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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

September 2008

30 September - Not another Buff-bellied Pipit!

Above: Buff-bellied Pipit in Garður, the fifth I've seen on this stretch of coast in five years

September, one of the busiest months in the birder's calendar, has rarely been so quiet for me, so it was a great pleasure to get out in the field yesterday afternoon to the familiar birding haunts of Garður in south-west Iceland. Some reasonably rare birds had been found the previous week in the area, including two Buff-bellied Pipits, but it wasn't until yesterday that I had the time to have a look myself and the weather was pleasant enough to make walking along the seawall at Garður a remotely attractive proposition. And God it felt good to get back out there. The seawall held about ten Wheatears, two White Wagtails and several dozen Meadow Pipits. After about 45 minutes, a familiar bird for this stretch of coast suddenly appeared on a rock about five yards in front of me, a dark-legged, plain mantled pipit with a buffish belly, in other words a Buff-bellied Pipit. This was the fifth bird that I've seen on this short stretch of coast since 2004. If this continues, we'll have to start considering it a rare passage migrant to Garður rather than a vagrant! Other birds in Garður included the odd Gannet offshore, the usual melange of gulls:Glaucous, Herring (and hybrids of the two a-plenty), Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Kittiwake, Black-headed, and the first few Icelands of the winter. Waders were represented by masses of Golden Plovers, and the usual scatterings of Turnstone, Purple Sandpipers, Redshank and Oystercatcher on the shoreline. Eight Pink-footed Geese among the Greylags by the pond at Garður was the pick of the wildfowl and with one eye on the clock and mindful that my kids would soon be waking up, I began to head home, deciding to check the tree plantation of Seltjörn on the way home, a place which has attracted Magnolia Warbler in the past. Not today, and only a few Redwings were in evidence, but I did meet RR and SÁ and gave them strict instructions to ring me if they found anything on their rounds. Twenty minutes later, just as I was approaching the first roundabout on the outskirts of Reykjavík, SÁ rang, with the words 'Red-eyed Vireo in Þorbjörn' and I was catapulted back round the roundabout in the direction I'd just come. The tree plantation at Þorbjörn holds some good memories (Black-throated Green Warbler and Yellow Warbler) and some less good memories (not finding a Blackpoll Warbler in the coldest October weather I can ever remember). YK soon arrived and after quite a long search the bird was relocated and was seen working its way through the birch, picking off insects. It was rather shy and rereading the Collins guide at home, I found that as so often, Svensson hits the nail on the head, saying “frequently keeps well hidden or quiet, disappear for long spell.” It sure did. Only my third Iceland tick of the year (after White-throated Sparrow and Hen Harrier, and Polar Bear too I suppose) but I have been rather idle on the twitching front this year, and the fifteenth species of Nearctic passerine I've seen in Iceland

Above: One of two Ring-billed Gulls at Bakkatjörn

The previous day I'd been to Bakkatjörn in Seltjarnarnes, where one of the two second-winter Ring-billed Gulls was showing very close to the road with several Common Gulls. Esja, Reykjavík local mountain which dominates the north-eastern horizon was white with snow for the first time this winter on Saturday and in keeping with these signs of impending winter, a couple of adult Iceland Gulls sat among the Glaucous Gulls and numerous Black-headed Gulls and Kittiwakes. A few Wigeon, Teal and Gadwall were present but there was no sign of last week's drake Shoveler, a scarce bird locally. A Merlin and seemingly lost Snow Bunting were other interesting birds and were additions to my increasingly contrived "bird seen by bike" list.

Below: The giant slag heap of Vikrafell, one of the most annoying false summits I've ever experienced

Last week before last I went out with YK and SÁ, optimistically looking for vagrants in the aftermath of the tail end of Hurricane Ike which buffeted Iceland almost two weeks ago. Although the storm had passed, the weather was abject, and checking gardens for vagrant birds in windy weather really isn't much fun, but we did eventually find a Pied Flycatcher, not a bird I see every year in Iceland, and two Little Gulls in Þorlákshöfn were the first I'd seen this year I think.

Below: View north-west from Vikrafell. The hills are alive with sound of...howling winds and no birds at this time of year.

At the beginning of the month, I spent the weekend with the family at the summer house we regularly go to in western Iceland. The sounds of summer, which had dominated in June, i.e. Snipe, Meadow Pipit, Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit has fallen silent, but flocks of roving Redwings and Redpolls plundered the berry-crammed hillsides and birch scrub respectively, and Wrens scolded from the thickets. A quick visit to a nearby conifer plantation provided further confirmation that it's been a good year for Goldcrests, as the forest was full of them. With the weather on the Sunday good, the lure of the mountains was too strong for me and I walked up 535 metre high Vikrafell for the first time. Its name in Icelandic means pumice mountain and it is rather a unusual sight: a twin-peaked slag-heap surrounded by fairly typically bleak Icelandic moorland. In spring and summer this area would hold Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Meadow Pipit and Wheatears but the Whimbrels, Wheatears and Meadow Pipits were gone, with only a sole Golden Plover on the higher moorlands. The treeless expanses were carpeted with an incredible density of blueberries and crowberries, which the Redwings lower down feasted on, and their purple-stained droppings covered all prominent rocks.
Now that the Icelandic currency is aspiring to be as worthless as the Zimbabwe dollar, I can’t see many foreign trips on the horizon, so I’ll try and get out in a bit more in October – who knows when I’ll get a new bird again!


to be continued





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