footpath approached very closely to the cliff edge. When I looked over, there were thinly scattered nests of fulmars on the flat outcrops of the cliff. As I was sitting watching these proud birds, a Wheatear alighted on a rock nearby and either did not see me, or chose not to care that I was there. Well, at least it stayed long enough for me to snap off a shot. Unfortunately, my movements not only then frightened off the wheatear, but alerted the fulmars, who then proceeded to dive-bomb me, and uggh, worst of all, appeared to spit at me, – horrible smelly gooo. I beat a hasty retreat back onto the footpath and away from there. When we arrived at the kittiwake nesting site, many of the birds were sitting, and had chicks. A truly delightful sight. Several were nearer, so I managed to get a superb shot of one standing on an outcrop nearby. The cliffs along the coastline here are occupied by myriads of birds, kittiwakes, fulmars and razorbills and many others nest in the area. Alas, I did not see any razorbills this time, but they are quite common at home so it was not such a loss not to see them.

There is quite a large arctic tern colony in the village itself. The walk along the coastline to watch the birds and see the magnificent lava formations was reward in itself. Three blowholes, connected with the sea, open up on the way. They say that when the wind is blowing hard from southerly directions they create fountains of ocean water, and then its not advisable to stand too near. We had a calm day with blue skies, so no such danger for us. The Arctic terns with their bright red bills and legs never appeared to settle, they swooped and cried – with that continuous cacophony of “Kee kee” – never staying for one minute in one spot. I regret I was unable to take any photos of them, but I did enjoy their antics. We returned to Helinar via some ponds and marshes, where a solitary Tufted duck was swimming about amongst a few black-headed gulls.

Having spent a full day with birds, I promised Margaret that we would just sightsee the following day so we took to the road and headed north over Holtavorduheidi Pass to Hunavatnssyla. En-route, we took a comfort stop at the head of a pass, and whilst I was was waiting for Margaret to return, I spied a ringed plover calling near a fast-flowing mountain stream. An unusual place for a wader, high up in the mountains, miles away from anywhere. We resumed our journey to Skagafjordur, where we visited a beautifully restored farm museum at Glaumaer. This was horse-breeding country, and we saw many in the meadows as we proceeded northwards. We fetched up at Akureyeryi, Iceland’s “second city”, where we spent the night, exploring the town, its beautiful church and botanical gardens.

To my delight, I didn’t get totally away from birds as a pair of pied wagtail’s cavorted on the gravel path behind my hotel room, so I managed a covert shot of one of them from my window. It is interesting that the locals call them White Wagtails. Not sure if they are a sub-species or it is just what they call them. The following day we drove to Myvatn via the waterfall Godafoss, the “Falls of the Gods”, which were spectacular. We spent most of the day at Myvatn, exploring the wonders of the lake, which is located in one of Iceland’s most interesting regions. There were fantastic volcanic formations with geothermal activity. Whilst walking around one of the lakes, I spied a Grebe and managed to get a shot. I wasn’t sure what it was as it was larger than a Little grebe yet smaller than a crested grebe. It had a large glossy black head with a broad golden stripe through its eyes forming short horns. I asked someones advice as what it was once I got home and he identified it as a Slavonian. (Thanks Paul!!)  We then walked among remarkable lava formations at Dimmubogir and explored the pseudo craters at Skutustadir, and also visited the solfataras of Namaskard, and the Krafla area, where volcanic eruptions took place as recently as 1984. We spent the night at Husavic, where boat-trips take visitors out whale-watching.

The following morning I was woken by “wader” calls which seemed very near. Margaret was still asleep, so I tiptoed to my bedroom window and saw to my delight a flock of golden plover feeding on the lawn (we were on the ground floor). I grabbed my camera and took a few photos, and spent nearly three-quarters of an hour watching them. Once up and breakfasted, we resumed our drive and took a spectacular coastal route along the attractive stretch of coastline of Tjornes peninsula. Just before we arrived at Asbyrgi, there was a stretch which was covered in Eider ducks. Most of them seemed to be hunkered down asleep, which I suppose they must do sometime, having no hours of darkness to tell them it is night-time!! Now, Asbyrgi is a horse-shoe shaped gorge, reputed to be the hoof print of Odin’s eight-legged horse Ssleipnir. We went for a walk for a couple of hours through the open woodland beneath the cliffs and found a small lake which had some Wigeon.

The most interesting moment was when we disturbed a Ptarmigan which obviously was nesting. The fuss it made was quite a racket, and then it went through the old wounded routine in an attempt to draw us away from the nest. We continued on to Dettifoss, Iceland’s most powerful waterfall which thunders 44 metres into a deep gorge. We continued on through the desert highlands to Modrudalur to Egilsstadir on the shores of lake Logurinn, the centre of the East Fjords region. Here we stayed overnight. The following day we continued south through the sheltered Eastern fjords and its small fishing villages, through Reydarfjordur and Faskrudsfjodur before we arrived in Stodvarfjordur where we visited the famous stone and mineral collection of Petra. Here was a truly wonderful museum, as there was a section devoted to local birdlife, complete with mounted specimens. My favourite had to be the Crossbill.

We then followed the coastline to Breiddalsvik and Djupivogur, over the Almannskard [pass to the town of Hofn. Here we visited the fabulous Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon with its stunning icebergs, situated in the heart of the Skaftafell National Park. Whilst out on the lagoon, we were mobbed by very aggressive Great Skuas. Here is a long-shot, I’m afraid, but the best I managed to get. Having spent the night in a national park lodge, we moved westwards, with a vista of huge glaciers sweeping down almost to sea level. We decided to take a beautiful walk (about 1½ hours) to Svartifoss a lovely waterfall. En route, I observed more redwings and fieldfares, with the occasional Wren songs in the background (at least I thought it was wren-song, although often very truncated and incomplete).

We then continued over the Skeidararsandur outwash plains to Kirkjuaejarklaustur, and on to the village of Vik where we stopped overnight. Apparently the Skeidarar Plains have the largest colonies of Great skuas in the northern hemisphere, and it is estimated, that there are as many as 1500 pairs nesting there. The next day we started with a visit to the beach and cliffs of Vik and then stopped by the Skogafoss waterfall and the charming little folk museum of Skogar. Again dozens of redwing feeding on the grassy areas around the site. Many so tame you could almost touch them. Next we stopped at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. It was very interesting that at most of the waterfalls, in the greener areas, fulmars abounded, nesting in the craggy outcrops either side of the falls.

We went on from here to visit Geysir, where the hot spring Strokkur ejects its water high into the air every 5 minutes or so, and where numerous small springs bubble and boil. From here we continued on to Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss. From there we drove through Hveragerdi village and on to Reykjavik for our last overnight stop before flying home. Whilst waiting for our airport pickup- there were still a few surprises as we wandered through the old city. We found a lake, almost in the heart of the city which abounded with mallard, Whooper Swans, greylag geese, and a miscellany of gulls.

I hope this has stirred many readers to reach for their travel brochures with intentions to visit Iceland. Please do so, It is well worth the trip and the superb views i had of the Red-necked phalarope made the whole trip worthwhile.

(c) Richard Symonds 2010

(Photographs to be added)

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