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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

June 2008

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.

Above: The beautiful grasslands and prairie potholes of Lostwood NWR, 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

Above: Cock Ptarmigan in flight near Hvanneyri
And I was able to give my seal of approval to the spring in the first few days of May when I head the bubbling call of the Whimbrel, an unseen bird calling as it passed over my house. My first Whimbrel sighting came a day later when I went on an evening drive with SÁ and YK to western Iceland. Near Hvanneyri we saw an adult White-tailed Eagle quartering over its territory and in the area were almost 150 Shelduck, one of Iceland’s most recent colonists. Hvanneyri is an excellent place for White-fronted Geese and there were plenty of them around, and a few Pink-footed Geese mixed in, Whooper Swans in every field and an assortment of ducks on every body of water in the area. Ptarmigan are usually easy to find in the area and one pair by the road were very obliging and allowed close study. However, as much fun as the goose watching was, we had another reason to drive out to this area. In the valley of Skorradalur, Woodcocks had been reported in recent years and a nest was even found four years ago. We suspected that if we came at the right time of year and the right time of day, we might be lucky enough to seem them in display and no sooner had we entered likely habitat than a Woodcock came hurtling over our heads. A bit further on we found a pair chasing each other over the treetops and in their roding display flight, whistling and grunting against a constant backdrop of drumming Snipe. Fantastic! Redwings were common in the area, a pair of Ptarmigan foraged at the edge of the forests, while the lake had a pair of Great Northern Divers close to shore.

Above: Mixed flock of White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese in the evening sun at 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.

Above: Typical Icelandic Harlequin habitat, the river Norðurá in western Iceland

Birding 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

In 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.
One of the simple pleasures of birding is coming across attractive birds when you are not specifically looking for them. A case in point was when I was walking by the river Norðurá below the summer house. A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers and a pair of Whooper Swans were the first birds I encountered on the water, but the habitat was perfect for another attractive river-dweller, so I was not in the least surprised to see a pair of Harlequin Ducks just ten yards away on the river bank, as I rounded a corner. Their initial surprise at my appearance took them out into the current but when I remained still they soon returned to the bank, with the minimum apparent effort (how Harlequins swim upstream on such turbulent rivers with such ease is marvellous to behold). Another simple pleasure was walking by a lake with the family and wondering where the Great Northern Divers were, when one surfaced ten metres off shore right on cue. Divers can be pretty curious and often follow you if you walk along the shore, and this one came quite a way with us. Unless this perceived curiosity is in fact territorial aggression and it was escorting us off its property.


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