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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

June 2006

18 June - Look At The Harlequins!

Harlequin Duck. A locally common bird in Iceland.

When I came back from the US, I still had a week's holiday so I went on a short tour of Iceland with two birders from the UK and Ireland to show them some of the best spring birding locations and to try and find Iceland's "big four." Whilst snow is not completely unusual in May in Iceland, the north and east of Iceland were buried under heavy snow at the end of the month and Mývatn had around 70 cm in a day. I always maintain that the end of May is the best time to see Icelandic birds, as most birds have arrived back on their breeding grounds and are singing and displaying and the ducks are in all in breeding plumage. Most tour companies seem to come here in July, which is too late in my opinion. Whilst you can still all the target birds in July at Mývatn, you tend to see thousands of grotty brown ducks, although the weather is usually more reliable in July than May and it's a better month for whalewatching. We started our trip by heading out to Snæfellsnes in western Iceland, an area of dramatic coastlines and mountains, all dominated by the glacier Snæfellsjökull. We found local specialities such as Brünnich's Guillemot easily and the visitors enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of Glaucous Gulls in the harbours. A couple of local scarcities were unearthed, firstly a female King Eider and then a drake American Wigeon.
The highlight though for me was an Arctic Fox, Iceland's other native land mammal besides Homo sapiens. I rarely see Arctic Foxes, didn't see one at all in 2005, and as they are detested and shot on sight for some reason they are often wary and slink away unnoticed. But we had excellent views of this one getting divebombed by Black-tailed Godwits, although I'll refrain from saying exactly where it was in case a SWAT team is mobilised to kill it. The snow had largely melted up at Mývatn, our next destination, and as usual the River Laxá was full of Harlequin Ducks and Barrow's Goldeneye. In fact they are the commonest birds on the river in late May and it's quite common to get the two ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes in the same binocular view. Mývatn, the great duck factory of northern Europe, had its usual numbers of wildfowl, Slavonian Grebes, Great Northern Divers and Red-throated Divers, but the main target for most people at Mývatn is Gyr Falcon. Whilst they are elusive, if you spend time in the Mývatn area you should end up seeing one, and we saw three over the day. Our first encounter was at Másvatn. We stopped to look at a pair of Great Northern Divers right next to the road when suddenly an adult Gyr Falcon flew between us and them and settled on the hillside 100 metres away. Although Gyrs surely present no threat to divers it triggered off five minutes of maniacal laughing from the divers. This hair-raising territorial call of the Great Northern Diver must be one of the most evocative sounds in the natural world and watching the perched Gyr Falcon with this as a background noise could hardly have been any more atmospheric. We later found a pair of Gyrs near Húsavík, sitting by the road and watched them sitting on fence posts in our scopes, before the big female leisurely flew off over the snow covered fields, and the male made a rather swifter departure with an irate Whimbrel in hot pursuit.

June is one of my favourite months of the year. There's 24-hour daylight throughout the month and I usually get plenty of mountain walking in my legs. However, this June has been blighted by the World Cup and instead of being out in the field with my binoculars I've been sitting in bars getting excited by the likes of Ghana and Argentina. Knowing that I am weak-willed and unable to resist the media hype surrounding the football, I made sure that I spent the last weekend before the World Cup doing some birding and I spent all weekend near Kirkjubæjarklaustur in southern Iceland helping BH and EÓÞ do a breeding bird survey. The area we were concentrating on was a pancake flat, utterly treeless "steppe" landscape, real big sky country. Under the guidance of our leader EÓÞ we trekked across the baking plains (it was almost 17°C - yikes!) and eventually found out we were 15 km from the car, which meant that it was also 15 km back. A 30km walk without food and in wellington boots was utterly shattering but I'm now intimately familiar with the preferred breeding habitats of Dunlin, Whimbrel, Arctic Skua and Great Skua, all of which were common. In fact it is a real privilege to spend time in this area, miles away from any human settlement, coming across displaying Dunlins, seeing the age-old struggle between Whimbrel and skua and getting divebombed by the King of the Sands, the mighty Great Skua, one of my absolute favourite birds. It just has such presence and character.

The magnificent Great Skua

1 June - Go West

Cape May Warbler. Unfortunately not in Iceland

In mid-May my wife and I went to New York for a week's holiday, a city break rather than a birding trip but since I never go anywhere without binoculars and since it was also mid-May (I cunningly contrived the timing of the trip to coincide with warbler migration) I was looking forward to some good birding. It was my first trip to North America but like many European birders I have a "good superficial knowledge" of the birds of eastern North America, by which I mean I've read Sibley's field guide from cover to cover, generally know what birds are there and have seen plenty of Nearctic ducks, gulls and waders as well as 13 species of American passerines here in Iceland. However, seeing them on the page is one thing but getting a feel for them in the field is something quite different and I was very excited at the prospect. My first life bird just after landing at JFK could hardly have been any duller, it was a crow, it cawed, and it was in America, which made it an American Crow. I picked up five lifers during a pre-breakfast stroll in Washington Square Park on my first morning, Gray Catbird, American Robin, White-throated Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat and Ovenbird, but it wasn't until the next day that I did any birding in earnest, a very early morning stroll in Central Park. What an urban birding spot CP is in May and I visited it four times during the week. It's crammed with birders and, more importantly, birds. Other birders would approach me and ask if I had seen anything interesting and I quickly had to tell them that I was visiting from Iceland and even the Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were thrilling for me (at first). The next hour or two were filled with new sightings, Warbling Vireo, Song Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Veery, all new to me plus a couple of birds I'd seen before in Iceland such as Swainson's Thrush and Baltimore Oriole, which in spring plumage was like seeing a new bird. But the star attraction for me, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, was the stunning array of warblers and over the day I saw 19 species: Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Canada Warbler and Wilson's Warbler - phew! Cape May and Blackburnian were top of my wanted list before I came so I was delighted to see males of both species so well, especially Cape May Warbler, which I hadn't really expected to see. They were so good that I'm gratuitously posting photos of each: Neither were taken by me, nor in New York, nor even this year but who cares? Many of these birds were found after meeting local birders who knew the birds' calls and songs, and taking advantage of friendly New York birders' knowledge was invaluable. By amazing coincidence one of the birders I ran into one morning, Chris Cooper, was a birder I had met in Nairobi in January. A visit to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (a 45 minute journey by subway from Manhattan) brought me five new species of heron, attractive waders such as Willet and Greater Yellowlegs and delightful passerines such as White-eyed Vireo and Carolina Wren.
In all I managed to see 111 species over the week, of which 71 were new birds, from the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal to locally scarce birds such as Summer Tanager and Philadelphia Vireo. In short, it was a great non-birding holiday and I highly recommend urban birding in New York - there are one or two things to do there when not birding! More Iceland news next time.

Blackburnian Warbler, an absolute gem

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