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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

April 2009

April - Dipping in the shadow of the glacier

Above: There used to be a Bufflehead here. Skarðsfjörður in SE Iceland with Europe's largest icecap, Vatnajökull, in background.

At Easter I ventured out of Reykjavík for the first time in months, ostensibly to see the Bufflehead which had been more or less in the same area for two months, but in reality I was just as keen to see some spring birds in south-east Iceland. Which is just as well as the Bufflehead apparently disappeared three days before we arrived and went to Norway, where a bird turned up on the west coast. Surely no coincidence? Well, it was and the Bufflehead turned up again two days after we left the area so I'm still waiting for my first lifer in nearly 10 months. But the trip to Höfn and the glacial landscapes of south-east Iceland was by no means a wasted journey as the countryside was heaving with migrant wildfowl. In early April, the migration season is just starting to get going, with many species yet to arrive. However, Redwings had arrived and arrived in massive numbers. Fields were covered in vast flocks, areas of woodland resounded with Redwing song. For us in Reykjavík, where there are Redwings in some number all year, the arrival of Redwings is nothing like as dramatic an event as it is for people in the countryside. Woods and fields which have been quiet for months, save the occasional song of a Wren, the twittering of transient Redpolls or Snow Buntings or the crunk of an overhead Raven, suddenly erupt with birdsong and the promise of spring. Even more conspicuous were the vast flocks of Whooper Swans and geese, predominantly Pink-footed and Greylag and with smaller numbers of Barnacle in between. There are few sights more evocative than a skein of Pink-footed Geese silhouetted against the ice cap and there was a constant flow of birds overhead most of the day. Sighting of the trip as far as I was concerned was a dark Arctic Fox by the road, the first I've seen for a couple of years. A drake Blue-winged Teal was the first drake I've seen in Iceland but the viewing conditions were appalling (freezing wind right in the face). Iceland's position out at the edge of Europe means that we don't get to see many of Europe's most common birds very regularly, and I doubt that there were many European birders as pleased as we were to see several Chaffinches at the weekend. While Chaffinches are regular, and not uncommon, vagrants to Iceland, I hadn't seen one for over year and I doubt that there are many active European birders who can make that claim. The south-east corner of Iceland is staggeringly beautiful, in the shadow of the vast ice cap which is drained by numerous valley glaciers and raging rivers of brown water. The face of the glacier appears to be changing. It's been a year since I was last in that area but I could swear that new mountains are visible up on the ice cap; dark rock faces which break up the brilliant white flows of ice appear to be getting bigger and the gap between the snout of one glacier and the thundering waterfall which runs off it looks to be growing very rapidly.

Above: Down on the farm. Seljaland in southern Iceland. I saw a Glossy Ibis here once. Oh happy days.

I went out with a visiting birder from Illinois in mid-April in the most appalling weather conditions. The wind was so strong that at one point he asked me (half-jokingly) whether the car was going to flip over in the wind. Even though family commitments make it difficult these days, I always enjoy going out with visiting birders, as it tends to make you look at the local birds and birding sites through different eyes. I think it's the first time I've kept an eye and an ear out for a Meadow Pipit, which was a lifer for my visitor and a species still fairly thin on the ground in mid-April (but superabundant all summer). Despite the weather conditions we managed to see some birds that had eluded him so far, including some very bright Black-tailed Godwits, dozens of Iceland Gulls, a Ring-billed Gull (more exciting for me than him, but only marginally) and his best ever views of a Ptarmigan (a lifer the previous day for him) and a superb drake Harlequin on a regular river haunt in Reykjavík.

Above: Passerine-starved Icelandic birders thrill to the sight of Chaffinches, at least I do.

Back in the garden, the Blackbirds are nesting in the garden for at least the fourth year running. The war of attrition against next door's cat awaits.




to be continued





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