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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

July 2006

26 July - The Real King of the Birds

The magnificent wraith of the Icelandic highlands
News at the end of June that a female Snowy Owl which had been found injured as a juvenile (first confirmed breeding this century) last September and had spent all winter recuperating in Reykjavík had just been released into the wild again, took my mind back to a spectacular day two summers ago when I saw my first ever Snowy Owl. It was perhaps the most exhilarating day's birding I've ever had. Four of us were driving on a remote highland road, an area of bleak tundra-like upland, frost shattered, not a tree in sight, when we noticed a white blob on the hillside. We screeched to a halt and quickly lifted our binoculars to see a pristine male Snowy Owl sitting on a rock below the brow of a small ridge about 300 metres away. We stopped the car and gingerly got out of the car and set up our scopes and were bewitched by this unforgettable wraith of the tundra. As a male it was almost pure white, with just a few black spots on its wings. For twenty minutes we watched it preen, yawn and we were all struck by how “cat-like” its face was, and when it stretched it revealed its massive feathered feet. And then all of a sudden it was gone! We looked away and looked back and none of us had even seen it go.

There was nothing for it but to drive on, and we soon relocated it, this time in flight, it always took three deep beats and then went on an extended glide before settling around 1 km away. A friend had described a Snowy Owl in flight as a “neckless Whooper Swan” and it seemed an apt description. As we had already had great views of the bird, it was mid afternoon and one of us had a dinner party to go to that evening we begin to think about getting home. We never dreamed we’d be on the moors for another seven hours. About three kilometres on YK suggested we scope the plateau to the south for the hell of it. After a few seconds of looking through the scope it was obvious that something had piqued his curiosity. Soon we were all looking at a minute white speck just below the horizon. For the next 30 minutes we were glued to this spot, our opinions alternating between snow drift (there were still some patches in the area), pale rock, sheep or…….. Looking on the map we estimated that it was at least 5 kilometres away from us and the heat haze combined with problems of looking through 60x magnification made it difficult to assess it properly. After a while we all began to be convinced that it was moving but was the haze playing tricks on us? After half an hour this snow drift unmistakably started moving and then suddenly the “sheep” sprouted wings and ghosted away. To our astonishment another white bird flew up from an unseen position and followed it over the ridge. We were staggered and ecstatic to have found two new Snowy Owls just like that. It was now gone four o’clock and we convinced our companion who was due at a dinner party in two and a half hours in a town at least four hours’ drive away that he was going to miss it anyway so he might as well miss it in style. We were determined to get a better look at the new Snowy Owls so we parked the car and got our things together and set off across the frost-shattered plain. If your idea of bleak is the North York Moors then think again. But although these uplands seem lifeless they are home to a delicate and hardy ecosystem of birds, invertebrates and Arctic flora. What seems barren comes to life as you pay it attention. Look, a spider scuttles across the rocks, a beautiful Glacier Buttercup ekes out a living on the sparse soil, a cluster of delightful Arctic Poppies nod gently in the breeze, and isolated pockets of Alpine Speedwell colonise the slopes. Our path, we have to make our own as this is as much off the beaten track as you can get, leads up and down parallel ridges, over small streams lined with moss of the most intense green. A sudden pepepepepepe alarm call alerts us to the presence of a pair of Purple Sandpipers and a newly fledged chick only metres away. Although I see hundreds if not thousands of these in winter its always a thrill to see such confiding summer plumaged birds on their breeding grounds. I make a mental note to visit the Canadian Arctic and its breeding waders one day.

We arrive at a small tarn, greeted by a resplendent Great Northern Diver which seems to be without a mate. Long-tailed Duck have bred here this summer though and two family parties dive for prey. Whooper Swans and a pair of Arctic Tern also depend on the lake and just a few feet away a male Ptarmigan thinks its camouflaged plumage has fooled us much to the delight of the two photographers amongst us. As we climb the next shallow ridge we are thrilled to see one of the Snowy Owls on a rock a couple of hundred metres away from us. We quickly set up scopes and notice that this bird is much darker than the first bird we saw in the day and has light barring on its breast, head and wings. We’re not sure whether it’s a young male or a lightly marked adult female. Whilst certainly aware of our presence it doesn’t appear perturbed and eventually we get to within one hundred metres of us. It continues to preen, yawns, swivels its head in inimitable owl style, and then suddenly swivels its head to its right and fixes it on something of interest. It spreads its wings, flaps twice and glides to a rock fifteen metres away. We gasp in awe its grace. Now the owl is concentrating on something very close to it and then it pounces, seems like the easiest thing in the world. Whatever it is has no chance and the owl flies off to another rock 300 metres away plucks its prey, obviously a bird and swallows it whole. (We late found the prey's feathers, it was a Ptarmigan chick). We walk over to investigate the rock from which it first saw its quarry and realise that this is the place we first spotted it from by the car. A quick check on the GPS reveals that we had been 4.7 km away when we first noticed that minute speck of white on the hillside! The rocks are white with owl droppings and we find a huge moist pellet, more than 10 cm long, which I’m persuaded to put in my pocket, owl feathers, and scattered bones. Over the next hour we watch from a suitable distance this magnificent predator in its natural habitat, as it mostly dozes, preens and does some more yawning. We find several more favoured owl perches, all prominent grass covered knolls, covered in droppings and curiously all without fail being covered in Ptarmigan droppings. I foresee a serious conflict of interests there with only one possible outcome!

A dog-like yipping reaches our ears and an Arctic Skua appears and begins to mob the Snowy Owl causing it to find a new perch about a kilometre away. We go to its last vantage point and note the same combination of owl and Ptarmigan droppings. As we look around my eyes catch a fortress like rock belt and on the top a white spot. The third owl!! This one is definitely an adult male but not quite as white as the one we saw by the road a few hours earlier. After once more indulging in prolonged views of another Snowy Owl, we thought that it was time to head back to the car, starving as we were. We gave the female/young male a wide berth, on the way back but we were happy from watching them that these birds were not breeding and that our disturbing them had been kept to a minimum. We were almost certainly the first humans they had seen there this summer. The walk back the car, six kilometres in a straight line but extended by detours around tarns and up and down ridges, seemed impossibly long but numerous family parties of Snow Buntings and Purple Sandpipers, not to mention the ubiquitous Golden Plover, kept us company. And if we needed an owl fix all we needed to do was turn round because the female/young male was visible almost all the way back from its lofty vantage point. We returned to the car almost six hours after we had set out, hungry, thirsty and shattered but absolutely elated to have shared this time with the three Snowy Owls and the other birds of the moors.

I've been back to the general area both years since then including last weekend and each time I've seen the owls, but as it appears they bred last year, no exact locations can be given. I'm reminded of James Fisher's reaction to seeing his first ever Snowy Owl over fifty years ago in central Iceland, as recounted in his and Peter Scott's book A Thousand Geese. He said: To have seen the Snowy Owl in its own area, in its hunting beat; to know through the evidence of one's own eyes that it is a part of the animal community, one of the small band of predators that skims a crop off this unique assembly of geese, which gives this set of vers [Icelandic upland oases] an unparalleled character. Fisher's words so reflect my own feelings and I feel each time I see one that the Snowy Owl is the real king of the birds.

There are now three unmissable features of every birding summer for me now, 1. see a Snowy Owl; 2. see Grey Phalaropes in breeding plumage and; 3. visit one of the vast seabird colonies of north-west Iceland. If I were pushed to nominate a favourite bird in the world then after my perennial number one, Logrunner of Australia, then I'd choose the wonderfully confiding Grey Phalarope or Red Phalarope as we should call it here since 95% of all the birds I've seen have been in bright breeding plumage. The best place for visiting birders to see them is the island of Flatey in western Iceland around mid-June. They are by no means guaranteed but most visitors I've sent there this summer have come back thrilled with their sightings, and the advantage with Flatey is that there is little chance of disturbing breeding birds here. I've already managed the first two of the three this summer, watch this space for news of my forthcoming trip to the massive cliffs of far north-west Iceland.

Grey Phalarope - my second favourite bird

11 July - Smiles of a summer night

Barrow's Goldeneye, an easily found Icelandic speciality
Now the World Cup is over I can start doing something vaguely worthwhile again. Summer is generally a time of incidental birding, usually whilst I am hiking in the mountains around Reykjavík. As I virtually never take my binoculars with me on these walks (as I don't expect to find anything unusual - the day I find a Dotterel when I don't have bins with me I'll have a heart attack) I have to get close to the birds to see them. This generally involves no greater fieldcraft than sitting still and letting them come to me and some of my closest encounters have come on walks when I've left the binoculars at home. Last week I enjoyed the attentions of a male Northern Wheatear as I sat on a jagged tangle of palagonite, weird rock formations shaped like crones. I was obviously resting in the middle of its territory and it circled me, whistling and clicking as well as embarking on short song flights along the walls of its natural ampitheatre. A common bird but most enjoyable nonetheless. At this time of year not even I could use the World Cup as an excuse not to get any exercise at all, since it's light 24-hours a day, and so there is nothing stopping me going walking at midnight if I feel like it. I went on one late night walk the other weekend, up a 750 metre mountain near Reykjavík. The birds I encountered were pretty much those I expected: Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Meadow Pipit, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Northern Wheatear wherever there were rocks, and mournful Snow Buntings singing higher up. An Arctic Skua did a very involved broken wing display (I hadn't noticed this behaviour until last summer and then they were all doing it -either it's the latest fashion or I was blind as a bat until last summer) and just as I was jumping over a stream, my feet heading for a tussock on the far side, a Meadow Pipit erupted from the grass just where I was about to land. Fortunately, I surprised myself with my dexterity and managed to avoid trampling over a nest containing four eggs, presumably a second clutch.

I've been very idle as far as twitching is concerned this summer. A singing Tree Pipit was in Höfn for the best part of two weeks, a very rare vagrant in Iceland. The last time I saw a Tree Pipit was in the Kakamega Forest in Kenya in January and it was sharing the garden with some pretty exciting species then. I told SÁ that I'd come and twitch it with him if there was also a Great Blue Turaco and Double-toothed Barbet with it Höfn, but apparently there weren't. One failed twitch I did go on was to see another major Icelandic rarity, Common Sandpiper, which BB had found whilst looking for another good bird, Lesser Scaup on the river Sogið an hour from Reykjavík. GÞ and I had no luck whatsoever but we did see several Barrow's Goldeneye and a nice drake Harlequin Duck.
Whilst walking up the spectacular moutain Hengill 30 km from Reykjavík on Saturday, I saw a sure sign that summer is quickly approaching its sell by date, at least as far as the birds are concerned, as on the mountain we came across a large flock of Golden Plovers. Waders are thinking about leaving the country but although I feel the summer is passing too quickly I have some late summer birds to look forward to, Storm Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, perhaps a Snowy Owl and I might even go whalewatching. Last time I was at Garður in mid-June there were half a dozen Minke Whales close to land. Last summer I saw Humpbacks from land, a Sperm Whale would be nice this year, even if I have to brave seasickness in the attempt!

Manx Shearwater

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