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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

July 2008

15 July - A Wild Polar Bear Chase.... becomes a Wild Sheep Chase

Above: The farm of Hraun in northern Iceland, home to a Polar Bear in mid-June. The bear was eventually shot on the spit between the lake in the foreground and the sea.

Two things which I found particularly interesting happened in Iceland while I was away in the US: firstly an earthquake of 6.6 on the Richter scale on 29 May; and secondly the arrival of the first Polar Bear in Iceland for 20 years on 3 June. The discovery of the bear sauntering along a road by an incredulous motorist and its subsequent demise (shot) was a godsend for the Icelandic media which in summer is often compelled to carry stories such as "Man sprains ankle," "Child loses shoe" or "Wasp stings dog" (all genuine headlines I can remember in recent years). While Polar Bears are not that rare in Iceland (600-700 documented records since Settlement, about the same as House Martin) I really thought that I'd never get the chance to see a Polar Bear in Iceland as not only are they scarce, but they also don't get much time to enjoy the Icelandic scenery before they are shot. So when YK rang me on 16 June and told me that there was another Polar Bear in northern Iceland, we were torn: A few hours' drive away was one of the world's most impressive animals, yet the chances of seeing it before it gets shot are almost zero. But after the furore over the shooting of the first animal, – some of the criticism justified, some grounded in the cloud-cuckoo-land school of logic – the authorities decided to try a different approach to an admittedly different situation. It was announced in the evening that attempts would be made to catch the Polar Bear alive and to transport it back to eastern Greenland, and for this outside help was needed (people from Copenhagen Zoo). However, the police had sealed off the area and so there was no chance of seeing the bear.

Above: That's me listening to a live TV interview with the police and environment minister explaining why the bear was shot.

The next morning, after mulling it over for much of a sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that if there was one place I certainly wouldn't see the bear, it was sitting on my backside at home in Kópavogur, and so I contacted HS and off we went. We also figured that even if we didn't see the bear, it was located in an area of northern Iceland we'd never been to before and how can you argue against a day in the field in good weather in mid-June in northern Iceland? Both bears had been discoveredon a peninsula in northern Iceland called Skagi, a very sparsely populated corner of the country which juts out past the 66th parallel into the Arctic Ocean. The second bear had been located by a 12 year-old girl living on the peninsula's most northerly farm, Hraun, while she was walking her dog at the edge of an Eider colony. What she initially thought was a plastic-covered hay bale turned round and looked at her when her dog approached it and sent her scampering back to the farm as quick as her legs would carry her. Hraun can be approached from two sides and we elected to approach from the road leading up the west of the peninsula. The area receives very little birding attention but its shores and highland lakes undoubtedly have great potential for scarce and rare birds., and the typical Icelandic moorland birds were well represented. We noted that Snow Bunting and Arctic Skua were exceedingly common, and there were some spectacular sea cliffs but which held only Kittiwakes and Fulmars. The north of the peninsula, a tangle of tidal lagoons and beaches choked with Siberian driftwood is a remote place. Far off to the west across the bay rises the mauve bulwark of peaks along the Strandir coast, backed by the West Fjords' only glacier, Drangajökull, whose spectral faintness in the haze makes you wonder if you're merely imagining it's really there. Far beyond the northern horizon lurks the ice-bound coast of Greenland and even though the day was sunny and still, it was still only about 4°C. The area reminds me of the even remoter and northerly peninsula of Melrakkaslétta in north-east Iceland (one of Iceland's top birding hotspots in late spring/early summer) in that you feel that you've reached the edge of the mapped world here. About 3 km from the farm and the lighthouse marking the north-east cape of the peninsula in sight, a Land Cruiser materialised and blocked the road in front of us. It contains volunteers from the mountain rescue squad who informed us that the road beyond is closed and we have no chance of getting to see the bear at all. While I wasn't surprised, it was disappointing and I felt rather foolish for even having entertained the idea that we could get to within viewing distance of the farm. Reluctantly we turned back and I told HS we may as well head back to Reykjavík as we'll invariably end up at a similar road block on the road heading up the east side of the peninsula.

Below: This is the best shot of the Polar Bear I could get.

Fortunately, HS was more persistent and optimistic than I was (and it was his car we were in) so after a quick stop in the small town of Sauðárkrókur (six drake Harlequins on the sea, plus a Great Skua), we headed back north, threading our way up the east side of the peninsula. As the scattered farms thinned out even more, and the mountains fell away, roadside tarns became common, with Whooper Swans, Long-tailed Ducks and Great Northern Divers the most obvious residents. Eventually the road block was spotted in the distance, but unlike the other road block there were other people there: the media and a tiny handful of onlookers. This road block was also far closer to the farm and we had the sinking realisation that we should have come here first, as the bear may have been visible from here. And a quick question to those in attendance confirmed this; it had been seen on and off all day but now it was out of sight in a small depression as the team from Denmark tried to get close enough to tranquilise it. The bear's location was revealed by the dive-bombing Arctic Terns but it remained firmly obscured from view, and we thought we had missed our chance. But suddenly, without warning, it was there in the scope, I can’t believe I’m looking at Polar Bear charging through the Eider colony, female Eiders erupting at its feet, and it was clearly trying to shake off its pursuers (the vet and helpers in two cars) and make a dash for the relative safety of the sea. At this point slight panic gripped the attendant police who shouted for everyone to get back in their cars. As the bear was probably a kilometre away and not even heading in our direction, the danger posed to us onlookers was absolutely zero, and the absurdity of the panic prompted HS to shout "Run, it's spewing fire" which brought a smirk from the environment minister. After this slight distraction, we turned our attention back to bear, and found it lying motionless on a spit of land between a small lake and the sea. In my naivety I assumed that a tranquiliser dart had been fired when we first saw it and that now it was lying tranquilised on the beach. It soon became apparent, however, that the bear was dead, and our elation at seeing a wild Polar Bear in Iceland evaporated. We really thought this one was going to be captured and taken back to Greenland, and it was bitterly disappointing to see it end up like this. The police eventually came over to explain what had happened and why the decision was made to shoot it. It hadn't proven possible to get into range for the tranquiliser gun and the police didn't want to lose the animal in the sea as it would invariably come on to land again and perhaps pose a threat there. And hence a second round of controversy. Whether or not the animal should have been shot there and then is debatable; whether time and resources should be spent on trying to rescue a single animal is also debatable but nobody was happy with the outcome. Polar Bears do come to Iceland and will continue to do so, and it's obvious that they can't be left to their own devices and to fend for themselves in Iceland. It'll be interesting to see what happens when the next one comes.

Below: While I'm at work, other people are out enjoying themselves. Italian birder Giorgio di Liddo took this shot of the stunning pale female Gyr Falcon at Mývatn.

Fast forward a week. I was in the summer house for a week's holiday with my wife and children. At 10 in the evening, I'm getting comprehensively beaten at Scrabble by my wife (whose not even a native English speaker) when HS phones with news that he's heard through the grapevine (a friend of a friend's grandma) that a farmer had this very evening seen and photographed a Polar Bear in the same region as the other two. Although there has been no official confirmation, the possibility of seeing another Polar Bear is too exciting to resist. The fact that it will be almost midnight before HS and SR can pick me up (luckily the summer house is on the way north from Reykjavík) was only a minor concern. As previously mentioned in this diary, being out and about in the permanent daylight of June is one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of living in Iceland. We stopped on the moorland tops of Holtavörðuheiði at 0120, watching with fascination as the sun dipped into the Arctic Ocean before coming straight back up again, with Whooper Swans and a singing Wheatear the only noise in the background. We only had a rough idea of where the alleged bear had been seen and still no confirmation, but when we reached the area it was obvious that there was something going on. At 0230 in the morning in a remote area of Iceland we saw no fewer than four police cars, a plane circling and two mountain rescue cars and quadbikes. We asked one of the policemen what was going on, and he just said he was enjoying the view. Polar Bear? What Polar Bear? It soon became clear that the police didn't know much more than we did, i.e. a walker had seen an animal that she was sure was a Polar Bear, and now the police were looking for it. It also became apparent that the area where it had been seen was going to be hard to access. It would have involved a walk of a few miles and there was no way on earth that I was going to set out across the moors if there was a chance of encountering a Polar Bear, a hazard I'd never previously considered in many years of hiking in Iceland. Almost as bad was the prospect of the Polar Bear getting shot because the police considered it a danger to imbecilic hikers (us), so we had to stay on the road. Needless to say we never found it, and in fact neither did the police. The search was called off the next day after nothing more sinister than sheep were found in the area. The photos were shown on the news the next night but showed nothing more than a white splodge. Could have just as well been a Snowy Owl. Are we the only people in history to have twitched a sheep? Is that something I should be admitting in public? It was by no means a wasted journey, in addition to the terrific privilege of being out and about in the stunning Arctic night, close views of a Great Northern Diver on a roadside nest and a visit to birdcliff I'd not been to before were recompense enough. After a sleepless night we got back to my summer house at 0830, where my twin daughters had just woken up and wanted to play with daddy…

July to be continued





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