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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

January 2006

27 January - Out of Africa

YK, myself and four other Icelandic birders returned to the Rock last week after two weeks under the equatorial sun (and rain). It wasn't until I saw the headlines in Monday's newspaper that I fully realised that I was back in Iceland. The headline was "More than enough testicles to go around" a reassurance to the locals that there will be no shortage of pickled rams' testicles (as feared) for the upcoming midwinter feast, when Icelanders get in touch with their heritage by eating food so pickled that it has no need of a sell-by date. Good to be home.
The six of us were left positively overwhelmed by our trip to Kenya, seeing such an astonishing variety and number of birds and mammals, that it'll take months to digest in full. Although I hate reducing bird trips to figures and statistics, the fact that we each saw over 400 life birds in two weeks says something about what a fantastic birding destination Kenya is. I'm told that if we'd had bird guides with us throughout we could have perhaps seen an additional 150 species. But although we thoroughly enjoyed having Kenyan bird experts show us around at two sites, Baringo and Kakamega, I'm glad we did it mostly on our own. It's far more fun finding something yourself and having to look through the books to work out what it is than be told by someone else. Visiting Africa was a the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Ever since I read the marvellously entertaining and far-fetched African Adventure by Willard Price at the age of seven, I've longed to see elephants, giraffes, leopards etc. and seeing these beasts on the Masai Mara was a huge thrill. Just as memorable were brilliant birds such as Blue-headed Bee-eater, Martial Eagle, Lühder's Bush-shrike, Great Blue Turaco, Grey-crested Helmet-shrike and Heuglin's Courser. Kenya, its landscapes, people and wildlife will live long in the memory. Incidentally, I lost the bet on the first bird to be seen as we landed in Kenya. I bet on Black Kite (third) but the first was in fact Red-winged Starling, followed by Pied Crow. I now know for next time.
No time for birding since I got back and so I've only noticed three species out of the window: Raven Corvus corax, Starling Sturnus vulgaris and Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis. Rather predictable really. I'm supposed to be doing a winter bird count on my patch this weekend. Watch this space.

Blue-headed Bee-eater: a scarce bird in Reykjavík suburbs

4 January - The Great Icelandic Winter Bird Race

Another year passes and 2005 was once again another fine birding year. The highlights for me included seeing Wallcreepers in the Spanish Pyrenees, with Lammergeiers soaring overhead and noisy flocks of Alpine Chough effortlessly sailing along the cliff edge. Closer to home the summer was most memorable for two trips to Europe's biggest bird cliff at Látrabjarg in extreme western Iceland. I'm counting down the months until I can go out there again, as it's one of the great birding spectacles. And the autumn brought its usual but unpredictable selection of rare vagrants. But what is the Icelandic birder to do in these dark days of January? Take part in the Great Icelandic Winter Bird Race for one thing. The winter race was an idea imported into Iceland by YK after he spent a year in Québec. From 1 December to 28 February, the quietest time of the birding year, we have a (friendly) competition to see who can see the most birds. It encourages you to get out and about, although I draw the line at travelling miles to see a very rare overwinterer such as Meadow Pipit, when I know that I'll see them in their thousands come April. Not everyone is as sensible as me, however. Hence I never win the bird race. A total of 108 species have been seen in the two years it has been running, which is pretty good for the doorstep to the Arctic in mid-winter. As I have been embraced by sloth for most of December, YK dragged me out on New Year's Eve to have a quick look around Reykjavík. Christmas and New year were remarkably mild, with temperatures in the double figures on some days. Consequently some of the lakes we normally expect to be frozen weren't but we still managed to find a couple of Goosander Mergus merganser and a pair of Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula at regular winter sites. Birds of the day were two first-winter Brent Geese Branta bernicla which should be in Ireland at this time of the year. On New Year's Day I walked down to the sea at the end of my road mid-afternoon to try and kick start the year list. There are three species which usually vie for title of first bird of the year, Raven, Starling or Snow Bunting. This year the honour went to Raven Corvus corax, an abundant and highly conspicuous winter resident in the capital. It was quickly followed by Starling Sturnus vulgaris and then a delightfully tame flock of 20 Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis feeding on the pavement. The sea held the usual suspects, i.e. Eider Duck Somateria mollissima, Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, whilst a flock of thirty-two Iceland Gulls Larus glaucoides were frenziedly feeding on something. I think that brings me on to 30 something in the winter race, way behind the leaders but I'm not losing sleep over it. You can check out the latest figures in the race here Great Icelandic Winter Bird Race.
Another way to liven things up on the birding front in January is to leave Iceland altogether, and this is precisely what YK and I are going to do tomorrow as we head off for our first taste of Africa, Kenya to be precise. As the Kenyan day record is only marginally shorter than the complete Iceland list, we should see one or two new birds (and mammals).

First-winter Iceland Gull

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