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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

October 2008

29 October - Credit crunch birding

Above: American Robin with Redwings in photographer's garden in Selfoss.

It's not been a good few weeks in Iceland, especially not in my line of work. So when HS rang me with the news that he'd found a Spoonbill near Vík, it seemed like the perfect way to spend the next day, twitching away the credit crunch blues in the superb surroundings of Iceland's south coast. I hadn't been to this area since June when I went to see a Hen Harrier, and the roadside birds of summer were long gone, but replaced by vast of geese, mostly Greylag but also some Greenland White-fronted and Pink-footed, and large numbers of Whooper Swans, all gearing themselves for the flight south (but presumably they'll be back in spring, unlike the Polish construction workers also heading south). The northerly winds meant that it was sunny and mild on the south coast, as the glaciers and coastal mountains block the cold winds, and the conditions were perfect for birding. We arrived at the site east of Vík to find that ÓR had already got there before us and had located the Spoonbill, trying its best to blend in with a flock of Whooper Swans but not really looking at home standing on a gravel bank in the middle of a glacial river. So another rare bird in Iceland on my list but to be honest it's not really a species to quicken my pulse; just being out in the field, watching the thousands of Fulmars crowding the cliffs behind Vík, the massive waves crashing up on the black lava beaches, the stupendous views of the ice caps Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull rising above the fields, farms, waterfalls and moorlands, and the sight of flocks migrants getting ready to leave, meant more to me than seeing a Spoonbill. A Grey Heron was also nearby and a Siskin, not much of a rarity this year, worked the bushes at the foot of an overhanging cliff. The farms at the base of the once coastal (now several miles inland) mountain range attract vagrants in the autumn. And there were one or two today, all rather humdrum, but new on my year list (if I'm keeping one, I can't quite recall), a couple of Wood Pigeons, Brambling, a couple of Blackcaps, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff, along with the regular locals: hundreds of Redwings, Redpolls and a few Wrens on every farm, and three Merlins.

Above: These cows were not in the least worried by the credit crunch. 1,666 metre high ice cap Eyjafjallajökull in background. Photo by Ómar Rúnólfsson.

The following weekend I was at home on domestic duties when SÁ rang me with the news that there was an American Robin less than an hour's drive away in Selfoss. Dilemma. I've already seen a million American Robins in Minnesota and North Dakota this year, but it's still a bird I'd like to see in amongst Redwings in Iceland. But the timing was all wrong on the Saturday. I had to choose between an American Robin in Selfoss (wasn't there a horror film of that name once?) and the final concert in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra's Sibelius cycle: the stellar fifth, six and seventh symphonies. While it was only the fifth American Robin for Iceland, it was only the second live performance of the sixth symphony in Iceland, so I chose Sibelius over the robin. The concert was magnificent and I was quietly optimistic that the American Robin would hang around. It didn't, and I spent Sunday afternoon waiting in vain for its reappearence and trudging through the bitterly cold streets of Selfoss with YK, in an eerily similar repeat of 1999's fruitless search for a Great Spotted Woodpecker in the same town (although that search was much longer and far colder too). So the American Robin was a one day wonder but we did find a very miserable looking Barn Swallow and some more Siskins. October has generally been blighted by northerly winds and the forecast is for more of the same. We've had two snowfalls before the end of October and the country's up the creek. Happy days.

Below: Eurasian Spoonbill near Vík.

Stop press: I had intended to publish this diary entry on Friday, but then the American Robin turned up again after a five day absence. So on Saturday I went east again with SÁ across the now snow-covered lava fields and mountains to Selfoss and after a very short wait had great views of the American Robin from the comfort of ÖÓ's living room window. It was quite active, feeding on a variety of berries but shunning the apples that Redwings are so fond of. It would be nice if it stayed the winter, as the White-throated Sparrow did in Höfn last winter. It's the second time in the last year that I've seen a rare American stray from a warm house in Selfoss, while being plied with coffee and doughnuts: the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was in this small town last October. Also in the garden were numerous Redwings, Starlings, a few Redpolls, the garden's first Snow Bunting of the winter and a male Blackcap. On Sunday I went for a short walk in the snow and ice in the local cemetery. Redwing numbers have dropped sharply but Blackbirds were again very conspicuous. Less noticeable were Siskins, in fact I haven't heard or seen one since earlier in the month, and I wonder if they have left again, and if so, where have they gone?

Below: A superb Bobolink photographed by Simmi on our trip to Minnesota and North Dakota this summer. Surely a good candidate for Iceland's next new species?


to be continued





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