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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

December 2007

27 December - Holy Cow! Solstice birding at 64°N


With its limited daylight, Christmas preparations reaching a climax and the distinct possibility of appalling weather, the week before Christmas is not traditionally a busy time for birders. So it was quite a surprise that on the shortest day of the year 14 birders should find themselves congregated at the roadside, just east of Iceland's southernmost village of Vík, a couple of hours' drive from Reykjavík. It takes something unusual to prise so many birders away from their yuletide commitments at such short notice, and indeed it's not every day that you see a Cattle Egret in Iceland. In fact it was only the second record for Iceland and the first since 1956, and although I've seen hundreds, thousands of them abroad, the prospect of one in Iceland was irresistible. Driving across the southern plains of Iceland in December is not surprisngly a vastly different experience to spring and summer. Whereas breeding waders and Arctic Skuas are omnipresent in summer, the bird list was very slow to get off the mark once it became light enough to see beyond the edge of the road. Raven was the only bird for a long time, then a flock of Snow Buntings, a few roadside Goosanders, Eider on a lagoon and scattered overwintering Whooper Swans. The only constant from summer to winter was the presence of thousands of Fulmars on the cliffs of Eyjafjöll and above Vík. The vanguard of twitchers arriving from the east had an hour's headstart on us and the egret was clearly not where it had been 24 hours earlier. However, we arrived to find the assembled birders looking at an unremarkable black bird diving on a roadside pond, an American Coot, a bird arguably as unexciting as American Herring Gull and Green-winged Teal, but a very sweet bird for me after I missed out on the long-stayer in 2004. That particular bird arrived on the day I left on holiday to Australia and departed three weeks later, the day after I came back, and as a result I was one of the very few birders left in Iceland who hadn't seen it. So whilst the egret eluded us, the coot made the trip worthwhile, at least in my eyes. That was my seventh Icelandic tick of the year, following Purple Heron, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Blue-winged Teal, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Peregrine Falcon and Dunnock. As for the egret, we found some white feathers and lumps of skin near the road, which may or may not have been the egret (wasn't a Ptarmigan). The main suspects are Raven, Gyr Falcon, Arctic Fox and Toyota Landcruiser but I don't suppose we'll ever know. Still it was a good social occasion, but quite what the (admittedly few) passers-by made of 14 grown men assembled in the middle of nowhere during the week I just can't imagine.
The Cattle Egret and American Coot were brought to Iceland in a series of ferocious storms, with five depressions battering Iceland in as many days, with winds a steady force 11 in the Reykjavik area and gusting at 145 mph just east of the city. The mild weather and wet weather just before the holidays was replaced by colder weather and a good fall of snow at Christmas. The feeders in my garden have been very busy (with one species), the Redpolls emptying four feeders in the short daylight hours yesterday. My Redpolls have all been very dark this winter, with the exception of two paler ones with unstreaked white rumps and plain white undertail coverts earlier in the week, nonetheless just Common Redpolls. YK came and had a look yesterday with a view to ringing some of these birds and quickly noticed several Greenland Redpolls in amongst the locals. A walk down to the local harbour produced a few Iceland Gulls, Glaucous Gulls, lots of calling Long-tailed Ducks and Eider and a solitary Black Guillemot, but not the hoped for Little Auk. Snow Buntings flew over all day but I've yet to entice them into the garden. I just hope the orgy of fireworks ahead doesn't scatter the local Redpoll flocks. With at least one Arctic Redpoll in Reykjavík area, I'm hoping one will make an appearance at my feeders this winter.


9 December - It's pretty dark out there

So this is what a White-throated Sparrow looks like!

The festive season is upon us, otherwise known in Iceland as the dark and generally cold season, or the Icelandic birding doldrums. It’s dark when I go out, and it’s dark when I come home, and apart from the Starlings and Ravens which are ever present outside the office window my midweek birding is restricted to chopping up apples and putting them out in the dark. They are invariably gone when I come home but the daylight hours at the weekend reveal that it is the Redwings that take care of the apples I put in the tree, and Blackbirds the ones on the ground. One of the regular Blackbirds is a first winter female, possibly one which came from the nest in the tree outside the window. The gardens are pretty quiet though, and all the birds that are going to leave Iceland this winter have probably gone. A hardy band of Redwings remains in the neighbourhood with resident Starlings, Blackbirds, Redpolls and winter birds such as Wren (scarce), Snow Bunting (only in town when it snows) and Raven (ubiquitous) making up the passerine role call in suburban Iceland. The bay was lively last time I looked, with large numbers of Long-tailed Duck and Eider, a 70-strong flock of Eurasian Wigeon and a single drake American Wigeon, a few Oystercatchers and Turnstones here and there. So the autumn is past, those of us who keep a year list (very half-heartedly in my case) are wondering what they can add to it at this point, and others are contemplating winter breaks away. While there’s fine winter birding to be had in Iceland, late November and December generally isn’t the time for it.

Redpoll, an abundant visitor to my garden these days
November did see me embark on my first and almost certainly long distance twitch of the year, and my only trip to Höfn in 2007, a place I’d normally expect to see three or four times a year. The bird which tempted me was one that hadn’t been seen for 17 years in Iceland but which I’d first seen in May last year in torrential rain in Washington Square Park in New York, White-throated Sparrow. The prospect of this bird, a further two potential Iceland ticks, good company and tremendous glacial scenery were enough to persuade me to drive almost a 1,000 km in day (or at least be a passenger in a car) to see a bird or three. And was it worth it? Well, the company was good, the glacial scenery stupendous and I did add a species to my Iceland list, Dunnock. But the White-throated Sparrow, despite our best endeavours, failed to show itself, and the Dunnock, numerous Redwings, a male Chaffinch and two Chiffchaffs and a couple of Merlins were our only reward. We also missed out on a Sky Lark (the commonest vagrant to Iceland I’ve yet to see) that had been seen the day before but the hamburgers in Kirkjubæjarklaustur were as appetising as usual so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip. But at 460 km one way, White-throated Sparrow has become my longest dip, beating Golden Oriole in 2003 (450 km) and Hermit Thrush in 2000 (380 km), both of which I’ve seen since in Iceland.

Wrens only come to my garden in winter

On 1 December the winter bird race started again,. This was an idea imported by Yann from Quebec to spice up the winter birding - Yann reckons that if you think birding in mid-winter in Iceland can be quiet, then you should try Quebec! The idea is to see as many species as possible between 1 December and 28 February. This encourages people to get out birding in the gloom of December, but also to go and spend hours doing daft things like looking for the single Meadow Pipit or Golden Plover that has chosen to overwinter in Iceland. My efforts have been restricted to my garden (Blackbird, Redwing, clouds of Redpolls on my re-erected feeders – torn down last week by gales - Raven, Wren and Starling), a quick trip to the bay midweek (Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Wigeon, Mallard, Greylag Goose, Whooper Swan, Teal, Glaucous Gull, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Snow Bunting) and a trip to the summerhouse (a splendid male Ptarmigan). Other good birds seen so far in December are three Ivory Gulls in SE Iceland, a superb white Gyr Falcon, and that elusive White-throated Sparrow, which reappeared two weeks after we spent all day looking for it. And no, I’m not going to go for it again. Probably not.



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