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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Iceland

2019 Narrative

There isn’t much I can say about Iceland that hasn’t been said before.  All the superlatives apply.  It’s a strange, moody, fantastical place rising from the extremities of everything.  A place where the primordial ooze of the Earth comes up against well-paved roads and credit card machines that work every time.  If it were possible to have a layover on another planet, perhaps Iceland wouldn’t be as popular.  But it is extremely popular.  Approaching the country from a birding perspective, however, frequently leads us off the beaten path, and deep into the natural wonders.  Our route takes us from the Southwest corner up the west coast to the Westfjords, across to the northeast, and back again.  The birdlife is at times staggering, with a low diversity but high abundance.  Our tour is timed to coincide with the height of the breeding season, when seemingly every bird is in some agitated state of caring for eggs or young, and the whole island is like one big, beautiful blooming stage of abundant growth and fecundity, where the sun barely sets.  We had gorgeous weather, with plenty of unseasonable warmth and sunshine.

We all gathered in the late morning at the Keflavik airport, and set out directly on a bit of birding, towards the lighthouse at Gardur.  Some of the birds that would become our constant roadside companions were already in evidence, including Eurasian Oystercatchers, European Golden-Plovers, Common Redshanks, Meadow Pipits, White Wagtails, and others.  Stopping at the ponds at Sandgerdi, we studied the local gulls, saw our first Graylag Geese, and even discovered a rarity, the tour’s first Little Egret!  On the “circle dirt” road we spotted several Rock Ptarmigans, Parasitic Jaegers, Common Ringed Plovers, and others.  The lighthouse at Gardur is a good vantage point to look for seabirds, particularly Northern Gannets and Manx Shearwaters, the latter being tough away from the southern part of the country.  We saw a few.  We also saw countless alcids passing by, with promises of many more to come.  Common Eiders were abundant here, and Northern Fulmars passed by in review.  After a bit of lunch, we made our way up to Borgarnes, where we’d stay the night.  Before dinner we had time to explore the fjord here, scanning a distant peninsula for White-tailed Eagle, and sure enough finding one perched on a prominent rock.  This bay is also the stronghold for Common Shelduck in Iceland, and we spotted a number of them along the flats.  Dinner back at our hotel in Borgarnes, and a much-needed rest after all of our travels.

After a leisurely morning, we packed up and set out for some birding en route to Grundarfjordur, on the northern side of the Snaefells Peninsula.  We took a long, dirt-road loop out to the Akrar wetlands, finding our first Black-tailed Godwits, lots of Red-throated Loons, many ptarmigans, jaegers, Northern Wheatear, and much more.  By lunchtime we were at a little outpost along the road with an excellent cafe, and the glacier on Snaefellsnes increasingly close.  Taking the high road over the peninsula dropped us down in Olafsvik, which has excellent birding.  A great gathering of gulls, mostly Glaucous and Great Black-backed, near a fish factory, seemed like a good spot to search for the odd lingering Iceland Gull.  In little time we spotted a couple.  We continued west, through an enormous Arctic Tern colony, out into breathtaking Snaefellsjokull National Park, and to the beautiful bird cliffs at Saxholsbjarg.  Here, two kinds of murres, Razorbills, a few Atlantic Puffins, and numerous Black-legged Kittiwakes were close at hand, occupying the vertical towers of rock, while behind us the mossy, flower-covered lava fields and the great glacier gleaming white.  Off to the south, I noticed a pod of Orcas feeding, and after some distant views, they suddenly appeared quite close!  Watching these magnificent animals from land was a thrill.  Already late in the afternoon, it was time to backtrack a bit and head east to Grundarfjordur, where after settling into our hotel we gathered again for dinner.

The next morning we had booked for a 10am whalewatching boat out of Olafsvik, so we had time for just a brief scan around town, which produced Purple Sandpipers, before heading to the docks.  The boat trip was wonderful, a little choppy but the visibility was excellent.  Marine mammals included even more Orcas putting on quite a show, and good views of Minke Whales.  We returned to land invigorated and hungry, and had a great sit-down lunch by the dock.  In the afternoon, after a fine walk into some very old fish huts, we drove around the western part of the peninsula, keeping the glacier in view all the time, to the picturesque village of Arnarstapi.  This place is famous for its fantastical columns and archways of beautifully-patterned basalt rock.  Those same columns are also home to numerous nesting kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as European Shags.  A surprise visit from a Long-tailed Jaeger was a highlight, as we watched the bird circle around the colony before heading off to sea.  Just a lovely place to stroll around and to take photographs, and to finish a great day in the field.  We crossed back over the mountain to our home base in the town of Grundarfjordur once again.

Next day we were off early for the harbor town of Stikkisholmur, where we boarded the ferry across Breidafjordur, the Broad Sound.  On the way we made an emergency stop for a stunning adult male King Eider, before continuing on the the docks.  The ferry runs twice, so we were able to walk off at the tiny island of Flatey and spend a number of hours there, catching the later ferry north across the second half of the bay.  Flatey is a wonderful spot to have to spend some hours.  Every angle reminds one of a postcard.  Beautiful houses, a beautiful church, and noisy nesting birds everywhere.  One bird in particular, the Red Phalarope, is quite rare in Iceland, and this is a well-known location.  So we set our sights on finding this bird, and after some real effort, we succeeded.  The soup at the hotel was a welcome respite from the elements, and gradually the group dissipated, each enjoying the island at their own pace, before we all gathered again to board the ferry north.  Once reunited with our van, and now in the Westfjords, it was an hour drive of unreal beauty to our remote hotel at Breidavik.  Having dined on the ferry, we took just a bit of time to settle in at our lodgings before heading out for the extraordinary evening light at the bird cliffs of Latrabjarg, just to the west.  This is one of the great sights on the planet.  Staggering, towering, bigger than imaginable, cliffs covered with birds, ocean teeming with wings, raucous calls as far as the wind can carry, wall upon wall of birds, murres mostly, so many kittiwakes, puffins close enough to touch.  We stayed here until after 10pm.

In the morning we had a sleep in, and some of us took the time to explore the scenery around the hotel.  Then we were off towards the northeast, with a few stops along the way, for things like a gaggle of bawdy Harlequin Ducks, ever-changing scenery, and an overnight stop at the lovely Holiday Hotel Daeli, near Hvammstangi.  The next day we continued our trek, doing a bit of birding at the river mouth at Blonduos, stopping for Pink-footed Geese along the river east of Varmalid, and passing some quality town time in Akureyri.  By now it was positively hot!  We rolled into our lodgings at guesthouse Brekka, just south of Husavik, with enough time to rest, before heading into town for our evening whalewatch.  We boarded the old boat, the evening was splendid, and we had great views of Humpback Whales, and lots of puffins and the like.  Once on land again, we dined at a good restaurant by the harbor, and had time after dinner to spy Short-eared Owls and even a family of Gyrfalcons!  When the sun never sets, it’s hard to quit birding. 

The next day we devoted to exploring Myvatn, the famous “lake of the midges”.  This shallow lake, with its incredibly food-rich waters, is home to thousands of pairs of ducks, notably Eurasian Wigeons and Tufted Ducks, but also Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, the only European-breeding Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and others.  We also experienced our first real forest birding at Hofn, where Eurasian Wrens, Redwings, and Redpolls sing.  Just as we were feeling like we were in a familiar European garden, however, we made our way to the most unearthly mud pots, where steaming cauldrons of boiling gray ooze spit and plop against a backdrop of red sand and yellow rivulets of sulfur.  We took a very beautiful walk along Laxa, or Salmon River, where we met an exuberant fisherman and a family of Harlequin Ducks, before having a rest up at the hotel, and then went back into town for another fine dinner. 

Our final full day in the northeast was spent touring around Cape Husavik, north and east of town, beginning with a very enjoyable walk along the prominent cliffs on the northern tip.  By now we were quite the experts when it came to the birds of Iceland, and a lot of our time was spent marveling, botanizing, and working on photography.  We visited the site of a rather confused Black Tern, who had returned for a second season to an Arctic Tern colony, locating him quickly.  We then visited a remote colony of Great Skuas, which involved a bit of a hike across a broad plain of volcanic sediment.  From here we followed the same river up to where it plummets with great fury at the waterfall of Dettifoss.  Not your everyday waterfall, this is simply a spectacle, a marvel, a deafening torrent of violent crashing and endlessly falling water as deadly powerful as steal. 

Our final day was a long trek back to the capitol.  A few stops along the way, including the humbler but very beautiful waterfall at Godafoss, a forest near Akureyri where we found the country’s only Fieldfares, along with a Eurasian Siskin, and a spruce-pine plantation recently colonized by Goldcrests and Crossbills.  After a long and of course endlessly scenic drive, we made it into Reykjavik in time for an excellent final meal in the town center.

I love Iceland, and this was a great tour.  I hope you all cherish your memories, and thank you! 

—Evan Obercian       

Created: 16 October 2019