Birding in Iceland

Before actually arriving in Iceland my preconceived ideas of what I expected the country to be like were rather jaundiced. Eyjafjallajökull had recently erupted, famously spewing clouds of dust miles into the atmosphere causing the subsequent travel disruptions resulting in the protracted period of clear aircraft-free skies. I genuinely thought that I would arrive to see the countryside covered in a fine layer of volcanic ash and the Icelandic people to be downcast, psychologically affected by the shadow of the long, dark, Arctic winter months.

Perpetual daylight was awaiting me as I stepped off the plane in mid June at Keflavik, the main national airport around 35 miles from the capital Reykjavík. Mere minutes after meeting with my guide Hrafn Svavarsson from Gavia Travel we were watching Kittiwake, heaps of Common Eider, omnipresent Arctic Terns and distant auks over the grey choppy seas at Gardskagaviti. Despite being mid-summer, and supposedly warm, there was a definite nip in the air and I had to don my hat and gloves to stave off the chill. Perhaps it was my West Indian blood but maybe more likely, the fact that when you expect it to be warm your body cannot handle that it isn’t.

Gardskagaviti is on an extremity of land that juts out to the northwest of Reykjavík. It is an excellent place for seawatching and is particularly good for the chance of observing a passing cetacean. Whale-watching is big business in Iceland, particularly in the north, but it sits at odds with the country’s penchant for whale hunting. The surrounding grassy areas held large numbers of loafing Great Black-backs and Glaucous Gulls with a more than liberal sprinkling of Oystercatchers, Whimbrels, Golden Plovers and Starlings.

As I mentioned previously in my Urban Birder column (Bird Watching, Summer 2010), birding in Iceland is far from easy. Once you have seen all the regular birds (there are only 377 species on the country’s list) you have to start looking for the unusual visitors. But the birds that you can see are both often numerous and certainly incredible to watch. I had only seen a handful of Red-necked Phalaropes in my life for example, but in Iceland I was seeing a handful every few minutes. They were practically everywhere. My reintroduction to this unusual wader first occurred under the light of midnight sun from the shores of Ellidavatn on the outskirts of Reykjavík. This expansive lake supported large numbers of phalaropes; some busily spinning like wooden tops on the water surface alongside plentiful Scaup, Tufted Ducks and Teal.

It was also here that I was introduced to the ubiquitous Redwings and hoary looking Redpolls that were to be regular features of my Icelandic birding. Hrafn explained that Ellidavatn was a great place to look for oddities like the occasional Grey Heron or rare Swallow. I looked up into the bright overcast sky; it was 1am and instead of seeing hirundines and Swifts cutting shapes I saw grey clouds and the ever-present airborne drumming Snipe. On the nearby horizon on top of a boulder stood a male summer-plumaged Ptarmigan, a bird that I had only previously ever seen after a gut-busting climb up on the Cairngorms nearly 20 years ago. Here, despite being in decline, a situation possibly brought about by a greatly increased Arctic Fox population, they can still readily be seen.

The next day we explored the area to the north of Reykjavík seeing many of the Icelandic specialities like Black-tailed Godwit, Arctic Skua, Short-eared Owl and yet more Red-necked Phalaropes to add to the masses of Arctic Terns. At one point we stopped off for a picnic in the car outside a small coniferous wood on the extremely beautiful Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Woodlands of any sort are not a common habitat in Iceland. Mid-munch, Hrafn heard an unfamiliar trilling emanating from a nearby clump of trees. Warblers of any description are rarities to these shores so our excitement rose.

At first we thought that we were listening to the trill of a Wood Warbler – itself a mightily rare bird here. But it just didn’t sound right. Out came the iPod with all the Western Palearctic songs and we quickly realised that were listening to Iceland’s sixth ever Arctic Warbler. We spilled out of the car to glimpse a dark Phylloscopus flit off, never to be seen nor heard again.

Further north at Grundarfjördur we searched the rocky coastlines in the pouring rain for Harlequin Ducks. Iceland is of course the only place in Europe that this uniquely beautiful duck exists outside of its Nearctic stronghold. Eider, Fulmar and Kittiwakes abounded and eventually after a few hours of scanning and searching we discovered three males and a female Harlequin in a sheltered harbour. I was elated and raucously celebrated in a harbourside café over a cup of tea and a cake. Little did I know that over the ensuing days I would be finding many more with relative ease – almost as if I were tripping over Mallards!

The next stage of my visit was a flight to Akureyri in the north of the island to hook up with local ornithologist Arnór Sigfússon. He proudly took me around his patch at Dalvik where we watched Slavonian Grebe, Great Northern Diver, Pintail and Black-tailed Godwit going about their business. Icelandic people are very friendly, helpful and above all possess a wickedly dry sense of humour. Arnór was no different as we were cracking gags throughout and he kindly invited me back to his house to join him for dinner with his wife.

The next day I drove to Lake Myvatn to the northeast to meet up with ace birder and top Icelandic lister, Yann Kolbeinsson.

Myvatn is famously the place for waterbirds in Iceland and in particular ducks. Soon we were clocking up yodelling Long-tailed Duck, several of the area’s 400 pairs of Common Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Pink-footed Goose and another lifer for me, Barrow’s Goldeneye. Yann commented that like Common Goldeneye these birds are hole nesters and were prone to entering houses via windows looking for nesting sites! We also caught up with a vagrant American Wigeon and to crown the afternoon a fine Gyr Falcon put in an appearance. Its immense size was awe-inspiring as it was clearly bigger than a Peregrine. The following day Yann took me to an incredible expanse of marshland that stretched for at least 20 miles, packed to the rafters with nesting Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin. He had found a drumming Wilson’s Snipe, Iceland’s first, near Engidalur a few days before, so we waded out into the area he had last seen it and waited. The bleating of Common Snipe was the predominate sound but then we heard bleating of a slightly lower, slower pitch. We then saw the American Snipe in its undulating display and crucially, it showed two tail feathers sticking out at right angles at the base of its tail as distinct from the Common Snipe’s single feather.

I had a truly memorable time in Iceland there were just too many highlights I haven’t had room to mention – the Puffins at Hallbjarnarstadir, seeing nesting Brunnich’s Guillemot along other coastlines, the amazing waterfall at Dettifoss, being weirded out by the strange lunar-like landscapes and whale watching from a boat at Húsavik. It is truly a beautiful country.

Visiting Iceland is a must for any birder, not least for seeing species that you may already be familiar with but not so close up and in such large numbers. I can’t wait to get back there again.