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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

July 2009

14 July - How to see Red Phalarope in Iceland

Above: Red Phalarope, well worth a 6 am start from Reykjavík
It's been too long since I've seen my favourite Icelandic bird, Red Phalarope. Just as I prefer the North American name for Lapland Bunting, Lapland Longspur, then I also prefer their name for Phalaropus fulicaria, Red Phalarope to the British name Grey Phalarope for the simple reason that 95% of all the individuals I've seen have been in bright red breeding plumage rather than grey winter attire. Grey Phalarope is far too prosaic for such an attractive bird. The Red Phalarope population is small and vulnerable in Iceland and all breeding sites are off limits to visitors. There is, however, one place where visitors have a pretty good chance of seeing them in summer without disturbing breeding birds, and this is the island of Flatey in western Iceland. It's a wonderful place and worth every effort for visiting birders to visit. The ferry to Flatey leaves from Stykkishólmur at 9 a.m. which necessitates a 6:30 a.m. departure from Reykjavík, an easy and enjoyable drive, through increasingly beautiful countryside, especially on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, where jagged mountains and lava fields line the road. The roadside birds were the usual suspects, i.e. Redshank, Golden Plover, Snipe, Arctic Tern, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher etc. but pride of place went to my first Short-eared Owl of the year, trailed by a long line of irate waders.

Above: Red-necked Phalaropes are absolutely abundant at Flatey

It's a pleasant 90 minute trip across to Flatey, with views all the way west to Snæfellsjökull in the southwest and Látrabjarg to the north-west and an abundance of Fulmar, Kittiwake, Puffin, Eider, Black Guillemot and Arctic Tern en route. The sound of a singing Snow Bunting alerted me to the fact that we were about to dock; an apt first land bird on Flatey as Snow Buntings are incredibly common on the island. Flatey is a very small island, only a mile or so long, with one road (and very few cars) and its tiny village is easily the most picturesque in Iceland. Nearly all the houses in the village are holiday homes now, and there is a permanent population on only two farms. But more remarkable than the dense Snow Bunting population is the incredible profusion of Red-necked Phalaropes. I had hardly gone 100 metres from the harbour when I heard a familiar chup chup from the grass and there, just a few metres away was a male Red-necked Phalarope. I think a case could be made for Flatey being the best place in the world to see Red-necked Phalaropes. Yes, there may be equally good places, but I can't imagine that you could ever see this species better than here. Not only do they occupy ever pond, but you can see them wandering down the village street, foraging for insects at your feet and picking flies from the clifftop dandelions only inches away from where you are sitting. While Red-necked Phalaropes are unmissable, Red Phalaropes are much scarcer. Although I saw a female fly over almost as soon as I arrived, I had a long wait to get good views of them. The part of the island where they breed is closed to visitors, with very clearly placed STOP – DO NOT ENTER signs giving people no excuse to trespass. However, the Red Phalaropes, just as tame as their red-necked relatives, don't know which areas they are supposed to stay in and can be frequently seen in the village, feeding in the grass at the feet of delighted birders. The best tactic for seeing Red Phalarope on Flatey is to go up to the church and walk along the fence which runs down to the sea. Set up your scope by the stop sign and wait, because sooner or later a Red Phalarope is likely to feed in the bay below - this tactic does not work at low tide, the birds like to feed on the surface of the water, not on mudflats, so if the tide is low, you are better off looking elsewhere or spending your time photographing the abundant Snow Buntings, Red-necked Phalaropes, Black Guillemots or Puffins, or avoiding the hyper aggressive Arctic Terns, which drew my blood while I was scanning for Red Phalaropes. While on Flatey I ran into Istvan and Gaby Katona from Hungary, who were enjoying a short working/birding trip to Iceland. They too had struggled to get good views of Red Phalarope, only flight views, but we decided to try the spot by the church for the third time. After a couple of minutes Istvan saw a brightly coloured female Red Phalarope come in to land in the bay and we are able to watch it very well for the next half hour as it picked up flies from the surface of the sea and observe its habit of frequently flying 4-5 metres from one feeding spot to the next. It's a real privilege to see this regionally rare breeder on its breeding grounds. Flatey in June or early July is another place not to be missed on a trip to Iceland.


3 July - Farthest West

Above: Lapland Longspurs are breeding in western Iceland this year
There are a few things that I'd consider essential birding experiences during the short Icelandic summer: a visit to the Red Phalarope colony at Flatey, a trip to Iceland's duck factory at Myvatn, a night in a storm-petrel colony on Elliðaey and a visit to one of the three vast bird cliffs in western Iceland. In the BC (before children) era all these experiences (and much more) could easily be squeezed into the weeks either side of the summer solstice, but these days I have to pick and choose, and after I didn't visit a bird cliff in 2008 for the first time in years, I decided to make a short trip to Iceland's biggest seabird colony, Látrabjarg, which forms Iceland's most westerly tip. It's four years since I first (and last) visited Látrabjarg and it's difficult to recreate the feeling of awe as I clambered up the path and stared for the first time into the abyss at the 14 km long wall of Kittiwakes, Fulmars and auks. It was quite simply one of the greatest sights I'd ever seen. In 2006 I saw the other two massive north-western cliffs, Hæluvíkurberg and Hornbjarg, the latter arguably even more breathtaking than Látrabjarg, but as they are much more difficult to reach and the birds are harder to view, Látrabjarg is more highly recommended. I urge any birder coming to Iceland from May to July to make the effort and to keep driving west until the road ends. You won't regret it. This time I visited the cliffs with JD of Shetland who was on a two-week trip around Iceland. Látrabjarg is a long way from anywhere and is best visited if you don't have to hurry somewhere else immediately after. If approaching from the east, the paved road soon gives way to a gravel after Bjarkalundur and so begins the joys of driving through a fjord landscape, covering 20 km of road to make 2 km headway west as the road snakes down one side of the fjord and all the way back up the other side. But the scenery is beautiful, the traffic virtually non-existent, and occasionally you may be forced to do an emergency stop if one of the region's Gyr Falcons is perched by the roadside. I always see Gyr Falcons in the West Fjords region, and after the north-east it is probably the best area of Iceland to see this much sought after species. It was also the first time I'd seen an adult Gyr this year, as immatures are far common around Reykjavík in winter. JD just managed to get take a record shot before it dropped off the crag and disappeared without a trace into the valley below. A couple of bone-shaking hours later we found more evidence of Gyr Falcons, locating a Fulmar graveyard, the remains of six Fulmars in a very small area, all carcasses showing signs of having been eaten by a raptor; and in this area there is only one that comes to mind.


Above: The lighthouse at the end of the world. Iceland's westernmost point. Picture taken in 2005 before it became a pizza restaurant. No, really.

The last few kilometres to Látrabjarg always seem the longest: the road deteriorates, forging its way up hill and down dale, each blind bend comes with the expectation that your goal is just round the corner, only to reveal yet another stretch of road or another bay. But suddenly the road ends and you've reached the edge of Europe. To the west, the hyperborean coast of Greenland, to the south no landfall until the frigid shores of Antarctica. Snow Buntings abound in this area, even outnumbering Meadow Pipits, and Wheatears and White Wagtails are also common. But it is the seabirds which bring people to Látrabjarg. For non-birders the main attraction is the Puffin. It's hard to imagine a site with more photogenic Puffins than Látrabjarg. They sit on the cliff tops right next the car park and tolerate very close approach as they are not hunted here. For the keen birder, there is another species which is more of a draw, Brünnich's Guillemot, which breeds here in its tens of thousands, alongside vast numbers of Common Guillemots and a significant proportion of the world's Razorbills, plus masses of Kittiwakes and Fulmars and plenty of Glaucous Gulls, and all can be seen at very close quarters. The cliffs by the car park are only 40 metres high but if you follow the path east they quickly rise. By the time you get your first interrupted view east along a couple of kilometres of coast the cliffs are already 100 metres high. Most people stop here and the sight of the seething wall ("the auks look like ticks on some huge animal" remarked JD aptly) of birds swiftly banishes all thoughts of fatigue. Although seabird numbers have declined, the clouds of auks whirring to and from the cliffs are so dense that a friend of mine once remarked that if you fell off the cliffs, you have the feeling that there would be enough birds in the air to break your fall anyway. JD and I decided to press on. Although it was late, past 11 o'clock, there is no need to worry about being stranded on the cliffs in the dark. Sunset was around 0040 and sunrise at 0130 and not a hint of darkness between. A kilometre or so from the car park we came across the first egg cache, a pile of five or six licked out guillemot eggshells. And we came across several more caches, each time half a dozen eggs had been brought to one spot and devoured. It didn't take long to find the culprit, a beautiful Arctic Fox. Látrabjarg in the late evening is a pretty reliable site for Arctic Fox, a species which visitors are generally lucky to see in Iceland (except at the Hornstrandir National Reserve where you have to beat them off with sticks). We also heard a couple more foxes, barking in the distance AGGA-GAGG, an unmistakable sound and wonderfully redolent of the wilderness. Still the clifftop path climbs, on one side the mountain a gentle grassy slope stretching as far the eye can see, suddenly plunging vertically to the sea. We forged on until about six km from the car park we reached the 400 metre point at a spot that afforded a view along to the highest point of the cliffs 450 metres. The birds are more difficult to see here than at the vantage point just by the car park. Leaning over the cliffs to get a better view of birds lower down a 400 metre cliff requires a strong stomach although in truth falling 400 metres is not much different from falling 40 metres by the lighthouse – it's still a trip you'll only make once. You can see all the species on offer at Látrabjarg within five minutes of stepping out of the car, and you can also see them all far closer to Reykjavík, but that's really not the point. The sense of space and isolation you get sitting on these cliff tops (few people walk more than 500 metres from the car, go any further and you'll be alone, especially at night) in the midnight sun is worth driving all day for.

Above: Cliffs at Látrabjarg. They steadily rise to 450 metres a few miles further on! Picture taken in 2005.

As a footnote, on our travels through western Iceland JD slowed down to photograph a pristine male Snow Bunting, a very common bird in the area. As JD focused on the bunting, a far more colourful bird hopped into my field of view, a male Lapland Longspur! It was the first time I'd seen a male Lapland Longspur in breeding plumage and what a superb bird, really like seeing a new species. JD and I eventually found five birds, three males and two females, the males in song flight and gathering nesting material, suggesting that Lapland Longspurs will breed again in Iceland this spring (only one confirmed record previously, another record suspected), as they've undoubtedly done for years without anyone noticing.

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