Edward's Birding Diary
|18 June 2006|
Look At The Harlequins!
When I came back from the US, I still had a week's holiday so I went on a short tour of Iceland with two birders from the UK and Ireland to show them some of the best spring birding locations and to try and find Iceland's "big four." Whilst snow is not completely unusual in May in Iceland, the north and east of Iceland were buried under heavy snow at the end of the month and Mývatn had around 70 cm in a day. I always maintain that the end of May is the best time to see Icelandic birds, as most birds have arrived back on their breeding grounds and are singing and displaying and the ducks are in all in breeding plumage.
Most tour companies seem to come here in July, which is too late in my opinion. Whilst you can still all the target birds in July at Mývatn, you tend to see thousands of grotty brown ducks, although the weather is usually more reliable in July than May and it's a better month for whalewatching.
We started our trip by heading out to Snæfellsnes in western Iceland, an area of dramatic coastlines and mountains, all dominated by the glacier Snæfellsjökull. We found local specialities such as Brünnich's Guillemot easily and the visitors enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of Glaucous Gulls in the harbours. A couple of local scarcities were unearthed, firstly a female King Eider and then a drake American Wigeon. The highlight though for me was an Arctic Fox, Iceland's other native land mammal besides Homo sapiens. I rarely see Arctic Foxes, didn't see one at all in 2005, and as they are detested and shot on sight for some reason they are often wary and slink away unnoticed. But we had excellent views of this one getting divebombed by Black-tailed Godwits, although I'll refrain from saying exactly where it was in case a SWAT team is mobilised to kill it. The snow had largely melted up at Mývatn, our next destination, and as usual the River Laxá was full of Harlequin Ducks and Barrow's Goldeneye. In fact they are the commonest birds on the river in late May and it's quite common to get the two ducks and Red-necked Phalaropes in the same binocular view. Mývatn, the great duck factory of northern Europe, had its usual numbers of wildfowl, Slavonian Grebes, Great Northern Divers and Red-throated Divers, but the main target for most people at Mývatn is Gyr Falcon. Whilst they are elusive, if you spend time in the Mývatn area you should end up seeing one, and we saw three over the day. Our first encounter was at Másvatn. We stopped to look at a pair of Great Northern Divers right next to the road when suddenly an adult Gyr Falcon flew between us and them and settled on the hillside 100 metres away. Although Gyrs surely present no threat to divers it triggered off five minutes of maniacal laughing from the divers. This hair-raising territorial call of the Great Northern Diver must be one of the most evocative sounds in the natural world and watching the perched Gyr Falcon with this as a background noise could hardly have been any more atmospheric. We later found a pair of Gyrs near Húsavík, sitting by the road and watched them sitting on fence posts in our scopes, before the big female leisurely flew off over the snow covered fields, and the male made a rather swifter departure with an irate Whimbrel in hot pursuit. June is one of my favourite months of the year. There's 24-hour daylight throughout the month and I usually get plenty of mountain walking in my legs. However, this June has been blighted by the World Cup and instead of being out in the field with my binoculars I've been sitting in bars getting excited by the likes of Ghana and Argentina. Knowing that I am weak-willed and unable to resist the media hype surrounding the football, I made sure that I spent the last weekend before the World Cup doing some birding and I spent all weekend near Kirkjubæjarklaustur in southern Iceland helping BH and EÓÞ do a breeding bird survey. The area we were concentrating on was a pancake flat, utterly treeless "steppe" landscape, real big sky country. Under the guidance of our leader EÓÞ we trekked across the baking plains (it was almost 17°C - yikes!) and eventually found out we were 15 km from the car, which meant that it was also 15 km back. A 30km walk without food and in wellington boots was utterly shattering but I'm now intimately familiar with the preferred breeding habitats of Dunlin, Whimbrel, Arctic Skua and Great Skua, all of which were common. In fact it is a real privilege to spend time in this area, miles away from any human settlement, coming across displaying Dunlins, seeing the age-old struggle between Whimbrel and skua and getting divebombed by the King of the Sands, the mighty Great Skua, one of my absolute favourite birds. It just has such presence and character.