An Icelandic Birding Diary
31 December - Operation Barrow's Goldeneye
Above: Frisky Barrow's Goldeneyes at Mývatn.
December has come and gone, and if the truth be told it's month I'm always glad to see the back of, with its minimal daylight. The month started off with plenty of snow and ice, which meant my garden feeders were covered with Redpolls as soon as the weather turned cold. The other visitors to the garden, Redwings and Blackbirds, also become far more common in cold weather; the five or six apples I place on branches around the garden are all gone within a couple of hours of my putting them out. In fact Redwings begin feeding as soon as I go outside, even if that means at seven o'clock in the morning, i.e. four hours before sunrise. Cold weather in Iceland in December is by no means guaranteed and the 20 centimetres of snow we had in Reykjavík on the weekend before Christmas disappeared in two very mild and wet days. Birding by bike on the way to work offers very slim pickings as it's dark on both legs of my journey. I usually see Redwings moving around in the periphery of the murk but did manage to see a Black Guillemot in the sea by the cycle path in the glare of the streetlights. The Black Guillemot was still there on Christmas Day when I went for a short walk near my house in the intermittent midday sun and snow showers, along with five Scaup, and the usual suspects of Long-tailed Duck, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and Cormorant. A Great Northern Diver snorkelled and dived just off land, a species I haven't seen on my patch for quite a while. I was just about to turn round and go home when a Gyr Falcon shaped rock by the path ahead turned out to be an immature Gyr Falcon, and I quickly lay down in the snow (to get out the wind) and was able to watch it for a couple of minutes as it surveyed the bay and eventually took flight and disappeared north.
the last Sunday in December I conducted the annual winter bird count
in my area, something I've done most years since 2000. My area consists
of three bays in the Reykjavík area and usually yields between
25-30 species. Numbers of some species vary greatly depending on the
weather: one year I had a mere three Eider as the sea was almost entirely
frozen, and this year's very mild conditions meant that only two Snow
Buntings were seen, compared with almost 400 last year. The
only surprise this year was two female Harlequin Ducks,
a rarity in this area.
At the end of the count I drove on to Hafnarfjörður and just managed to see one of the four Humpback Whales which has been present close to land for the past week, presumably feeding on herring.
Winter scene in Reykjavík.
don't really make a serious attempt to maintain a high year list anymore,
but thought it was a bit of a shame that by 30 December I still hadn't
managed to see one of Iceland's flagship species, Barrow's Goldeneye,
in 2008. As it is present only 50 minutes' drive from Reykjavik for
much of the year, the gap on my year list is entirely down to my inaction.
So on a very mild and damp 30 December I drove east with Simmi and
Björn Hauksson to the regular wintering sites for Barrow's Goldeneye
in the south of the country. The complete absence of snow and ice
meant that birds were very widely dispersed and we only found six
Barrow's Goldeneyes, four Common Goldeneyes
and none of the vagrant ducks we have seen here in past winters. Four
female Harlequins were a slight surprise so far inland
in winter. On the way back into town we stopped in the tree plantation
at Þrastalundur and weren't long in finding at least seven Common
Crossbills, a larger flock of Redpolls and
a single Ptarmigan.
to be continued