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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

July 2007

30 July - Two Snowy Owls don't make a summer

My first Gyr Falcon photo, almost in focus!

This has been the longest break since I started writing this diary in 2005, a hiatus largely enforced by the birth of my twin daughters, Rakel and Elísabet, on 25 May. I know everyone thinks their kids are beautiful, but you should see these two! The sleepless nights associated with new parenthood have given me some insight to the local birdlife, i.e. Redpolls start visiting my feeder at about 4:00 a.m. and the local Redwings and Blackbirds sing virtually without a break all night. Of course, the term ‘night’ is used in the traditional sense of the time when most people are generally in bed as there is no night to speak of in Iceland in June and July. It’s bright round the clock in midsummer, and although in Reykjavík the sun does set for a short time, it only just slips beyond the horizon so that there is no darkness at all.

After five minutes of posing. the Gyr decided to leave us

Apart from daily walks by the sea with the pram I haven’t really been out much in the field since early May’s Purple Heron, a magnificent bird, which spent several days fishing at the edge of Reykjavík beneath trilling Whimbrels and bat-wing displaying Golden Plovers. At one point I had views of the heron with a hoary male Ptarmigan directly behind it – it’s not often these two rub shoulders. Last Saturday, however, I got a day pass to go out birding for the day. The two months I’ve been at home with my daughters (fathers get three months’ paternity leave in Iceland!) have been wonderful but I can’t deny that I frequently look longingly at the mountains beyond the bay on the northern horizon and wish I could get out there for an hour or two. So when my wife asked if I wanted to go out for the day, I replied that I did and I then had to make a choice: what does a bird-starved new father do with a few hours at his disposal. I considered some of the essential Icelandic summer birding experiences and weighed up what I could do:
1) Mývatn – too far for a day trip and, anyway, better in late May to early June
2) The immense cliffs at Látrabjarg – too far for day trip
3) Storm Petrel and Leach’s Petrel colony – needs to be at night
4) A visit to a Grey Phalarope colony – Flatey is possible on a very long day trip from Reykjavík but mid-July is a bit late.
5) The uplands of western Iceland for Snowy Owl and more – just the thing.
So off I went with three others on 14 July for a much needed day in the field. The moorlands of Iceland do not exactly rival the Congo Basin in terms of biodiversity but I have a great affection for these areas and their hardy inhabitants. My first visit to this particular stretch of country in 2004 still ranks as one of my best ever day’s birding anywhere in the world, and although this year’s trip lacked that sense of discovery, it was nevertheless a day well spent. The normal roadside birds flashed by once we’d left Reykjavík: Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher, etc and a few hours later it was time to leave the good road for the less than good roads leading to our goal. Once the gravel road flattened out after the contorted ascent our eyes began to rove across the largely featureless expanses for the tell-tale white spots. Not all white spots are a cause for excitement, some are sheep, others tenacious banks of snow, or rocks glinting in the sun, or perhaps Whooper Swans on unseen tarns, a common breeder up here. The first emergency stop was when I noticed a large white bird only 50 metres off the road ahead of us. Not a Snowy Owl but an adult Gyr Falcon, perched quite calmly, giving me time to grab Simmi’s camera and rattle off some half-decent shots (by my standards – I don’t take photos) of it sitting and then in flight. I saw an adult Gyr Falcon in almost exactly the same spot in July last year too, which makes me wonder what they do when they meet the other top predator in these parts. We weren’t long in finding one, a pristine white spot on a rocky outcrop about 1 km off the road was today’s main target, an adult male Snowy Owl. Although we knew we wouldn’t get particularly close to the bird we needed no excuse to get out and stretch our legs over the treeless plains in the bright summer weather. The ubiquitous Golden Plover had downy chicks racing ahead of us, Snow Buntings sang in flight and from frost-shattered rocks, Purple Sandpipers feigned broken wings to divert our attention from unseen chicks and Ptarmigans bobbed nervously between the scree, perturbed by the presence of yet another potential predator. We moved to within 300 metres or so of the Snowy Owl, and decided not to go any closer, although it didn’t seen perturbed by our presence - it was too busy eating something, very much in the stalk and pounce style we witnessed three years ago, when one bird caught and ate a Ptarmigan chick right in front of us. Instead of hassling the bird we retreated and checked the prominent tussocks for pellets, finding one huge one and several smaller ones and owl feathers. It’ll be interesting to see what bones can be identified from the pellets. There won’t be any lemming bones in there anyway. Another Snowy Owl was spotted farther away but there was no time to investigate it further.

Purple Sandpiper in breeding plumage with blooming Thrift

Snowy Owl and habitat

As it was my only day out of the summer so far, I got to pick the route and it involved a very long detour on the way home, via the superbly picturesque Snæfellsnes peninsula, a great birding area in spring and summer. At one stop Simmi picked out a female King Eider, or Queen Eider as they are known around here. As we drew further west, Glaucous Gulls became the commonest large gull, a drake Harlequin flew in front of the car (the only one of the day, we didn’t search for them but they are common in this area) and Arctic Terns were everywhere. At the small pool at Rif, a short search found my main target of the afternoon, an adult Semipalmated Sandpiper, a new bird for me in Iceland and only the fifth bird for the country. We watched it mingle with the Dunlins and the several hundred Red-necked Phalaropes which throng to Rif in July. No sign unfortunately of the male Red Phalarope, my favourite bird, that had been there earlier in the week. Then it was out to the cliffs at Öndverðarnes for Brünnich’s Guillemot, Common Guillemot, Razorbill and my first Black Guillemots of the year, which goes to show how little birding I’ve done this year.
So it’s back to birding by proxy, hearing of other people’s exploits this summer by text message, phone or e-mail. But I’m not complaining – at least not until I have to go back to work. As a postscript, the Blackbird in my garden seems to incubating her third brood this summer, and the Redpolls are back, after nearly two months away – a sign of impending autumn?

The pool at Rif and Snæfellsjökull behind, 1446 m

To be continued...

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