Bird Nerds Abroad: Part III – Iceland

European Birding, Iceland Birding

Iceland. Where do we begin? It’s like Denmark and Wyoming had a baby that was raised on the coast of Maine. Volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, moss, horses and sheep, and of course, birds. Interestingly, there are not many species of birds in Iceland, even at the end of May, when most of the migrants have already arrived. But the migrants go there for one reason: breeding.  And what this island lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality.

Iceland is attractive to breeding birds for several reasons. Its harsh winters prevent many species from living there year round, so when migrants arrive in the spring, there is relatively little competition waiting for them. Also, Iceland’s volcanic geology results in numerous dramatic cliffs that provide nesting locations for many sea-based birds. Because Iceland is almost entirely treeless, there are very few songbirds. Instead, the avifauna is dominated by cliff-nesting pelagic (ocean-based) birds and shorebirds.

We only had two and a half days in Iceland, so we decided to make them count. We landed at Keflavík Airport in southwestern Iceland early on the morning on May 22, 2015 and headed out to find birds in our under-powered Suzuki SUV rental. Our first destination was the bird cliffs in the village of Hellnar on the Snæfellsnes, a peninsula on the central western coast of Iceland – about a three hour drive from Keflavík. Luckily, the weather was excellent by Icelandic standards (around 55º F and sunny).

The birds cliffs in the village of Hellnar

The birds cliffs in the village of Hellnar

These rugged basalt cliffs suit the breeding habits of several species of birds – the first one we were able to ID was the Northern Fulmar (LL). The Northern Fulmar closely resembles a gull, but is actually part of a group of pelagic birds called tubenoses, which includes petrels, storm-petrels, shearwaters, and albatrosses. These birds have their nostrils encased in tubes and can excrete excess salt from a nasal gland, allowing them to drink seawater.

A breeding pair of Northern Fulmar

A breeding pair of Northern Fulmar

The next cliff-nesting bird we ID’d was the Black-legged Kittiwake (LL). These birds resemble gulls because they are actually closely related. However, in our opinion, their pristine white plumage paired with a pure yellow bill makes them more attractive than the average gull. Plus, they don’t eat garbage.

Breeding pair of Black-legged Kittiwake

Breeding pair of Black-legged Kittiwake

Part of what makes birding in Iceland so special is that the birds are there only for a short time in order to breed. Because the landscape is almost treeless, there are no places for the birds to hide, so all bird behavior is conducted out in the open. We saw White Wagtails (one of the few songbirds in Iceland) like this several times in England and France.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

But what we didn’t see in England and France was aggressive White Wagtails fighting for supremacy in the sky above our heads.

White Wagtail battle

White Wagtail battle

We had lunch at a cafe in Hellnar overlooking the birds cliffs. Soup, a sandwich and two beers cost us about $60, but it was worth it to see all the birds around us as we ate. We had Gull brand beer, of course. Travel tip: restaurants here are very pricey, but the grocery stores we went to were wonderful and affordable (we went to one called Bónus that had a drunk pig for a mascot). Stock up there!

11203173_10153242890704034_7239332551819245985_n

Lunch (with Gull beer) with a view, worth every króna.

After lunch, we continued west along the Snæfellsnes to another set of bird cliffs called Þúfubjarg. There were plenty of Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake at Þúfubjarg, but there were also chubby black and white puffin-like birds huddled on small ledges along the cliff face.

The bird cliffs at Þúfubjarg

The bird cliffs at Þúfubjarg

With some close observation and a thorough study of our field guide, were were able to determine that some of the chubby black and white birds were Common Murres (LL).

Common Murres

Common Murres

The Common Murre is a member of the alcid family, which includes puffins, murres, guillemots, and razorbills. Despite their tuxedo appearance and labored flight, they are not closely related to penguins. With a bit more detective work and careful study of the field guide, we determined that there was another alcid sharing the cliffs: the Thick-billed Murre (or as it is referred to in Europe, the Brünnich’s Guillemot).

Thick-billed Murre

Thick-billed Murre

We were unable to capture it in our blurry photos, but the two species are differentiated by their bills, a white line at the base of the bill and a few subtle differences in plumage.

Londranger

Londrangar cliffs from Þúfubjarg

The afternoon was wearing on, and we still had a few spots to visit before heading back to our hotel near Reyjavík. We snapped this shot of the Londrangar and continued toward the tip of Snæfellsnes to Öndverðarnes, a tiny peninsula with a lighthouse, which is only accessible via a winding one-lane gravel track through a lava bed. At the tip, there are Viking ruins of unknown age including a well and several structures. Gannets, Fulmar and Kittiwake were soaring around us, there were stunning views of the glaciated peaks of the Snæfellsnes, and there was absolutely no one else around – so Tim asked Sarah to marry him and she said yes. The engagement was a perfect cap to one of the best days of birding we’ve ever had.

Northern Fulmar at Öndverðarnes

Northern Fulmar at Öndverðarnes

With his heart still pounding from proposing to his wonderful girlfriend, Tim was able to get photos of some songbirds flitting around us, the only witnesses to our special moment, like this Northern Wheatear (LL):

Northern Wheateater

Northern Wheatear

We also got a view of a Snow Bunting, which is a bird that we have only seen once before. Snow Buntings are regular visitors to the northeastern United States in the winter, but we’d never seen one as closely as this line bird perched on this vesicular (bubble-filled) basalt.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

By the time we saw this bunting, it was getting late and we had a long drive to get back to our hotel near Reykjavík. We were just below 65 degrees north latitude in late May, so sunlight was not an issue, but the temperature was dropping and the wind was picking up. We made a quick stop at two freshwater pools in the village of Rif, but the wind was blowing so fiercely we only stayed for a few minutes. On our drive back, we briefly grabbed a glimpse of one of our top target birds: the Rock Ptarmigan (LL). We’ve seen relatively few game birds, so seeing this local specialty was a treat, even if we couldn’t get a photo.

It was close to 11:00 at night before we reached our hotel near Reykjavík, but the sun was still in twilight. Despite the constant sunlight, we managed to sleep in a bit the next day before heading out to Heiðmörk, a nature preserve about six miles from Reykjavík. Heiðmörk is one of the only forested areas in Iceland and it surrounds the reservoir that provides Reykjavík with drinking water.

The temperature was colder than the day before, the wind was still whipping and it rained on and off all day. Despite the weather, we managed to get some quality birding in. One of the most interesting birds we saw was the Red-Necked Phalarope (LL).

Female Red-necked Phalarope

Female Red-necked Phalarope

The Red-necked Phalarope is a sandpiper that breeds in the arctic and winters at sea. The Iceland breeding population of Red-necked Phalarope spends the winter in the Arabian Sea. They are also one of the few species of bird where the females are more colorful than the males. In addition, the males are the primary caretakers of the young. We were fortunate enough to also get a photo of a male for comparison.

Male Red-necked Phalarope

Male Red-necked Phalarope

While at Heiðmörk, we finally got a nice photo of the Common Redshank, a bird which we had seen numerous times on our European trip, but had eluded our camera lens.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank

On our way out of Heiðmörk, we saw these people riding their horses along a ridge. There are no birds in the photo, but it gives a sense of the breathtaking landscapes of Iceland.

IMG_5389

After leaving Heiðmörk, we went off in search of more Rock Ptarmigan. We scoured the roadsides of southwestern Iceland looking for one, but came up short. We did see an Arctic Fox crossing the road, which is cool because there are very few wild mammals in Iceland. We wondered how this mammal got to Iceland, an island far from any other land – and it turns out the Arctic Fox simply walked there when the ocean was frozen during the last ice age – and has been there ever since, feasting on the many shorebirds.

While driving semi-aimlessly around Iceland, we found a roadside map that referenced the Flói Bird Reserve, which was nearby.  The bird reserve did not yield any ptarmigan, but it did have a blind from which we could peruse the marshy grasslands.

IMG_5410

Classy blind and the Flói Bird Reserve

From the blind we saw several birds such as a Whimbrel, Red-throated Loon, Arctic Tern, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Parasitic Jaeger (also known as Arctic Skua – LL). This birds’ primary feeding strategy is to harass terns and gulls until they drop the food they have stored in their crop (the pouch in their throat for storing extra food) and then snatch it up. This is exactly what we saw one doing to a pair of Arctic Terns. Even though the Parasitic Jaeger is a jerk, it’s cool to watch a jerk display his natural jerk behavior.

Eurasian Oystercatcher

Eurasian Oystercatcher from the Flói Bird Reserve blind

Despite the presence of a blind, the best look we got at a cool bird was this striking Black-tailed Godwit (LL) in a roadside ditch in the reserve.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit

We spent our last day in Iceland birding near the airport, where we added the Lesser Black-backed Gull (LL) to our life list, but saw mainly the same birds as earlier in the trip. Despite not seeing some of the local favorites, such as the Gyrfalcon or White-tailed Eagle, the birding in Iceland was remarkable. We saw just 42 species in our two days in the country, but 16 of them were life list additions. In addition, when we saw a bird in Iceland, we usually saw all of it, not just a portion of it partially obscured by leaves. In short, Iceland is one of the best (if not the best) place we have ever birded.  We can’t wait to return one day for a longer visit.

The Lists:

Hellnar – May 22, 2015 – 2:55 PM – 4:00 PM

Common Eider
Northern Fulmar (LL)
European Shag (LL)
Eurasian Oystercatcher
European Golden-Plover (LL)
Common Ringed Plover (LL)
Common Redshank
Whimbrel
Ruddy Turnstone
Common Snipe (LL)
Common Murre (LL)
Thick-billed Murre (LL)
Razorbill
Black-legged Kittiwake (LL)
Black-headed Gull
Common Raven
Redwing (LL)
White Wagtail

Þúfubjarg – May 22, 2015 – 5:01 PM – 5:38

Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
European Golden-Plover
Common Murre
Thick-billed Murre
Black-legged Kittiwake
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Wheatear

Öndverðarnes – May 22, 2015 – 6:02 PM – 6:53 PM

Common Eider
Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
European Shag
European Golden-Plover
Common Ringed Plover
Common Redshank
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper
Black-legged Kittiwake
Great Black-backed Gull
Arctic Tern
Common Raven
Northern Wheatear
White Wagtail
Meadow Pipit (LL)
Snow Bunting

Rif – May 22, 2015 – 7:24 PM – 7:35 PM

Graylag Goose
Mallard
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
Red-throated Loon
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Red-necked Phalarope
Black-headed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Arctic Tern

Heiðmörk – May 23, 2015 – 2:49 PM – 3:33 PM

Graylag Goose
Whooper Swan
Mallard
European Golden-Plover
Common Redshank
Red-necked Phalarope
Black-headed Gull
Arctic Tern
Eurasian Blackbird
Redwing
Meadow Pipit

Flói Bird Reserve – May 23, 2015 4:48 PM – 5:33 PM

Graylag Goose
Mallard
Red-throated Loon
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Common Redshank
Whimbrel
Black-tailed Godwin (LL)
Parasitic Jaeger (LL)
Black-headed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Arctic Tern
European Starling

Garðskagi Lighthouse – May 24, 2015 1:16 PM –  1:44 PM

Mallard
Common Eider
Northern Fulmar
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
Ruddy Turnstone
Sanderling
Dunlin
Herring Gull (European)
Lesser Black-backed Gull (LL)
Great Black-backed Gull
Arctic Tern
Barn Swallow
Northern Wheatear

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Bird Nerds Abroad: Part III – Iceland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s