Trip Report

Whooper Swan Reykjavik, IS Eurasian Wigeon Soltjarnarnes, IS  Gljufrafoss Waterfall, IS Northern Fulmar Keflavik, IS Boat Harbour Keflavik, IS
  • Whooper Swan Reykjavik, IS
  • Eurasian Wigeon Soltjarnarnes, IS
  •  Gljufrafoss Waterfall, IS
  • Northern Fulmar Keflavik, IS
  • Boat Harbour Keflavik, IS

 


Iceland Trip Report – March 2019

 

 

March 22
Most flights seem to arrive in Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport early in the morning so yes, several of us arrived somewhat bleary-eyed after our overnight red-eye flights. After picking up most of the group, we headed to our hotel in Reykjavik – our base for the next week. The Icelandair hotel was obviously very popular with visitors from many countries, as the languages spoken at breakfast ran the gamut from Japan to Australia to the UK. After a brief rest we hit a couple of local places in town; the closest being “Tjornin” or the pond in the middle of Reykjavik. Even with snow squalls blowing through on a regular basis, we enjoyed a good number of wintering waterfowl, including Tufted Duck, Graylag Goose, Red-breasted Merganser and our only Greater Scaup of the trip. A Pink-footed Goose was a nice surprise and a local rarity and this individual may have been here since November!  The nearby park was very quiet (hardly a surprise), but a single Redwing was singing a sub-song from a dense spruce. A brief drive around the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula produced good numbers of waterfowl, including flocks of Common Eider (a very common bird here along Iceland’s rocky coastline), Long-tailed Duck, and Purple Sandpiper. The snow squalls continued as we passed the local golf course where the visibility became terrible. Small numbers of Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon and a local rarity, Gadwall were glimpsed through the driving snow! Dinner was the buffet back at the hotel; pretty good considering the quantity of people that circulate through the hotel on a daily basis.

March 23
This morning we decided to head north out of Reykjavik to the nearby Akranes Peninsula. About 30 Km north of town, this windswept finger of land is linked to the mainland with a 6 Km tunnel under the fjord. The weather looked pretty decent as we drove around the town, having seen several flocks of Snow Buntings along the way. The Akranes lighthouse stands on rocks overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with Greenland being the next land to the west at about 1100 Km or 750 Miles. The wind howled and snow started to blow horizontally as we looked out over the sea. Eurasian Oystercatchers and Purple Sandpipers flocked on the exposed rocks and flotillas of Common Eiders bobbed on the wave-tossed sea, but soon after we watched them for a while, we retreated back to the van! After driving through the town, followed by a stop at a Bonus for lunch supplies we found a spot for lunch (eaten in the car of course!), and then headed inland on a minor road on our way back to Reykjavik. The road was mostly snow-covered with very little birdlife visible along the way. A few Common Ravens were obvious but otherwise it was very quiet. We stopped at mostly frozen waterfalls and saw Icelandic Ponies in their snow-covered pastures along the way before reaching the main Reykjavik road which was thankfully not so snow-covered. A Merlin and some Common Mergansers were seen along the roadside before we got to our next destination, Lake Ellidavatn, which is good for wintering diving ducks, including Ring-necked. Alas, we didn’t find the latter, but more Common Mergansers were feeding or resting on the ice floes. It was then down to a sheltered bay where some Horned Grebes had been reported. Also known as Slavonian Grebe here in Europe, only a few spend the winter this far north, and once again these 3 birds were the only ones of the trip. Aside from sheltering from the cold rain that briefly swept in, the birding in the harbor was excellent. Small flocks of Eurasian Wigeon and Green-winged (Common) Teal were feeding closely along the seaweed-covered rocks along with Common Redshank, Ruddy Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. We finished the day walking through a patch of forest; a mix of alders, birches and Norway Spruce- probably most of it being a reforested area. We stopped by a spot where a Common Snipe had been reported and soon picked it up as it flushed from a wet ditch and flew away. The walk through the trees wasn’t too productive, but we eventually found a couple of singing Goldcrest in the conifers and some of the group heard and glimpsed a Eurasian Wren, which unfortunately was the only one of the tour.
March 24
It was a very cold and windy morning again today with icy winds blasting us as we walked down the icy slope towards the Kopavogur harbor. Our target bird this morning was a female King Eider which had been reported here earlier in the month. Very few birds get reported in Iceland during the winter months as there are very few birders braving the elements, but one good fact is that once a bird, such as this King Eider, settles in one place it usually is there for the duration of the winter. We quickly found the female King (Queen?) and had great comparisons with a pair of Common Eiders with which it was associating. Then it was back to the van to get warm again before continuing our exploration of the Keflavik Peninsula. This area is often a very productive route with the road passing small harbors, cliffs and roadside ponds. The sheltered harbor outside Keflavik hosts breeding alcids during the summer months, with occasional winter sightings, but not today as the only birds prospecting the windswept cliffs were pairs of Northern Fulmars. Many gulls were loafing in the roadside ponds as we drove north through Gardur until we reached the lighthouse. The wind was howling and the seas were quite impressive, especially when watching a fishing boat crashing through the waves and disappearing from view. Strings of gulls were streaming past the point and a line of Common Eiders seemed to stretch to the horizon – the fishing must be good for this many birds to amass in this area.
We continued south along the peninsula with stops at various bays and mudflats. At Sandgeroi we had more Common Redshank, Ruddy Turnstone and our first and only Eurasian Curlew of the trip. Our E-bird sources had informed us that the Hafnir estuary had wintering Harlequin Ducks, and true to form, they were awaiting us and we had stunning views of at least a dozen of these beautiful ducks. We finished the day in Grindavik, a small fishing town where we were surprised to see Icelandic surfers! Apparently they have especially-designed wetsuits that enable them to survive and surf in these frigid waters. A chance meeting with Ruben, a Dutchman working in Iceland, found us having dinner and Icelandic ales at a nice pizza place in town – pretty good for such a small port during the winter.   

March 25
The weather predictions for the next day were completely random. Some forecast afternoon rain, while others said it would rain all day! Well, the latter was correct and we set out eastwards towards Lake Laugarvatn, where small numbers of Barrow’s Goldeneyes spend the winter. Most of the lake was frozen over and the snow was inches deep on the roads and across the countryside, but we still managed to access as much of the habitat as possible. We did eventually find the Goldeneye which was good, as none of us wanted to make the journey again. The heavy rain was melting the snow, which made lakes of very cold water in most of the parking lots – those of us who had rubber boots had no problems at all! Lunch was at the pizza/burger joint/fuel station/shop/convenience store before we headed west to the Snaesfellsjokull Peninsula where a White-tailed Eagle had been reported a few times over the last few days. When we got to the correct area the weather was dreadful with intermittent rain, snow and foggy conditions, but we followed the very muddy road towards the estuary. (Waterfowl = White-tailed Eagle hopefully!) Bill was the star when he saw a shape flying across the road which morphed into an adult White-tailed Eagle being chased by 2 Common Ravens. They were the first birds we had seen since leaving the main road and along with a few Whooper Swans, that was all we had that afternoon – quality, not quantity!
Dinner tonight was in Reykjavik at Solon Restaurant. A very nice place downtown with delicious fish and a bistro type atmosphere.

March 26
Our first stop this morning was a nearby churchyard. This is a wonderful spot with large trees, dense undergrowth and a fascinating array of graves dating back over a hundred years. All of the trees gave it a very old-world appearance and with them we hoped for a few passerines in the vegetation. The first thing that hit us was the birdsong and it was the recently-arrived Redwings (a small European thrush) that were adding their voices to the otherwise quiet surroundings. Some kind person had put down apple peelings and filled a couple of bird feeders, so this was the place to wait and watch. Lots of Redwings were coming in to feed on the fruit, as were several European Blackbirds. We had to wait for a while for the shyer Fieldfares, but they eventually gave us some great views. Also a handful of Common Redpolls were coming to the seed feeders.
Today we decided to head south again to explore the southeastern coastline starting where we left off yesterday in Grindavik. The harbor didn’t produce the previously-reported Mew (Common) Gull, but the little café had some hot coffee to warm us up! Various stops along the coastline produced several more Harlequins and a stake-out Common Scoter.   During our stop in Eyrarbakka we saw the oldest house in Iceland, which I believe was built in 1750 or so. The rest of the town was also fairly old with the houses all looking solid and low to avoid the worst of the Iceland winters! The next village along the coast was home to a jail, which, aside from a few cars parked outside, looked somewhat empty. We mulled over whether there was enough crime in Iceland to warrant a jail! Another stake-out bird was just up the road, so we followed directions past the Selfoss “Airport” and through a construction site to a lake. A female Merlin was working her way along the lake where our target bird was quickly found along with several Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal; a Common Shelduck.  This is a rare breeding bird in Iceland, and an even rarer wintering bird, so we were lucky to find this individual. After a drive to look for geese (we got more Pink-feet) dinner was in the center of Selfoss, a smallish town the river and in an old house that had been modified. We ate in an upstairs room and again, had a delicious meal.  

March 27
We had originally thought of driving to Vik the previous day, but we just didn’t make it. Our first stop this morning was the Gljufrafoss Waterfall, where, along with all the tourist cars and coaches, we watched the impressive falls – through gale force winds and snow squalls. Fulmars were flying all around the cliffs and probably looking for potential nest sites; never seeming to have any problems with the vile weather conditions.  Vik was a smaller town than I had imagined with black volcanic sand beaches that made for interesting walking with the strong winds. The scenery was spectacular as we continued our drive east through lava fields, over braided river systems and past glaciers. Our destination was a wetland where Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail and Red-throated Loons had been reported. It was still a longish drive from Vik and the snow squalls were still passing through (we had to shelter behind the cabins at least once!) but we arrived with plenty of time to explore the area. It was difficult to figure out quite where to go, but we soon discovered a gravel trail that extended out into the wetlands. It even went to a picnic table which we were certainly not planning to use in the current wintry weather. It took a little while, but we soon found three male Northern Pintail mixed in with the abundant Eurasian Wigeon and Mallard. Several Common Goldeneye were on a distant patch of open water, along with a male Long-tailed Duck, but there was no sign of the Loons. Rather than retrace our step back to Vik, we decided to then return to Vik along route 204; a circular route that rejoined the main road near the main river. The road traversed fields and open country before turning into a gravel road, which did get me wondering a little as we had quite a way still to drive. Amazingly we found a pair of Red-throated Loons on a small roadside pool where they will probably breed. Another surprise was a couple of large flocks (maybe 250+) of White-fronted Geese that were probably passing through on their way to Greenland. Dinner was back in Vik at a giant shopping complex full of Icelandic sweaters, socks and the like and then it was the 2 hour drive back to Reykjavik.  The roads were good, but the weather deteriorated as we passed Selfoss and started to climb towards the mountain pass. The road soon became snow-covered and somewhat treacherous and as we drove up towards the pass, the snow started! It was slow going in single file as we drove up the mountain with periodic white-outs making for interesting driving. Thankfully everyone knows how to drive in these conditions and we got back to Reykjavik with no problems at all.

March 28
We awoke to yet more snow and a parking lot covered with about 2-3” of fresh snow. Needless to say the morning traffic took very little notice and the snowplows were already out and about. As most of us were leaving today, we couldn’t go that far and the snow was still coming down making traveling interesting! We decided to go to Fossvogur; the local churchyard. The overnight snow had covered the ground and it was a beautiful walk through the fresh snow. Birds were a lot quieter than the other day and we had difficulty finding the fruit scraps from earlier in the week. By the time we uncovered them, we had attracted several European Blackbirds, but the flock of Redwings from earlier in the week was not around.
We finished the tour with 56 species, which may not sound like a big list, was very impressive for a winter trip to Iceland.
Thanks to everyone for making the tour so enjoyable.


Simon Thompson

 

Birds and other wildlife seen on our Winter Venture to Iceland: March 2019

 

 

Graylag Goose
Greater White-fronted Goose
Pink-footed Goose
Whooper Swan
Common Shelduck
Gadwall
Eurasian Wigeon
Mallard
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Tufted Duck
Greater Scaup
King Eider
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck
Common Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye

Barrow's Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Rock Ptarmigan
Horned Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Eurasian Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper
Common Snipe
Common Redshank
Black Guillemot
Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-headed Gull
Mew Gull
Herring Gull
Iceland Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull

Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
European Shag
White-tailed Eagle
Merlin
Common Raven
Eurasian Wren
Goldcrest
Redwing
Eurasian Blackbird
Fieldfare
European Starling
Common Redpoll
Snow Bunting

 

 

Mammals:

Common Seal

Domestic Rabbit (feral)