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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2022 Narrative

With nearly all international flights arriving early morning, we departed by 9:30am and immediately began our birding just a mere 5 minutes from the airport. Our focus for the morning was birding a loop around the Reykjanes Peninsula as an introduction to the local birds. Our first stop at a large pond provided Greylag Geese and Tufted Ducks, European Golden-Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Common Redshanks, Arctic Terns, a few White Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. It was also an excellent location for gull discussions with Black-headed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, and Glaucous Gulls all hanging out together for great comparison.

Cruising a nearby gravel road, we added Whooper Swan, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Redwing. But a Rock Ptarmigan roosting on top of someone’s house was the best bit!

Next up we scanned from the Garðskagi lighthouse where over a thousand Black-legged Kittiwakes were roosting offshore while large numbers of Common Eiders with plenty of chicks lazily roosted along the shoreline. The beach and exposed rocks provided Brant, Sanderling, Great Cormorant and European Shag while offshore Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Manx Shearwater, and a few alcids, namely Atlantic Puffin and Common Murre, could be seen. A nearby pond added Red-necked Phalarope and an Iceland Gull.

A quick detour down to Grindavik provided a Snow Goose and Canada Goose mixed in with Greylag Geese offering a true wild goose chase. We then began our drive north towards Borgarnes, our destination for then night making a couple stops around the capital of Reykjavík. First up, a bird feeder in a quiet neighborhood held a half dozen Common Redpolls and a pair of Red Crossbills while the Bakkatjörn pond hosted Black-tailed Godwit, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, and a single American Wigeon among the dozen or more Eurasian Wigeon.

We drove the final stretch towards Borgarnes, making a stop just before at Borgarfjörður for a White-tailed Eagle that has been nesting on the same small island for many years.

After dinner, most of us drove 20 minutes away to try our luck on a resident Eurasian Woodcock. After a bit of waiting, it made a couple laps over our heads. We also had a Long-eared Owl, which I discovered last year. A nice bonus! As if that’s not enough, on our way back to the hotel, we stopped to watch a pair of Parasitic Jaegers and ended up finding a stunning black Arctic Fox with a rufous tail. What a great ending to a very successful first day.

The next morning, we did a quick scan around Borgarnes where we picked up some Dunlin, Black Guillemots at close range among others before heading north. Instead of taking a paved road, we opted for the scenic detour which passes through farmland and countless little lakes offering Rock Ptarmigan, plenty of shorebirds, dozens of breeding Red-throated Loons, fields full of Whooper Swans, and a surprise Canada Goose, a rarity in Iceland. Near the end of the loop we happened upon an unkindness of Common Ravens numbering at least fifty individuals.

After a well-received lunch at a local restaurant, we continued towards Grundarfjörður via completing the complete loop around the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula with the Snæfellsjökull volcano towering over us. Along the way we made various stops at small lakes and coastal overlooks. Horned Grebes and Northern Wheatear were some of the new additions, but the highlight was certainly a large seabird colony. Here we had thousands of Razorbill and Common Murres with a few Thick-billed Murres and Atlantic Puffins mixed in. Large numbers of Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes were also nesting on the sheer cliffs. We discussed how each species would nest at various heights on the cliffs with kittiwakes near the bottom and murres near the top.

We spent the next morning birding the north shore of the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula. The real magic happened just before lunch. We arrived at a beach just in time to watch a White-tailed Eagle flying around the bay at close range. We all jumped out to watch this magnificent raptor. We then spotted a trio of Purple Sandpipers working the rocks right in front of us and had a Snow Bunting fly over our heads. To top this off, we had an amazing lunch in a little seaside village.

After lunch the group took a whale watching trip out of Ólafsvík and on our way back to our hotel for the night, we stopped enjoyed a dozen Harlequin Ducks at close range including some stunning males.

The next morning found us on the ferry across the Breidafjordur Bay from Stykkishólmur to Flókalundur, our gateway into the Westfjords. We took the morning ferry and jumped off on Flatey Island for a few hours before catching the afternoon ferry north again. This allowed us to explore this quaint 1km long and 2km wide tranquil island.

The main target on the island is the Red Phalarope, where a couple pairs breed on nearby small islands. The island was alive with breeding birds and every step sounded the alarms of local breeders such as redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits, while the little village hosted Snow Buntings nesting under the roofs. Scanning the bay for Red Phalarope yielded a dozen Red Knots along with three Brant among the usual gulls, eiders, and waterfowl. After a while, the group split up to do their own thing either relaxing, photography, or checking out the island architecture and a couple in the group did manage to photograph a Red Phalarope on a little wetland, but it sadly flew before the rest of the group arrived.

Back on the ferry, we arrived in the Westfjords and continued our drive to Hótel Breiðavík, checked in, and immediately went right back out to Látrabjarg, a nearby cliff face and also the westernmost point of Iceland. Here we enjoyed the late evening (no sunset here!) watching tens of thousands of Razorbill, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Atlantic Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Northern Fulmars nesting on the cliff face…some only a few feet away allowing for fantastic photo opportunities.  This spectacular breeding colony is one of the largest in the world and numbers well over a million birds.

After a morning stroll around Breiðavík, we began our journey back east through the picturesque Westfjords making a few short stops along the way. The highlight today was a pair of White-tailed Eagles at the same location I had them the year prior allowing for great scope views. Before checking into our accommodation, folks wanted to stop by a local wool factory shop, which proved very popular judging by the amount of stuff folks purchased!

Today we continued east, making plenty of stops along the way for new birds. Our first stop was in Blönduós, where the river with the same name can sometimes host Common Merganser. It didn’t take long before we found several. Further along we spotted a Merlin darting over the road before arriving at a pond, which has a pair of Eurasian Coots, a rarity for Iceland. They were lounging out in the open as were many other birds offering great views. Next were large breeding flocks of Pink-footed Geese along a vast gravel river valley before reaching Akureyri. Lunch was had at a very delicious local bakery/restaurant and then the group had some time to explore this popular town before we continue on. Next on days itinerary was a forest patch on the outskirts of town where we targeted Fieldfare. Today they were ubiquitous with six feeding out in the lawns among the Redwings. We also picked up Eurasian Wren and a Goldcrest. Before leaving town, we threw a bit of muffin out on the parking lot at the petrol station quickly adding Common Gull to our trip list.

In the afternoon we ventured inland to a secret location where Long-tailed Jaegers breed quickly finding two adults on nests. Elsewhere a lake provided a drake Smew hanging out with Tufted Ducks.

The next morning we focused our birding around the Husavik region, Not far from leaving our accommodation we crossed a river that had no fewer than 85 Barrow’s Goldeneye along with a few other species mixed in. In town we stopped by some bird feeders where a few Common Redpolls were feeding and eventually a Eurasian Collared-Dove, a local rarity that had been around for a while now. Just north of town a Short-eared Owl was a nice surprise and we had the opportunity to watch it out feeding over the lupines observing its unique butterfly flight.

By now the rain began, but we pushed on checking a few ponds for waterfowl until the rain let up…just in time to view a Black Tern which has taking up residence among Arctic Terns. Also present were several Great Skuas making several nice passes over the lake, better than having to watch them offshore from nearby cliff viewpoints.

After lunch we visited the picturesque Goðafoss waterfall and also found the local rarity Arctic Loon, which has been returning to the same lake for a number of years now.

After a good night’s rest, we woke the following morning and headed to a nearby cliff, which has recently been hosting a probably nesting pair of Gyrfalcons. We arrived with one circling eventually joining a second on the cliff face offering excellent extended scope views. A great way to start the day!

We headed south towards Lake Mývatn, which is one of the best sites in Iceland for waterfowl. We had over a thousand individuals mostly comprising of Tufted Ducks, Greater Scaup, and Barrow’s Goldeneye but also had a few Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Long-tailed Duck, both Common and Red-breasted Merganser along with several Common Scoters. The Höfði forest offered a nice wooded walk out of the wind where we enjoyed several fledging Redwings being fed by their parents.

After lunch we focused on some of the natural feature sites by first heading to Dettifoss waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park. Arguably the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, it only is beat by the Rhine Falls in Switzerland. Next we stopped at Hverir, home to geothermal bubbling pools of mud and sulfuric-smelling fumaroles. By now the winds were howling so we did a bit more birding around the lake focusing on waterfowl and shorebirds before retiring at our very nice hotel overlooking the region.

The final full day today was mostly a travel day back towards Reykjavik with stops along the way to break up the drive. One lake provided a dozen Northern Pintail. In Akureyri we stopped by the forest for another casual stroll after a Common Chaffinch was reported from here. Although no chaffinch was had, we still enjoyed the usual suspects including a couple Fieldfare. Back near Borgarnes, we stopped by Kistufjörður for the resident breeding Common Shelducks before ending the day on the outskirts of Reykjavik at a stunning lake surrounded by purple hillsides of lupine. Over a hundred Tufted Ducks called the lake home and we enjoyed seeing the scattered Horned Grebe nests as well.

The final morning, we had an early breakfast and headed off to Þingvellir National Park before the morning rush. Here we enjoyed the site of the Alþing, the Icelandic Parliament dating back to 930, though in recent history it has been moved to Reykjavik. This park also provides geological significance as the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian plates can be enjoyed by the various cracks in the surface, one large enough we walk through the deep-walled canyon! On the bird front, we enjoyed nesting Red-throated Loons up close and most impressively, twenty of so Harlequin Ducks relaxing at the base of a small waterfowl oblivious to us. As we departed back to Reykjavik for the end of the tour, the masses of folks arriving in a dozen tour buses and a hundred cars were piling in proving our early arrival was well planned! In all, it was a very successful trip with all of our targets in the bag.

                                                                                                                                                                                   - Ethan Kistler

Created: 15 December 2022