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A Report from

Iceland - fire, water and....birds!- 9th-22nd July 2005,

Lutz Lücker 5, Fort-L'Ecluse – CH-1213 Pt.-Lancy/Geneva / Switzerland,
Daniel Nussbaumer, Neuchâtel and Gérald Berney/Onex/GE.

Travel :

We arranged for a package holiday with Kontiki Saga/Switzerland, including flight Geneva-Reykjavik, a round tour of Iceland, mainly on road n.1 with stopovers in 9 different places (hotels, guesthouses, holiday chalets, all category III or IV with bathroom /WC), and a Toyota Corolla estate car from Hertz. Not cheap ( about 4000.- sfr pp), but handy. Beware! When leaving a guesthouse you will have to tell reception to call the next place in case you might arrive later than 6 p.m.! Otherwise your room might be given to other people…

Maps :

We used the more up to date 1:500.000 Landmaelingar Islands map as well as Freytag & Berndt's road map (same scale). It is better to have both since many place names do not figure on both maps. The official (free) holiday home guide is useful because there are photos of all places you might be steering to. A picture of a forlorn cottage somewhere off the main road is better than an (overlooked) roadside sign…

Daily route, weather and highlights

Our route went round Iceland anti-clockwise. We stopped at/in Gullfoss Hotel, Vellir/Vik, Efri-Vik/Kirkjubaerklaustur, Smyrlabjörg W of Höfn, Egilstadir, Sveinbjarnagerdi N of Akureyri, Stadarskali S of Hvammstangi, Langaholt E of Snaefellsjökull and Borg near Borgarnes.  

The weather was quite mixed as usual. Temperatures from 5 to 22°C, sometimes very windy, quite a lot of drizzle but we only got really wet once. A few bright, calm, sunny days as well. Can't do better in July, it seems.

We saw 72 bird species. No white-tailed Eagles, Grey Phalaropes or Snowy Owls (there were 2 of those in the Westfjords…) but all the other target species such as Great northern Diver, Harlequin Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye, Pink-footed Goose, Gyrfalcon, Brunnich's Guillemot, with an unexpected American Wigeon as a bonus. Plus Arctic fox, Common and Grey Seal, Harbour Porpoise, White-beaked Dolphins, as well as several Minke and probably also a few Fin Whales.

9th July:

Having landed after midnight and lost a lot of time with Hertz car rental (office full on a Sat. morning…), off we go on road no 36 to Thingvellir to have a look at the rift that goes right through Iceland and separates the country in an American west part and a European East. Spot the first of many Great Northern Divers and Red-throated Divers on some of the bigger (and smaller) roadside lakes which also hold a few Whooper Swans and lots of Greylag Geese. Hundreds of Fulmars in the coastal cliffs, dozens of Snipe drumming almost anywhere. Whimbrel, Redshank, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Golden Plover common, Black-tailed Godwits less so. Several colonies of Arctic Terns and still the amazingly different songs of numerous Redwing. First impression: birds everywhere! Following roads 365 and 35, we arrive at the famous Geysir site with old faithful Strokkur still belching its fountain every 5-10 minutes. In late afternoon, we find majestic Gullfoss and nearly get wet. Very tasty lamb soup in Gullfoss restaurant. Not cheap but we can eat as much as we like. And we do! In the evening we follow road 35 NE. It has been improved and is no longer reserved for 4-wheel drive cars. You can actually cross the whole of Iceland until you arrive on the northern coast between Blönduos and Varmahlid.. Sadly, our schedule does not leave any time for that and we turn round miles from nowhere near Langjökull glacier. Great sites but  birds very thin on the ground. Weather: overcast with few sunny spells and some showers.

10th July:

Grey morning. We go south on road 35 towards Selfoss, then SE to reach Myrdalsjökull in the evening. A few Gannets near Eyrarbakki where we see our first Long-tailed Duck, a male in breeding plumage! More and more Red-breasted Mergansers. After looking at Seljalandsfoss (you can actually walk behind the water curtain!) and mighty Skogafoss waterfalls, we arrive in our cottage at Vellir where we can watch Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas hunting over the coastal plains from our kitchen window! Sublime Myrdalsjökull glacier on the bedroom side. Have to drive 15 miles to Vik to get some food. (Cloudy with showers, few sunny spells).

11th July
Bright morning but unforgiving clouds arrive just after breakfast. Off we got to Reynishverfi cliffs to see hundreds of Puffins, some only a few feet from the tourists. Unendingly long beach of black sand. Spectacular, but very windy up there!

Next stop (by road 218): the beaches and cliffs of Dyrholaey with roosting Common Eiders, and on the stacks a colony of Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots and our first pair of Brünnich's Guillemot in the rain which forces us to a cautious retreat to our car.

Then we cross the empty plains of Myrdalsandur with more Great Skuas, as well as huge moss-covered Lava fields and take road 204 after arriving at Efri-Vik and having a look at Systrafoss waterfall. First "nice" observations of Red-necked phalaropes on small roadside ponds. Night in modest but handy cottage with cheap supermarket cuisine. Snipe sitting a few yards from our cottage. (Overcast, windy, with showers, sunnier in late afternoon.)

12th July

Sunny morning with stopovers at Krossarfoss and Nupstadur mini-church, overlooking the dangerous Skeidararsandur plains with countless glacial rivers and Lomagnupur, a 767 m cliff. Our aim is Skaftafell national park with Svartifoss waterfall, just below Iceland's highest summit, 7000 ft-Snaebreid on Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier (about 80 miles wide). We do a 2-hour walk up into the park. Snipe and Redwing everywhere. One lone Ptarmigan at the car park. Rock doves by the cliffs and first Snow Buntings in the glacier plains west of the park. Several pairs of Great Skua nest near Fjällsjökull, just by the main road and dive-bomb at us when we come too close, which allows the making of a few spectacular pictures.

On we go to Breidarlon and Jökulsarlon glacier lakes. Roadside nest of Red-throated Divers and our first Harlequin Duck, a male (not yet in eclipse plumage!) diving with a Common seal in between some of the many hundreds of icebergs on the lake! Our best bottle will be dedicated to this bird! Night miles from nowhere in Smyrlabjörg, excellent hotel with a REAL coffee machine and a concert of Whooper Swans, Red-throated Divers, Snipe and Redwing outside our window.

13th July:

Sunny morning drive through small but aggressive Arctic tern colonies to Flaajökull glacier and lake. More snow buntings, singing and feeding young in the rubble. Many roadside pools along the road to Höfn hold up to 200 Red-necked Phalaropes, AND we spot our only 3 Reindeer in the coastal plains. We arrive in Höfn only to learn from "Binni" (Brynjúlfur Brynjólfsson), a very helpful birder, that we have just dipped a White-rumped Sandpiper. He also tells us where one might find King Eider, White-winged Scoter and Velvet Scoter at this time of year but we won't find those either. But Binni is very proud of his first ringed Common Crossbill, not very common here. Lots of Dunlin in the harbour, with good numbers of Knot and a few Sanderlings, Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone. And hundreds of Whooper Swan with a lone Great Northern Diver in Hornafjördur bay.

14th July:

Splendid weather! With several thousands of Whooper Swans in Skardsfjördur bay. We leave the Höfn area to drive NE and find about 7000 moulting Common Eider between Hvalnes and Thvottarskridur, together with a few hundred Common Scoter and 19 Harlequin ducks. Alas, no sight of the promised King Eider, Surf Scoter and White-winged Scoter (American subspecies of Velvet Scoter). But the sight of the sheer mass of birds is impressive. A few Black Guillemots and Puffins on the water, too. The moulting ground is where the coastal (unsurfaced) road climbs  upwards; be careful when choosing a parking space, preferably in between the two cliffs where no rocks can fall on your car. It is only a short walk to the coastline where the ducks rest.

In Alftafjördur our first imm. Glaucous gull and some more Harlequin ducks. In Djupivogur harbour two adult Glaucous but they are very small with quite a dark mantle, possibly Herring Gull hybrids. We follow the East fjords to Stödvarfjördur but find no trace of the numerous Ptarmigan; the vegetation is just to high. Better come in early spring! Some miles off we behold the Gannet colony of Skrudur, but the top of the cliffs is shrouded in coastal fog.

Long drive to Egilstadir to find our old-fashioned but sublime 4-star guesthouse on the lakeside with calling Red-throated divers and singing Redpoll in the garden. Best coffee in Iceland!

15th July:

Long drive over the high plateaus to the north. We find a Merlin defending his nest or young against intruding sheep near Hvanna in Jökuldalur. Stop where road 901 (anciently no.1) forks left. Pools with Whooper Swan, Scaup, Long-tailed duck (with chicks) and other duck. We stay on the old road and cross the lonesome Mödrudalsfjallgardar volcanic deserts in search of the elusive Pink-footed Geese. And sure enough, we end up finding several places with nearly 200 geese in different wetlands on both sides of the road. They are very weary and far away from roads but not too difficult to find by careful scope scanning.  After another bit of road no.1 we take right on (very dusty and bumpy) no. 864 towards majestic Dettifoss. And we did not regret it. The site is just a marvel in spite of the numerous tourists. We walk a mile upstream towards another, smaller waterfall and then drive 2 miles downstream to see more of the canyon with thundering Hafragilsfoss.  And somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, we stumble upon a young Gyrfalcon sitting and preening on the edge of the canyon! While we approach, two more juv. Falcons arrive, hover just a few yards above our heads and perch in different places, sometimes on a nearby road, only flying away when a car arrives. At one time, Gérald sits less than 15 yards from one of them. Of course, he did not have his telephoto gear with him! But those are unforgettable moments, not to be marred by frantic manipulation of optic devices! Very long drive back to Egilstadir, only interrupted by a family of Pink-footed Geese sitting close to the main road in Framland. Only 21 species, but what a day!

16th July:

We leave Egilstadir and drive back across the high plateaus towards Myvatn where we arrive at noon, just when the sun disappears for a few days behind thick clouds. We decide to first have a look at the Myvatn-Krafla volcanic areas and stop by a small roadside cliff which holds a small raptor nest. And sure enough, there is a Merlin alarming not far away, but on the next summit, there sits a much larger bird of prey, an adult Gyrfalcon! With an old, empty nest below. After a short while, it flies to another part of the cliff and we discover this year's nest, still with 1 begging and 1 sleeping young! The adult just watches us quietly, sometimes closing one of his eyes, not at all alarmed. We refrain from trying to get closer and make pictures and just benefit from the tranquil atmosphere and excellent views of both adult and juveniles.

The geothermic Krafla volcano is something different. Very noisy, hissing and sputtering, and of course, with lots of tourists who thankfully do not all undertake the 90 min. round trip of the area where you can actually walk across steaming and smoking lava fields and in between hot sources and blubbering, boiling mud pots. It is good to have digital cameras when the sky is overcast because the colours on slide or negatives photographs would not come out good enough. A symphony of black, grey, light blue, yellow, buff and nearly orange tinges and shades, really unique!

And now we plunge into the much-dreaded Myvatn lake area. But thanks to the cool weather, this time, there are no blackflies or midges only birds, birds, birds…..! 10 differents species of duck, Whooper Swans, fantastic Slavonian Grebes in breeding plumage with chicks…and a mother Tufted duck having adopted six Red-breasted Merganser chicks! Difficult to decide where to begin to watch. We systematically drive up the eastern shore stopping wherever possible and soon discover our first Barrow's Goldeneye, a splendid male in breeding plumage. Next bottle to be opened at the Hotel late in the evening.

But the best spot of the area is undoubtedly the NW corner of the lake, by the Laxa river bridge. Just leave your car by the bridge and walk upstream on the eastern bank. You will soon get small groups of Harlequin ducks sitting unobtrusively on the bank or on rocks in mid-stream, just a few yards from where you are. And more and more Barrow's Goldeneye, numerous Scaup families, all those duck with surprisingly short flight distances, it is nearly like in a zoo! Even another adult Gyrfalcon that flies over the river, does not stir any serious panic among the waterfowl. Did the birds know it was not hungry? The falcon left with a few noisy Whimbrel and Redshank tailing him.

Rain starts just as wee arrive back at the car and we drive to Sveinbjarnagerdi in Eyjafjördur, leaving nearby Godafoss on its postcards. Too wet!

17th July:

Early morning start and drive to Husavik where we try to find Grey Phalarope in the pools at Laxamyri and just south of the town, one of them steaming and warm. Lots of Red-necked Phalaropes, but no grey ones. One pair of Great Northern Divers with chicks is a surprise because the lake by the holiday chalets is really small.

The Whale Watching tour in Husavik is postponed because of strong winds. We meet friendly Gaukur Hjartarsson who shows us a female ptarmigan with chicks in an Arctic tern colony, and an imm. Glaucous Gull near the cliffs, but the long sought-after Iceland Gull is not here today!

We head S to explore Myvatn's western shore where an American Wigeon had been spotted a few days ago near Skutustadir. No Wigeon in this place but we find a large flock a mile further north, and after some painstaking scanning in a stiff breeze and very bad light we find the bird, already half in eclipse plumage but still easy to distinguish from the other male Eurasian Wigeon in the vicinity. Nice, unexpected bonus lifer bird! We spot more Great Northern Divers, Barrow's Goldeneyes and Slavonian Grebes, on and off, no great deal on this unique jewel of a lake! Back to the hotel in fog and drizzle!

18th July:

This time we are lucky and our whale watching tour leaves only one hour late. Unfortunately, the North Atlantic swell is still quite strong and the animals very difficult to detect. Lots of seasick people on the boat. We end up spotting a family of White-beaked Dolphins, one Minke Whale and a few Harbour Porpoises. A bit disappointing, bearing in mind the fee for the trip, but it could have been worse!

Still no news from our Iceland Gull (very misleading name!), so we explore lonely Tjörnes and Melrakkaslétta peninsulas, supposed to be very good for Ptarmigan, but in summer they still vanish in the thick layer of vegetation. Need a good dog to find them!

We spot a few imm. ad. Glaucous Gulls north and south of Kopasker, Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas,  until we arrive at Nupskatla-Raudinupur lighthouse after a VERY unpleasant 15-min. walk across huge boulders on the beach. It would have been possible to avoid this bit by taking the first (western) road to Grjotnes farm, but this trail is much longer and we did not want to get lost in the coastal fog. Well, our reward was not only a small Gannet colony, less than 200 yds. from our cliff but another ad. (the 8th!)  Gyrfalcon that disappeared in the mist. All auks were present, including good numbers of Brünnich's Guillemots. After some hot-dog dinner in Kopasker supermarket with a leucistic fem. Common Eider in the harbour we head home under low cloud with occasional drizzle.

19th July:

Quite an uneventful journey via Akureyri (no Iceland Gull at the river mouth…) , the mountains in Öxnadalsheidi (no falcons…) and Blönduos (no Iceland Gull, either, only Glaucous Gulls.). The mountains still being shrouded by low cloud, we decide to drive round Vatsnes peninsula. Lovely sights of Golden Plover and Black-tailed Godwit, some more Glaucous Gulls and a  group of 180 Common Seals with at least one Grey Seal at the outlet of Sigridarstadavatn. Some more Glaucous gulls in Hvammstangi harbour before we arrive at Stadarskali hotel, miles from nowhere, just below the layer of sea fog.

20th July:

Nice drive to Snafellsnes peninsula via roads 1, 61, 59 and 54. The weather clears up as soon as we reach Hvammsfjördur bay. Dozens of large and small islands and a blue sky. Too late to get the ferry from Stykkisholmur to see Grey Phalaropes on Flatey island. And, of course, no White-tailed Eagles around. (This is where one must look for them.) But we find a group of 200 Knot in the bay behind (W of) the harbour. We drive further west to Grundarfjördur with its churchlike Kirkjufell mountain, hundreds of Whooper Swan in Alftafjördur and hundreds of mostly adult Glaucous Gulls bathing in river mouths, flying after fishing vessels or beleaguering salmon farms. Here we have the really big ones, not the smallish Herring-gull like birds from the south and the north-east coast. We pass south of majestic Snaefellsjökull glacier. Hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes on the lakes at Rif, but no Grey ones. This was supposed to  be another good bet to get them.  Lots of Arctic tern, Dunlin and Duck on these lakes but few species. Last, we drive to Skardsvik/Önverdarnes lighthouse to see the Kittiwake and Auk colonies with good numbers of Brünnich Guillemots, easy to photograph, just 4 feet from the cliff edge. While we are driving round the south-western edge of the peninsula on road 574, the fair weather comes to an end before we arrive at Langaholt guesthouse with Whimbrel sitting on the laundry line with chicks feeding right in front of our bedroom window. But no postcard sights of the glacier from the beach.

21st July:

Dire waking with drizzle. Have a look at the lakes east and west of Langaholt. Nice views of several Great Northern Divers, Whooper Swan, Slavonian Grebe and plenty of duck, (and our first Gadwall families).We decide NOT to go to Flatey, after all but drive back to Rif over the mountains on road 54. Same birds as yesterday. Whale watching tour in Olafsvik (reputedly the best one in Iceland) much too expensive. So we drive east again on road 54, then over the mountains on rd.55 (very scenic). The weather improves rapidly, but the Flatey ferry had left….Arrive in Borg/Borgarness early and leave our bags at the guesthouse, an old hunting and fishing lodge by a river where salmon fishing will cost you….220.000 Kronur A DAY! As our landlord said, you need a jeep and a bank for fishing here! But they do have 15-kilo fish!

We try our luck finding White-tailed eagle near Grjoteyri farm east of Borgarfjördur (rd.53) but to no avail. So we drive on to the bottom of the valley on rd. 518 to see Hraunfossar/Barnafoss waterfalls and even further (rds 550/551), to the very end of a (good) track where we end up 50 yards from Langjökull glacier at some sort of skiing and snowmobile station. No vegetation, no birds, only ice, water and rubble. But what splendid views one has from here! We take road 518/523 on the northern side of the river and suddenly, an Arctic Fox leaps away from the roadside. We stop, the fox reappears and has a sharp look at us, allowing me to get good views through my scope. I had already lost hope we would ever find one! They seem to thrive and are sometimes even shot by anxious sheep breeders. So do not expect them to be as cooperative as in uninhabited places like in Hornstrandir which seems to be their stronghold. But we have another bottle to celebrate the fox….and our first real Icelandic sunset over the sea.

22nd July

Uneventful journey through Reykjavik. Beware; the Hvalfjördur tunnel toll is 1000 kronur! Better drive round the bay. You may miss a few birds for all your money.

We cross Keflavik and stop at the small lakes by Gardur sports centre. And there it is…the long sought-after Iceland Gull, swimming like a Phalarope among Lesser black-backed gulls, smallish bird, long wing (it only had one, that is why it was still there), long neck, slender bill. Well, Iceland Gulls are nearly all in Greenland in July unless they cannot fly! And this one could not! But the promised long-staying American Black Duck does not show up (it seems to disappear in July) so we drive to Gardskagi lighthouse and spend hours watching White-beaked dolphins, Minke Whales and probably one or two Fin Whales. They just seemed too large to be Minke Whales! One adult Gull seemed to be Iceland gull (as small as the Lesser Black-backed Gull around, longish wings, round head, same technique of pecking the surface as the one in Gardur), but the distance was a bit far; it might have been a very small Glaucous Gull. A few Storm Petrels flutter over the surface in broad daylight (quite far, too far to expect to get the odd Leach's petrel…) and dozens of Manx Shearwaters glide over the calm water, more than 200 in all. The weather is virtually cloudless, warm and there is no wind either.

We take roads 45, 41 and 425 to Reykjanesta lighthouse with more seabirds colonies and nice Purple sandpipers roosting at high tide on the Lava basalt rocks. Gannets are flying to nearby but invisible Eldey colony. But we have to leave the place because of incoming sea fog, return to Gardskagi after visiting ponds out of Sandgerdi with lots of Duck and Greylag Geese. We stay by the lighthouse, basking in the sun, watching more whales and hundreds of small waders at high tide, until we have to say goodbye because our plane will not wait…..

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