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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

August 2006

27 August - Night of the Petrels

I’ve long held a fascination for islands. Not palm-fringed tropical paradises with white sandy beaches, but rather storm-lashed, crag-girt islands under a glowering northern sky. On my first trip to Iceland in 1995 I spent a couple of days on the island of Heimaey, the only inhabited island in Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. It was here that I got my first real taste of the North Atlantic, and although it was summer I experienced a combination of wind and weather that I had never had any inkling of growing up in England. The exhilaration I felt at being flattened on the cliff tops by the salty gusts, with a wheel of tens of thousands of Puffins circling overhead, was only slightly tempered by the realisation that I was going to have to sleep in a tent that night, but the seeds of this fascination were sown.
I’ve visited the Vestmannaeyjar many times since, usually in the autumn and have seen some excellent birds there, such as Black-throated Blue Warbler, Hermit Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush, but last weekend’s trip topped them all. No rarities, no life birds, just the opportunity to get to know Iceland’s two most enigmatic species.
YK had rounded up a group of fifteen ornithologists, experienced ringers and enthusiastic amateurs for a weekend ringing expedition to the island of Elliðaey, one of the outlying islands in the archipelago. None of the outer islands are inhabited although several have rather grand houses owned by local Puffin hunters. As the Puffins hunting season is over, we had the island to ourselves and on Friday afternoon we left Heimaey on a zodiac bound for Elliðaey. Landing on many of these islands is apparently a hair-raising experience. I’m assured that the landing we had was very easy but scrambling on to slippery rocks, clutching at a rope drilled into the cliffs and holding onto rucksacks, tents, and enough food, booze and water for the weekend was certainly more of a challenge than getting off the Vestmannaeyjar ferry.
The island is small, less than a mile long and half a mile wide. The green hillsides look like gentle walking country from a distance but I soon found out that they are incredibly treacherous! They are a maze of tussocks and hidden tunnels (at one point one of my legs suddenly disappeared to mid-thigh), where you are never sure from one step to the next whether the ground is going to tip you left, right, back or forward. One of the architects of this labyrinth of concealed passages was all around us, thousands and thousands of Atlantic Puffins. Up to one million pairs breed in the whole archipelago and huge numbers of Puffins inhabit Elliðaey. They were a constant presence all over the island in the daylight, commuting to and from the burrows, many with sand eels in their bills, scattering en masse and dropping whatever they were carrying whenever a Great Skua crossed the island.
We had time to put up the tents and eat before we turned our attention to the main reason for visiting Elliðaey, to catch and ring as many storm-petrels as we could. The last census conducted in Elliðaey estimated that 50,000 pairs of European Storm-petrel and 70,000 pairs of Leach’s Storm-petrel breed here, yet these two birds are perhaps the two species that Icelandic birders know least. European Storm-petrels can be seen easily enough in certain places from land, usually as a black dots in a telescope, but Leach’s Storm-petrel is real enigma. It breeds in big numbers, yet is virtually never seen from land, and rarely seen by birders at sea. I had only ever seen it once before, as a silhouette in the glare of a lighthouse. To avoid predation by gulls and skuas, storm-petrels only come into their colonies at night and to catch them we had to set up a series of mist-nets in their colonies. European Storm-petrels like crevices in the rocks, Leach’s Storm-petrels prefer the grassy slopes, often sharing burrows with Puffins. The ornithologists amongst us positioned the nets, and then it was just a question of waiting for night to fall. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of anticipation as the light faded. Puffins disappeared into their burrows, the white dots on the opposite hillside going out one by one, and as the last stragglers whizzed past it was time to open the nets. Almost as soon as the last Puffins stopped flying, at 22:27, a black shape fluttered in over our heads. European Storm-petrels tend to return slightly earlier and soon the first birds were in the net. It wasn’t long, however, before a larger shadow skittered through the darkness, a Leach’s Storm-petrel. We don’t have bats in Iceland but time and time again I was reminded of bats as the storm-petrels ghosted past in the dark. At just after 23:00 the first birds started hitting the net I was manning, first a Leach’s Storm-petrel, then another, a third. But the next bird was a midget, a European Storm-petrel. Although the field guides tell you there is a clear size difference, it was only when I had one of each in my hands I really appreciated how utterly different these birds are. For the next five hours I crouched in the dark like a spider in its web, waiting for the sound of a petrel hitting the net before springing to my feet, on with the head light to see whether I had a black European or a greyish Leach’s waiting for me. European Storm-petrels are rather quiet, but Leach’s Storm-petrel is one of the noisiest birds I have ever heard and after two nights on Elliðaey the remarkable call of Leach’s Storm-petrel has permanently entered my brain. I can recall its hysterical eight-note giggle as clearly as the song of a Golden Plover. I can only imagine what early settlers in Iceland made of this barrage of strange sounds emanating from the darkness, but it surely gave rise to more than one tale of ghosts and the hidden people. Halfway through the night I got someone to cover for me and I walked back to the clifftops and the tent. Switching off my headlight I sat in the dark with the chattering of storm-petrels reverberating from every direction, wings beating in the murk. At the camp a third nocturnal visitor had arrived, and another noisy one. Manx Shearwaters also burrow into the slopes and their raucous and eerie calls echoed all around. Although I see plenty of Manx Shearwaters every year, I’d never been in a colony at night and this sound was a new to me. By four o’clock, the storm-petrels had stopped calling and had disappeared back out to sea, dispersing before the skuas and gulls began to prowl. The nightshift was immediately replaced by the first Puffins bolting out of their burrows and by the time we had closed the nets and returned to camp for a celebratory beer, Fulmars were also on the wing.

View over Elliðaey, The hill opposite holds large numbers  of breeding Leach's Storm-petrels and Atlantic Puffins
The next day was breezy but bright and we went on a tour of the island under the capable guidance of JÓH, who had first visited Elliðaey exactly 20 years ago to the day. It was strange seeing the bird cliffs empty, Common Guillemots had left and only a handful of Kittiwakes, the dominant sound of Icelandic seabird colonies, remained and they were silent. Great Skuas and Gannets patrolled off shore, an Arctic Skua and a juvenile Merlin eyed up different sized prey. It was great to laze away the day but as the sun dipped, it was time to reposition the nets, as the wind had changed and made it impossible to stay in the same area as last night. The same tension-filled wait ensued; the sun set, the Puffins began to come in for the night, and as soon as the last one had gone, the first ‘bats’ began looming in the darkness. I spent most of the night manning a net where European Storm-petrels outnumbered Leach’s Storm-petrel, but there were plenty of both. At one point there was one of each sitting calmly in side by side in the net, the Leach’s dwarfing the European. JÓH was ringing and releasing them next to a pile of stones and it was here that I first heard the purring of the European Storm-petrel and close by we found a downy chick deep in a crevice in the lava. It was then that I noticed the sky moving. Bands of white light shifting across the sky, occasionally tinged red, occasionally green, the first northern lights of the autumn and what a night to choose. Sitting there in the dark surrounded by the noise of thousands of petrels, with the aurora borealis over head was just one of those perfect moments you have when birding. As with the previous night, the action was all over by 4:00, the day birds took over as soon as the last storm-petrels had dispersed to sea. In all we ringed around 600 Leach's Storm-petrels and 350 European Storm-petrels.

Positioning the nets as the sun sets. The hillside holds a big colony of Leach's Storm-petrels
Before this weekend these birds were a bit of a mystery to me. I still don't know much about their habits at sea, other than what I've read in the relevant literature. But now I'm intimately familiar with the way they feel in the hand, the faint oily, yet not unpleasant, smell they exude which still clings to your clothes several washes later, the way they vomit an orangey-red oil or partly digested fish over you, the way some bite, whilst others are calm. Not for the first time I felt immensely privileged to have glimpsed a world I had barely known existed. An exhilarating trip had a fitting ending. Whilst waiting in warm sunshine for the zodiacs to pick us up, a juvenile Gyr Falcon appeared and spent the next ten minutes flying back and forth on the look out for a careless Puffin, giving us superb views. We all vowed to return next year, and next time we'll have to find a Swinhoe's.

A Gyr Falcon's eye view of our camp  on the clifftops

8 August - The World of Wonders

The immense cliffs at Hornbjarg rise to over 530 metres

For several years it’s been a general rule of mine not to leave Iceland in June, July and August, as there’s really nowhere I’d rather be during the summer, with its constant daylight and cool climate (I don’t care for hot weather, anything over 20°C is a waste of energy). The summer also gives me the chance to visit areas of the country which are simply not possible to reach in the winter and I do my best to seek out new places and climb a few new mountains every year. Last week I spent five wonderful days in one of the country’s great coastal wildernesses, Hornstrandir, located at the very far north-western tip of the country, at 66°N, the doorway to the Arctic. It’s an area of no roads, no villages, no farms and it is only reachable by boat, or a very long walk (six days) from the end of the nearest dirt track. Although getting there involves a bit of hassle (not to mention expense) the rewards awaiting any visitor are immense: empty valleys, carpets of wildflowers, gigantic and spectacular seabird colonies, and, perhaps the star attraction, an abundance of Arctic Foxes. To get there from Reykjavík requires a scenic six-hour drive to Ísafjörður, the largest town in north-west Iceland (we saw a recently fledged Gyr Falcon being mobbed by Meadow Pipit en route) and a three-hour boat trip from Ísafjörður on stomach-churning swells. Distracting us from potential seasickness was a Harbour Porpoise, putting in a typically brief appearance, and, far more impressive, a breaching Humpback Whale just off the bow, which jumped clear of the water about a dozen times before we lost sight of it in the distance! If that wasn't enough, as we rounded the top of Iceland, the density of seabirds increased as we approached the massive cliffs of Hælavíkurbjarg, an immensely impressive rampart rising over 400 metres sheer from the sea and containing hundreds of thousands of birds.
We camped for four nights in the bay of Hornvík, going on day hikes from the campsite and enjoying the break from mobile phones and the internet in this far flung corner of the country. After centuries' of struggling in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, farming was finally abandoned here in the 1940s and the lack of sheep in the area has had a remarkable effect on the local flora. I've rarely seen such carpets of wildflowers in Iceland, especially the cliff-tops which are covered in Angelica, Wood-cranesbill and succulent Roseroot. Whilst the bay at Hornvík had big numbers of Common Eider and moulting flocks of male Harlequin Duck were common, the main attraction of Hornstrandir to the visiting birder is undoubtedly the gargantuan seabird cliffs of Hælavíkurbjarg and Hornbjarg, which together with Látrabjarg in the far west of Iceland are home to over 90% of Iceland's Brünnich's Guillemots. Visiting the vast seabird colonies of western Iceland has become an essential part of my birding year. Last year I visited Europe's biggest bird cliff at Látrabjarg, a 400 metre high wall which extends for 14km eastwards from Iceland's most westerly point. Whilst Látrabjarg has more birds, Hornbjarg is an even more dramatic sight, quite simply the most spectacular bird cliff I've ever seen. A three-hour walk from our tent eventually took us up a gentle slope to what seemed like the edge of the world. As we approached the top, the sounds of the birds intensified, the smell of guano seared the nostrils and I almost ran the last few metres as the sense of anticipation was so great. The world fell abruptly away into a cloud-filled void. The cliffs were around 300 metres high where we first came to the edge but rose sharply in each direction to over 400 metres to the west and well over 500 metres to the right. Every ledge was filled with nesting birds, Kittiwakes constantly uttering their onomatopoeic name, whilst an excited aaarrrggghhh aaarrrggghhh emanated from the abundant Brünnich's Guillemots. Whilst Common Guillemots and Razorbills were also present, they were far fewer in number. I can think of no place better for visiting birders to see Brünnich's Guillemot for the first time than the cusp of Hornbjarg. We walked a short distance east through the stands of Angelica, briefly disturbing a Wren, until we hauled ourselves up by rope to another viewpoint, 400 metres above the ocean. It was almost like looking out of an aeroplane, blue sky above, the clouds far below, yet with swarms of Brünnich's Guillemots appearing and disappearing into the mist-veiled abyss. Rolling back down the hill we decided to get to the highest point of the clifftops, and indeed the highest cliff in Iceland, the 534 metre Kálfatindar. This involved a very steep but straightforward climb, through a rock area which was alive with Snow Buntings. There were newly fledged birds everywhere, with parents busily feeding them and even a couple of males still singing. The path was steepest towards the top, but there was no summit, the precipitous trail abruptly ended like a free-standing ladder into thin air and dropped away over 1,700 feet to sea. It was no place for anyone with a fear of heights, especially when the clouds parted to reveal the distant sea below, and we felt like we were on the top of the world. Fulmars sheared over the cliff edges, coming back for a second look when they spied us, and the usual suspects of Kittiwakes and Brünnich's Guillemots maintained their seaside cacophony. Not a breath of wind stirred but as the clouds rose and enveloped all but the pinnacle we were sitting on, we thought it was time to head back, slowly, as the route down from Kálfatindar is not the place to make a wrong turn in the fog. On the way down we came across a group of youngsters on their way up. A couple of hundred metres further on a girl from the group was waiting on her own. Whilst we were encouraging her to continue, I noticed a familiar silhouette on the rocks 20 metres away. "Ah look an Arctic Fox," I said. The girl shot to her feet, terrified, "An Arctic Fox! And here I am on my own in the fog." I reassured her that there was an Arctic Fox behind her, not a Lion, but her reaction was typical. Most cultures have developed a well-founded fear of the largest predator. In Africa the Masai proved their manhood by killing the Lion, in the Arctic the Inuit feared the Polar Bear, whilst across large areas of Asia the Tiger was the traditional enemy. In Iceland there was nothing more than Arctic Foxes so people have had to blow the dangers of this poodle-sized beast out of all proportion in order to maintain the centuries of hatred. Arguably the greatest attraction of Hornstrandir to the visiting naturalist is the fact that Arctic Foxes, elusive across most of Iceland, are common here and as they aren't hunted, they are tame and Hornstrandir offers easily the best chance of seeing this exquisite mammal in Iceland. Our first encounter was when we were unloading the gear from the zodiac on the beach. A brown fox trotted past us and had me scrambling for my binoculars. It was the last time I really needed them. At dinner I suddenly noticed a vixen calmly walk up to the table and look up at us before trotting off again. Over the next four nights this vixen would visit us regularly, coming to within a metre of us, whereas her three cubs remained warier. At night when we needed to attend a call of nature in the white northern night, the fox cubs were often playing around the tents, but we never saw them in the morning, as this was perhaps the time they spent asleep. The tourist season is very short at Hornstrandir and these foxes only see people for around 6-8 weeks every summer, but I suspect they use the generosity of the tourists to fatten up a bit for the coming winter. I certainly accidentally on purpose dropped the odd piece of chicken or fish onto the grass. In the winter the foxes comb the beaches for washed up birds, seal carcasses, anything they can eat. On our day walks we generally encountered two or three foxes (I usually get one or two sightings a year, I didn’t see a single one in 2005 and I spend a lot of time in the countryside!) and the AGGA-GAGG bark was a familiar sound of the fells. All in all we felt immensely privileged to see this remote world of driftwood covered shores and waterfalls, teeming bird cliffs and inquisitive foxes, a true world of wonders. Like many first time visitors to Hornstrandir, I vowed to return.

This Arctic Fox was a regular visitor to our camp and had three cubs to feed

These Brünnich's Guillemots have the best view of all,  530 metres above the sea!

Kristján thinks he's seen a  Great Auk at the base of the cliffs

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