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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

November 2005

23 November - Gyr Falcons at the double

People who haven't been to Iceland probably imagine winter here means months on end of snow and ice, temperatures that would have sent Shackleton back into his tent and all-round general frigidity. Well, that's only partly true and although I normally see more winter here in two weeks in January than I did during twenty years of growing up in Cheshire combined, the Icelandic climate is a real yo-yo and it's very mild at the moment. Mild is, of course, a relative term, and whilst I'm sure someone visiting from, say, Darwin, Australia, would curl up and die, I felt very comfortable in a fleece on Saturday in a balmy +6C. I walked to a friend's to watch the rugby with a Kiwi and a very pro-NZ Icelander, and on the way there I walked past a female Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and a young Rook Corvus frugilegus, both vagrants around here, and in fact only the second Rook I've seen in Iceland. The other was in exactly the same spot 18 months earlier. As tempting as it was to stay at home all day reading on Sunday I decided that I'd regret not going for a second look at the Black-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis atrogularis which had been extremely co-operative to visiting birders all week and was nowhere near as shy as it was on the day of its discovery. Around 20 people had seen it during the week, one of the best watched Icelandic rarities ever. Sure enough it was still there, and providing you stayed in the car it allowed excellent views. I then headed out to the lake at Garur after that to make a half-hearted attempt to see the American Black Duck. As I was looking at a group of Mallards Anas platyrhynchos a grey blur flashed above them and then materialised on a wall 200 metres away, a fine looking juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus. A frisson of excitement always passes through me when I see Gyrs, as they have such a presence about them. Although supremely elegant on the wing, they always amaze me how stocky and barrel-chested they really are. A wall of sleet caked my car side windows in a film of grey, so I had to turn to car round. I thought to myself that it'd be nice if the bird were a bit closer and no sooner had the thought formed in my head than another blur of grey slowed down and took shape on the ground 20 metres in front of my car, a second juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus. Although I see Iceland's national bird regularly, it's not often I get to see them sitting just in front of me for a prolonged period. After five minutes it moved from the ground and onto a post right in front of me, allowing me to study every detail. The Mallards seemed unperturbed by its presence and after 20 minutes I drove off, leaving it still sitting on the post. As I moved off another Gyr Falcon hurtled by and as I turned round the bird on the post rose to meet it, talons first, and they moved off together on a hunting sortie. Pure magic.

15 November - It's not over until the fat lady sings

Sunday was a really miserable day in Reykjavk. The sun allegedly rose at 09:52 yesterday but the oppressively heavy cloud cover made it feel really gloomy all day. What's more it was lashing down with rain and as I got up (in the dark) I thought to myself that wild horses wouldn't drag me into the field today. I planned to spend the day getting really stuck into Raoul Schrott's brilliant novel Tristan da Cunha. Early afternoon I visited DB to return a couple of books and had great views of seven Bohemian Waxwings Bombycilla garrulus feeding on apples in his garden and aggressively holding off any intrusions from Redwings Turdus iliacus, Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and a solitary Blackbird Turdus merula. DB and I leafed through the latest stunning volume of HBW, and DB flicked it open at Black-throated Thrush and commented wistfully how he wouldn't mind seeing one of those. Within two hours we actually had. BA phoned me at 1445 and told me very excitedly, "Get yourself down to Garur, I've just found a new species for Iceland, Black-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis atrogularis"!!!! After checking that he wasn't pulling my leg (it has been known) a few of us set off to Garur, 30 miles way, in a race to beat the encroaching dusk. The bird had been seen in some fish-drying racks, full of stinking cods heads, and after a lengthy search in increasingly dull and miserable conditions, during which time we saw only one bird, a snow-white Ptarmigan Lagopus muta foraging amongst a pile of fish bones (doesn't tell you that in Collins), I flushed up a thrush from the grass. It sat briefly on a log and I had good views of it for about 5 seconds, easily long enough to see that here was a much wanted lifer, my fourth new thrush in Iceland this autumn! After that it proved very elusive and adept at hiding in the grass and rancid fish carcasses. Fortunately, those that had only poor views of it on Sunday all managed to see it superbly well in bright sunny weather on Monday. It only goes to show that the autumn isn't over until BA or YK finds a new species for the country, good job lads. Next time I open HBW 10, I'm going to tell DB that I wouldn't mind seeing a Siberian Thrush. Let's see if that works.

9 November - Beneath the glacier

Went out on a traditional half-day session on the Reykjanes peninsula with S on Saturday, not really expecting much but just to have a look, on what was probably the last weekend of the autumn. The good thing about this time of year is that there's no need to get up early if you want to go birding locally because it doesn't get light until about 9:30 now, so no point being in the field at 8:00! The bird of the day was undoubtedly a Little Stint Calidris minutus in Sandgeri, a very rare bird in Iceland. DB came and took some photos and after looking at them it seemed likely that this was the same bird that BB found in early September at the same site. Quite what it is still doing here or where it has been during the last two months is anyone's guess. At Garur we had close views of a juvenile Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus powering past the car. Although I see Gyrs regularly I'm always somewhat taken aback by how big and powerfully built they are. Last week's huge flock of Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis had grown if anything and the ground seethed with them, clouds of birds erupting at every footstep. That evening I somehow let myself be persuaded to go on one last long-distance twitch before the winter set in. I'm far too easily persuaded!

Snow Buntings in early winter

The glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón - no swimming!

S picked me up before six on Sunday morning (what was I saying about no more early starts) and soon we were in G's jeep with DB and GP heading east to Iceland's glacier country, and the prospect of a new species for all five of us, Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, a rare bird indeed in Iceland and one that only one Reykjavk birder had ever seen in Iceland. My usual (and oft-broken) twitching rule is that I won't go far for a bird that I've seen often abroad but the prospect of good company and some of the greatest scenery on Earth made the decision for me. The bird had been present for a couple of days on the farm of Kvsker, the most famed rarity location in Iceland, where farmer and amateur naturalist Hlfdn Bjrnsson has amassed one of the greatest garden lists in Europe in over sixty years of birding, including Siberian Rubythroat in 1943 and the Western Palearctic's first Wood Thrush. All in all I think he's had over 20 national first in his garden. Kvsker is located in the shadow of Europe's largest icecap, Vatnajkull which towers over 2,000 metres high behind the farm and the whole area is of such shattering beauty that my words are totally inadequate. It's what people from all over the world come to see, towering ice peaks, the mesmerising ice lagoon at Jkulsrln just a few miles down the road from the farm, and the dominant, brooding overwhelming presence of the glacier. I must have been to this area 20-30 times and its effect is always the same. But enough of all of this, we'd come to see a bird and when we arrived at the farm local birders BA and HB were already waiting and pointing across the field. There in the meadow was a big upright thrush amongst the Redwings Turdus iliacus. Just as G was setting his scope on the Mistle Thrush his field of vision was suddenly filled by a blue-grey bird, a superb male Merlin Falco columbarius had just caught and killed the Redwing six inches to the left of the Mistle Thrush. Wow, that was close! Understandably, the Mistle Thrush was pretty jumpy after that and we only had distant views. Also in the general area were three Bohemian Waxwings Bombycilla garrulus and two Eurasian Woodcocks Scolopax rusticola, one of which nearly took my head off when flushed. Miserable, gloomy weather took most of the fun out of the remaining day's birding, although we found a great gull watching site at Hfn where dozens of Glaucous Gulls Larus hyperboreus, Iceland Gulls Larus glaucoides, Great Black-backed Gulls Larus marinus and Herring Gulls Larus argentatus hovered in the wind and fed on the surface just a few metres away from us. S and I saw three Ivory Gulls together at this site in December last year,hope they return. S and I were also cheered on the way back by the news that United had beaten Chelsea at Old Trafford. Anyway the moral of this story is that you should visit SE Iceland, it's magnificent, you may even find some good birds!

Hvannadalshnúkur - Iceland's highest mountain seen from the main road.

2 November - Winter arrives at 64N

There was a definite change of season last Friday, not an imperceptible shift but a hammer blow from the North. The wind had been blowing stiffly from the north all day but in the morning I'd had unobstructed views from the huge windows at work across the wind-whipped bay to the 1,000 metre pyramid of Skarsheii. It changed early afternoon when a wall of white began to materialise, sweeping south reducing visibility from more than 100 kilometres to a few metres in a very short space of time. Whilst colleagues cursed the wretched weather, I found it rather exhilarating to witness the arrival of such a tangible weather front. The howling winds and snow meant that any birding was completely out of the question, and I was bemused to find my car, in an underground car park all day, completely covered in snow. Just as light will keek through the smallest hole, so apparently will snow.

Saturday dawned calm and white, and I somehow let YK convince me to go and look for birds in the afternoon. As I expected it was very quiet, and in fact I spent most of the afternoon in the car listening to football scores and boning up on bush-shrikes and sunbirds for our upcoming trip to Africa and let YK do most (all) of the walking. The usual suspects were in Grindavk, i.e. Great Northern Diver Gavia immer, Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus, Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, Common Eider Somateria mollissima, Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres and Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima. The most spectacular sight of the day was a flock of around 600 Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis at Garur. Snow Buntings are common but pretty inconspicuous in Iceland, until it snows, when they become unmissable, and it's almost always the first bird on my year list on 1st January. Sunday saw the return of the two American Wigeon Anas americana on my local patch and a good selection of other birds down in the bay, but numbers of Redwing Turdus iliacus were well down. Presumably most of those that are going to leave Iceland this winter have now done so, but some hardy birds will remain in the city all year.

My local patch - Fossvogur

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