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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

May 2009

May - Deja vu all over again

Above: One of this spring's Garganeys

May is the probably the month most keenly anticipated by birders across the northern hemisphere, unless you live in Qaanaaq or somewhere equally far north. May started out very cool in Iceland and in some areas downright cold, with heavy snow in northern Iceland closing most roads on the first weekend in May. On the last day in April I went on a short evening trip with SÁ and ÓR to Skorradalur in western Iceland where last year we'd come across several displaying Woodcocks. En route I picked up quite a few year list birds, including Great Northern Diver, Whimbrel and Arctic Tern, the former showing just how stationary I've been this winter. After a chilly wait in the Skorradalur, with a view of the extraordinary snow-covered ridge of Skarðsheiði looming across the lake, we eventually heard the peculiar song of the male Woodcock in its roding flight across the tree tops. Eventually we saw a second bird and we have since heard the Woodcocks have been seen displaying in four locations across Iceland. Nest have been found before and it seems clear that Woodcocks are now regular breeders here, a welcome addition to the local avifauna. Other notable birds in the general area were Greenland White-fronted Geese, several Ptarmigans and a pair of White-tailed Eagles at a regular, but distant, nest site.

Spring evenings glide into summer and the evenings are now long. In fact it won't get truly dark again until mid-July and I took advantage of Sunday evening's superb weather by going for a walk up the 783 metre high Búrfell in SW Iceland, a peak I hadn't walked up before. It was a straightforward hike, except for one rather fast-flowing and full mountain stream which nearly turned me back as I was unable to find anyway over (my inability to cross it was down to the fact that I didn't want to get wet, rather than it being uncrossable - I'd have been over it in two seconds flat had there been a Polar Bear behind me) but just as I had decided to turn back I came across a snow bridge over the river, and after a bit of prodding with my trekking poles, I decided it would be able to hold my 86 kilos. The terrain was rocky moorland, with a few marshy areas, and it held displaying Golden Plovers, Whimbrels, Snipe, countless Meadow Pipits, three startled Ptarmigan, singing Wheatears on the rocky slopes and higher up plenty of Snow Buntings. Although I see hundreds if not thousands of Snow Buntings in flocks along the coast in winter, I always prefer to see them on their breeding grounds in pairs or small family groups. They have a very beautiful and simple song, which carries far in their treeless habitat, and the sight of a pristine white male Snow Bunting on a boulder is usually a good indication that you are in the middle of nowhere. Two vocal Arctic Skuas passed overhead but the sight and sound that thrilled me most was that of Whimbrels in song flight above my head. It's the most evocative sound of the Icelandic summer to me, encapsulating the promise of the bright nights to come, redolent of wide-open, treeless moorlands and as you only hear it from May to early August, notwithstanding the mimicry of Starlings, I want to hear it as often as possible before the nights get dark again and the birds leave for the shores of the Gulf of Guinea. The views from the summit were predictably grand, still lots of snow on the surrounding mountains and what I could see of the Interior was all white.
Back in the lowlands, I found a Garganey on a trip to a local lake, a species I usually see every two year. I saw the first juvenile Redpolls, Redwings and Blackbirds in mid-month, and very excitingly found a second active Blackbird nest in the garden and another one a few houses along the street. It wasn't long ago that Blackbirds were just starting to colonise Iceland and rare bird report contained news of "one nest found in Reykjavík." Now they are the most conspicuous urban passerines after Starlings and Redwings (and Ravens in winter). I've seen a pair of Chaffinches locally too during the month. The next colonist?

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