TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
9th - 18th July 2000
Stephanie Coghlan , Jon Pall Haraldsson
Set off from Heathrow on a showery and cloudy afternoon, but after we left Britain the sky cleared and it was sunny for our arrival in Iceland. We were met by Jon Pall (Nonni) our Icelandic guide and were soon birdwatching at the airport poo,l and saw our first Snow Bunting.
We gathered up the group from England , Scotland and the USA and set off across the lava fields to our first stop at Astjorn where we quickly found Slavonian Grebe, Snipe, Golden Plover and a pair of Whooper Swans. Local building was taking place near the site but new footpaths indicated that the area was going to continue to be protected. Our first Northern (Iceland) Green Orchid started the flower list. Then we crossed over the pass and down to Sellfoss, while the traffic the other way was all streaming back into Reykjavik after the weekend break. We continued on to Brjanstadir where we soon settled into our rooms and after dinner were out enjoying the late night sun and the birds dropping into the pool in the nearby field.
Sunny and clear.
We awoke to excellent weather, so after early morning walks where we found a young Redwing being fed, we set off east along the coast. Our first stop was at a Summerhouse to look at the fissure which had opened in the earthquake on June 17th. At the River Markarfljot, two Red-throated Divers were showing their summer plumage well and there were at least four Great Skuas ( Bonxies) loafing about in the area. Our full waterproofs came out at the next place despite the sun and we walked up to Skogafoss. In the spray there were a variety of Saxifrages, we saw our first Arctic Skua and many Fulmars were nesting above in the inland cliffs. A fine- plumaged Black-tailed Godwit caught our attention, standing on a tuft, as we turned off towards Dyrhoelay cliffs, and there was great excitement as we piled out of the bus to watch the Puffins flying in and out and loafing on the top of the cliff close enough to photograph.
We ate lunch watching them and the Fulmars cruising about high over the black sand, and afterwards walked to the lighthouse. Here we could see more cliffs with Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Gannets nesting. Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away and dropped down to Vik where there is the largest Arctic Tern colony in Iceland, and it appeared to be still growing. Many were resting on the sand while on the sea there were Eider, Puffins and Gannets. We saw our first Glaucous Gull, and a group of Common Gulls rested on the sand, where we also found Sea Mayweed, Sea Sandwort and Oysterplant growing.
Our next stop was the Glacier Tongue at Soljaheimsjokull below Myrdalsjokull, which was very black from the dust from Hekla, and recent floods had altered the moraines. There were still plenty of flowers including Alpine Gentians but no Wheatears this year.
Our final stop was the waterfall at Seljalandsfoss where we found the Indian video crew which we had seen earlier in the day filming away against the backdrop of the Falls. We walked round behind the Falls and got rather wetter than usual as the spray was blowing hard. There were Ravens overhead and Fulmars nesting as well as Whimbrel and Redshank calling , so we headed back to Bryjansstadir very pleased with our first day, but it was not over yet!
After an early dinner we were soon speeding towards Sellfoss Airport for our flight to the Westmann Islands. The plane took the group of 9 and Stephanie came behind in her own private plane, just like the Queen. We toured the island by coach and walked on Eldfell (Fire Mountain ) and found the land still steaming.
In the harbour we could see how close the lava came to closing the entrance and waited for a while to try to see Keiko(the Killer Whale) who starred in Free Willie and who is being trained for real freedom again, much to most Icelanders' bemusement. All the money for the experiment is coming from abroad, and Keiko is taken out for trips following a boat, but he is not yet able to look after himself alone. We had a final visit to the cliffs and saw Puffins and Razorbills well before we flew back to the mainland in gathering gloom as the weather was changing. We fell into bed tired but happy.
We set off in showers and stopped on the river for two Red-throated Divers. At Hjalparfoss where there was a "Spring Bite" in the grass for the flocks after the Hekla earthquake in the 13th century.
Our next stop was high in the Thorsa valley where we walked to Gjain. Plenty of flowers and Redpolls were heard along with many Redwings but the scenery was the main draw. On our return we found a female Harlequin Duck at the bridge. We had lunch at Arnes campsite and more Redwings sang as we ate our sandwiches. A Red-breasted Merganser was found on the river and a Ringed Plover by the Petrol Station. We spent the afternoon at the Gullfoss Gorge walking along towards the Falls themselves, a Merlin was seen by part of the group, but the flowers drew our attention with White Frog Orchid, Coral Root Orchid and Grass of Parnassus as highlights.
Our final stop of the day was at Geysir, which was spouting again after the earthquakes of June 17th. Strokker was also displaying well and the Indian video team was in action again. As we returned home we found a lake, Efri-Reykir, with Tufted Duck, Red-necked Phalaropes and Wigeon, and Black-tailed Godwit which seemed a good end to the day but at Bruara we watched Red-necked Phalaropes, over 30 drifting down river feeding and then flying back to do it again when they reached the bridge. There was time to try the Guesthouse Hot tub. Then dinner and the log for two days was followed by a video of the 1996 eruption and floods from under the glacier.
Showery and overcast clearing in the afternoon.
Leaving promptly at 9.00 in the rain we stopped briefly at the Bruara and there were still over 30 Phalaropes riding the stream feeding as they went and then flying back to do it all again. Had they been there all night? At the Sog River we found a male Harlequin Duck and at the nearby Power Station there were Tufted Duck and Red- breasted Merganser and the ubiquitous Arctic Terns.
On arrival at Thingvellir Lake we soon spotted a pair of Great Northern Divers, and there were many Greylag Geese with young. A Merlin displayed and called overhead and then there were a pair. In a small lake the Red-throated Divers had two young, and a Whimbrel displayed frantically to distract us from its young. We walked through the Rift Valley to the Law Givers' Rock and looked at the Art illustrating Modern Virtues, while Nonni laid out lunch in the forest below. The flies were a bit of a nuisance but retreating into the woods helped and they did not bite.
In the afternoon we headed west along the Hvalfjordur and passed plenty of loafing Eider. At Blaskeggau we stopped briefly for Arctic Terns with chicks and Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover. We reached Borganes just as the tide was high but there were only a small flock of Redshank, some Dunlin and Ringed Plover. We waited till they were flushed by the tide and then retreated ourselves for a well-earned break.
We looked at sites from the Egels Saga as we left Borganes and reached our new base at Langaholt at 5.30. The sun was shining and the surf was high so we soon were out exploring and reports came in of good birds on the pool, the marsh and the shore and flowers in the dunes. We enjoyed an excellent dinner of fish and after the log most people went out again to enjoy the long sunny evening.
Sunny with high cumulus.
After breakfast we packed our own lunches and set off to drive the anticlockwise circuit of the Snaefellsness peninsula. We saw a male Snow Bunting as we dropped down to Olafsvik, and there were Great Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls resting on the beach. Flocks of Eider flew west and in the harbour we found Purple Sandpiper and a Black Guillemot.
Down the road at Rif the Pools were full of Red-necked Phalarope, over 800, and we enjoyed watching them feeding. At the second pool there were yet more Arctic Terns and families of Eider and Tufted Ducks. We drove on dirt roads right out to the tip of the peninsula at Ondverdanrnes where a party of Orcas were feeding and Gannets cruised by.
We lunched at Djupalsandur out of the wind which began to drop in the afternoon and we enjoyed the cliffs at Malarif with plenty of Guillemots and a few Brünnich's Guillemot, and Puffins.
At Arnarstapi we walked to the cliffs and along to the fisherman's harbour and found over 15 Harlequin Ducks on the sea. The Kittiwakes were everywhere and we found more Phalaropes. On the cliffs Roseroot grew on all the shady spots and in sandy patches we found Serrated Gentian just about to flower.
On our return those with energy went to the local swimming pool for a dip in the hot tub and a swim in the natural mineral water. Dinner was excellent with seafood soup and local lamb and after the diary session we enjoyed another sunny if cool evening but the sea was flat for our trip tomorrow.
Breidafjordur and Flatey. Sunny and clear
We awoke to brilliant sunshine and left at 8.50 to drive over the pass to Stykkisholmur. We were glad of the sunshine as Nonni told us stories of ghosts which sat in empty seats in cars and buses on misty crossings of the pass. We passed Helga Fell where settlement began in Iceland and arrived in Stykkisholmur, we boarded the Eyrafjordur and set sail.
We were soon surrounded by Puffins and found a pair of Red-throated Divers. After crossing the Breidafjord we landed on Flatey and walked through the footpaths with Snow Buntings, Red-necked Phalaropes at our feet and Redshanks calling and Snipe drumming overhead. On the shore there were plenty of Purple Sandpiper and a pair of Red-throated Divers had one chick in the small pool.
After lunch in the sun by the church which was decorated by a Spanish artist and had a sea eagle panted on the ceiling, we went further through the village and out on the low cliffs where there were Black Guillemots carrying red butterfish to their young.
We returned to the ship at 2.30 but it took a while to round up all our belongings so we sailed off to a Kittiwake and Shag cliff where we had very close views of young birds. We then set the trawl and tried a little scallop fishing and enjoyed a taste of fresh scallop and sea urchin caviar. Passing Flatey again we set off back across to the Fjord. When we reached the islands we found a pair of Sea Eagles with two young. The male flew off showing us his white tail and magnificent wing span. We were surprised how low the island was on which we they nested, but another surprise was not far away: another pair, this time with one young bird who was large enough to be exercising its wings. By now the boat engine was overheating so we limped in to Stykkisholmur at 6.00.
We enjoyed an excellent dinner of several kinds of fish and visited the young Arctic Fox which was captive at a nearby house. It was tucking into some kind of seabird.
Travelling day across Northern coast Wet all day until evening.
We left at 8.30 and stopped briefly at Borganes Estuary where there were many Redshank and a distant Shelduck, and a few other scattered duck as the tide was very low. We had a brief stop at Bru and had lunch inside the Olis Petrol station as the rain continued. There were some Greylag Geese on the river at Blondous.
We stopped at the Folk Museum at Glaumbaer and enjoyed the Turf farmhouse and the array of equipment and we celebrated Eve's birthday with a cake and candles and coffee. Our next stop was at Akureyri Botanical garden and we liked the displays of flowers but particularly the Icelandic flora beds with plants from all over island. The church was busy with a wedding so we could only examine the medieval glass from the outside. The weather had cleared while we explored the gardens but more showers came in, however it finally cleared as we ate our meal in Hotel Reynihlið, Myvatn. It looked fair for the morning.
Sunny low cloud
We began our tour of the Myvatn area with a visit to Dimmuborgir (The Dark Fortress). Here we wandered on trails through the lava walls and admired the flora but there were few birds. Back at the lake we found Barrow's Goldeneye with large families of ducklngs. At Hofdi there were Redwings, Wrens and Redpolls in the birch scrub.
We lunched overlooking a pool and watched a succession of ducks, divers and grebes. Many ducks with families were gathered in the bay below the Likrid Hotel and we watched from the bus while a heavy shower passed over, then we explored the Pseudocraters and had closer views of Slavonian Grebe and Long-tailed duck. We went on to the Laxa River and found Harlequin Duck and a Red-breasted Merganser with 8 young. Driving back on the north side we found plenty of Long-tailed Duck families, called at the Visitor Centre to find out about the ecology of the lake and returned to the hotel for an early dinner.
In brilliant sunshine we set off at 7.00 to drive to Husavik for our Whale watching tour. We passed over the uplands, which are suffering from serious erosion, and the experiments to re-seed the area. About 10 miles outside Husavik we stopped to watch a Short-eared Owl hunting and in Husavik we boarded our wooden ship the Nattfari to search for Whales.
We soon found a Minke Whale and the birds were gathering hunting over shoals of fish. A school of White-beaked Dolphins were soon alongside the ship and were playing around in the bow wave and one extrovert showed off by jumping out acrobatically many times. We rounded off the evening with hot chocolate and cinnamon buns as we cruised home in the continuing sunshine. The evening ended just after midnight back at Reynihlið with the moon rising over the nearby mountain.
Left at 8.30 and passed along the north shore of Lake Myvatn. The Barrow's Goldeneye were all still roosting. We had a brief photo stop at Godafoss as the sun was shining on the falls and heard how the pagan Gods were thrown into the Falls 1000 years ago.
Then it was non-stop over the passes until we reached Miklibaer where we found several families of Pink-footed Geese. At Varmihlid we paused for coffee but the bad news was that the station was out of diesel and we did not know when the delivery would arrive, so we sent Nonni off to the next station and we had a longer break.
We then set off for the highlands, on the Kjolur track and were soon in the remarkable stone desert, full of flowers often to be seen on the seashore but not inland. We arrived at our lunch stop at Hveravellir very late but, despite that, Nonni and some brave souls went into the hot pool for a soak before they tackled their lunch.
In the remaining afternoon we travelled over more dirt roads between the icecaps Langjokull and Hofsjokull finally came down to Gullfoss and Geysir again. Geysir and Strokkur were reported to be displaying well due to another minor quake and as we approached there were several displays but by the time we parked it had slowed down. We continued on after a break to Hjarðarbol and our evening dinner. Finishing with a checklist, we found we had seen 69 bird species, 2 whale species and dolphins and seals. The flower list was uncountable. Finally we drove on to Reykjavik to our hotel
Sunny, cool wind.
After a later start than usual we had a walking tour of Reykjavik and visited Hallgrimskirk for a viewpoint over the city, the main shopping street, the Tjornin pool where we could see birds and the Parliament buildings. We had lunch in town and returned to the hotel to be picked up by the special transfer service. We had time to change our money, have a coffee and we were soon winging our way south to a sunny hot London.
A very good tour with good weather and many highlights including all the Arctic Terns, seven White-tailed Eagles, over 800 Red-necked Phalaropes gathering to migrate, and the dolphin display on our whale watching cruise will all remain long in our memory but also the thoughts of how sunny Iceland can be and how good the flowers are in July .
Stephanie Coghlan, July 2000.
© The Travelling Naturalist 2000
Red- throated Diver Fairly common breeding species. Recorded in pairs and with 2 young at Thingvallir
Great Northern Diver Rare Breeding Species. Pair recorded at Thingvallavatn and Myvatn.
Slavonian (Horned) Grebe Locally common breeding species. Recorded at Astjorn, Langaholt and Myvatn.
Northern Fulmar Very common breeding species
Northern Gannet Locally common breeding species
Great Cormorant Locally common breeding species
European Shag Locally common breeding species
Whooper Swan Common breeding species. Recorded in pairs and with cygnets.
Pink-footed Goose 12+ with young near Miklibaer
Greylag Goose Locally common breeding species.
Common Shelduck One recorded at Borganes estuary
Eurasian Wigeon Common breeding species
Common Teal Common breeding species
Mallard Common breeding species
Northern Pintail Only recorded at Myvatn. Rare/locally common breeding species.
Tufted Duck Common breeding species.
(Greater) Scaup Common breeding species
Common Eider Very common breeding species. recorded daily and in large moulting flocks as well as in creches.
Harlequin Duck Locally common on fast running Streams. Recorded at Gjain, at Sog river, Laxa river and on the sea off Arnarstapi.
Long-tailed Duck Fairly common breeding species. many adults with young at Myvatn.
Barrow's Goldeneye Locally common breeding species.
Red-breasted Merganser Common breeding species.
White-tailed Eagle Rare breeding species. A pair with two young and another pair with a single young in Breidafjordur.
Merlin Common breeding species. a single over Gullfoss, and a pair at Thingvallir rift valley.
(Rock) Ptarmigan Two seen very briefly from the Kjolur track in the highlands on 17th.
(Eurasian) Oystercatcher Common breeding species
(European) Golden Plover Very common breeding species.
(Greater) Ringed Plover Fairly common breeding species
Black-tailed Godwit Fairly common breeding species
Whimbrel Common breeding species
Common Redshank Common breeding species
Red-necked Phalarope Common breeding species. Over 30 feeding on Bru river on 11th and over 800 gathering at Rif pools.
Common Snipe Common breeding species.
Purple Sandpiper Locally common breeding species. Recorded at Olafsvik harbour and on Flatey.
Dunlin Common breeding species.
Great Skua Locally common breeding species Recorded at river Markarfljot and on the whale watching cruise at Husavik, and over Myvatn.
Arctic Skua Common breeding species.
Common (Mew) Gull Rare breeding species. small flock at Vik
Great Black-backed Gull Common breeding species
Glaucous Gull Singles on beach at Vik and flock near Olafsvik.
Herring Gull Common breeding species
Lesser Black-backed Gull Very common breeding species.
Black-headed Gull Very common breeding species
(Black-legged) Kittiwake Very common breeding species.
Arctic Tern Very common breeding species. Small colonies very common. Very large colony at Vik.
Guillemot Very Common breeding species.
Brünnich's Guillemot Locally common breeding species at the southern edge of their range in south Iceland and on the Snaefellsness peninsula.
Razorbill Very Common breeding species.
Black Guillemot Locally common breeding species. Seen well on Flatey with Red Butterfish.
(Atlantic) Puffin Very common breeding species.
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Only recorded in the Reykjavik area.
Short-eared Owl One recorded on our way to Husavik and another seen by Nonni when he dropped us off at midnight in Reynihlið
White Wagtail Common breeding species
Meadow Pipit Very common breeding species
(Winter) Wren Rare breeding species. recorded at Gjain and Arnes and Hofdi and Akureyri Botanical gardens
Redwing Common breeding species.
Northern Wheatear Common breeding species. only glimpsed briefly daily.
Common Raven Common breeding species. 2-10 recorded daily
Common (European) Starling Locally common breeding species. Mainly recorded in south Iceland.
Snow Bunting Common breeding species. Seen well on Snaefellsness peninsula and on Flatey.
Common ( Mealy) Redpoll Heard briefly at Gjain and Akureyri Botanical garden. Recorded by all the group at Hofdi.
American Mink One recorded from the bus on the 15th.
Grey Seal One seen briefly of Arnarstapi on 13th.
White-beaked Dolphin A school of 15 + played around the boat on the Whale watching cruise on the 16th, giving a great display of acrobatics for a long time.
Orca (Killer Whale) A party of 6+ was feeding of the point on Snaefellsness on 13th
Minke Whale Three were seen close to the ship on the Whale watching cruise on 16th.
Icelandic Horse Many recorded every day in all colours of this special breed of horse which is unique to Iceland.