Whimbrel flew over my house this morning, rousing
me from my sleep and instilling me with my first feeling that summer
is breathing its last and autumn is close at hand. Whimbrels are leaving
Iceland in droves now, in flocks of up to 50, and I remember being
on the south coast of Iceland in early August last year and seeing
an almost continuous stream of calling birds overhead, heading south
towards the hot coasts of Guinea, Senegal and the like. Not all Whimbrels
are fortunate enough to be able to make the trip, however. Ólafur
Nielsen, Iceland's foremost expert on the Gyr Falcon, reported last
week on the Icelandic birding e-mail list, that he'd been checking
up on Gyr Falcon nests at the end of July and had found Whimbrel remains
in 15 out of 19 nests. One nest held a record 53 adult Whimbrels,
in addition to 58 Ptarmigan, 16 Wigeon and 9 Mallard, quite an impressive
haul over the summer and I'm sure these Gyr Falcons view the disappearance
of Whimbrels in summer with some trepidation.
This summer my birding has largely been second-hand, experiencing
the sights of others through e-mail, text message, or phone call.
Birding by proxy is pretty unsatisfactory but I'm getting used to
it. Yann and I field a lot of enquiries via the website and this summer
visiting birders have informed us of some excellent birds, including
the first Temminck’s Stint for Iceland, the first Great Grey
Shrike for 25 years and an extremely rare visitor from North America,
Rough-legged Hawk. The Saturday before last I missed the second Icelandic
pelagic trip, a belated follow up to 2004's maiden voyage. This time
the participants were able to get further out to sea and were rewarded
with close and prolonged views of a Wilson's Storm-petrel, only the
second national record after a bird was trapped on a ringing expedition
to a mixed petrel colony on Bjarnarey in 1988. The knowledge that
there are Wilson's Storm-petrels out there should ensure that the
pelagic becomes an annual event, but that's what we said in 2004.
Another soon to be annual event is the petrel ringing expedition to
Elliðaey. Last year's trip, which I wrote about in the diary entry
for August 2006, is possibly the most fun I've ever had birding anywhere
in the world. But I missed that at the weekend and this year the team
ringed around 2,350 Leach's and European Storm-petrels, a fine haul.
visit last week from friends in England did enable me to get out and
about and took me on to the tourist trail, somewhere I used to inhabit
regularly when I worked as a (non-birding) tour guide. Admittedly
August is the wrong time for casual birding upcountry. The roadside
birds so conspicuous in late spring and summer are all but gone, or
are silent and feeding on the multitude of blueberries on the moorlands.
Over the day I saw only a single Whimbrel, roadside
pools have long since been deserted by Red-necked Phalaropes, Snipes
have ceased to drum and are elusive, and only once did I see the elastic
flight of an Arctic Skua. The famed geothermal field
at Geysir is not exactly teeming with bird life (Redwing and Redpoll
in the adjacent trees if you are lucky) but the heather and dwarf-birch
covered moorlands to the east of the great waterfall Gullfoss still
rang with the redolent piping of berry-eating Golden Plovers. A tip
for those visiting Gullfoss for the first time is to visit it from
the eastern bank. It's one of Iceland's best kept secrets (until now).
Whilst the western bank pulls in the crowds and coaches, I've never
seen a single person on the eastern rim of the falls, as it requires
drive along a rough road followed by a 20 minute walk across the moors.
Whether the views are better than from the tourist side is a matter
of taste, but the rewards are great, including extensive views of
the glacier Langjökull dominating the western horizon, which
elicited gasps from my visitors, and of the forbidding interior as
far as the jagged Kerlingarfjöll mountains, and the mounting
excitement of walking towards the fountain of spray from the unseen
cataract, the roar intensifying until all at once the top tier is
revealed, almost unrecognisable if you are used to the west bank.
Whilst I've seen Gyr Falcon and Merlin in the canyon below Gullfoss
in the past, no raptors were in evidence, only potential prey in the
form of Golden Plovers and Meadow Pipits,
and a couple of Whooper Swans moving south high above
were an evocative sight.
Closer to home, at least one Blackbird chick left
the nest at the weekend, the third brood this summer for this particular
pair. After two days of frenetic and isolated activity at the feeder
in July, the Redpolls have again disappeared. A walk
in the cemetery a couple of miles from home showed me where they were;
there were clouds of them in the trees and on the ground, lots of
juveniles. My local bay was very quiet with only a few Common
Eider out on the water, Arctic Terns overhead
and Turnstones, Dunlins, Golden
Plovers and Ringed Plovers and a Black-tailed
Godwit, a scarcity on my patch, on the mudflats. Quiet days
of late summer but the leaves on the birches in my garden are turning
yellow. An autumn of birding by proxy awaits.