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An Icelandic Birding Diary
by EBR

September 2007

16 September - Between nappies and burp cloths, a lifer!

For the third year in a row I spent the last weekend in August in the fantastic highlands of southern Iceland, an area known as Fjallabak (behind the mountains). Situated in the lee of two major south coast icecaps, the Fjallabak area is a mosaic of brilliantly coloured rhyolite peaks, glaciers, moss-encrusted expanses of lava, steaming fumaroles, ice caves, clear mountain streams, gigantic volcanic craters, waterfalls, huge fissures rent in the Earth's surface and murky glacial rivers. Although no birding trip, it is always interesting to note the bird life in this harsh environment, although it was far too late in the year to see the local bird life at full swing. Near the massive waterfall Háifoss, two juvenile Merlins chased each other across the moors; at the summit of the blue peak, Bláhnúkur, juvenile Snow Buntings went about their business unaware of the mesmerising view in all directions; White Wagtails were still common around the horses and along the edge of the lava field at Landmannalaugar; Golden Plovers were still feasting on berries at almost 1,000 metres on the mountain Löðmundur; a skein of vocal Pink-footed Geese passed overhead; Wheatears were still common on rocky outcrops (which in this area is virtually everywhere) and Meadow Pipits abounded. The best sighting of all though was perhaps a family of one female and five almost fully grown duckling Harlequin Ducks in the plunge pool of the spectacular tiered waterfall Ófærufoss, which tumbles over the edge of a 200 metre deep, six hundred metre wide and 30 km long fissure Eldgjá. A delightful bird in a superb setting. We followed the river downstream by car until it merged into the torrential grey glacial river Skaftá and it must be one of the most attractive Harlequin rivers in Iceland: fast-flowing, beautifully clear, full of rapids and pools; must investigate it earlier in the summer. Back on the lowlands, the summer waders were all but gone from the roadside (no Whimbrel all weekend) but a few Great Skuas lingered on the glacial sands and one or two Arctic Skuas remained.

The Blue-winged Teal regularly shows off its blue wings

The record breaking dry summer in Iceland is well behind us, and the first part of autumn has seen some pretty foul weather lash the shores. Foul weather for normal people that is. Birders are a pretty perverse bunch at this time of year. While normal people are pleased to wake up to blue skies, clear and sunny days, to the rarity hunter this means that the wind is blowing from the north and useless for vagrants. Far more to the birder’s liking are those mornings where there is a lash of rain on south-facing window panes, poor visibility and a gloomy grey sky as one weather front after another moves in from the Atlantic. Restricted as usual this year by new commitments I’ve only been able to twitch what people have found, a pretty unsatisfactory way of doing things. Nevertheless it has brought me (only) my second ever Sabine’s Gull, at Seltjarnarnes. On my first attempt this around I managed to see it for a whole ten seconds before it disappeared out to sea. On my second trip it was the first bird I saw and had great views of it feeding at close range for several minutes before it vanished out to sea once again. The pool at Seltjarnarnes was full of birds, hundreds of Kittiwakes, hundreds of very late Arctic Terns, 70 Glaucous Gulls, Dunlins, Knot, Redshank, Turnstone, Oystercatchers, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, Meadow Pipits and a few Common Gulls. My second twitch of the autumn was to see a Blue-winged Teal at Njarðvík, the first bird for 11 years in Iceland and a lifer for me, as I had missed it in New York and Trinidad & Tobago. Granted, a first winter Blue-winged Teal isn’t the kind of bird that keeps you awake at night, but after almost two weeks of south-westerlies, I’m assuming this one didn’t originate from a wildfowl collection in the home counties, so I was happy enough to see it. Wildfowl make up a healthy proportion of the Icelandic list and I think that was the 34th species of duck I’ve seen here; Redhead, Canvasback and Bufflehead will be very welcome as numbers 35, 36 and 37.

138 metre high Háifoss. This a fine Harlequin river.

Today, 16 September, the winds swung round to the north and it was a cool day, the mountains around Reykjavík were white with snow. As the nicht lengthens, the caald strengthens, wise words from Bill Duncan’s masterly Wee Book of Calvin, but 16 September seems a bit early for that kind of thing even in Reykjavík. Whether this is a foretaste of things to come is impossible to say, but one thing you can rely on in September is a drake American Wigeon on my patch in Fossvogur, and there he was today in the company of around 20 Eurasian Wigeon, while 100 Golden Plovers patrolled the mudflats. Another front is heading for south-west Iceland this week, let’s see how I juggle twins and birds in the weeks to come.

To be continued...

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