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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

December 2006

20 December - In the deep midwinter

My favourite bird of 2006 - Grey-crested Helmet-shrike, Kenya

December is the dullest month, at least in terms of birding in Iceland. Daylight is in very short supply now, sunrise is around 11:20 and sun half-heartedly appears above the chain of low and saw-toothed mountains to the south of Reykjavík in the late morning, first as a glow perfectly silhouetting the hills and then as the sun emerges the ridge becomes blurred and drivers heading south curse as they are blinded. Shadows are long all day, the light has the quality of a late summer evening. If it's clear you might be rewarded with the northern lights as you head off to work and at around 10 o'clock the ghostly white mountains north of the city begin to materialize in the murk, the distant Snæfellsnes peninsula coruscating and enticing across the water. If you glance down a suburban street and you might see the pointed summit of 1,000 metre high Skarðsheiði rising behind the rooftops, reminding you that the wilderness starts just beyond the Christmas lights of suburbia. But if there is heavy cloud cover, like today, the day seems to give up the fight and retire early, and if you’re inside the daylight passes unnoticed.

Little Auks were much in evidence at the weekend
Since I last wrote I've hardly done any birding, not because of the short days but mainly because I have moved house and most of my time has been consumed by packing, moving and then unpacking boxes. The last time I went out with my binoculars was in mid-November after a heavy snowfall. The bay held the usual suspects, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, one of the overwintering American Wigeons, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider and a few Snow Buntings (which appear in an instant in Reykjavík if there is snow in the surrounding countryside and disappear the moment the snow has gone). The graveyard was, as befits the place, quiet, Redpolls flitting around but it was another small passerine, a male Blackcap, that was the bird of the day. Whilst Blackcaps are common autumn vagrants in Iceland, this was the first I'd seen on my local patch and I decided when I got home to tot up the number of species I've seen on my suburban patch on the boundaries of Reykjavík and Kópavogur. This area comprises a narrow, sheltered inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, a cemetery to the north of the inlet consisting of native birch and introduced conifer species and a forestry plantation of mainly conifers with a few drainage ditches good for Snipe in winter. The inlet is very shallow and at low tide leaves a large area of mudflats exposed. The area is quietest in midsummer, best for wildfowl in winter and waders on spring and autumn passage.
Blackcap turned out to be the 84th species I've seen locally over the years. Some species such as Common Eider and Starling are ever present, others such as Little Bunting are major national rarities.

My favourite mammal of the year

At the weekend I did get out for an hour, walking down to the water near my new house,where I came across eight Little Auks. Surprisingly I don't see this Arctic species often at all and it was good to see one of them very close and watch it dive and swim in the clear waters. More next month, with news from much warmer climes.

December - to be continued

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