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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

December 2008

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.


Above: Fossvogur cemetery in Reykjavík in the December snow.

On 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.
The final tally was as follows:
Great Northern Diver 1
Cormorant 50
Greylag Goose 3
Mallard 20
Teal 1
Wigeon 6
Long-tailed Duck 49
Harlequin Duck 2
Eider 672
Red-breasted Merganser 15
Merlin 1
Oystercatcher 77
Redshank 51
Turnstone 7
Purple Sandpiper 10
Common Gull 3
Herring Gull 3
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Glaucous Gull 7
Iceland Gull 21
Black-headed Gull 86
Black Guillemot 2
Wren 1
Snow Bunting 2
Starling 35
Raven 14

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.

Below: Winter scene in Reykjavík.

I 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.
A good final day of the year with two more Gyr Falcons seen in Hafnarfjörður, the first seen in flight as I was driving, the second giving better views. I noticed a commotion among the large gulls out at sea and my scope soon focused on an immature Gyr Falcon carrying a Red-breasted Merganser and struggling to reach land with at least fifty Great Black-backed Gulls taking turns to harass it. Finally the gulls got what they wanted, and the falcon dropped its prey into the sea. The Gyr however clearly was not willing to see all that effort go to waste and it simply turned a circle, ignored the massing gulls, picked up the duck from the water's surface and made it to land to eat its prey in peace.

 

 

 


to be continued



 

 

 



 














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