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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

April 2008

14 April - Iceland wakes up from its winter slumber

At last!

Well, I wrote this almost three weeks ago and hadn't got round to posting it before now. Must try harder to update a lot more regularly in the future.

After the surviving the winter in Iceland, the White-throated Sparrow in Höfn attracted another set of long-distance visitors on Good Friday as I made my second attempt to see this Nearctic rarity with three others. My first trip in November ended up becoming the longest journey on record to see a Dunnock, and I'd been half-heartedly toying with the idea of a second trip to see the bird since the days began getting longer again. It was a superb clear day, ideal for enjoying the towering glacier country of south-east Iceland, where many thousands of Fulmars lined the roadside cliffs, the air reverberating with their insistent cackles. Flocks of recently Whooper Swans were distributed widely by the main ring road, roadside ponds held the odd Goosander and Mallard, while Raven and Snow Bunting are the only countryside passerines. And although we were too early to see many other migrants, the first Great Skua of the year was spotted near the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón, although its breeding grounds remained buried under snow. At Höfn we made straight for the sparrow's favoured garden and proceeded to wait for it to turn up. And we waited and waited in freezing cold weather. While Redwings, Blackbirds, a large flock of Snow Buntings, the odd Redpoll, a Chaffinch and same Dunnock from November came and went, there was no sign of the sparrow. Standing in a garden in bitter Icelandic weather for hours on end doesn't really rank as one of my most memorable birding experiences but after four hours or so, the White-throated Sparrow appeared from nowhere and fed just a few metres away. So was it worth travelling all that way (twice) to see a bird that I'd already seen several times in the United States. Well, the weather was nice, the scenery magnificent and the company good, but ticking the White-throated Sparrow in Iceland was undeniably an anti-climax. Because we had other commitments back in Reykjavik, there was little time to look for any other birds, and apart from a brief stop to see Iceland's only House Sparrows en route, it was a twitch stripped down to the bare essentials, not my favourite form of birding.

The bustling streetlife of Höfn.
Earlier in March I made a few very local trips in the Reykjavík area, highlights being a hybrid drake Common Eider x King Eider in a massive Eider raft near Vogar, side by side views of Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup and Ring-necked Duck in Reykjavík, and the usual variety of Redpolls in the garden, including several 'Arctic types', plenty of small brown ones and everything in between. Now at the end of March, the days are getting long and the first migrants are arriving. I've seen the odd Lesser Black-backed Gull and yesterday the first Golden Plovers of the year. This, one of the most characteristic summer birds in Iceland, is the traditional harbinger spring and is a sure sign that the winter is on its last legs (although the ground was white again this morning in Reykjavík). I intend to do as much birding by bike as possible this spring. The usual time constraints mean that long trips away are still difficult and cycling should also have a positive effect on reducing the not inconsiderable midriff I've acquired in recent years. In fact as there are cycle paths along much of the Reykjavik coastlines and given that a lot of birding in Iceland is concentrated at the coast, then birding by bike is good way to see local birds, if the weather is cooperative. So far I've managed to see a fairly respectable set of birds while in the saddle, from the ever present Raven and Eider to rarer sightings such as Slavonian Grebe almost in breeding plumage on my patch (where it is rare) and a Merlin which I flushed as I cycled along from one pathside lamppost to another for more than a mile, giving great views. If I can manage to find a rare wader or duck on Seltjarnarnes and shed a few pounds, it'll be a good spring.

This barn is Iceland's only site for House Sparrow

 


February..... to be continued





 














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