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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

April 2007

29 April - Harlequins to Whimbrels

Spot the odd one out. One a series of brilliant photos by Björn Arnarson taken this month in eastern Iceland

My plans to go to eastern Iceland for possibly the one and only time this year came to nothing at the beginning of April owing to the prospect of snow, mixed with horizontal rain and sleet in that area, a Icelandic spring specialty. But with a five day weekend ahead, Easter is the best holiday, no obligations, I wasn’t totally idle and on Good Friday went on a short trip to Kjós just outside Reykjavík, one of the best places to see Harlequin Ducks on their breeding grounds in south-west Iceland. While Harlequins are easily found on the sea within driving distance of Reykjavík throughout the winter, it’s far preferable to see them back on the clear and turbulent rivers to which they return in April. Their complete mastery of their chosen element of rapids, eddies and white water is a joy to behold and they are without parallel. By way of comparison, the two Steller’s Eiders I’ve seen in Iceland have always been with Harlequins, one on the very same stretch of river in Kjós, but Steller’s Eiders lack the technical mastery necessary to eke out a living on this kind of habitat – ducks out of water so to speak (see brilliant photo above by Björn Arnarson of the long-staying bird at Borgarfjörður eystri in late April). SÁ and I came across 12 drake Harlequins s and two ducks (as usual females vastly outnumbered by males) on a small stretch of river, and lying out of the wind on the riverbank with a wan sun in our faces, Harlequins frolicking just a few metres away I felt a real sense that spring had arrived, although the lakes still had fringes of ice. One of the remarkable feats that Harlequins pull off is the seemingly effortless upstream swim, scaling rapids with apparent ease. In Trinidad in January I was amazed to see Golden-headed Manakins slide backwards along perches in clear defiance of all the known laws of physics, the Harlequin “reverse rapid slide” is no less impressive and hard to fathom. In the same area, we flushed a belching male Ptarmigan and his mate, startlingly white in the snowless landscape.

The beach in southern Iceland - not a deckchair in sight. 1,666 m Eyjafjallajökull on right

Besides the sight of Harlequins on the rivers, another incontrovertible sign of early spring is the sight of fields piebald with geese and swans. The best area to see incoming migrant wildfowl from Reykjavík is the wide open flat agricultural lands of southern Iceland, between the coast and the mountains which mark the boundaries of the interior. Four of us went in superb spring weather on the national holiday, the first day of summer, this year falling on 19 April, a ludicrously early date for summer in Iceland. The first area we checked, at Þykkvabær, had large numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese, interspersed with big numbers of Whooper Swans, and a river bank had my first Black-tailed Godwit of the year. Of the common roadside waders, only Oystercatcher was much in evidence at first, and pairs of them were conspicuous along highway no.1, especially as they like to nest in the gravel by the side of the road. Further east, where the road passes beneath the coastal mountains and the thawing waterfalls were casting off vast icicles in the sun, the make up of the goose flocks changed. White-fronts were few and far between but the fields were black with Pink-footed Geese, and a single stray Barnacle Goose. Even more numerous were the thousands of Golden Plovers, recently arrived and feeding very actively in their characteristic stop-start motion, dashing a few paces and then freezing. One flock on a roadside field scattered in panic, and we were able to watch the culprit, an immature Gyr Falcon, at very close quarters as it surveyed the area from a nearby pylon. But despite the numbers of geese and plovers, it was clear that spring was not in full swing, as lots of common birds were still missing. On the coast at the spectacular cliffs and rock arch at Dyrhólaey, the most southerly point on the Icelandic mainland, there wasn’t a Puffin to be seen, although there were quite a few Common Guillemots and numerous Kittiwakes and Fulmars. From this 120 metre high vantage point by the lighthouse, backed by the 1,500 metre high glacier Mýrdalsjökull, and flanked by wild and empty black sand beaches, we saw several flocks of Brent Geese arriving from Ireland and flying only metres above the sea, heading west for favoured spots in western Iceland. We moved on to Vík, where the huge Puffin colony at Reynisfjall was also empty, but our first White Wagtail of the year adorned the black sands at Vík and offshore a pod of breaching White-beaked Dolphins lifted my mammal year list to four (Harbour Seal, Bearded Seal, Minke Whale being the other three)! We turned around at Hjörleifshöfði, a 200 metre high island in the sands, and whilst dodging falling ice around the base of the cliffs I saw my first Great Skua of the year, a real thrill to see one of my absolute favourites back on its breeding grounds. Less pleased to see it would have been the Fulmar that the skua had recently killed and was feeding on.

Dyrhólaey, the most southerly point on the Icelandic mainland

On the way home we stopped in the town of Selfoss, where an Arctic Redpoll had been reported earlier in the week. Never easy to identify, Arctic Redpolls slip through the net very easily in Iceland owing to the presence of very pale Iceland Redpolls which look very similar to Arctic Redpolls. Indeed many birds which are classed as Arctic Redpolls in Scandinavia wouldn’t even warrant a second glance in Iceland. We failed to find the bird that had been reported earlier, but we did see another one, which I think was an Arctic Redpoll but others aren’t convinced. Lump them all I say.
Closer to home, the Blackbirds in my garden are incubating on a nest right outside my window, and the Redwings have nested next door (when the wind sways the tree it’s almost in my garden). I suspect there may be Redpolls nesting very close by but I’ve yet to discover the nest, although they are constantly at my feeder. For some people spring is heralded by the arrival of the Lesser Black-backed Gull, for most it’s the arrival of the Golden Plover but for me, there is nothing that sends my spirits soaring as much as hearing the first Whimbrel. I’ll have to check my list of favourite birds as I suspect that there are close to 50 in my top ten, but one of these is this abundant breeding wader, the first of which I saw today (barring the ones I saw in Tobago in January). Ten birds close to Reykjavík, stopping briefly, before lifting themselves with a wonderful bubbling trill and heading north to continue their journey. Velkominn heim.

Arctic Redpoll or just a pale Iceland Redpoll?

To be continued...

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