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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

December 2005

21 December - Winter solstice and perlerorneq

It's been a while since I wrote anything, partly due to an unplanned visit back to the motherland, and partly due to the lack of any real birding to report on. Today is winter solstice, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and up here at 64°N, daylight is in short supply in December and January. Sunrise today is around 11:20 a.m. and sunset at 3:30 p.m., but the sun remains so low when it emerges from its sloth, just creeping along the tops of the low volcanic hills to the south, that shadows remain long all day. Shadows, that is, if there is no cloud cover, but as it's been overcast and mild all week, then it's distinctly gloomy all day. There's no sign of us having a white Christmas in Reykjavík this year, which is a shame as snow really brightens things up. December is undoubtedly the slowest time for birding in Iceland, obviously because of the short hours of daylight and also because people are busy getting ready for Christmas. We have almost gone into a short period of hibernation. Birding is possible, and Icelandic specialities such as Harlequin, Gyr Falcon and Barrow's Goldeneye can easily be found in December if you make the effort. It's just that the dark certainly makes me more sluggish and apathetic, and I think I'm experiencing a touch of perlerorneq, what the Inuit call the midwinter blues, the weight of winter. It's a good job I'm going to Kenya in two weeks. But I'm becoming soft, complaining about the winter in my bright warm flat surrounded by books and with a fridge full of beer. I think I need to reread Jean Malaurie's marvellous The Last Kings of Thule, which is his account of his time living amongst the Polar Inuit at 80°N in NW Greenland in the 1950s. They really knew what perlerorneq was all about.

When I travel abroad I always like to guess what the first bird I see will be when I arrive. At Stansted it's invariably Pied Wagtail, in Spain it's usually a hirrundine of some description, in Singapore it was House Crow, in Brisbane and Cairns it was Australian White Ibis, and last week at Glasgow it was Carrion Crow. When arriving at Keflavík in Iceland I have two standard choices. In summer there are almost always Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis singing on the terminal roof, but in winter another white bird is usually the first to welcome me home. Sitting on the airport transfer bus last week and looking out over a sea of cars and tarmac four plump, snow-white birds skimmed the car roof tops before making a landing in a small area of bushes at the edge of the car park. They were of course, that well known concrete loving bird, Ptarmigan Lagopus muta. No need to climb mountains for them in Iceland. Although the Ptarmigan hunting season is over this year, I suspect that the car park birds are safe from hunters' guns. I have a hunch the authorities take a dim view of carrying firearms in the airport car park, especially with a US military base next door. By the way if anyone knows what bird I'm likely to see first at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi next month, please tell me. I'm planning to have bet on it with my travelling companions and I am more than willing to cheat in order to win.

Ptarmigan, a common bird of Icelandic car parks

2 December - Aurora borealis, the icy sky at night

Aurora borealis, the icy sky at night begins Neil Young's marvellous Pocahontas and indeed in these icy skies at night the aurora borealis can often be seen. Last night there was a shimmer of green to the north as I drove home from work. Although the northern lights are often visible from Reykjavík, the glare of the city certainly dulls the effect. Just over two years ago I was driving late at night across southern Iceland with GŢ on the way to twitch Iceland's first Stock Dove (did we really drive 800 km for a pigeon? - that's another story) and we had to pull off the road to look at the absolutely mesmerising spectacle of contorting serpentine green lights illuminating the entire sky. I don't remember the exact details but I think we both said "Wow" and "Christ Almighty" a lot. A good aurora display can easily rob you of your eloquence. Whilst we're on the topic of the aurora, I'd like to point you in the direction of a most entertaining blog, called Aurora Borealis written from the former Icelandic colony of Hjaltland (known to the locals as Shetland). Today the author was lucky enough to see an excellent lifer in the form of Brünnich's Guillemot, which is a common breeder in Iceland, although I never see them in winter. I'll be keeping a close eye on events in Shetland this winter. I just wish we got one of their White-billed Divers.

No birding to speak of for one reason or another last weekend but I did go for an invigorating walk on the edge of Reykjavík. There is a seemingly unlimited number of spectacular walks just outside the city, one of the joys of living in Iceland for me. On Sunday I went up 338 metre high Helgafell, more of a rock than a mountain in terms of height. But 300 metre mountains are not smooth, grassy tumps here, as they would be elsewhere. Helgafell is a bare lump of shattered, scarred rock surounded by tortured lava plains and is the classic epic short walk. It looks like the set of a Star Trek film and you really feel like you are the only person who has ever been there. As for birds I only saw two species and if I'd to have guessed beforehand which two species I'd see, then I'd have bet my mortgage on them being Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis and Raven Corvus corax. Good job I was right.


Looking towards the capital from Helgafell

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