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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Iceland

2021 Narrative

The tour commenced near the Keflavík Airport, and we quickly set off to bird around the Reykjanes Peninsula. Not ten minutes from the airport we had already reached our first stop, the Sandgerðistjörn Ponds. Graylag Geese were abundant and shared the pond with smaller numbers of Tufted Duck while the throngs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were joined by a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Other birds included Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Redshank, and White Wagtail. Continuing our loop around the peninsula we added Common Ringed Plover, Whimbrel, and plenty of Arctic Terns while a Rock Ptarmigan sat unperturbed on top of a rock.

It was breezy at the Garðskagi lighthouse but, using it as a windshield, we enjoyed large numbers of Common Eiders including many family groups with chicks. Several hundred Black-legged Kittiwakes were roosting near the point while Northern Fulmars, Max Shearwaters, and Northern Gannets flew offshore.

After lunch and coffee at a popular bakery in town, we began our journey north towards our first overnight stop. We visited a wetland area which produced Whooper Swan, European Golden-Plover, Common Snipe, Black-headed Gull and Meadow Pipit. A quick stop at a private bird feeder in Reykjavík yielded a dozen Common Redpolls and a single Red Crossbill.

Before checking into our accommodation at Borgarnes we made a stop at Borgarfjörður where we had scope views of a White-tailed Eagle sitting on a nest atop a tiny islet along with a handful of Common Shelducks loafing around. After dropping our bags in our rooms, we walked to a small park in town and enjoyed excellent views of the resident Eurasian Blackbirds and Redwings.

After dinner we took advantage of the midnight sun and ventured off to a stakeout location for Eurasian Woodcock. It ended up taking a considerable amount of time, but we had excellent views of woodcocks flying overhead. However, the wait was interrupted by the likes of Merlin, a locally rare Long-eared Owl, and others. What an excellent way to cap off the first day!

The next morning, we continued our trip north taking a more scenic route off the Ring Road, which circles the entire island. Along this gravel road we had the opportunity to drive slowly and bird without worrying about other vehicles. The variable terrain changed from farmland to rocky grassland with scattered ponds and some views of the sea. This gave a nice mix of species with Horned Grebe, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, our first of many Glaucous Gulls, and good numbers of mainly Common Loons with a few Red-throated Loons in the mix. The real surprise was a lone vagrant Canada Goose hanging out in a sheep pasture.

We had a delicious sit-down lunch and coffees before continuing towards our accommodation in Grundarfjörður. The strong gales and rains mostly halted our birding for the day, but we still managed to do some birding before arriving, adding a few species such as Northern Shoveler and the Eurasian subspecies of Green-winged Teal.

With calm conditions the following morning, our whale watching trip off Ólafsvík was a go and we spent the morning offshore where we had great views of 4-5 Orca and, of course, Atlantic Gray Seals. This was immediately followed by lunch back in town at a restaurant that ranked high on the list as everyone’s favorite meal.

The rest of the afternoon was spent completing a loop around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula including Snæfellsjökull, a glacier-capped stratovolcano. This specific volcano was where the film Journey to the Center of the World was based. A stop at the ponds in Rif produced a whole host of breeding residents along with a vagrant Little Tern that we were able to pick out of the much larger Black-headed Gulls. Next up we paid a visit to the Svörtuloft seabird cliffs, which hosts large numbers of breeding birds. Common Murre and Razorbill numbers in the thousands, while a smaller number of Thick-billed Murres were picked out for great comparison. A European Shag made a brief appearance as well. Completing our birding stint, we picked up two Snow Buntings, five Harlequin Ducks, and two Purple Sandpipers before returning to our accommodation.

With the ferry schedule limited due to the pandemic, we opted for the much more scenic driving route around the bay to get to the Westfjords. With no ferry to catch, we had some extra time to make a couple birding stops before the long journey north. First stop was a pond, where we managed to pick up the vagrant Gray Heron, which is likely the only individual in all of Iceland. We then paid a visit to the private residence where a vagrant Black-and-white Warbler has been hanging out and had stunning views of the male feeding in some trees right in front of the group. Another showstopper for the day was a White-tailed Eagle nest, much closer than the one we had already visited, where two adults were sitting with an immature.

Before dinner we dropped our bags at our accommodation and headed over to the nearby Látrabjarg seabird cliffs. Here we had many of the same species as at the previous seabird cliffs with the addition of Atlantic Puffins, which were up close and unperturbed by our presence. As if that wasn’t enough for the day, some of us took advantage of the endless sun and ventured on foot from our accommodation before bed. Our accommodation is located in a prime birding area, and we were offered scope views of an Arctic Fox, which was likely hunting the very birds we were pursuing.

The following morning, we had a feast of a breakfast and then started working our way east out of the Westfjords. Although technically a travel day, we made a few stops along the way to get in some birding. We were rewarded with some excellent views of Snow Buntings over a mountain pass.

After a good night sleep, we headed off the next morning with the anticipation of many birds to target today. First up we had family groups of Pink-footed Geese in a river valley. The population of these geese have been growing exponentially in recent years. Traditionally Graylag Geese breed in the lowlands while the Pink-footed Geese breed in the highlands, but with their numbers increasing dramatically, they are now starting to breed lower down.

Next up we birded a forest near Akureyri, which hosts a few breeding Fieldfare, a rare breeder in Iceland. We eventually had one along with a good number of their close relative, Redwing. Back in town we picked up some Common Gulls at the local gas station, before picking up a very good lunch at a popular bakery in town. After filling our stomachs, we continued east to a secret breeding location of Long-tailed Jaegers, where we caught up with a pair. We enjoyed some amazing views of them sitting and flying around with their distinctive flight. This is not an easy bird to see in Iceland!

We checked into our accommodation, had a break, and went out for a tasty dinner with the local bird biologist. It was a wonderful evening in Húsavík. Returning home, we made a stop at a creek crossing a mile from our accommodation and had a large assortment of ducks including 75 Barrow’s Goldeneye and several Northern Pintail.

The next morning saw us on our second whale watching trip, which was quite slow compared to what is typical, but this was likely due to the weather. However, we did pick up Humpback Whale. The rest of the day was spent birding the Húsavík region doing target birding along the way. While scanning the ocean for Great Skua, we instead found a group of White-beaked Dolphins which allowed great scope views. Seeing that we didn’t immediately pick up on any skuas, we headed nearby where there was a breeding colony; at least seven different birds were sitting on little mounts in a vast open area here. A nearby forest patch held the usual Redwings and Goldcrests but also a Common Wood-Pigeon.

After picking up one more target bird, a vagrant Eurasian Coot, we headed back to our accommodation for the night, but this was interrupted for good reason! Less than a mile from our accommodation, we had a Gyrfalcon fly right overhead and land on a nearby hillside where we were able to get amazing views through the scope. This was a relief as we tried very hard at a nesting location to no avail! No trip to Iceland is complete without seeing a Gyrfalcon…arguably one of the biggest targets on most birders’ most wanted list.

The following day offered a good mix of sightseeing and birding. We began the morning at the incredibly scenic Selfoss, a waterfall, which can be seen from many miles away due to the mist rising above the falls. The water originates from Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland and second largest in Europe. We then paid a visit to Námafjall Geothermal Area which has smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots, surrounded by colorful sulphur crystals.

We eventually arrived at Lake Mývatn, which translates to Lake of Midges. This shallow lake was created over 2,000 years ago from a large irruption and showcases many interesting geological features. After lunch we made a loop around the lake birding along the way, which produced excellent waterfowl numbers. We visited a forest patch to stretch our legs where we had point-blank views of two dozen Redwings and a couple Common Redpolls among others. We eventually arrived at our upmarket hotel, where some opted to relax in the sauna.

Well rested, we began our long journey back towards Reykjavik the following morning. Although a travel day, we did make a couple stops along the way. Most notably we stopped at a forest patch for Eurasian Wren, which we had missed previously, and had much better luck in obtaining excellent views of two different individuals. Later, we picked up a Eurasian Siskin at a local birder’s feeder. We arrived in Reykjavik late afternoon, which allowed everyone plenty of time to explore the city on foot from our centrally located hotel before meeting at a local restaurant for our final dinner together.

Sadly, our final morning in Iceland, we made the most out of it. We left our hotel early for Þingvellir National Park so that we could be the first people there. This worked well and we had a leisurely walk around the park before the crowds arrived, enjoying the rift valley scenery where the North American and European plates meet while Iceland’s largest natural lake was a stone’s throw away. The park is also home to Alþingi, which is the oldest surviving parliament in the world dating back to the year 930.

Of course, there were plenty of birds to be found as well and it was here where we had our unsurpassed views of Red-throated Loons and Harlequin Ducks, who were unperturbed by our presence. As we departed, hordes of people arriving en masse, even by the busload, further proving that our timing was perfect!

We worked our way towards the airport where we had our final bit of birding with the highlight being at least 400 Manx Shearwaters feeding right offshore. After an excellent lunch, we said our goodbyes after a successful Iceland tour.

                                                                                                                                                        -              Ethan Kistler

Created: 29 September 2021