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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

February 2006

19 February - The End of Winter?

It's been a strange February, a fact underlined by this evening's walk around by suburban patch. It's mid-February and by rights we should be experiencing fierce winter weather here at 64°N: bone-shattering winds, snow, frost, rapid thaws, sleet, snow again and generally miserable weather. Yet this evening felt like mid-April. There was not a hint of wind, the gossamer sea only disturbed by diving birds and the normally tempest-tost Atlantic Ocean merged into the leaden sky without any discernible join. What's more the grass is still green and a friend has daffodils coming out in his garden! On last week's weather forecast Jan Mayen, 600 km north of Iceland, was warmer than Paris and the mountains around Reykjavík are snowless to at least 700 metres. In short, there's something rotten in the state of Iceland. Yet whilst the rapid melting of neighbouring Greenland's glaciers should be a major concern to everybody, the short-sighted birder in me thoroughly enjoyed today's glorious 'winter' weather. Down in the bay at the end of my road two species were particularly conspicuous, Eider Duck Somateria mollissima and Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis. Both are common birds in Iceland but doesn't make them any less appealing, even if you often take the familiar birds for granted. Spring fever is being felt more strongly in the Long-tailed Ducks as they were yodelling with gusto, a marvellous spring sound drifting across the still water. There was no ooohhing and aaaaahing to be heard from the Eiders yet but it won't be long. Other birds in the bay included a drake American Wigeon Anas americana seemingly paired with a female Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope, a pair of Gadwall Anas strepera (a rare winter bird but regular on my patch and my vote for the most underrated bird, the drake is absolutely superb close up), a couple of Glaucous Gulls Larus hyperboreus and Iceland Gulls Larus glaucoides, plenty of Purple Sandpipers Calidris maritima and, best of all, a Common Seal Phoca vitulina.
In the morning I decided to visit Kjalarnes, 25 km north of Reykjavík, which is the closest reliable site to Reykjavík for wintering Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus. I usually see Harlequins in early January but for one reason or another I hadn't seen any this year until this morning, and it's always a pleasure to see this most improbaly patterned duck. The mosaic of shocking white stripes breaking up the deep blue and chestnut background is unique in the bird world. Harlequins are also amongst the most restless and quarrelsome birds I know, and today's parties were bickering and irritable as usual, gangs of drakes harrying the vastly outnumbered ducks, skittering over the water, rising in short flights, turning tight circles in the air, diving, surging back to the surface. It's unsettling for the flustered females but entertaining for the human observer. In six weeks they'll be back on their breeding rivers where they can be seen at much closer quarters. My favourite group even had a brief visit from a Steller's Eider Polysticta stelleri last April.
The daylight is returning very quickly now and it's light until about 6:30 in the evening and you notice a big difference from week to week. Mid-week birding is now possible again after a three-month break, although I did quite well from the window at work this week, when a Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus hung in the wind outside my window for a few precious seconds. Whilst it would be foolish to assume that winter has had its last word, its back has certainly been broken and I can scarcely remember a milder, more innocuous winter than this. I look forward to the spring with great relish

Long-tailed Duck, a common winter bird around Reykjavík

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