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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

January 2009

January - Crossbills and Waxwings

Above: The mountains to the north of Reykjavik

For me birding in January has a totally different feel to its midwinter neighbour December. With Christmas obligations out the way, the days getting noticeably longer and ambition triggered by the prospect of a new year list, January is altogether a more enjoyable birding month. The ease of winter birding in Iceland is often dictated by the weather. Early January was very mild and completely ice free but the month ended in snow and ice. Although most people are glad to have a respite from frigid conditions in midwinter, birders like the snow and cold; it concentrates ducks in small inlets and areas of open waters and brings Redpolls and Redwings to the feeders in greater numbers, and if you are lucky Waxwings. Despite the fact that I've been putting out three or four apples a day virtually every day since early November (except when it's well above freezing as the birds don't eat them) I still have not managed to attract anything apart from Redwings, Blackbirds and the occasional Starling. Yet some gardens in the Reykjavík area get Waxwings year after year and in early January I drove a couple of miles to a regular Waxwing haunt. As soon as I got out the car the pleasant bell-like tinkling of a flock of Waxwings drew me to a hedge full of apples. Waxwings are pretty aggressive at feeding sites and are dominant over Redwings and Starlings but are usually chased off by Fieldfares if there are any of those around. It took me until November to see a Waxwing in 2008 so it was nice to catch up with them in January.

Above: Icelandic Crossbill habitat at Heiðmörk outside Reykjavik.

So far this winter the place to be in the Reykjavík area has been harbour in Hafnarfjörður and the area just to south, where there have been lots of birds and even Humpback Whales and White-beaked Dolphins. There seem to be lots of herring in this area, attracting all the overwintering Icelandic gulls, numerous Cormorants, smaller numbers of Shags, Gannets and large numbers of Eider. The presence of all these gulls and ducks also means that the harbour area is a pretty good place to look for Gyr Falcons and I've seen them a few times this winter, most recently while getting good close views of a female King Eider, or Queen Eider as we call them in Icelandic. A panic among the gulls made me glance up and an immature Gyr Falcon was stopping at a Black-headed Gull but didn't really make a serious attempt to catch it and after circling the harbour for two minutes it continued on its way. I've often seen Gyrs make very lackadaisical attempts to catch prey; I remember watching a juvenile make repeated dives at a Whimbrel but pull out at the last second with the prey at its mercy, and Yann and I once watched a juvenile make a complete pig's ear of trying to catch some Mallard ducklings, a botched attempt that lasted at least 10 minutes. I suppose it's all part of the learning process – adult Gyr Falcons are usually not as forgiving.

Above: Icelandic and French photographers capturing Crossbills.

Perhaps the highlight of the month has been the flock of around 40 Crossbills in Heiðmörk at the edge of Reykjavík. Although I've seen plenty of Crossbills in Iceland over the years, I've never seen them display breeding behaviour: many males were singing, performing circular song flights (reminiscent of Redpolls) and males were feeding females in the tree tops. Spring is definitely in the air for Crossbills, even in January and hopefully some will breed.

Below: Male Crossbill at Heiðmörk.

And the stirring triggered by the rising sun are not restricted to the forest, as the local Long-tailed Ducks were obviously feeling in the mood. Long-tailed Ducks are quarrelsome in spring and expend a lot of energy chasing their rivals while giving their highly distinctive five-note yodel, a sound which carries great distances across the water. Last week there were several males vying for the attention of females, leaning back, surging forwards like speedboats, stretching their necks, yodelling and taking short flights in pursuit of rivals and then crashing back into the sea in mid flight as only Long-tailed Ducks and Harlequins seem to do (no smooth landings for these two), sometimes diving straight from the wing.
With white morph Gyr Falcon and Snowy Owl reported in the city in the last few days, there’s plenty to keep Reykjavik birders busy, even in the depths of winter.




to be continued





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