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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

October 2006

23 October - A Tale of Two Falcons

Redwings are ubiquitous in Reykjavík at the moment

The end of October is in sight and there is an uneasy feeling that the autumn is all but over, yet at the same time I feel that it has hardly begun. It has probably been the least exciting vagrant season I can remember, and although here has been the odd good bird here and there, not once have I felt ‘compelled’ to drop everything to see a bird, unlike the autumn of 2003 when I’d dreaded every phone call from YK as it meant having to find a new excuse to leave work for a while. The blue skies and snow-dusted fells around Reykjavík clearly indicate that the dominant winds have been northerly of late and therefore anything but conducive to vagrancy. But looking for wind-blown waifs is by no stretch of the imagination the be all and end of all of birding in Iceland as there are always plenty of locals to look at. The bay below my house has been covered with Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck again this week, all back in full breeding/winter plumage, and a flock of 90 Eurasian Wigeon contained the regular American Wigeon drake. The thin tseep of overhead Redwings is usually the first sound to greet me in the half-murk as I head to work and it won’t be long until we see the first urban Snow Buntings of the winter. Saturday was very much a tale of two falcons. In the morning SÁ and I were driving across southern Iceland when I noticed a hulking shape on a roadside fence post. We pulled over next to the juvenile Gyr Falcon. They usually fly off if you stop and whilst this bird certainly thought about fleeing and flinched a few times, it stayed with us for about three minutes, only 15 metres from the car, allowing SÁ to get a few shots with his new camera. After a few minutes alternating between looking at us and pretending to ignore us, the young bird headed off north, hugging the ground and on the prowl for Golden Plovers I suspect, as there were no Ptarmigan in this particular area. In the afternoon I went to the local cemetery and soon heard the intense scolding calls of the local Redwings and Blackbirds and followed the sound to a tree in the middle of the graveyard. I half-expected to see a cowering cat, but was delighted to see a male Merlin. Although I see plenty of Merlins I very rarely seem to see adult males, and it was a real treat to be able to study its flecked warm-orange and blue-grey plumage as it tried to blend into the late autumn foliage. On two occasions a Common Redpoll entered the tree, immediately arousing the interest of the raptor, but eventually the Merlin had enough and went to try its luck elsewhere. I hope it stays on this winter.

A Merlin admiring its talons
The northerly winds relented last weekend in time for the annual Icelandic birders’ get together, an informal affair which gives us an excuse to sit around and get nostalgic. The annual get together is in its sixth year and is usually held in Höfn in SE Iceland, but YK volunteered to organise it in his official home of Vestmannaeyjar off Iceland's south coast this year and did a very good job of it. An amazing total of eighteen of Iceland’s keenest birders gathered in Heimaey on Friday night, after a remarkably smooth sailing on the ferry. I forewent the local nightlife but heard that one of our group decided to call it a night when a beer glass exploded on the wall inches from his head. A typical night in small town Iceland by the sounds of it. Most of us emerged at first light to trawl the streets of the town and the surrounding lava fields and coast for vagrants. The news that a Siberian Rubythroat had been found in the Faroe Islands three days earlier and Iceland’s 2nd to 4th Goldfinches had turned up in SE Iceland over the previous two days gave us some cause for optimism. In the event it was a slight letdown. Although there were quite a good number of more common vagrants and some scarcer ones, including a Ring Ouzel which had been found by YK on the Friday and was very elusive all Saturday, there was nothing to really set the heart racing. Nonetheless I saw my first Blackcap since the Kakamega Forest in Kenya back in January, a Lesser Whitethroat, a Song Thrush, a couple of Bramblings, Chiffchaffs, Garden Warblers and a Yellow-browed Warbler, always a delight. I missed the Ring Ouzel and failed to see a Gyr Falcon hanging round the campsite as I was too busy looking for two Whinchats, which I also failed to see and still have only seen once in Iceland. Redwings were absolutely abundant in the vast, contorted lava fields on the eastern side of the island, a 2 km sq. piece of land which gushed from the earth in 1973, i.e. is younger than me! These Redwings were very pale, gleaming white underneath and incredibly shy, scattering when you were 200 metres away and flying out of sight, behaviour most unlike Icelandic Redwings. In the evening we had a dinner of smoked raw Puffin (it'd be rude to turn down Puffin in the Westmen Islands), and then YK arranged a mystery photo competition, which I made a total hash of, identifying one mystery bird as Ptarmigan when it was in fact a Raven (i.e. the bird was in fact jet black and not snow white, and all the more vexing in that I had sat beside YK when he had taken the photo of said Raven earlier this year). On the way back, dodging heavy showers we found a Pied Flycatcher (my first for a four years in Iceland) and then stopped at a farm where the farmer showed us a picture of a very unusual bird he'd had on his farm for two days a couple of weeks earlier. The picture revealed one of my favourite birds anywhere in the world, the Hoopoe, and one which no birder I know in Iceland has seen here. My usual rule of not going far to twitch birds that I've often seen abroad would be thrown out of the window in an instant for such a wonderfully charismatic creature, the very essence of the Mediterranean. But we were two weeks late. With the forecast set for continued northerly winds, I expect my next entry to be full of Iceland Gulls and Eider, rather than reports of my hearing a soft hoop-hoop-hoop in the cemetery.

8 October - All Quiet on the Northern Front .... a tale of the Icelandic mountains

A female Gyr Falcon giving Yann the eye

September has come and gone, and the real rarity month is upon us. Eleven of the thirteen species of American passerine I’ve seen in Iceland have come in October, so it’s perhaps strange that on the first Sunday in October I found myself 1,000 metres up on the lava scarred flanks of a volcano, sixty miles from the sea, not a likely place to find a vireo or a warbler. Or perhaps it’s not too strange. Since the flurry of activity in mid-September the weather has generally been too good for birding in Iceland, by which I mean we’ve been in the doldrums with no winds bringing any birds to these shores, day after day of clear mild weather which has had people talking of an Indian summer, but left birders looking at the weather maps and wondering when the next storm is going to hit. It’s therefore been “safe” to do normal things like go to the summerhouse with the family or climb mountains.

On the first Sunday in October I drove north-east of Reykjavik with fellow Cheshire exile AKM to the barren lands north of the Þingvellir National Park. As the road turns north of the park headquarters the traffic thins out (i.e. is non-existent) and the increasinly bumpy route winds through an extensive area of brilliantly coloured red, orange and russet birch scrub (the Icelandic New England in October) before the shrubs abruptly disappear and the expansive lava plains take over. Our aim was to walk up the extinct volcano, Skjaldbreiður. Its name means broadshield as it is said to resemble an upturned shield and it indeed gave its name to the geological term shield volcano. The clear nights inland are beginning to get cold and when we stopped by a river to get water for the walk there was a wafer thin layer of ice on the river. The walk up Skjaldbreiður is incredibly easy, a 5-10° slope of smooth lava and sand, interspersed with curious serpentine protrusions of rock winding their way uphill. You could easily convince yourself sometimes that you are looking down from an aircraft at a parched mountain range in Chad or Western Australia, until a spider crawling across a patch of brilliant green moss reminds you of the true scale. After a very easy 4 km we arrived at the 1,060 metre high summit and the anticipation of seeing the 300 metre wide ice-filled crater made me rush the last few metres and actually work up a sweat. I was just about to remark to AKM that apart from a flock of Golden Plovers miles back down the valley and a pair of Whooper Swans on a roadside lake that it was a birdless area, at least in October, when suddenly a familiar voice was heard and there on the rim of the crater was a beautiful male Snow Bunting, blowing like a piece of litter over the abyss, turning, circling and then heading over the far wall to disappear from sight. It’s amazing how a simple sighting of a common bird can set the spirits soaring in such a setting: warm sunshine, the view dominated by three massive glaciers and associated nunataks to the immediate north and a tenacious bird thriving in such an apparently hostile environment. There was more life at the summit, a very familiar CRUNK announced the arrival of a pair of Ravens and as we were negotiating a tricky section round the edge of crater, an explosion of white and a whirr of wings was a Ptarmigan. It was a very tame bird and we edged to within a few feet of it, as it sat perfectly camouflaged in the lava, but its apparent ambivalence to our presence could prove its undoing once the hunting season arrives. Such, if you'll excuse the expression, intimate moments with birds really make a good walk a great day out.

The crater at the top of Skjaldbreiður. Hlödufell (1186 m) to the right, the glacier Langjökull to the left.
Whatever birding I have done in recent weeks has been on the south-west peninsula of Suðurnes, one of the most productive areas in Iceland for birds, but perhaps its least inspiring corner in terms of scenery. The general tactic is to walk along the beach in the hope of finding something, and we split up and each take a three hour section of coast. On the penultimate weekend in September there were plenty of birds around, Meadow Pipits galore, good numbers of Wheatears, a surprising number of White Wagtails still around and plenty of the usual wader suspects: Redshank, Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover and Turnstone. Masses of gulls at Garður, 90 Pink-footed Geese, 4 Barnacle Geese and an adult Gyr Falcon proved very unsettling for gulls of all sizes. Just as I was finishing my three-hour section SÁ rang me with the word Bingo! as he had found an Iceland tick for him and me, and when I reached him there was a Common Kestrel hovering over the fields, a long overdue bird for both of us. Since then I’ve been back to the same area twice and whilst the complete lack of suitable winds has made the chances of finding vagrants very slim, it’s been fascinating to notice the difference in numbers of Icelandic birds from week to week. The abundant Meadow Pipits had been reduced to four yesterday, Wheatears and White Wagtails had gone completely, Ringed Plovers and Dunlin down to single figures. But one bird, Iceland Gull, is increasing by the day with over 30 adults in Sandgerði yesterday. I just hope that their mass arrival from Greenland and Canada over the next few weeks is held up by prolonged spells of southerlies.

This month's 'spot the out-of-focus bird' competition.

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