Edward's Birding Diary
|8 August 2006|
The World of Wonders
For several years it’s been a general rule of mine not to leave Iceland in June, July and August, as there’s really nowhere I’d rather be during the summer, with its constant daylight and cool climate (I don’t care for hot weather, anything over 20°C is a waste of energy). The summer also gives me the chance to visit areas of the country which are simply not possible to reach in the winter and I do my best to seek out new places and climb a few new mountains every year. Last week I spent five wonderful days in one of the country’s great coastal wildernesses, Hornstrandir, located at the very far north-western tip of the country, at 66°N, the doorway to the Arctic. It’s an area of no roads, no villages, no farms and it is only reachable by boat, or a very long walk (six days) from the end of the nearest dirt track.
Although getting there involves a bit of hassle (not to mention expense) the rewards awaiting any visitor are immense: empty valleys, carpets of wildflowers, gigantic and spectacular seabird colonies, and, perhaps the star attraction, an abundance of Arctic Foxes. To get there from Reykjavík requires a scenic six-hour drive to Ísafjörður, the largest town in north-west Iceland (we saw a recently fledged Gyr Falcon being mobbed by Meadow Pipit en route) and a three-hour boat trip from Ísafjörður on stomach-churning swells. Distracting us from potential seasickness was a Harbour Porpoise, putting in a typically brief appearance, and, far more impressive, a breaching Humpback Whale just off the bow, which jumped clear of the water about a dozen times before we lost sight of it in the distance! If that wasn't enough, as we rounded the top of Iceland, the density of seabirds increased as we approached the massive cliffs of Hælavíkurbjarg, an immensely impressive rampart rising over 400 metres sheer from the sea and containing hundreds of thousands of birds.
We camped for four nights in the bay of Hornvík, going on day hikes from the campsite and enjoying the break from mobile phones and the internet in this far flung corner of the country. After centuries' of struggling in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, farming was finally abandoned here in the 1940s and the lack of sheep in the area has had a remarkable effect on the local flora. I've rarely seen such carpets of wildflowers in Iceland, especially the cliff-tops which are covered in Angelica, Wood-cranesbill and succulent Roseroot. Whilst the bay at Hornvík had big numbers of Common Eider and moulting flocks of male Harlequin Duck were common, the main attraction of Hornstrandir to the visiting birder is undoubtedly the gargantuan seabird cliffs of Hælavíkurbjarg and Hornbjarg, which together with Látrabjarg in the far west of Iceland are home to over 90% of Iceland's Brünnich's Guillemots. Visiting the vast seabird colonies of western Iceland has become an essential part of my birding year. Last year I visited Europe's biggest bird cliff at Látrabjarg, a 400 metre high wall which extends for 14km eastwards from Iceland's most westerly point. Whilst Látrabjarg has more birds, Hornbjarg is an even more dramatic sight, quite simply the most spectacular bird cliff I've ever seen. A three-hour walk from our tent eventually took us up a gentle slope to what seemed like the edge of the world. As we approached the top, the sounds of the birds intensified, the smell of guano seared the nostrils and I almost ran the last few metres as the sense of anticipation was so great. The world fell abruptly away into a cloud-filled void. The cliffs were around 300 metres high where we first came to the edge but rose sharply in each direction to over 400 metres to the west and well over 500 metres to the right. Every ledge was filled with nesting birds, Kittiwakes constantly uttering their onomatopoeic name, whilst an excited aaarrrggghhh aaarrrggghhh emanated from the abundant Brünnich's Guillemots. Whilst Common Guillemots and Razorbills were also present, they were far fewer in number. I can think of no place better for visiting birders to see Brünnich's Guillemot for the first time than the cusp of Hornbjarg. We walked a short distance east through the stands of Angelica, briefly disturbing a Wren, until we hauled ourselves up by rope to another viewpoint, 400 metres above the ocean. It was almost like looking out of an aeroplane, blue sky above, the clouds far below, yet with swarms of Brünnich's Guillemots appearing and disappearing into the mist-veiled abyss. Rolling back down the hill we decided to get to the highest point of the clifftops, and indeed the highest cliff in Iceland, the 534 metre Kálfatindar. This involved a very steep but straightforward climb, through a rock area which was alive with Snow Buntings. There were newly fledged birds everywhere, with parents busily feeding them and even a couple of males still singing. The path was steepest towards the top, but there was no summit, the precipitous trail abruptly ended like a free-standing ladder into thin air and dropped away over 1,700 feet to sea. It was no place for anyone with a fear of heights, especially when the clouds parted to reveal the distant sea below, and we felt like we were on the top of the world. Fulmars sheared over the cliff edges, coming back for a second look when they spied us, and the usual suspects of Kittiwakes and Brünnich's Guillemots maintained their seaside cacophony. Not a breath of wind stirred but as the clouds rose and enveloped all but the pinnacle we were sitting on, we thought it was time to head back, slowly, as the route down from Kálfatindar is not the place to make a wrong turn in the fog. On the way down we came across a group of youngsters on their way up. A couple of hundred metres further on a girl from the group was waiting on her own. Whilst we were encouraging her to continue, I noticed a familiar silhouette on the rocks 20 metres away. "Ah look an Arctic Fox," I said. The girl shot to her feet, terrified, "An Arctic Fox! And here I am on my own in the fog." I reassured her that there was an Arctic Fox behind her, not a Lion, but her reaction was typical. Most cultures have developed a well-founded fear of the largest predator. In Africa the Masai proved their manhood by killing the Lion, in the Arctic the Inuit feared the Polar Bear, whilst across large areas of Asia the Tiger was the traditional enemy. In Iceland there was nothing more than Arctic Foxes so people have had to blow the dangers of this poodle-sized beast out of all proportion in order to maintain the centuries of hatred. Arguably the greatest attraction of Hornstrandir to the visiting naturalist is the fact that Arctic Foxes, elusive across most of Iceland, are common here and as they aren't hunted, they are tame and Hornstrandir offers easily the best chance of seeing this exquisite mammal in Iceland. Our first encounter was when we were unloading the gear from the zodiac on the beach. A brown fox trotted past us and had me scrambling for my binoculars. It was the last time I really needed them. At dinner I suddenly noticed a vixen calmly walk up to the table and look up at us before trotting off again. Over the next four nights this vixen would visit us regularly, coming to within a metre of us, whereas her three cubs remained warier. At night when we needed to attend a call of nature in the white northern night, the fox cubs were often playing around the tents, but we never saw them in the morning, as this was perhaps the time they spent asleep. The tourist season is very short at Hornstrandir and these foxes only see people for around 6-8 weeks every summer, but I suspect they use the generosity of the tourists to fatten up a bit for the coming winter. I certainly accidentally on purpose dropped the odd piece of chicken or fish onto the grass. In the winter the foxes comb the beaches for washed up birds, seal carcasses, anything they can eat. On our day walks we generally encountered two or three foxes (I usually get one or two sightings a year, I didn’t see a single one in 2005 and I spend a lot of time in the countryside!) and the AGGA-GAGG bark was a familiar sound of the fells. All in all we felt immensely privileged to see this remote world of driftwood covered shores and waterfalls, teeming bird cliffs and inquisitive foxes, a true world of wonders. Like many first time visitors to Hornstrandir, I vowed to return.