Iceland June 2009

Got back home late last night after a fortnight long trip to Iceland – and what a trip it turned out to be. Packed full of superb birds, some rarities (genuine and plastic alike…), a couple of world lifers (bird and mammal), endless sunshine, great company, great food… and ultra-violence. What’s not to like?

Ultra-violence… that surely can’t be right. Icelanders shook off the mindless slaughtering of innocents image centuries ago when they hung up their longboats and gave up the raping and pillaging for good. A pity nobody thought to tell the birds… This bad girl should give you a clue for what was to come:

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More of which later. With 2 weeks to play with, I concentrated in the first few days on getting to the opposite side of the country to Reykjavik and seeing the long-staying male Steller’s Eider. Easy to find a little way offshore, hanging out with a few drake Harlequins (who are, incidentally, hard as nails. I saw dozens in the course of my stay, and they were invariably squaring up to each other).

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At the water’s edge were a few Red-necked Phalaropes, and nearer still on the rotting seaweed a confiding Black -tailed Godwit. All in all, a very good start.

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From here on there seemed to be Red-necked Phalaropes on every roadside ditch, and lochs were invariably teeming with them and Red-throated Divers. The latter curiously different to the ones I am used to here in Shetland – ours are intensely territorial, and one pair defends their loch against all comers – but in Iceland they were more chilled out, and there were often several pairs on even fairly small bodies of water. Also many Ptarmigan either flushed by the passing car, or else blatantly sitting unconcerned on any vantage point they could find. (Added Ptarmigan to the things-I-have twatted-with-a-car list, knocking Whimbrel off the top-spot for Most Unusual Kill). Here’s one I didn’t kill earlier:

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On to Myvatn, and one of the most superb birding locations I’ve ever visited. As freshwater lakes go, this one is immense, and absolutely heaving with wildfowl (and more Red-necked Phalaropes) – a starring role here for the male Barrow’s Goldeneyes, the sunlight making photographs difficult. I sat and worked on my tan while sketching them for a while, mercifully unbothered by the hordes of flies the lake is infamous for. I probably smelt bad by this point, bad enough to keep them at bay – doing this on the cheap, I forwent campsites and hot showers and opted for laybys and cold snowmelt streams.

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 Speaking of hordes, you’ve never seen so many Tufted Duck in your life as at Myvatn. Hundreds of them, everywhere. Also Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Common Scoter, Gadwall, Mallard… and an elusive American Wigeon I simply couldn’t find. Plenty of Slavonian Grebes here too.

Heading back to Reykjavik, I was lucky to pick up 3 Long-tailed Skuas giving a Whimbrel a hard time seemingly for shit and giggles – a pleasant change from the frequent Arctic Skuas, and somewhat less frequent Great Skuas I’d been seeing so far. Great to see these birds over land and not miles out to see, and in adult plumage too.

A night in town at ER’s place, and then a major expedition up to the West Fjords. Iceland has the best gravel and dirt roads I’ve ever come across, but after a few hundred kilometres, the novelty fades. Still, finding 3 male and 2 female Lapland Buntings was well worth the effort – the males singing, engaged in display flights, and on one occasion gathering fine grass and moss.

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The cliffs on the north-west coast were epic, and teeming with seabirds. Puffins being stupidly confiding, right alongside the lighthouse that housed Sliceland, purveyors of Puffin-topped pizza, the Westest Pizza in Europe.

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Who said there was no such thing as a free lunch? (Apart from the local supermarket, who were doing a roaring trade in yummy Guillemot eggs!)

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I of course only had eyes for the Brunnich’s Guillemots:

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Considerably easier to see here a few feet below the clifftops than ducking and diving across Lerwick Harbour. I mainly only had eyes for the Brunnich’s as the alternative was looking right down the cliffs below them… and at over 400 metres tall, this was a sobering moment. Even more so when we started finding caches of freshly emptied Guillemot and Fulmar eggs, and on one occasion, a Razorbill head. Something was actually climbing down these dizzyingly tall cliff-faces to hunt for food. It wasn’t too long before we heard and saw the culprit – my first Arctic Fox.

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More to follow tomorrow… In which I get attacked by species determined and various, with varying degrees of success.