An Icelandic Birding Diary
19 June - Prairie and glaciers, sparrows and harriers
Above: The author searching for, and eventually finding, the elusive Baird's Sparrow at Lostwood NWR in North Dakota.
At the end of May I broke my golden rule of not going away during the Icelandic summer by taking an eight-day birding trip with Simmi to the United States at the end of May (thanks to my wonderful wife for letting me indulge myself!). The original plan had been to visit the European hotspots of eastern Poland or northern Finland but with Icelandair flying to Minneapolis every day, the states of Minnesota and North Dakota seemed ideal for a short break. And what a trip it turned out to be, the first birding trip to North America for both of us, although we'd previously seen quite a lot of birds on family holidays to New York City (me) and Florida (Simmi). We saw 182 species in total, 85 new to me, 77 lifers for Simmi. Personal highlights were scope views of Connecticut Warbler and Mourning Warbler, fields full of Bobolinks, scope views of Grasshopper, Le Conte's, Nelson's Sharp-tailed and Baird's Sparrows, marshes packed with wildfowl and lined with Marsh Wrens and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Lark Buntings in slow-motion display flight over the prairie, a Ferruginous Hawk hunting in a prairie dog town and perhaps best of all, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs in song flight side by side in western North Dakota.
Back in Iceland one of the great things about birding at this time of year is that you are not bound by daylight hours; in this part of the country it doesn't really get dark for around two months, and on Tuesday night HS and I were out until 0230 trying to find an oversummering Barrow's Goldeneye in southern Iceland (to no avail) with visiting Finnish and Danish birders, and the dead of 'night' is a beautiful time to be out and about. While no Barrow's Goldeneye were found (rare in summer away from the north-east), we saw two Short-eared Owls, a superb pair of Great Northern Divers by the roadside and a couple of Ptarmigans sitting on lava stacks in the low evening sun. The day I returned home I managed to see the White-winged Scoter, the first record of this species away from the West Fjords or the south-east, but it has since proven very elusive. Two eastern rarities, Marsh Warbler and River Warbler (the latter particularly rare and difficult to see in Iceland) were too far away to make me hit the road but a male Hen Harrier closer to home was the perfect excuse for an evening road trip. The bird had first been seen by Swedish birders a week earlier and had remained faithful to the same site, even indulging in territorial flights over a sea of blooming Alaskan lupins. On the way we passed through an area which I had always imagined to be like the Great Plains of North America, and now after having seen rural North Dakota, then there is a similarity, with its isolated farmsteads pricking the treeless horizon, although the Upland Sandpipers and Lark Buntings of North America are replaced by Whimbrels and Arctic Skuas in Iceland. On arriving at the harrier site, an area of glacial and covered by Alaskan lupins, we soon saw a Short-eared Owl emerge from the flowers and begin to hunt by the road. Its appearence seemed to elicit a territorial response from the Hen Harrier, which arrived immediately and began a series of swoops and dives, although it never interacted directly with the Short-eared Owl. Other common birds in the area were Arctic Skua, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Meadow Pipit and Snipe, and single Ptarmigan and Great Skua were also noted. Although I saw at least 40 Northern Harriers in the US earlier in the month, seeing its European counterpart in Iceland was very special, not least because of the backdrop of a 1,500 metre high icecap directly behind it. The River Warbler will have to wait for another time.
Below: the White-winged Scoter on Seltjarnanes has not been easy to see
9 June - Country life
Cock Ptarmigan in flight near Hvanneyri
Later in the week I drove out to Álftanes, near home, where spring was very much in full swing: Arctic Terns were suddenly abundant, Wheatears foraged along the seawalls and Black-tailed Godwits wailed overhead. Plenty of Brent Geese fed and roosted in this traditional area, and I just missed a ringing session by several ornithologists.
by bike brought me a new patch tick (no. 86), a House Martin
over the cemetery where Siskins have bred this summer.
The first fledging Redpoll turned up at my feeders
on 12 May. A mixed flock of breeding plumaged Knot,
Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper
and Dunlin was also a reward for my cycling efforts
in the evening.
Above: Hreðavatn, western Iceland, a good site for Great Northern Divers
late May I went with the family to the summer house in western Iceland,
two hours north of Reykjavík. The area around the cottage was
very lively with singing Redwings, Wrens,
Redpolls and belching Ptarmigan
all around, dozens of drumming Snipe in the air at any one time, regular
patrols of Arctic Skuas, and flights of Whooper
Swans and Black-tailed Godwits between wetlands
on either side of the river. The veranda of the summer house affords
terrific views inland to several icecaps while to the south the formidable
buttressed wall of Skarðsheiði presents quite a different
view of this range from that seen in Reykjavik; while the snow is
all but gone from the south-facing slopes seen from the capital, the
northern slopes are in the grip of snow and ice for most of the summer.