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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

March 2006

28 March - A 200-metre high icicle

The upper part of Glymur, Iceland's highest waterfall.

Birds can be amazingly punctual. Iceland's harbinger of spring, the much-loved European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria has arrived in Iceland on 24 March in five of the last nine years, and last Friday was no different with a single bird battling the icy polar winds to arrive on the island of Heimaey off the south coast. Golden Plovers are probably Iceland's most beloved bird, as tradition states that it arrives to bid farewell to the snow with its plaintive DIRRIN-DEE call. As it happens some parts of Iceland are experiencing their heaviest snowfall of the winter and here in the south-west we've had a week of teeth-shattering northerlies and white-topped waves in the bay north of Reykjavík, although we've been spared the snow. At the weekend I did a bit of incidental birding. Firstly, at the summerhouse where I triumphed in a mini-golf tournament (against an eight-year old girl and a ten-year old boy). The only hazard on the mini-golf course was a flock of twelve tenacious Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta which insisted on always occupying the next hole and depositing huge amounts of droppings on the greens. It made me smile to think of the great lengths some people have to go to see Ptarmigan in certain parts of their European range, either by hiking in foul weather up on to the Cairngorm plateau or by walking up to 3,000 metres in the Alps. Here I was having to shoo them away with my putter.
On Sunday I decided to visit one of my favourite places in the world and one of Iceland's best kept secrets, the waterfall Glymur, only an hour's drive away from the city but off the beaten track as it requires a little bit of effort to get there. Although not particularly well known, it is nevertheless Iceland's highest waterfall, falling 200 metres into an extremely narrow and spectacular gorge, and for one reason or another I hadn't been there for three years or so. The walk to the mouth of the gorge, which doesn't come into view until you actually arrive, thus heightening the anticipation, takes you through a mosaic of rocky tors and beautiful birch shrub, a genuine Icelandic forest! In a few weeks' time this scrubland will resound with the song of hundreds of breeding Redwing but they have yet to arrive. Instead, the only signs of life were the ubiquitous Raven Corvus corax, a single overwintering Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago and the delightful song of the hardy Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes. Unfortunately, the log bridge over the river had been washed away and although the wire over the river was still in place and I could theoretically have swung over, I'm neither Action Man nor a monkey so we had to make do with the less spectacular west bank. I say less spectacular because you can't see the whole 200-metre drop from the west bank but instead the waterfall remains hidden until the last moment. As you come over the final brow, you are suddenly confronted with the top 50 metres of the waterfall and the hair-raising 250-metre vertical walls of the gorge below. It's not a place for the faint-hearted, especially in yesterday's winds, and after my last visit a few years ago, I had nightmares all the following night about being trapped on a ledge on its vast rock faces. The great thing about a winter visit is that the waterfall is largely frozen, and the mighty cataract Glymur becomes a 200-metre icicle. The photo above shows the frozen top part of the waterfall. The main flow of the river, which drops virtually unbroken, is hidden in the shadows and is not visible from the west bank. The walls behind are 250 metres straight down. The gorge is inhabited by numerous pairs of Northern Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis, whilst on the tops we flushed a Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta. We also found the remains of another Ptarmigan and tracks and fur of an Arctic Fox Alopex lagopus. We also experienced one of those great Icelandic weather phenomena, snow from a completely clear blue sky. If you can explain that, let me know. We made a short stop on the way home to see if Harlequin Ducks Histrionicus histrionicus were back on their breeding grounds. They weren't but we did find a very frisky pair on the sea nearby, so it won't be long now.

23 March - Queen of the North

My second-ever female King Eider!

Equinox has now been and gone and the weather's decided to turn cold, with a touch of snow and skin-peeling winds today and yesterday. Well it is Iceland after all. Last weekend's conditions were completely different, no snow, no wind (a local rarity) and thick fog. I was surprised when YK phoned me around 9:30 on Saturday and suggested that we go birding. Surprised because a) YK was up at such an early hour and b) that he suggested we go birding at all when we could hardly see across the road because of the fog. What was the Frenchman expecting to see? But as is often the case it was an inspired decision. The fog cleared before we reached the south coast gull magnet of Grindavík and we headed to the harbour. I remarked to YK just as we were pulling up that although I've seen seen dozens of drake King Eiders over the years, I have only ever seen one female. And what was the first bird I saw as I lifted my binoculars seconds later? Yes, a female King Eider Somateria spectabilis, or Queen Eider as they are logically called in Iceland. They really are distinctive close up, with that "smile." After years of my not seeing one YK made it two birds in two minutes as another Queen was located in the raft of Common Eider Somateria mollissima. Sharing the harbour with the raft was the usual March orgy of gulls, which in Iceland means numerous Iceland Gulls Larus glaucoides, Glaucous Gulls Larus hyperboreus, Great Black-backed Gulls Larus marinus, Herring Gulls Larus argentatus, Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus, and a few Common Gulls Larus canus and my first couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus of the year, and Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla. Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis were also much in evidence and good numbers of Common Redshank Tringa totanus suggests that they are arriving on migration. When all the birds in the harbour suddenly scattered it was a pretty sure sign that a certain bird was around, and there it was, a juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus flying over, not making any attempt to interfere with the panicking birds but I'm sure secretly enjoying the effect it was having. Leaving Grindavík we came across two pairs of Ravens Corvus corax displaying energetically. Ravens are extremely common and familiar winter birds around Reykjavík, I see many every day and in winter I don't think it's possible to look up in the air for more than 30 seconds without either Huginn or Muninn flying by. Consequently you tend not to pay too much attention to them but Ravens are surely amongst the most charismatic and entertaining birds to watch, and we spent a good 15 minutes watching them swagger and bounce along the side of the road with billowing trousers, puff out their throat feathers, one of them even raising erectile feathers above its eyes, something neither of us had ever noticed before, and generally try to impress or intimidate each other. The strutting and the bounding games of chase were all accompanied by that wonderful KRUNK KRUNK and series of clicks and gruff sounds. All in all a wonderful privilege to observe close at hand and a reminder not to ignore the common birds. Also in the area were three separate heaps of white feathers, clearly sites visited recently by Gyr Falcons and hapless gulls.
The next stop was Sandgerði, not one of the most beautiful places in Iceland (to put it mildly) but a site which almost always has plenty of birds and Saturday was no exception, with the usual seething mass of gulls. Very soon after setting up his scope YK called me over to look at a bird which had immediately caught his eye. It must be said at this point that YK has a very good eye and is a committed gull enthusiast. I had a look but the visibility was poor due to swirling mist. YK crawled much closer and in between bouts of thick fog and relative clarity he managed to get shots of the bird which did indeed appear to be a first-winter American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus. This bird would have been a new species for me but I couldn't really count it on the views I had, so we went away hoping the fog would lift. On returning about 30 minutes later things were slightly better and I immediately saw a coffee-coloured Herring Gull and I asked YK "why isn't that an American Herring Gull?" and fully expected YK to tell me why it wasn't one. But in fact here indeed was a second American Herring Gull and I was able to look at its ID features much better than the first bird. It was much more distinctive than I expected and could easily be picked out on colour with the naked eye from the surrounding Herring Gulls. My first lifer in Iceland this year and although it was no Albert's Lyrebird, it was far less dull than I had imagined it would be, certainly more of a thrill than, say, Green-winged Teal, Spotless Starling and Pied Oystercatcher of Australia.
On Sunday I went to Sandgerði again in better weather with SÁ and met YK, GÞH and GP who were searching in vain for the American Herring Gulls. Perhaps yesterday's fog had brought them in and once it had cleared they went on their way again. The highlight of Sunday's visit though was unquestionably seeing a juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus scatter every bird on the beach right in front of us and emerge from the melee clutching a Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus in its talons. Although I've seen Gyrs hunting countless times and have seen them with prey, I've never seen one make a kill before. It killed the gull instantly and then made a laboured flight to a seaweed strewn rock and plucked and ate the bird. A great experience for me, less so for the gull. I've seen Gyrs regularly this winter around Reykjavík, and March is a pretty reliable time to see them around here. YK and GÞH then found six drake King Eiders Somateria spectabilis at nearby Garðskagi in a truly massive raft of Common Eider Somateria mollissima (numbering many thousands). SÁ and I failed to find them as the raft was by now a very long way off shore but there were plenty of Northern Gannets Morus bassanus around and we had good views of 15-20 White-beaked Dolphins Lagenorhynchus albirostris jumping clear of the water. My first Icelandic mammal of the year!

One of the two American Herring Gulls at Sandgerði

10 March - All Hail the King

The Gyr Falcon watching us watching it...

Equinox rapidly approaches and it really struck me as I went to work this morning that it is actually light as I go out to work now. Today's early sun cast an orange-pink searchlight on the slopes of Mt Esja to the north of Reykjavík, which had had a sprinkling of snow in the night, making it seem a bit more winter like. The weather remains largely very good, with a few wretched days thrown in, which is just as well as it wouldn't be Iceland without a few foul days in there too.
Last Saturday I went out in the perfect sunny and still weather to see if I could find the drake King Eider Somateria spectabilis that GÞ had found a couple of days earlier about 20 km south or Reykjavík. When I arrived at the site, photographer GG was already there and very pleased to have seen his first ever. It was in a raft of about 1,000 Eider Duck Somateria mollissima and as I have often found with this species it easily disappeared amongst the seething masses if you took your eye off it, despite being such a striking bird. It took me a long time to find my first King Eider when when I came to Iceland, but now I usually see several a year and March in the Reykjavík area is as good a time as any to look for this gem. GG managed to get some record shots of the King Eider when suddenly I noticed the flock of Purple Sandpipers Calidris maritima at our feet panic and wheel away from us. The culprit was a pot-bellied and heavy-chested juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus which sped past us with a series of powerful yet shallow beats interspersed with flat-winged glides and then turned about 100 metres from us and headed low and straight back over our heads, allowing GG to get the shot on this page. It landed less than a hundred metres away (staight in the sun much to GG's disappointment) and sat there for about five minutes, watching us watching it. Magnificent beast.

Despite the fact that it was my company's lavish annual dinner on Saturday night I somehow managed to let YK convince me to pick him up at 7:00 on Sunday morning. In truth I'm glad I did as we had the best day's birding of the year, excluding perhaps Kenya. Also with us were SÁ and HS and we were off to explore an area around three hours' drive east of Reykjavík along road no. 1. It was a perfect sunny day, cold but with hardly a cloud in the sky. I've said it before in this diary but I make no apologies for repeating the fact the glacial scenery of southern Iceland is ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT and it's such a privilege to live so close to it. We had uninterrupted views of a series of ice-caps, first lofty Eyjafjallajökull, then the larger Mýrdalsjökull (which I'd driven over in a monster jeep the previous weekend) and once we had "rounded the corner" at the southern most point of iceland, Europe's largest icecap, Vatnajökull, came into view, rising 2,000 metres above the sands and the lava. The area we were going to look at is an area very rarely visited by birders but is an excellent winter location, with a series of ice-free pools and rivers dotted in the lava fields and pseudocraters of the southern lowlands. It is a huge expanse of open country, bound by ice and mountains to the north, glacial rivers to the east and west and the Atlantic to the south. The open rivers and lakes are a huge attraction for wildfowl and soon YK was in ornithological mode, peering through the telescope and rattling out a rapid series of sightings of wildfowl by species and sex to HS in the back seat, who somehow managed to write them all down without pausing for breath. Besides the numerous Mallards Anas platyrhynchos and Eurasian Wigeons Anas penelope, there were excellent numbers of Goosander Merganser merganser, almost 40 Common Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula, two pairs of Barrow's Goldeneye Bucephala islandica, Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus and best of all a female Smew Mergellus albellus, a very rare bird in Iceland although this bird was returning for its third winter. Besides wildfowl we saw two adult White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla, a rare bird in southern Iceland and a single Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis and the ubiquitous Raven Corvus corax. As we headed back to Reykjavík past 60 metre high waterfalls caked in ice and icicles hanging off every cliff face, we notched my favourite sighting of the year so far, two Short-eared Owls Asio flammeus hunting in the evening sun, backed by the coruscating ice-cap Mýrdalsjökull. Like Iceland, I too am waking up after a slumbering winter.

King Eider, a regular visitor around Reykjavík

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