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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

August 2008

15 August - Summer in the mountains

Above: The amazing shadow of 934 m high Baula in western Iceland from the summit. Picture taken at around 11 pm, late June. Who needs Egypt?

Mid to late summer is the doldrums of birding in many parts of the world, and while in Iceland we are not affected by searing midday heat and there is still plenty of good birding to be had, it is nevertheless a time when many birders are busy doing other things and the binoculars often remain at home. I'm no exception, and usually spend my spare time on barren mountain tops, rather than by lakes and wetlands. This summer has been different but I've still managed a few mountain walks. One of the many joys of living in Iceland for me is the proximity of excellent hiking country and the seemingly endless array of peaks, valleys and wastelands to stretch your legs on. And if you like solitude then you can almost be guaranteed that you will be the only person on the mountain. This summer I've been able to do far less than normal but was pleased to get up the prominent 934 metre pyramid of Baula in western Iceland in late June. At that time of the year there is no need to worry about daylight and I reached the summit at 11 in the evening and saw one of the most extraordinary sights I've ever seen: the near perfect pyramidal shadow of Baula stretching far over the plain below. The view was stunning, but the walk was unpleasantly tough, by which I mean the terrain under foot was treacherous and demanded concentration at every step. Admittedly, it's not exactly Nanga Parbat but I'm strictly an amateur hiker, and endless, steep boulder fields in which rocks which had no right to move under my feet (I’m not that heavy!), did in fact move, are not my favourite terrain. On the upper section of the mountain, birds were non-existent but further down Snow Buntings and Wheatears sang on their rocky territories, while Golden Plovers and Whimbrels were common on the moorlands. I hate to say this about any mountain, but Baula is one I've crossed off the list and won't be hurrying up again.

Above: The summit of Baula. Picture taken at 11:20 p.m.

Even closer to Reykjavík is the volcanic ridge of Kálfstindar, rising to 824 metres. The area around this peak is dry and dusty and was remarkably birdless, with just the odd Meadow Pipit flitting about and the crunk of a Raven. But the view from the top is one of the reasons I feel lucky to live in Reykjavík. Just 45 minutes by car from the city and then an hour or two on foot gets you to the top of mountain from where you can have a view stretching 100 km into the totally uninhabited centre of the Iceland: a convoluted pattern of tortured lava plains, vast icecaps, sandy wastes, glacial lagoons, nunataks, jagged ranges. To the south the volcanic archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar off the south coast, far off to the west the ice-covered cone of Snæfellsjökull. Dead silent. What a privilege.

Below: The brutish, ankle-breaking slopes of Baula. Picture taken at midnight

I haven't packed away my binoculars completely though. In July I did a couple of evening trips with visiting birders and it's always nice to see how visitors react to new birds. An Italian birder inadvertently taught me a new Italian swear word when he saw his first Harlequin at the edge of Reykjavík and I particularly enjoyed two evenings out with Chris from Lübeck, with whom I had my best sightings of Short-eared Owl this year, around ten male Harlequins and some very close Great Northern Divers with young.

Below: Two shadows climbing Kálfstindar. Picture taken at 10:55 p.m.

It appears to have been a good year for some rare Icelandic breeders. Long-eared Owl has bred (for perhaps only the second or third documented time), there was the first successful breeding record of Little Gull and our only known pair of Long-tailed Skua also raised young. Newly fledged Robin chicks were reported near Reykjavík, a Fieldfare raised young in the south-east but it is Siskin which appears to have had the most success. After last autumn's record invasion, things went quiet with most birds appearing to disappear over the winter. But breeding birds were reported across Iceland this spring, and on Sunday I came across a flock of around 20 juveniles in the local cemetery. And whilst out on my bike in the last week, I have come across three Goldcrests, the first time I've seen them in Reykjavik for about four years. There was an explosion in the Goldcrest population several years ago but an couple of harsh winters appeared to have decimated the population, and from being a relatively common bird, it became exceedingly scarce. I sincerely hope that Siskins and Goldcrests colonise the forests of Iceland.

Below: And Frodo looks into Mordor... Looking into the interior from the summit of Kálfstindar. Picture taken at 11:25 p.m

to be continued





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