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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

March 2007

31 March - The Bearded One

Bearded Seal, a rare vagrant from Greenland

Reports on the demise of winter last time around were rather premature as (writing off winter in March in Iceland is foolhardy to say the least) and the month has seen some pretty foul weather. Snow, sleet, high winds have all featured but it’s turned very mild again at the end of the month, the evenings are bright and migrants are arriving right on cue. Whooper Swans are flooding in, the first Great Skuas are back on their territories and the most beloved harbinger of spring, the Golden Plover, turned up in four widely dispersed locations on the same day. Another piece of incontrovertible piece of evidence that spring is well advanced was my first sighting yesterday of a Lesser Black-backed Gull sitting on a lamppost in suburban Reykjavík. A clear shift of power begins to take place in the city at this time of year. Ravens are the undisputed avian rulers of the city in the winter but they are replaced in the summer by Lesser Black-backed Gulls and the vanguard has arrived and the Ravens are thinning out. Redwings having been singing in my garden for several weeks now. I’ve often wondered whether those Redwings that spend the winter in Reykjavík stay here all year or do they move on into the countryside when the vast majority of birds arrive from the continent in April, to be replaced by migrants. I have no idea but I’ll continue to enjoy the song, broken by interruptions as they feed on the apples I put for them the tree outside my window.
I got my first Icelandic lifer of the year last week, when YK texted me to tell me of a Bearded Seal hauled out on land near the ghastly aluminium plant at the edge of Hafnarfjörður. I take as much delight from mammals as I do birds and I was there in a flash. It also gave me the chance to use Shirihai and Jarrett’s brilliant marine mammal field guide for the first time in the field. It’s not often I add to my Icelandic mammal list so it was great to see this rare vagrant from Greenland. Next on my wish list is a Sperm Whale, preferably not hauled out on land near Hafnarfjörður.

Simmi's been playing with his new camera. This Gyr Falcon was an excellent model
I’ve not been on the traditional birding circuit on the Suðurnes peninsula for four months (normally I’d go at least twice a month if not more in winter) as I feel I should be doing something vaguely useful at home before my twins are born (doing ‘useful’ things at home has already resulted in one trip to the accident & emergency room for me and a second trip for a friend who I tricked into helping me gut my bathroom) so all my birding forays have been within Reykjavík. I have tried three times to see the Lesser Scaup on the edge of town and missed it three times but have seen the regular Ring-necked Duck, a Pintail taking bread out of people’s hands, and Hafnarfjörður harbour crammed with several hundred Cormorants one week, completely devoid of them the next. I have succumbed to cabin fever and plan to go on a long drive next week. I may be some time.

10 March - Urban Ravens

Björn Arnarson photographed this Gyr Falcon in SE Iceland in February. It shows how pale Icelandic birds can be

One of the strange things about visiting Trinidad & Tobago was the lack of crows. It’s the first place I’ve ever been where there were no crows of any description. Usually corvids are amongst the first birds you see when leaving an airport: Pied Crow in Nairobi, Torresian Crow in Brisbane, American Crow at JFK and Carrion Crow at virtually any airport in the UK. In Iceland we only have one crow to pick from but a Raven was there to greet us when we returned from Trinidad in January in almost 30 centimetres of snow. Winter is a wonderful time for Raven watching in Reykjavík and now in early March as the sun is getting noticeably higher by the day, the city is full of tumbling, toppling, croaking and krunking Ravens. They sit on seemingly every second lamppost, and you only have to look up to see them fly over in twos and threes, twisting, turning, dropping like the proverbial tortoise on Aeschylus's head and then recovering, floating effortlessly upwards to continue the game. While the Collins Bird Guide describes them as 'very shy and wary' this does not apply to urban Icelandic Ravens which allow quite a close approach, although they do closely watch what you are doing. One bird spends a good part of the mornings at the moment on a lamppost outside our house, much to the annoyance of my wife as its repertoire of grating croaks is keeping her awake. I spent a good deal of time watching it the other morning, and although it probably thinks it is a better singer than it is, there are few sounds so sweet to my ears as a Raven serenading in spring. Apart from the famed KRUNK-KRUNK, which can be delivered at deafening shrill volume or a much more subdued and deeper voice, they are capable of a real range of sounds, some of them scarcely audible, including odd metallic clicks and clanging sounds. Music to my ears.

A wonderful Raven in full song
Now we are back into early March daylight hours are lengthening rapidly. A real milestone is reached in mid to late February when it's late when you leave for work and when you come home and it's the time of year when you can start to go birding after work. As it happens I've only been on one half-day birding trip outside Reykjavík this winter, that was three weeks ago when I went to look at the inland winter duck hotspot east of Reykjavik, Sogið and Úlfljótsvatn. The lake was almost totally frozen but held plenty of Barrow's Goldeneyes, four Common Goldeneyes (a good chance to compared female goldeneyes), numerous Goosanders, a lost Coot, a flock of 30 Cormorants perching on the edge of the ice, the odd family of Whooper Swan, lots of Tufted Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers and a single drake Harlequin Duck, not a common sight so far inland in February.
Otherwise my birding forays have been far more limited, a walk down to the sea and along the coast by home. One of these walks brought my first Gyr Falcon of the year, a young bird playing with two Ravens at the end of my road (almost but not quite making it onto my new garden list), feigning an attack on them and then being mobbed by them, before it repeated the same half-hearted attacks on some Glaucous Gulls, who didn't appear particularly worried by the attentions of this bird as if they realised it was just a youngster flexing its muscles and posed no real threat. Of the usual local suspects, the Long-tailed Ducks are getting noisy, Eiders are in big flocks again, the gulls did their usual disappearing trick in February as they follow the fishing fleet as it hauls in the capelin but are now back in number.
In the absence of any real birding trips I've been concentrating on attracting birds to my suburban garden. Garden birding in Iceland is very limited compared to mainland Europe and the list of regular visitors can be counted on the fingers of one hand but the local Redwings appreciate the apples I put in the tree for them every day and after two weeks of ignoring it the Redpolls have finally discovered and learned how to use the sunflower feeder that I hung in the birch trees and I sometimes have 40-50 waiting their turn. Blackbirds have been singing from the next garden this week and the Redwings are in song too. News last weekend that 1,000 Whooper Swans had arrived in southern Iceland suggests that the winter is on its last legs.

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