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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

September 2006

18 September - A Visitor from the East

Rhyolite peaks at Landmannalaugar. southern Iceland

I always have mixed feelings when the calendar comes round to September. Whilst there is that sense of melancholy that the short summer is definitely over, there is the anticipation that the time for finding rare birds is at hand. The first weekend in September was sunny and mild and as the winds hadn’t been at all promising for vagrants I took the opportunity to go on last non-birding trip before the autumn madness takes over. We went in SR’s 4x4 to an area north of the two main southern icecaps, a region of endless ridges of bare red, orange, slate-grey and pinkish rhyolite mountains, sandy wastes, ice-caps, huge yet nameless waterfalls, braided glacial rivers, swathes of brilliant green moss, myriad hot springs and immensely impressive ice caves. The fact that I can see all this within a day’s drive of my home is one of the reasons I love living in Iceland. In short this uninhabited area is a hiker’s dream but in September there aren’t many birds around, migrant Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail, Wheatear, Golden Plover and resident Snow Bunting and Raven were all we came across. I visited the area in February when it was under metres of snow and the range of birds was predictably smaller, with Snow Bunting, Raven and Ptarmigan the only hardy creatures we came across.

Cave men emerging from the ice caves
The previous day I had been at the lighthouse at Garðskagi, where I had met two Israeli birders marvelling at the sight of hundreds of Manx Shearwaters streaming past and flocks of Gannets off shore, plus their first Glaucous Gulls and the perplexing sight of numerous Glaucous Gull x Herring Gull hybrids in various stages of plumage. The linguist in me was intrigued by their Hebrew edition of Collins Bird Guide, with the pictures on the left and the text on the right. A week later I was again at Garðskagi with YK and HS, certain that the persistent southerly winds must have brought something. We didn’t have to wait long before finding something. YK and I walked along a stretch that produced both Spotted Sandpiper and Buff-bellied Pipit last autumn, and after five minutes I noticed something with the Turnstones, lifted the binoculars and there was a bright juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, only the third I’ve seen here, and it is surprisingly less than annual here. Off shore there were six or seven Sooty Shearwaters, a couple of them coming in rather close, which is a good thing because as usual I couldn’t be bothered to put up my scope.
The winds continued to blow from the south-east all week, and it culminated on Thursday when GÞH rang me to say that he and YK and found a species that I had long wanted to see, Citrine Wagtail, but which was more than 400 km away. I had tickets to a Nick Cave concert in Reykjavik on Saturday night which I was unwilling to give up for anything less than a Worm-eating Warbler and a Yellow-breasted Chat in the same bush so I decided there and then that there was absolutely no way on Earth that I’d go and see a Citrine Wagtail near Höfn. My first step to going on a twitch is usually to swear blind that I’ll never go, so it was no surprise to myself or to anyone else when I found myself in a car heading east on Friday afternoon. The route along the south coast to Höfn is one of the most scenic in Iceland, passing 200 foot waterfalls and three major icecaps, with the last part of the journey dominated by Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. But as the clouds were very low, the ice remained largely hidden, although the valley glaciers gleamed in the murk, and the combination of rain in the mountains and mild weather ensured that every glacial river we crossed was full to the brim, maelstroms of earthy water. An obligatory stop on this route is the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón, such a stupendous sight that it is quite impossible to drive past. Two years ago we found a nice juvenile Little Gull sitting on an iceberg here and with that in mind we stopped on the bridge and began to scan the milling gills. Immediately my gaze fell on a gull sitting on the bridge railing. “Er, lads check out that one,” and there was a rather tatty looking second-winter Laughing Gull, and what a place to find one! Kittiwakes were abundant and Black-headed Gulls and three Great Skuas (a very common summer bird at this site) all fed in the area, whilst a Common Seal negotiated the ice-choked river with ease.

Laughing Gull waiting for a lift on Highway No. 1
Another 20 minutes brought us to the churchyard at Brunnhóll, and SÁ soon latched onto the tiny Citrine Wagtail amongst ten or so White Wagtails allowing good comparison between the species (although it’s hardly rocket science). It’s the last time I’ll complain that I never see anything in this particular cemetery.
The next morning was clear and Höfn is transformed in good weather. I remember talking to German girl working on farm outside Höfn a couple of years ago. She had arrived in fog and had had no idea what the surrounding countryside looked like. Waking up in clear weather the next morning she said she nearly fell over when she walked outside and found that there was a 2,000 metre high glacier behind the house, stretching as far west as she could see. At Höfn we saw a vagrant Spotted Flycatcher but it was fairly quiet until we reached the farm of Smyrlabjörg, where in a small garden we came across an Icterine Warbler (8th for Iceland), a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Garden Warbler and two Willow Warblers. The Laughing Gull was nowhere to be seen at Jökulsárlón but the tumbling icebergs were fun to watch and numerous Arctic Terns were a bit of a surprise, the first I’ve seen for a couple of weeks. Two more stops on the way home produced two Barred Warblers, one of my favourite warblers and a fine rarity in these parts with around 100 records all in all, and the odd Merlin. It was a shame to have to speed past some of the best vagrant spots on the way home but SÁ and I had a date with a certain Australian singer in Reykjavík, who, by the way, was magnificent. Autumn has begun.

Ice, clouds and gulls at Jökulsárlón

September..... to be continued

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