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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

 

May 2006

14 May - Swallows and skuas


Álftafjörður - the fjord of swans

A few days of warm south-easterlies and the prospect of a good weekend prompted S, YK, G and me to head out of Reykjavk on the first Friday in May for the glacier country of south-east Iceland. After a long drive in fading light we reached Hof at around 2 o'clock in the morning. It's a great pity in many ways to bypass the scenery en route in the twilight but the nights are become ever briefer and at 2 o'clock it was already brighter than it had been at 1 o'clock. The eternal daylight of summer is almost upon us. The farms at Hof are backed by Iceland's highest mountain, 2,110 metre Hvannadalshnkur (see November 2005 diary) and on the other side a vast expanse of sand stretches to the invisible sea. This makes the farms in this area a magnet for migrant and vagrant birds and after seeking out a couple of House Sparrows Passer domesticus at its sole Icelandic breeding site we weren't long to find the first alien, a plump Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus. Our ears then picked up a sound unfamiliar in Iceland but instantly recognisable to anyone who's spent any time in mainland Europe, a singing Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs. An orange flash amongst a roving flock of local Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea proved to be a female Brambling Fringilla montifringilla. Whilst none of these are particularly rare, they are nonetheless birds which we don't see that often and it meant that vagrant passerines were on the move. And indeed for the rest of the day virtually everywhere we stopped had non-Icelandic birds of interest. A phylloscopus glimpsed flitting between the trees soon revealed its identity by singing, the first time I've heard a Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus in Iceland. The first thing greeting us at the next stop was the monotonous tsip-tsip-tsap-tsip of a Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita but the main feature of the trip was the unprecedented number of hirrundines. We found over 50 Barn Swa llows Hirundo rustica over the weekend and 2006 is already a record year for this species in Iceland. Prior to this weekend I had seen more Buff-bellied Pipits Anthus rubescens (3) than House Martins Delichon urbicum (2) in Iceland, a very strange statistic in a European country, but this weekend's six House Martins rectified the situation. At two sites we found a much rarer Icelandic hirrundine, Sand Martin Riparia riparia, which has been seen fewer than 30 times in Iceland and one which I've now seen as often as Buff-bellied Pipit! However, as much as I enjoy seeking out rare birds the real stars of the weekend were the myriad Icelandic breeders back for the summer. Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago were never out of earshot, Whimbrels abound, two pairs of Harlequin Duck dodged the breaking ice floes on the river draining the glacial lagoon at Jkulsrln (it would be hard to imagine a more spectacular location for this most exquisite of ducks), whilst huge numbers of Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea occupied the sands around the lagoon. The dominant bird of this ice and wind-shaped land is the magnificent Great Skua Stercorarius skua and there were so many of them at sea and perched on the higher tussocks that you wonder how any other bird dare stray into the area. Skeins of Pink-footed Geese Anser brachyrhynchus flying with a backdrop of gleaming ice were a wonderfully evocative sight and pied meadows ofBarnacle Geese Branta leucopsis provided my first glimpse of this species this year.
On the Sunday we headed back, stopping at the cliffs at Vk in southernmost Iceland to see the air choked with commuting Puffins Fratercula arctica and at our last stop of the day we turned up the rarest bird of the weekend, a resplendent male Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes. As a child in England Hawfinches were one of the species I most wanted to see but as I noted in my October diary entry, Iceland is my preferred location in Europe to see them, which means that I've now seen three here and none anywhere else. Very warm weather (by Icelandic standards, not Birdsville Queensland standards) at the beginning of the week encouraged to spend two evenings tramping over moorlands and mountainsides around Reykjavk where the pastoral symphony of singing Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria and Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis made my spirits soar but on Wednesday night one sighting left me on a high that will remain throughout the spring. G rang me to say that he was watching my bogey bird at Stokkseyri and I headed off immediately with DB and S. In the harbour we quickly set up our 'scopes and gazed out to sea hoping to see what G had been watching an hour earlier. After a fruitless 45 minute search, S suddenly gestured and from out of nowhere a flock of 18 Pomarine Skuas Stercorarius pomarinus headed straight for us, circled overhead, calling, and then disappeared inland. Pomarine Skuas are regular migrants but the vast majority seem to pass Iceland far out to sea and it's one of those birds that has eluded me for years, so I was delighted to finally get such superb views of this Arctic species.
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Great Skua on the nest


2 May - Spring arrives in Iceland


Snfellsjkull glacier

For one reason or another (sloth and indolence being two of them) it's been almost a month since I last wrote and spring is here in Iceland. The last weekend in April was the warmest of the year so far (even if it snowed in Reykjavik during the week), with temperatues reaching 19C in eastern Iceland and a very respectable 13C here in the Reykjavk area. It now stays light until 10 o'clock in the evening and I've no idea when it gets light in the mornings. Despite my lack of updates, April has been a busy birding month and huge numbers of spring migrants have arrived recently. This weekend the countryside resounded with the sounds of the Icelandic spring. Iceland's favourite bird, European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, has arrived in huge numbers and its DIRRIN-DEE call rings from every tussock, the air is thick with drumming Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago, fields across Iceland are black with Greylag Geese Anser anser, Pink-footed Geese Anser brachyrhynchus, White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons and Barnacle Geese Branta leucopsis, shorelines in western Iceland throng with Canada-bound Brent Geese Branta bernicla, sleek Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus are back on territories, barrel-chested Great Skuas Stercorarius skua are long back on the glacial floodplains of the south, and in the last few days we are just starting to hear that most wonderful of Icelandic spring sounds, the bubbling of the Whimbrel . In fact representatives of all migrant species have now been seen, with the exception of the two enigmatic storm petrels and the traditionally tardy phalarope pair. Although it's only two weeks since I saw the most spectacular display of the aurora borealis I've ever seen (huge swathes of green light across the whole sky with bands of purple rapidly pulsing from one end to the other - the lights are inextricably linked to autumn and winter in my mind), spring has reached the tipping point and there's no turning back now.
In April I managed to see three life birds, my best April total (excluding foreign trips) since 2002. The first was on 7 April when S rang me to say he'd found a "dark-backed, hooded gull" with the local Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus in Hafnarfjrur. YK and I arrived just as the light was fading to see a splendid adult Laughing Gull Larus atricilla, only the tenth record for Iceland and the first twitchable. It gave people a real runaround over the next few days, some people requiring numerous visits before seeing it, but I went to the harbour four times over the weekend and saw it four times, once superbly well at close quarters, sitting and flying for about half an hour. Iceland is really a magnificent place to watch gulls in late winter and early spring and over that weekend no fewer than eleven species of gull were seen there. Most interesting of all was a bird that was seen on the Saturday and which appears from photographs to be an adult Thayer's Gull Larus thayeri (see 2006 gallery for YK's excellent shots - comments welcome). The biggest thril of that weekend for me though was watching a young Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus knock down a Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus. Gulls are by nature very restless birds but when every single bird lifts off in unison and flees then it's a sure sign that a Gyr Falcon is around. On the Saturday we saw it powering low over the sea 50 metres in front of us and turning sharply up into the Black-headed Gulls and striking one on the way up. The hapless gull limply fell on to the sea with a broken wing and floundered in the waves, ducking as the young Gyr Falcon made 7-8 attempts to pick it out of the water. At first two Lesser Black-backed Gulls mobbed the Gyr half-heartedly but eventually the Gyr got its timing right and snatched the gull and flew labouredly to some rocks abut 75 metres away. Two weeks ago I saw a Gyr Falcon catch a Black-headed Gull and it killed it instantly in flight but this time the gull survived for a quite a long time, squawking feebly with the full weight of falcon sitting on its back (which was deciding whether the Ravens were going to do anything), turning its head to the falcon as if in supplication, before the Gyr regained its focus and delivered the coup de grace with a single bite to the back of the neck. For the next half an hour I watched in absolute fascination as the Gyr Falcon dealt with its prey in full view, thoroughly plucking it in a blizzard of feathers, before decapitating it and tossing the head away, then disembowelling it, pulling out its intestines and leaving them for the Ravens, and then feasting on great strips of breast meat. After half an hour it up and went, and Ravens were very quick to pick up the pieces.

The Laughing Gull

The second lifer was a Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus at the edge of Reykjavk, which was found the very moment I was stepping on a plane bound for Manchester. Unlike 2004's American Coot, which was found the very moment I was stepping on to a plane bound for Brisbane and disappeared the very day I returned three weeks later before I had a chance to see it, the dowitcher waited for me. Later that day a colleague just happened to mention to me that her husband had seen and photographed a strange looking duck the day before in western Iceland and after looking in books they'd come to the conclusion that it must be a Wood Duck Aix sponsa and indeed it was. Wood Ducks don't inspire much excitement amongst birders in most of Europe as they are common captive birds and do escape but here was a bird found on a pond in the far west of Iceland (a country without captive wildfowl) and after a period of nothing but south-westerly winds and other American birds. I was more than prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt and went off after work with S, YK and HS. The bird was on the Snfellsnes peninsula, one of my favourite areas of Iceland in spring and a great place to visit at any time of the year, if spectacular mountains, rugged coasts and a five-thousand foot ice-choked volcano towering over everything else around sound like your thing. The pensinsula runs east-west but is only a few miles from north to south, and it was fascinating to see how the seasons were divided by the 900 metre mountains forming the backbone of the peninsula. To the south, the lakes were open, Snipe were drumming, geese were on the fields, and the mountainsides were awash with cascading meltwater. Just a few miles north on the other side, the snowline reached down to just above the villages and the cliffs were caked in vast icicles and frozen waterfalls. We found the Wood Duck immediately, and it flew away as soon as we approached but then showed itself off in the middle of the lake. A really smart-l ooking duck. After taking a few photos we went into the harbour at Rif and saw hundreds of adult Glaucous Gulls Larus hyperboreus, a few Herring Gulls Larus argentatus and more than a few hybrid Glaucous x Herring Gulls Larus hyperboreus x argentatus. We drove out on to the cliffs at the far western edge of the peninsula (an excellent place to see Killer Whales in May-June) and admired a big mixed flock of Common Guillemot Uria aalge, Brnnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia and Razorbill Alca torda on the sea, whilst behind us ice dazzled above the lava shredded slopes of Snfellsjkull - and to think that three hours earlier I'd been reading an EC directive on anti-money laundering measures at work. Joining the Wood Duck in recent days in western Iceland were another Wood Duck Aix sponsa, five Green-winged Teals Anas carolinensis, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks Aythya collaris, three Ring-billed Gulls Larus delawarensis, another Laughing Gull Larus atricilla, a new American Wigeon Anas americana and in SE Iceland a Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps. If all these escaped from captivity in Britain, then I'd suggest bigger fences are needed.


The gulls at Rif !



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