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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

January 2008

15 January - Redpolls in the darkness

Bog standard Iceland Redpoll from my garden. Pic Yann Kolbeinsson
I took part in the Natural History Institute's Christmas bird count this year for the first time in three years (foreign trips have made me miss the last three) and this year I took my old area of Fossvogur and Kópavogur, a stretch of coastline south of the centre of Reykjavík and an area I know very well, partly my local patch. The count was supposed to be held on 30 December but the weather forecast was so bad for the Sunday that everybody moved to the Saturday. Just as well as the Sunday saw some of the windiest weather of recent years in Iceland, with the highest gust measuring 90 metres/sec (324 km/h) in eastern Iceland and unconfirmed reports of more than 100 metres/sec on one of the glaciers. While it was nowhere near as bad as that in Reykjavík (not sure the city would still be standing after such gusts) it was pretty hair-raising and it was a day to stay indoors and away from south-facing windows.
But the previous day the weather was fine, around -3°C, plenty of snow from Christmas Day's fall and good conditions for counting birds. As expected the commonest bird was Common Eider, and Snow Buntings were more numerous than usual due to the snow in the surrounding countryside, which brings them in to the city. No real surprises although Knot and Grey Heron were new for me during this count, and there were more gulls in the area than usual, the only disappointment was the lack of Gyr Falcon. The total figures are:

Cormorant - 70
Grey Heron - 1
Greylag Goose - 2
Mallard - 54
Eurasian Wigeon - 54
Scaup - 6
Long-tailed Duck - 75
Eider - 770
Red-breasted Merganser - 15
Merlin - 1
Oystercatcher - 83
Redshank - 52
Turnstone - 22
Knot - 4
Purple Sandpiper - 190
Herring Gull - 16
Great Black-backed Gull - 21
Glaucous Gull - 36
Iceland Gull - 53
Black-headed Gull - 1
Wren - 2
Redwing - 2
Snow Bunting - 356
Redpoll - 15
Starling - 100
Raven - 36

Bog standard Iceland Redpoll from my garden. Pic Yann Kolbeinsson
Although the year has turned and the days are getting longer again, it's only at the weekends that I can see what's going on the garden, which means basically means Redpolls and the odd Redwing and Blackbird. Discussions on the internet about the identity of certain Redpolls in Europe and North America have led me once again along the long and winding road of Redpoll identification and once again I end up getting hopelessly lost. The more I read the less I feel I understand. I've come to the conclusion that the only Redpolls I can identify with certainty are the standard islandica in my garden (because they are in my garden in Iceland) and pictures of male hornemanni taken in winter in Ittoqoortoormiit or similar. But there's a lot of uncertainty about the true taxonomic status of those Redpolls in my garden. I'll have to leave that to people far more capable than me to determine but Iceland Redpolls are certainly pretty variable, ranging from very dark and heavily streaked individuals to very pale Arctic-like individuals. Here is a gallery of Iceland Redpolls from the same garden in southern Iceland, although there are no Arctic lookalikes among them.

While the vast majority of birds I see are dark, I've seen enough pale and very lightly streaked birds over the years to make me very tentative about assigning a name to some birds. This winter I've had nearly exclusively darker types on my feeders, including some very large heavily streaked coffee-brown birds which could well be rostrata from Greenland. Then all of a sudden last weekend I had about a dozen pale birds in the garden together, most just pale islandica but 3-4 of which showed many features of Arctic Redpoll. One I think certainly was, and the others were pale birds, warm buff faces contrasting with white underpants, rather lightly streaked on the sides, apparently unstreaked on the undertail coverts and also an apparently clean white rump, yet with fine streaking on the rump of the best Arctic candidate. I'm sure some of these birds would have been identified as Arctic Redpoll in areas where they commonly occur, but here in Iceland I just don't feel confident enough to claim them as such. Another interesting bird in the garden was stone grey, lacking any warm tones at all but was heavily streaked above and below. YK came round on the Sunday to try to ring some as part of the ringing programme he and GÞH have been involved in recent years. Only one pale-type was present, a very interesting looking bird, but it refused to come into the net. We did get four, all dark islandica types, two of which are shown here.

This weekend, I had the usual numbers but nothing remotely Arctic like, except for perhaps one. Seen head on, it had a very distinctive bull-necked, front-heavy appearance, a buff face contrasting with its pale underparts and then, on its side profile, a tiny bill (a feature I usually find hard to judge but this one did seem to have a noticeably stubbier bill than any of the other birds present). Very interesting so far but then it moved and revealed the rest of itself, its very heavy streaking on the sides, very dark rump and coarsely marked UTC. There's clearly plenty of scope for more Redpoll research in Iceland. More news next time from warmer climes.

January..... to be continued


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