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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

October 2005

17-18 October - Another Yank passerine and a national mega

As the Icelandic Olympic birding team headed to south-east Iceland straight from the ferry on Sunday night, I was left to get up before first light to try and find yesterday's Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata in orlkshfn on my own before work. Arrived at the scene just as it was getting light, and soon saw a small yellow bird at the spot where the warbler had been seen yesterday, but inexplicably lost the bird again, without seeing where it possibly could have gone. There began a long search, with one eye on the clock as I was due at work in ten minutes in a town 50 minutes away. I walked the park about six times and then the two most promosing streets in orlkshfn , where I'd previously seen Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Barred Warbler, Pied Flycatcher to name a few. But the streets were birdless apart from the local Redwings Turdus iliacus, Icelandic Redpolls Carduelis flammea islandica and Winter Wrens Troglodytes troglodytes. But there was nothing else to be done, already late for work, I had to give up on the dendroica. You win some, you lose some. I walked back to the car and decided on my way out of town to drive slowly down the street again, a last desperate cast of the dice. And amazingly from the car I spotted some movement in a tree, got out lifted my binoculars and saw my first ever Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata, and my fifth dendroica in Iceland. Couldn't believe my luck. At that point S rang me with news that they'd just found a Yellow-rumped Warbler. In fact the phone didin't stop ringing all day, as they also found a Blackpoll Warbler, a Gray-cheeked Thrush, Iceland's first Goldfinch just to name a few. A vintage day I think is what you'd call it. Shame I had other commitments that stopped me from going with them, but it was clear that I would be taking a holiday the following day.

Picked DB up at 7:00 a.m. and drove to the Eyjafjll area (see entry for 1-2 October), which hadn't had any coverage but must have some birds. First stop was Kverkin, where we found the Alder Flycatcher two years ago. Nothing as spectacular this time but six Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla and a Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita was evidence that there were vagrants around. Then a red-tailed bird flew past, my first ever Icelandic Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus, an Iceland tick for both of us at the first stop! The next door farm had truly spectacular numbers of Redwings Turdus iliacus in the garden and on all the meadows, and the frequent attention of a Merlin Falco columbarius induced panic and caused flocks of Redwings to crash noisily into the garden at regular intervals. But the morning was about to get really interesting. The farmer came out and told me that she'd seen a very strange bird in her garden just three days earlier, like a Whimbrel but black. What's more she'd taken a photo of it. I looked at DB and asked if he was thinking what I was thinking. Apparently he was. The photo revealed a Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, and two weeks earlier a bird matching the description had been described at sea 30 miles south of here. Glossy Ibis was last seen in Iceland in 1998, and before that 1824, so it's a huge rarity in these parts. We told the farmer what it was and bemoaned the fact that we hadn't been here three days earlier as it hadn't been seen since. Oh, well at least we had proof that it had been here, for the records. DB and I decided to split up, he went round one side of the barn and I went round the other. I gazed across the field, imagining how great it would to see the ibis now. After a minute my mobile rang and it's DB, "DID YOU SEE IT? DID YOU SEE IT? It circled round your head about five times!" Somehow I hadn't managed to see it circling round my head five times, I must remember to look up more often, and when I joined DB, he was looking at a superb Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus in a ditch. Seeing this bird fly round with Ravens Corvus corax and fly in front of the high waterfalls which feed off the ice-cap is probably the strangest thing I've seen whilst birding in Iceland, and slightly different to my previous sightings of this species in Spain and Australia. The day was bound to be an anti-climax after that, although two delightful Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus amongst commoner vagrants were very nice finds. And I never tire of visiting this area of high cascades, and quite simply magnificent views of the hulking ice-cap Eyjafjallajkull rising above the tiny farms, only two hours from Reykjavk.

16 October - Iceland's a great place to see Hawfinches

Sunday on Heimaey dawned with the same weather, moist winds, claustrophobic fog; miserable for most people but full of promise to vagrant seekers. And indeed the day got off to a good start when we walked round the first corner and were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of a very bedraggled Long-eared Owl Asio otus in the garden recently frequented by the Swainson's Thrush. It was obvious that more birds had come in over night and at the fish drying racks (a kind of fish graveyard of hanging fish-heads, foul-smelling but the birds like the associated insects) another local rarity was located, Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, with fewer than fifty records in Iceland. The best bird of the day was found in the strangest location, a bleak black sandy beach, with some grassy tufts the only vegetation, no trees visible anywhere. YK had just flushed a European Robin Erithacus rubecula so we knew that there were vagrants around. Suddenly we heard a Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, calling repeatedly in flight, a bird I failed to see at all in 2004 and one I was yet to see in 2005. A finch flew over and landed amongst the tussocks on the black beach and I focused on the Chaffinch, except this Chaffinch was orangey brown, and had a huge bill, and a broad white tipped tail. Because I had expected this bird would be a Chaffinch, it took a few seconds to realise that it was in fact a Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes, a great rarity in Iceland and an attractive bird anywhere. I've looked and listened for Hawfinches in England, the Netherlands and Spain and never seen them there, but have now seen two in Iceland. Does this mean Iceland is the best place in Europe for Hawfinch? Must be. Back in town, DH, a British birder working in Iceland and who had twitched the Hermit Thrush after reading about it on the rare bird news section (somebody actually reads the rare bird news? How gratifying!), pulled YK and me out of the hot dog stand to point out a House Martin Delichon urbicum, amazingly only the second one I've ever seen in Iceland. The ferry journey back was lovely and smooth, but our peace of mind was broken by the news that HG had just found a Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata in orlkshfn. And where's that? It's the port that the ferry we were on would dock into, but by the time we got there it would be dark........

One of many Blackcaps found on the island, this one in the fish graveyard.       The first glimpse of the Hawfinch

14-15 October - Hermit Thrush v seasickness

YK rang me on Thursday and breathlessly told me that he'd just found a Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus very close to where he'd found the Swainson's Thrush less than two weeks earlier. Last time I went mid-week to Heimaey I ended up stranded there and with another storm forecast and the weekend so close I decided to wait and arranged to travel on the ferry with S and G on the Friday night. Whilst flying to Heimaey is a painless experience (weather delays nothwithstanding), the three-hour ferry crossing is another matter entirely. My fear of flying has vanished to be replaced by a growing susceptibility to seasickness, although I'd never really been ill on a boat. The strong south-easterlies were promising for vagrants but a recipe for disaster for seasickness sufferers. We'd just left harbour and the boat was already rocking alarmingly, prompting a passenger behind me in the TV lounge to wonder out loud whether the seat he was in was fitted with a seat belt. That was it for me, I had to go out on deck, and I spent three hours lying on a bench on deck. If lying on a bench alone in the dark, in the rain, in October, on rough Icelandic seas sounds thoroughly miserable, then you'd be dead right. It is. Bloody awful. My only thought was that I'd better find this Hermit Thrush.
Saturday dawned damp and foggy over Heimaey, the volcano which erupted from a flat field on the edge of the town to rise over 200 metres covering the island in pumice and lava in 1973 remained hidden from view all weekend. YK took us to the garden where he'd seen the thrush on Thursday but it wasn't be seen, although a Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla there was the first European vagrant passerine I'd seen all autumn! As YK had failed to cook us breakfast we decided to make a stop at the town bakery before continuing the search. On the way I looked over a wall into a garden and saw a leaf drop to the floor, which when I looked at it in my bins proved to be the Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus! Superb, and only a few metres from where I'd seen the Swainson's Thrush 10 days earlier. It was a totally different bird, cocking its tail and half-flicking its wings like the Rufous Bush Chats I'd seen in Spain with S and G in May.

The Hermit Thrush

The rest of the day we spent in the fog-shrouded cocoon of Heimaey looking for vagrant passerines. It should be pointed out here that what passes for a rarity in Iceland very often differs from what European birders would call rare, and naturally vice versa. A Harlequin elsewhere in Europe is a major event locally, whilst if a Blue Tit showed up here it would set the pulses soaring. Rarity is always a relative term and I'm told that there are some birders in Europe who haven't seen an Iceland Gull. Just imagine! Basically all non-Icelandic passerines are of interest and whilst we don't do cartwheels if we see a Willow Warbler or a Blackcap, the fact that they are here means that vagrants are reaching these shores, and there could be something else out there, waiting to be discovered. So the rest of the day's haul of Garden Warbler Sylvia borin, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita and Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus was by no means spectacular but it left us hopeful that things remained to be discovered, especially as the wind kept blowing steadily from the south-east. Apart from the glorious Hermit Thrush, the highlight was seeing about 40 blue morph Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis near the harbour, as I'd only seen ones and twos before.
A few "blue" Fulmars...

7-9 October - Harlequins on my patch and the first snow

On Friday I managed to get out of work early enough to spend an hour walking on my local patch on the borders of Kpavogur and Reykjavk, i.e. suburban Iceland. My patch is a sheltered inlet of the sea, an adjacent cemetery and tree planatation, and whilst it isn't the Amazon in terms of bio-diversity, I've seen around 80 species or so there over the years. Friday was sunny but cool and there was a distinct whiff of winter in the air. Many of the inevitable Common Eiders Somateria mollissima were back in full plumage, Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis numbers were begining to build up and there was a drake American Wigeon Anas americana in amongst the numerous Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope. However, the most exciting sight was provided by two small brown ducks with spots on the heads. I knew what they were as soon as I saw them but rushed back home to get my scope anyway to get better views of the two female Harlequin Ducks Histrionicus histrionicus, a new bird for my patch! Harlequins are fairly common birds in Iceland but I didn't expect to see them on the calm and sheltered waters of the bay. I hope they decide to stick around but they generally prefer the rough stuff, of which there is plenty around these rocky coasts. A single Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides was the first of many hundreds I'll see over the coming months. The cemetery was heaving with Redwings Turdus iliacus, they were dripping off the trees and that rare Icelandic bird, Blackbird Turdus merula, was vocal and conspicuous. Small flocks of Icelandic Redpoll Carduelis flammea islandica flitted between the tree tops and all in all the cemtery was full of life, in a manner of speaking.
On Sunday the weather was far too good to go birding, sunny and cold, and I went up in the hills north of Reykjavk with fellow Cheshire exile AKM. Looking in my diary I did the same walk on 27 March this year, when it was 10C and mild. Interestingly enough I saw pretty much the same birds and the two walks book-ended the walking season well. On Sunday I heard a very late Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, whilst back in March I had heard my first of the season on the same mountain. We also came across three Ptarmigans Lagopus mutus and a flock of 30 or so Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis. There was plenty of snow up at 500 metres, the air still and the views across the sea to the west and back over to the interior and its ice caps to the east simply magnificent. What a privilege it is to have this scenery on Reykjavk's doorstep.

5-6 October - Famous last words... and a Swainson's Thrush

YK texted me on Wednesday morning with the news that the Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus that he had found on Friday was still in the same garden. I immediately told anybody willing to listen that there was no way on Earth that I'd be flying out to Heimaey in the middle of the week, even if it was for an American thrush I'd never seen. However, the general rule with me is that the louder I protest, the greater the likelihood is that the first person to arrive at the twitch will in fact be me. After phoning S twice to expressly tell him that I wouldn't be joining him, I nevertheless soon found myself in his car along with DB, heading east out of Reykjavk for the tiny airfield at Bakki 100 km away. Huge numbers of Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria were amassed on the lowlands near the airfield. After joining up with HB and BA at the airfield we signed the passenger list "just in case we crashed and died" as the airline employee cheerily, yet honestly, told us, and we embarked on the six minute flight over to Heimaey. I've recently overcome a 15-year fear of flying, I don't know how, if I did I'd be making money out of it, and the flight was a lot of fun, taking us over the huge black beaches which stretch along the southern coast and then over the crag-girt outlying islands of the archipelago before landing on the only inhabited island in the group, Heimaey. I'd recommend a trip to Heimaey to anyone. In summer it is home to huge numbers of Puffins and other seabirds. In autumn it has an incredible pedigree for American vagrants despite receiving very little coverage. In 2003 it hosted Belted Kingfisher, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing and Black-throated Blue Warbler (the island's second). It's also had Ruby-crowned Kinglet (twice), Red-breasted Nuthatch and Least Bittern amongst others. For non-birders the attractions are even more obvious. It's the archetypal storm tossed north Atlantic island with the added attraction of a bloody great active volcano rising out of the edge of the town, a volcano which happens to be younger than me! YK shuttled us off to the garden favoured by the thrush and after a nervy wait, in which we caught glimpses of it, all five twitchers (a big crowd locally) got superb views of it. My first Catharus and my second American thrush after last year's exquisite Varied Thrush. We then had a couple of hours to kill before flying back (or so we thought) so we went to the lighthouse at the southern tip of the island to see the American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica YK had found earlier that day. Arriving just on time at the airport I thought to myself how I'd have to come back and spend a night here this autumn. "Your wish is my command" said the airline official as they had just called off all flights until the following day because of the increasing blustery wind. Bugger.

The Swainson's Thrush

The previous night's strong south-westerlies filled me with undue optimism and I envisaged finding another American passerine in the town's gardens before flying out. But birding in Heimaey can be deathly quiet and apart from the inevitable Redwings Turdus iliacus, the odd late Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, a Raven Corvus corax or two, it was virtually birdless. On the way home we got a phone call about another lifer for me, a very long overdue one, since GH had just found four White-rumped Sandpipers Calidris fuscicollis in Garur. We hastened there and saw two of them, both feeding and then in flight (they're not caled White-rumped for nothing it would seem). Close by we found my favourite European bird, two of them in fact, Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius. YK has brainwashed me into calling them Red Phalaropes instead of Grey, and in fact I take great delight in doing so as around 90% of all the birds I've ever seen are in fact bright red summer birds. Grey Phalarope indeed!

1-2 October - Saving the best until last

News that YK had found a Swainson's Thrush yesterday on Heimaey prompted four of to go on the first Eyjafjll trip of the autumn. Eyjafjll are a range of mountains along the south coast of Iceland about two hours' drive east of Reykjavk. The farms at the base of the mountains, backed by the 1,666 metre high ice cap Eyjafjallajkull, are often good places to find vagrant passerines, as tired migrants coming in off the sea are reluctant to cross the glacier and seek refuge in the gardens and tree plantations near the farms. It all sounds so simple. The thing with Iceland, though, is that when it's quiet, it's very quiet and not a single vagrant was found all day. Every farm had good numbers of Redwing Turdus iliacus and the odd late Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis hung around. Several Merlins Falco columbarius were seen during the day, including one that tried optimistically for several minutes to knock down an adult Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus much to the irritation of the gull. The fields around the farms contained huge numbers of Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria, and Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus and Greylag Geese Anser anser were massing for their imminent departure. But vagrants were nowhere to be seen, and although it's always a pleasure to visit this area of high cliffs, stunning glacial views and 200 foot waterfalls, we headed home a little deflated.

Awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of rain lashing the windows and strong south-westerly winds buffeting the country, anathema to normal people but just the kind of weather to warm the cockles of the Icelandic birding heart! We waited until the system had passed over, and mid-afternoon I headed south with YK to see what we could find. GP, G and S were already out and walking the beaches and it appeared quiet again. The usual selection of Purple Sandpipers Calidris maritima and Ruddy Turnstones Arenaria interpres were on the beaches, and the vanguard of Iceland Gulls Larus glaucoides beginning to show up on time from Greenland and Canada. I decided to walk the area east of the lighthouse in Garur and the sea wall hosted around a dozen lingering Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis and Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe. Just as I was finishing off, one of the Meadow Pipits looked odd and its vigourous tail-pumping made me suspect what it was before I'd even lifted the binoculars. It hopped behind a rock and I only saw its head and mantle but it was enough for me to ring YK and tell him to get here asap. Whilst he and GP made their way over, the bird came into full view and confirmed that it was indeed a fine looking Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens.

Find the Buff-bellied Pipit !

It was in almost exactly the same spot as I saw my first one, found by YK, a year ago. A striking feature of that bird, another one that I found in Hafnir two days later and this bird was that they all wagged their tails constantly, and reminded me of a Motacilla wagtail in this respect. YK managed some pictures, and the last bird of the day saved an otherwise relatively uneventful weekend.

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