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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

August 2007

24 August - Birding by proxy

Iceland's 2nd Wilson's Storm-petrel, seen by a lucky few on a pelagic in August

A calling 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.

Grandstand views of the Wilson's Storm-petrel. I was shopping in Reykjavík at the time

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.

A 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.

Part of the upper tier of Gullfoss. Not even Harlequins brave these waters!

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.

To be continued...

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