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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

February 2008

24 February - A tale of two volcanic islands

Teide, Tenerife. The most Icelandic landscape I've seen outside Iceland

Since discovering the delights of a January trip abroad when I went to Kenya in 2006, I've been keen to keep it up. Last year I went to Trinidad & Tobago, and this year, it was Tenerife, far less exotic than the last two but a perfect place for a week in the sun with 8-month old twins. Perfect because you can get there directly from Iceland, the climate is a delight, and there are just enough birds to keep me interested, but not enough to tempt me to abandon wife and children for yet another birding session. Going to Peru for example wouldn't have been a good idea at this stage. I negotiated two mornings out in the car to look for three of the more localised Canarian endemics, i.e. Bolle's Pigeon, Laurel Pigeon and Blue Chaffinch, and reckoned on seeing the other endemics and near endemics whilst looking for the others. And so it turned out. Birds such as Canary Island Chiffchaff were everywhere. A brief excursion on the second day away from the rather hideous resort of Playa de las Americas to the even more hideous banana-planatation blighted abandoned fields near Punta de Rasca saw us find the first of many Berthelot's Pipits, a single Hoopoe (always a delight) and the only Plain Swift of the trip. This area was perhaps the least attractive place I've birded in, a scrapyard of rubble, tattered plastic and few birds. The most eagerly anticipated trip was the early morning visit with my friend Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson, who happened to be in Tenerife at the same time, to the laurel forests of Monte del Agua, home to the two endemic pigeons. As soon as we got of the car an expected lifer was found singing by the car, Canary, an abundant bird in the area. The forest was rather beautiful, although birds were scarce. African Blue Tits and Tenerife Goldcrests were heard but only the latter was seen, because we were keen on using our time to look for the pigeons, which we could hear clattering through the closed canopy. A kilometre or so from the car, a trail leads off into the forest and reaches a clearing, affording great views of the laurel forest. The trick is then to wait for the pigeons to fly over the forest below. It was perhaps the most stressful type of birding I've ever done, distant pigeons in view for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the canopy again or over a ridge. You've got to have your wits about you! But identifying the two birds is not that difficult, and in the two hours we were there we saw around 15 Bolle's Pigeons and a single Laurel Pigeon. The forest around us was almost lifeless, just one Blackbird heard and one Canary Islands Chiffchaff seen. Back at the car we soon saw five more Bolle's Pigeons at the edge of the forest, much closer than before, plus a Kestrel, a Buzzard and a female Sardinian Warbler. Moving on to the Erjos ponds, the most interesting bird was an African Blue Tit, which really does look markedly different from its more familiar counterpart on the European mainland.

Blue Chaffinch, Tenerife. Photo by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson
The second trip was up to the pine forests above Vilaflor. The picnic site is reputed to be the best place in the world to see Blue Chaffinch, and we certainly didn't have to wait long to see one, a really striking looking bird. In fact it was the most common bird in the area, followed by African Blue Tit. Moving uphill we stopped in the superb Teide national park, the most Icelandic looking landscape I've ever seen (outside Iceland), centred around the magnificent cone of Teide, Spain's highest mountain. Birds were fairly thin on the ground here, but a Southern Grey Shrike showed itself very well, and a covey of four Barbary Partridges reminded us very much of Ptarmigans in their evasive behaviour in a lava landscape. All in all an enjoyable break in the sun, and ten life birds in two short excursions into the field was pretty good.

This unusual Redpoll was in my garden in January. Phot by Simmi

Back to the snow in Iceland, and a Redpoll-free week in Tenerife was broken on Saturday, with a flock arriving at dawn. The first bird I see was a very lightly marked bird, virtually no streaking on the sides, completely unmarked under-tail coverts and white rump. Its fairly dark upperparts lead me to the conclusion that it is just an Iceland Redpoll, but I'm sure it might be identified as an Arctic Redpoll by many observers abroad (and me initially in Iceland). Given that we can have such unstreaked birds and numerous birds with much frostier upperparts in local populations, it's easier to appreciate why it wouldn't be a bad idea for someone to do some more research on islandica Redpolls. Went on a quick trip down the coast on last Sunday to Vatnsleysa, where there is often a King Eider. Despite the presence of a massive raft of Common Eider there was no King (or Queen) in evidence but I'm sure there will be one later this winter. Other birds included around 50 Iceland Gulls, a Glaucous x Herring Gull and many Purple Sandpipers. It's always a good idea to check out all Raven-sized birds at this time of year, and one roadside bird was a indeed first-winter Gyr Falcon. I've seen them regularly at this site.

Pale Iceland Redpoll in my garden. Photo by Simmi

Daylight hours are now almost six hours longr than in December and I nipped out in the middle of a beautiful sunny day today to see a Lesser Scaup that HS had found. There was also a Ring-necked Duck in amongst the Tufted Ducks, and nine Goosander and two Common Goldeneye were new for the year. Back home, the male Blackbird has also been noticing the return of the daylight and has been singing as I leave for work. It’s almost light when I go out in the mornings.

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February..... to be continued





 














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