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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Iceland

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Each summer, millions of birds come to Iceland, a relatively newly-created island lying in the middle of the North Atlantic, to breed and rear their young on its sea cliffs, moors, tundra and meadows, surrounded by cold waters rich in food.  While the species list is not long when compared to places less remote from the continents, the numbers are truly staggering, and the constant backdrop of enormous, luminous mountains, strange geological wonders, volcanoes, breathtaking green valleys, leaden seas and snowy fells of almost forbidding beauty, makes birding in Iceland very much unlike anywhere else on the planet.  One feels that he’s reached the edge of the world, or indeed some other world entirely, yet he finds good roads, good restaurants, and lovely towns. 

This year’s tour saw much of the varied weather that summer in Iceland can produce, starting out cold and windy, with icy rains, but soon turning calm and balmy, with the sun barely setting.  We saw practically all the species that are expected on our route, many of them in great numbers and with young, many of them close at hand and photogenic, including all the breeding shorebirds, enormous colonies of alcids, skuas and jaegers, gulls and terns, Red-throated Loons, Pink-footed Geese, and huge numbers of ducks, including King Eider, Harlequin Duck, and Barrow’s Goldeneye.  We also took two whalewatching trips from the north shore, sidling up on many Humpback Whales and two Sperm Whales.

IN DETAIL:  Our tour began in the morning at Keflavik airport.  After a brief introduction we headed straight out to nearby Gardur lighthouse.  This is probably the best place on the island to look for Manx Shearwaters, which breed on islands off the south coast of the country.  The high winds made viewing a bit difficult, but we eventually picked up on a sparse procession of them out among the waves, along with great numbers of Northern Gannets, which also breed offshore.  We also took some time to look at some of the species we’d be seeing a lot of in the coming days, including Northern Fulmars, Arctic Terns, European Golden-Plovers, Common Eiders, Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails, and others.  We took lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water here, and from the shelter of the dining room had even better, more leisurely looks at the shearwaters passing by, as well as a Glaucous Gull.  In the afternoon we made the drive to our first hotel, in Borgarnes, with the weather rather difficult, high winds and spitting rain, but some fine roadside birds along the way.  We decided not to go out after dinner for Eurasian Woodcocks as planned, due to the weather, hoping to have success later in the week at a back-up site for this species, very scarce in Iceland.

Next day the weather hadn’t changed much, so we did a lot of birding from the van, which in Iceland is very doable, with its wide-open landscapes, roadside fences for perching, and abundance of very visible birdlife. We spent the morning scanning wetlands and farmland on our way up to Snaefellsnes peninsula, seeing our first Parasitic Jaegers, Red-throated Loons, Black-tailed Godwits, and Whimbrels, and starting to familiarize ourselves with some of Iceland’s virtually omnipresent breeding species, including Common Redshanks and Meadow Pipits.  We took a stroll through a churchyard, where the taller tree plantings harbored Redwings and Redpolls, among others.  After a good lunch we reached Snaefellsnes, crossing over to Olafsvik on the north shore, where the sustained high winds literally suspended great flocks of gulls just over the cliffs, providing a rather ideal situation for studying the species here, which included many Glaucous Gulls and at least two Iceland Gulls (despite the name, a scarce non-breeder in Iceland).  We also spotted a drake King Eider just offshore, and a gorgeous drake Harlequin Duck on the rocks.  After a visit to an Arctic Tern colony at Rif, about 5000 pairs strong, we drove out to the seabird cliffs in Snaefellsnes National Park, where many hundreds of Razorbills, Common Murres, and Black-legged Kittiwakes are visible, along with smaller numbers of Thick-billed Murres and Atlantic Puffins.  On the way out we spotted our second Arctic Fox of the day, Iceland’s only native mammal, before backtracking to our hotel in the beautiful seaside town of Grundarfjordur. 

Our first whalewatching boat trip of the tour was scheduled for the next morning out of Olafsvik.  A little rough on the way out, the weather finally broke, the seas calmed and the skies cleared.  While the bright sun isn’t ideal for spotting whales at a distance, we were rewarded with two Sperm Whales just near the boat, and the sea was alive with puffins, fulmars, and kittiwakes.  Once off the boat, with spirits high from the shift in the weather and the sea air, we enjoyed an excellent lunch in town, then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the peninsula, circling around the southwest and to an incredibly beautiful little place called Arnarstapi, with its spectacular basalt rock columns and arches, all topped with tufts of bright green grass, and covered with kittiwakes and fulmars on their nests, along with a small colony of Shags. 

After a second night in Grundarfjordur, we set out in the morning for Stykkisholmur and the ferry across to the West Fjords, geologically the oldest part of Iceland, and for its rugged beauty and remoteness a destination for many adventurers visiting the country.  The ferry ride across takes three hours, but we break it up by spending several hours at about the halfway point, on the picturesque little island of Flatey.  Our time on Flatey is always a highlight of the tour, a peaceful interlude, spent roaming the dirt road from one end to the other, getting close to puffins, Black Guillemots, Red-necked Phalaropes, Snow Buntings singing on the rooftops, exploring the old church, and taking lunch of homemade soup, bread, and cakes at the little hotel.  There are also very small numbers of Red Phalaropes breeding on the island, and we were lucky enough to locate them several times during our visit.  We caught the later northbound ferry across, having dinner on the ferry, and then made the winding, gravel-road drive through barren, rocky high ground, to our hotel at Breidavik, spectacularly situated at the edge of a broad stretch of sand dunes with a path leading to the shore.  After settling in, we went to catch the late-day light at the bird cliffs of Latrabjarg, perhaps the most spectacular off all the bird cliffs in Iceland (in fact, reaching such a level of wondrous majesty, I don’t know how anything else on Earth could be deemed greater).  Here, towering walls of rock rise out of the sea, with every ledge and nook occupied by birds, mostly Common Murres and Razorbills, with great numbers of puffins along the grassy upper edges, many at arm’s length.  Looking out over the water, one sees just a mind-boggling spectacle, thousands upon thousands of birds moving in every direction, in tiers, layers, masses, to-and-fro, coming and going, stretching out to the north pole, here at the edge of the world.  The whole scene was made ever more dramatic as the sun was sinking, bands of mist played with the light, rainbows appeared.  I think we all had the sense that we had discovered one of the wonders of the world. 

We took it slow next morning, enjoying the setting of our hotel and the good breakfast, before setting out to the east, where we would be staying at a very different sort of place, at Daeli Holiday Hotel, located in a green valley full of gorgeous Icelandic horses.   Along the way, we stopped to investigate some whitewash up on a roadside cliff, and were thrilled to discover a nest containing three nearly-fledged Gyrfalcons!  We also saw our first White-tailed Eagles, and visited a dramatic highland area where Long-tailed Ducks were nesting in barren little tundra ponds, as well as Whooper Swans, and Whimbrels were plentiful.  The drive to Daeli was endlessly scenic, with lots of great birding along the way.  We reached the hotel in time to relax before dinner was served. 

After breakfast, we said goodbye to our pleasant valley at Daeli, with a full day ahead of us.  On our way to Akuryeri, we passed through the only Pink-footed Goose breeding sites on our tour, locating several large multiple-family groups.  After some other birding along the way, we reached Akuryeri, a relatively large and bustling town, in time to have lunch at the excellent bakery, after which we all took an hour to explore the little street in the old part of town, where there is good shopping, cafes, and the like.  We then visited Godafoss, one of Iceland’s many impressive waterfalls, after which it was onward to the beautiful harbor town of Husavik, whale capitol of Iceland, and a late afternoon boat trip.  The weather was excellent, and we enjoyed numerous Humpback Whales spouting off near and far.  Getting back to dock in the evening, it was just a short walk to a very good restaurant on the harbor, and after dinner, a short drive to our lodgings out of town.  Along the way we hoped to spy a Short-eared Owl in the late evening hour, and were not long in doing so, having excellent views of one owl flying across the road and perching on a fencepost close to the van. 

Close to Husavik is Myvatn, a large, shallow eutrophic lake in a very actively volcanic region of Iceland.  The lake contains an incredible abundance of life, rich in food and sustaining the densest breeding population of waterfowl on Earth.  We devoted the entire next day to exploring the lake and its margins.  The numbers of ducks is staggering, with some of the lake’s bays literally covered with thousands of Eurasian Wigeons, Gadwalls, and Tufted Ducks, along with the Old World’s only population of Barrow’s Goldeneye.  The latter species, a cavity nester, breeds in the porous formations of pseudocraters throughout the lake.  Smaller numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters breed here as well, and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes.  We spotted a pair of Gyrfalcons, no doubt subsisting on the abundant waterfowl.  There is also a veritable forest here of birch and mountain ash, with a lush undergrowth of angelica.  A walk here produced many Redwings, Redpolls, and Eurasian Wrens.  Having spent most of the day at Myvatn, we ended with a walk along the river flowing into the lake, where we found Harlequin Ducks in their whitewater Summer habitat, before we returned to our hotel  to rest up before heading into Husavik for dinner.  Twenty minutes of scanning the sea from the bluffs just north of town, before dinner, yielded an impressive list of marine mammals, including Humpback and Minke Whale, Harbor Porpoise, and White-beaked Dolphin.  Once back at the hotel, some of us opted to go out to try to for Eurasian Woodcock at a site where one had recently been discovered displaying in the evenings.  In the low light of late evening, in a heavily forested valley, it didn’t take long for us to hear and then see one of these fine birds performing its “roding” display, and in fact there were two birds.  A late night, but well worth it, and quite an experience to be out in the dusky light of midnight.

Our main mission for the following day, besides getting a late start so that we could all get some much needed rest, was to visit a colony of Great Skuas in a glacial floodplain east of Husavik.  We first picked up picnic supplies at Myvatn, and took a picnic at Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.  After lunch we reached the skua colony, just as a storm was rolling in.  We nevertheless had a dramatic encounter with this most robust and leonine of birds, which was in fact enhanced by the dark, electric skies, hail and heavy beads of rain.  By the time we reached Husavik once again, this time approaching from the north, for dinner, the weather was breaking up.  Back for a final night at Hotel Brekka, packing up for the next day’s departure, primarily a driving day, retracing some of our steps, heading across to southern Iceland and Reykjavik.  The wonderful thing about driving in Iceland is that the roads are often good, the traffic is light, and the scenery is always spectacular.

So the next day we arrived in downtown Reykjavik, and our centrally-located hotel, after just a few stops along the way, including a spruce plantation harboring Goldcrests (the European version of a Golden-crowned Kinglet), and the fascinating Pingvellir National Park, located in the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  We had a fine last supper once we reached the capitol.

On our final morning, we spent some time looking for Eurasian Blackbird, a scarce but increasing resident around Iceland’s capitol, with success.  We then had just enough time to go look for Iceland’s first Black-necked Stilt (present since April) in some ponds near the city, which we quickly located, and, astonishingly, was very near to an American Wigeon, also a vagrant in Iceland (though fairly regular).  This seemed like the perfect juxtaposition to capture the essence of birding in Iceland, a land in the middle of two continents, out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, rising from the sea and both a destination and a safe harbor for a tremendous number of birds. We said our goodbyes in the late morning and went our various ways, after a truly enjoyable tour of a truly spectacular country.

-Evan Obercian

Created: 28 July 2017