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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

October 2007

31 October - Bird of the year?

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Selfoss. I can still taste the pancakes.
I awoke on Monday morning to a covering of snow smothering the garden, signalling perhaps the end of autumn and the onset of winter. Except things are never that simple in Iceland when it comes to the weather and seasons, and snow in October by no means presages a cold winter. But the birding has taken on a slight wintry feel. My garden is full of Redpolls, although there is still enough food around to make them ignore the feeders, Wrens scold from the lowest bushes, Blackbirds scratch around in the leaf litter and Ravens once again patrol above. The only sign that autumn has still not totally let go, is the hoards of Redwings gorging themselves on berries in every garden. While some will overwinter here, the majority will leave in the next couple of weeks for the relative mildness of Britain and Ireland.

Iceland or Patagonia?
October, the main month for rarities, continued where September left off for me, playing pat-a-cake with my girls and blowing raspberries on their necks, while leaving the frivolous business of searching for rare birds to my friends. A visit from my parents, brother and sister-in-law did take me on a couple of trips out into the countryside. The highlight of a trip to the Þingvellir National Park in early October was the sight of two snow-white Ptarmigan conspicuously flying over the expanses of orange-brown birch and willow shrubland. But the fact that my phone hadn’t rung for several days prompted me to send a text to YK, asking him why he wasn’t finding me any good birds to twitch. I would have been rather surprised to know then that less than 12 hours later I was in a warm kitchen in Selfoss, drinking coffee, eating pancakes and Icelandic doughnuts and looking at a splendid Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at close range working its way round a birch tree in the garden. The bird had been reported just after I sent YK the text and it seemed as though my prayers (and many other people’s) had been answered. I had feared the worst when I heard where the bird had been seen, as I have unpleasant memories of traipsing round Selfoss for six hours looking for a Great Spotted Woodpecker on an unimaginably cold day in 1999. I had visions of another fruitless search but when we knocked on the door in the early morning, the houseowner greeted us warmly and nonchalantly told us the bird was there in the same tree as yesterday, a very pleasant twitch indeed, made all the better by the kind hospitality of our non-birding hosts. All in all more than 30 birders saw it, perhaps making it the most twitched bird ever in Iceland and it even made the evening news (viewers of the Icelandic State Television were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of me talking to the houseowner). Contrary to popular belief there are plenty of trees in Iceland but seeing a woodpecker in Iceland still ranks as one of the strangest sights I've seen. The sapsucker was also a lifer for me (missed it in New York last year), and rather embarrassingly for a European birder I’ve now seen as many Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in Europe as I have Wrynecks, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and Black Woodpeckers, i.e. one of each. I must get myself over to Hungary or Poland in the not too distant future.

Peregrine with a crop full of Herring Gull
The next day I went on a long sightseeing trip with my brother to the stupendous glacier country of SE Iceland. Whooper Swans were fairly widespread en route, geese, overwhelmingly Greylag Geese, but with a very few Pink-footed Geese and two largish flocks of Barnacle Geese were seen by the road. Outside Kirkjubæjarklaustur we came across four vagrant Wood Pigeons, but more exciting (although more common) was the juvenile Gyr Falcon that would have met an untimely end if it hadn’t been for my braking and its own desperate evasive action near Skaftafell. The ice lagoon Jökulsárlón has featured regularly in this diary as the chaos of blue ice fighting to get out of the lake, down a narrow river and out to the sea is simply one the most mesmerising sights you can ever expect to see. As impressive as ever, it was also as cold as ever. A bitter chill seems to pervade the whole area all year, the glacier's influence dominating everything, which no amount of clothing can effectively repel. Consequently we didn’t hang about here, but noticed four Common Seals, six Common Eiders and seven Harlequin Ducks (a reliable site for them) dodging the icebergs. On the way back we stopped at the nearby and far less famous lagoon Fjallsárlón. It was birdless but the impressive ice cliff falling into the lake makes it a worthwhile detour. On the way back I tried to twitch Iceland's only House Sparrow colony but the birds were in the barn and the farmer hard at work so I left them alone. Instead I was treated to the sight of two Merlins teaming up to catch a Redwing.

Simmi and I approaching the Buff-bellied Pipit
Later in the week, I was pursuing another falcon, a Peregrine Falcon which had been discovered by two Swedish birders at Garður. Three trips were thwarted by driving rain, fading light and howling winds respectively, but I managed to add to my Buff-bellied Pipit tally in Iceland, the fourth I've seen here and third I've seen on a 500 metre stretch of coast. I also manged to catch up with the long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher. A week later I had more luck with the Peregrine. I'd almost given up when a "small" dark falcon shot in front of the car and disappeared over the sea wall into the bay. I say small because I have much more experience with Gyr Falcons and Peregrines really are dainty in comparison. A short search later revealed the young bird sitting on fence post overlooking a bay filled with Eider, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers. A welcome addition to my Iceland list, and a new bird for nearly everyone who twitched it. Peregrines are not only rare here but live up to their name and have proven very hard to pin down in the past. With one eye on the clock I had to leave and unfortunately just after I left the Peregrine was joined by a Greenland Gyr Falcon, the two sitting almost side by side. Bah!

Iceland is in the middle of its largest Siskin invasion ever, with more birds reported in the last couple of weeks than all previous records combined. With that in mind I set off last weekend pushing the pram to the local cemetery to see if they had reached Reykjavík. On the way I noticed the first adult Iceland Gulls of the winter on my patch, a solitary adult Glaucous Gull, still plenty of Golden Plovers around, and the usual suspects, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Turnstone, Oystercatcher and Redshank. In the cemetery I didn’t have to search long before an unfamiliar noise was heard from amongst the Redpolls and there were two Siskins, species number 85 for my suburban Icelandic patch. I’m hoping that they prolong their stay and even visit the feeders in my garden, it would increase the number of species visiting them by 100%!

To be continued...

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