Edward's Birding Diary
|2 May 2006|
Spring arrives in Iceland
For one reason or another (sloth and indolence being two of them) it's been almost a month since I last wrote and spring is here in Iceland. The last weekend in April was the warmest of the year so far (even if it snowed in Reykjavik during the week), with temperatues reaching 19°C in eastern Iceland and a very respectable 13°C here in the Reykjavík area. It now stays light until 10 o'clock in the evening and I've no idea when it gets light in the mornings. Despite my lack of updates, April has been a busy birding month and huge numbers of spring migrants have arrived recently. This weekend the countryside resounded with the sounds of the Icelandic spring. Iceland's favourite bird, European Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, has arrived in huge numbers and its DIRRIN-DEE call rings from every tussock, the air is thick with drumming Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago, fields across Iceland are black with Greylag Geese Anser anser, Pink-footed Geese Anser brachyrhynchus, White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons and Barnacle Geese Branta leucopsis, shorelines in western Iceland throng with Canada-bound Brent Geese Branta bernicla, sleek Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus are back on territories, barrel-chested Great Skuas Stercorarius skua are long back on the glacial floodplains of the south, and in the last few days we are just starting to hear that most wonderful of Icelandic spring sounds, the bubbling of the Whimbrel.
In fact representatives of all migrant species have now been seen, with the exception of the two enigmatic storm petrels and the traditionally tardy phalarope pair. Although it's only two weeks since I saw the most spectacular display of the aurora borealis I've ever seen (huge swathes of green light across the whole sky with bands of purple rapidly pulsing from one end to the other - the lights are inextricably linked to autumn and winter in my mind), spring has reached the tipping point and there's no turning back now.
In April I managed to see three life birds, my best April total (excluding foreign trips) since 2002. The first was on 7 April when SÁ rang me to say he'd found a "dark-backed, hooded gull" with the local Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus in Hafnarfjörður. YK and I arrived just as the light was fading to see a splendid adult Laughing Gull Larus atricilla, only the tenth record for Iceland and the first twitchable. It gave people a real runaround over the next few days, some people requiring numerous visits before seeing it, but I went to the harbour four times over the weekend and saw it four times, once superbly well at close quarters, sitting and flying for about half an hour. Iceland is really a magnificent place to watch gulls in late winter and early spring and over that weekend no fewer than eleven species of gull were seen there. Most interesting of all was a bird that was seen on the Saturday and which appears from photographs to be an adult Thayer's Gull Larus thayeri (see 2006 gallery for YK's excellent shots - comments welcome). The biggest thril of that weekend for me though was watching a young Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus knock down a Black-headed Gulls Larus ridibundus. Gulls are by nature very restless birds but when every single bird lifts off in unison and flees then it's a sure sign that a Gyr Falcon is around. On the Saturday we saw it powering low over the sea 50 metres in front of us and turning sharply up into the Black-headed Gulls and striking one on the way up. The hapless gull limply fell on to the sea with a broken wing and floundered in the waves, ducking as the young Gyr Falcon made 7-8 attempts to pick it out of the water. At first two Lesser Black-backed Gulls mobbed the Gyr half-heartedly but eventually the Gyr got its timing right and snatched the gull and flew labouredly to some rocks abut 75 metres away. Two weeks ago I saw a Gyr Falcon catch a Black-headed Gull and it killed it instantly in flight but this time the gull survived for a quite a long time, squawking feebly with the full weight of falcon sitting on its back (which was deciding whether the Ravens were going to do anything), turning its head to the falcon as if in supplication, before the Gyr regained its focus and delivered the coup de grace with a single bite to the back of the neck. For the next half an hour I watched in absolute fascination as the Gyr Falcon dealt with its prey in full view, thoroughly plucking it in a blizzard of feathers, before decapitating it and tossing the head away, then disembowelling it, pulling out its intestines and leaving them for the Ravens, and then feasting on great strips of breast meat. After half an hour it up and went, and Ravens were very quick to pick up the pieces.