TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Sunday 8 - Tuesday 17 July 2001
Neil Arnold - The Travelling Naturalist, Andy Jones - Iceland Direct
The trip was marked by good company and the expert leadership of Andy. I am very grateful to him for his friendship and his professionalism.
During a short trip we were treated to an account of the geology, geomorphology and ecology of this vibrant island. The history was not neglected either; we were soon to be beguiled by the sagas.
The birdwatching was wonderful. We gained good views of Iceland's American breeding species: Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye. We also saw Grey Phalarope and the three breeding raptors: Gyrfalcon, Merlin and White-tailed Eagle.
We were incredibly fortunate in seeing six species of cetaceans, a feat which has not been achieved by one of Andy's groups before.
There was a great deal of flower watching as well. I am eternally grateful to Margaret Rees for providing us with a flower list.
I hope you all enjoyed the trip as much as I did and that we will meet again soon.
Neil Arnold July 2001
SUNDAY 8 JULY
WEATHER - Overcast, SE wind. Heavy rain, showers.
We flew to Iceland arriving at Keflavk Airport on time, at 15.00.
Here we joined up with Andy, our guide, Bob and Margaret who had flown in from Glasgow, and Judith who had flown in from the U.S.A.
Our first port of call was Bessastair, a grassy peninsula which held a number of wildfowl and waders and was also the site of a fine church and the country residence of the President of Iceland. There were no security barriers or guards! The only advice Andy gave us was not to look into the windows of the house as it might offend the President!
We then drove on to our hotel at Brjnsstair near Selfoss. Once we had settled in Andy gave us a brief illustrated talk on the geology and topography of Iceland. Dinner was enjoyed by all then we turned in, despite the fact that it was still only mid evening. A busy day was promised for tomorrow!
MONDAY 9 JULY
WEATHER - 7/8 cumulus, bright, calm. Showers.
Our first port of call in the morning was Reykjarettir, an ancient gathering place dominated by a beautifully built sheep sorting pen. This stone enclosure proved very attractive to Wheatears, White Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Snow Buntings. The nearby wet meadows also attracted a fine pair of Short-eared Owls.
We then explored the local river valley, the Pjrsrdvalur. We were soon climbing a steep knoll, Gaukshöfdi. From here we had wonderful views of Hekla. We also found our first Northern Green Orchids.
The beautiful waterfall Hjlparfoss was our next venue.
At Stng we entered the 'essence' of an ancient farmhouse dating from 1104. We were standing in the plan of the house represented by the renovated walls covered with a modern roof.
Lunch was taken on the banks of the river. That is after we had relocated our site at the insistence of an adult Golden Plover which was performing the 'broken wing' display suggesting that there were young birds nearby. During lunch we glimpsed a Gyrfalcon and enjoyed prolonged views of two immature Harlequin Ducks.
Despite a light rain shower we were soon walking up the picturesque valley towards the stunning waterfall at Gjan. Here we saw yet another Harlequin Duck.
History was brought to life at Pjdveldisbrinn, a skillfully reconstructed version of the farmhouse at Stng.
The evening weather proved good enough to enable us to fly to Heimaey in the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). We flew in two light aircraft from nearby Selfoss. We were soon on a guided tour of the recent volcanic events on the island. Having experienced the thrill of finding warmth in the ash on the slopes of the volcano we were treated to views of a wide variety of seabirds in the harbour and then from the cliffs.
TUESDAY 10 JULY
WEATHER - 6-8/8 cu. sun, cool N2-3. Showers.
We drove east. One of the great features of Gljfurafoss was the path behind the waterfall and an ideal habitat for the scarce, very local, subspecies of Wren.
Skgarfoss proved equally entertaining.
In the distance was the great icesheet, Myrdalsjokull. We were soon at the toe of the glacier Solheinajokull where we negotiated the ice-cold streams emerging from beneath the ice. Having examined the ice face we looked for plants on the 'new' land deposited by the glacier.
As we approached Kap Dyrholaey the wind increased and it rained but this did little to detract from the thrill of seeing sea birds passing the cliffs at our eye-level. Kittiwakes called loudly as Gannets swept by. Arctic and Great Skuas sped over the surface of the sea as hundreds of auks flew to and from the cliff ledges.
WEDNESDAY 11 JULY
WEATHER - 1/8 Cu, sun,N1-2
Our destination today was Grundarfjördrur in the north of Snaefellsnes.
We were soon at the stunning waterfall and gorge at Gullfoss. The sun shone and the film manufacturers were making a profit again. The air was filled with spray, the sound of rushing water and camera shutters.
We moved on to Geysir where the geothermal forces of the area were soon displayed by explosive plumes of water shooting from the geysers. More photographs.
We lunched at a site overlooking ingvallavatn. Red-breasted Mergansers and Great Northern Divers were soon in view, the latter calling loudly.
As we overlooked the rift Almannagj we were able to visualize the moving apart of the two 'halves' of Iceland. As Andy put it we were in 'American' Iceland having just spent a day or two in 'European Iceland' on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We were not only at the 'centre' of Iceland's geology but of its history for we were overlooking the ancient parliament at ingvellir.
The sight-seeing was now done so we headed over the mountains to Hvalfjrur, Whale Fjord. We then drove on to Borgarnes, where we watched a selection of waders.
The drive over the enchanting mountain pass, Kerlingarskar, brought us to Grundarfjördrur.
THURSDAY 12 JULY
WEATHER - 7/8 Cu bright, N1-2. Light swell. Sun p.m.
Much of the day was to be dedicated to whale-watching. By 10.00 we were on the 'Brimrum' at lafsvk. The 'Brimrum' is a sturdy twin hulled ship ideal for whale watching. Within half an hour we were well out in the Breiafjrur.
It was then that we saw a huge fin in front of the ship. It was the fin of a male Orca. Soon it was joined by another male and a pod of females. The Orcas were then flanked by a pod of Minke Whales, a species that show little of themselves in comparison with the rather more demonstrative Orca.
As we moved further out into the Atlantic Ocean we started to search for larger whales. As we reached a spot some fifty K. from lafsvk the Skipper announced that he had found a Blue Whale. There was an instant air of excitement throughout the ship. In the distance a huge column of water shot into the air: a Blue Whale had spouted. As we approached the whale it spouted again and we were able to see the nostrils. The whale then rolled showing us its huge back and then its small fin. The whale then dived. Suddenly it emerged off the bow of the ship within fifty metres, close enough to show off its mottled skin pattern. In the next half an hour we saw at least six, perhaps eight Blue Whales, the largest animals ever to live on the Earth.
During this period of intense excitement the Skipper had noted another blow on the port beam. As we sped away from the Blue Whales we were told to look out for Humpback Whales. Ahead of us there was a shallow 'bushy' blow, which indicated the position of our latest quarry. Then we saw the Humpback roll, then again and again until it lifted its fluke vertically, displaying the diagnostic white lining, and dived.
As we retuned to lafsvk we came across a pod of White-beaked Dolphins off the bow of the ship.
In one trip we had seen five species of Cetaceans, thanks to a calm sea, expert guidance and no doubt good fortune.
After the boat-trip we drove to Rif where we encountered a flock of at least 450 Red-necked Phalarope feeding avidly in a shallow pool. Around the edge of the pool Whimbrel, Redshank, Dunlin and Ringed Plover probed the mud in search of food.
FRIDAY 13 JULY
WEATHER - 2/8 Cirrus and Cu. Sun. W1-2. Calm sea.
As we left the port of Stykkishlmer on the ferry 'Baldur' the sea was flat calm and the sun shone. We were on our way to the island of Flatey. Shags and Puffins dominated the watching as we made our way north. One of the many islands we passed made an ideal resting place for Grey Seals.
By 11.00 we had landed on Flatey a haven for breeding birds. Puffins and Kittiwakes were the most common seabirds but the most obvious birds were the waders. Every pool seemed to have feeding Red-necked Phalaropes while the rocky shore sheltered some eighty Purple Sandpipers. As we walked the coast we encountered Redshank, Ringed Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe and Oystercatchers. Eider and Black Guillemot were close inshore and Arctic Terns were constantly overhead, very close overhead once we approached the breeding area. One of the features of the day was the chance to approach Snow Buntings and Redwing to within ten metres or so.
The paths we followed were very well marked so that we did not encroach on the breeding of birds such as Eider and the very rare Grey Phalarope in one of its very few European breeding sites.
We sat on the edge of the low cliff to eat our lunch. Almost as soon as we had settled Andy found two female Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage feeding on the shore just below us. This was a great thrill.
Great Northern and Red-throated Divers were also seen in flight.
The other thrill on the island was the neat settlement including a fine church. One of the most attractive features of this fine place of worship was the painted ceiling. This bright depiction of island life was only completed in the last couple of years.
The trip back to the mainland was comfortable. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the strange lava formations at Beserkjahraun.
SATURDAY 14 JULY
WEATHER 6-7/8Cu. Sunny spells. W2-3.Showers late pm
Our destination today was Akureyri in the north.
As we drove along the southern shore of the Hvammfjrur we were amazed by the numbers of Whooper Swans, hundreds of them. We were constantly on the look out for White-tailed Eagles. Eventually we found one, an immature, perhaps a third or fourth year bird. This wonderful bird flew right past the vehicle.
We drove on to Blönduos where we walked to he island of Hrutey. It was here that we saw a female Ptarmigan behaving as though her young were nearby. As we prepared to set off a Merlin flew over us and then perched on a fence allowing us excellent views.
We lunched at Varmahild where we saw Redpoll. As we drove over the xnadalsheii at 540 m., heavy showers lashed the vehicle. As we entered Eyjafjrur Common Gulls became more apparent.
Our final destination was ngulsstair, the very comfortable guesthouse overlooking the River Eyjafjarara. It even had 'built in' Short-eared Owls.
SUNDAY 15 JULY
WEATHER 8/8 Cu, bright,N1-2. Showers.
We were to spend the day in the Mvatn area.
Our first stop was the dramatic waterfall, Goafoss. It was here that we found another Ptarmigan, this time a fine male.
We moved on to the River Lax. Walking the riverbank enabled us to watch female Harlequin Ducks and feeding Red-necked Phalaropes.
On our way to the lake we discovered a nest of the Gyrfalcon which was occupied by an adult and two well grown young.
Lake Mvatn was full of wildfowl, the Barrow's Goldeneye and Long-tailed Ducks being particularly impressive. Slavonian Grebe were also a feature of the area.
After a stop at the local town, Reykjahlid, we moved on to Stragja. Three brave souls climbed down an earthquake-formed fissure to bathe in the warm waters. Some didn't fancy hanging on a rope in order to reach the water!
The walk through the woodland at Hfdi gave us access to flocks of duck and a fine male Redpoll.
On the way back to the hotel we visited the pseudocraters at Skutustair. Nearby we found an immature Gyrfalcon on the ground. Eventually it flew off over the adjacent hillside.
After dinner, our host, Johannes, took us out to visit some of the local sites of interest. These included a fine waterfall, the beautifully maintained local church and the River Eyjafjarara, where we discovered a fine male Harlequin Duck.
MONDAY 16 JULY
WEATHER 6-7/8 Cu, sunn, N1-2. The odd shower.
The morning was spent exploring the geothermal wonders of the Mvatn area.
Krafla is an area that was covered in lava some twenty years ago. Recently the area has been opened to the public. In some areas the lava was still warm, the heat being radiated from beneath. The whole area is covered with strange shaped cold lava, black ash, grey mud and multcoloured chemical deposits. A mystic would have recognised it as 'Hell'.
A little way away were the steaming mud pools of Hverir.
The drive to Grenivk on the shores of Eyjafjrur took us through dramatic ice-forged valleys. At Grenivk most of us boarded the Niels Jonsson, a strongly built wooden fishing boat. Despite a strengthening northerly wind we were able to find a pod of Harbour Porpoise, not an easy task as they are only 1.5 m in length. Later we visited a Kittiwake colony and the island of Hrisey. It was here that breeding waders and Arctic Terns delighted us. We were particularly impressed by the local race of Black-tailed Godwit. A male Ptarmigan was also seen well. The crew, orvaldur and Gardar, plied us with information, coffee and home made cake!
A few of the group went exploring on the fjordside. They included a trip to a farm museum at Laufs where, according to their account, they were forced to eat pancakes ~ a likely story.
Dinner was very special. It was the traditional Christmas Day lunch: marinated fish followed by smoked lamb and vegetables with a variety of local cheese to complete an excellent meal. This ethnic adventure was much appreciated by us all.
TUESDAY 17 JULY
WEATHER Dull becoming wet.
After a morning shopping in Akureyri we flew to Reykjavk. We then transferred to Keflavk and flew home.
Red-throated Diver Common breeding species.
Great Northern Diver Breeds commonly.
Slavonian Grebe Breeds. Seen mainly in Mvatn.
Northern Fulmar Very widespread on the coast. Breeds.
Northern Gannet Breeds on the S coast. A scattering of records in Breiafjrur.
Great Cormorant A scattering of records.
European Shag Common in Breiafjrur.
Whooper Swan A common breeder. Hundreds on the north coast of Snaefellsnes.
Greylag Goose A widespread breeding bird.
Eurasian Wigeon Only at Mvatn.
Gadwall Only at Mvatn.
Common Teal Mainly at Mvatn. Also noted on Flatey.
Northern Pintail A duck at Mvatn.
Tufted Duck Widespread.
Greater Scaup Only at Mvatn.
Common Eider Common on the coast.
Harlequin Duck Two imms. in the south, four females and chicks at Mvatn and a drake on the River Eyjafjarara.
Long-tailed Duck A drake in the south and a flock of twenty at Mvatn.
Barrow's Goldeneye Hundreds at Mvatn.
Red-breasted Merganser Only scattered records.
White-tailed Eagle A third or fourth year immature bird at Hvammfjrur.
Merlin Three isolated records.
Gyr Falcon One in the south, a family at a nest near Mvatn and an immature at Mvatn.
Ptarmigan One, Hrutey, one at Goafoss and one on Hrisey.
Oystercatcher Common breeder.
Golden Plover Common breeder.
Ringed Plover Common breeder.
Black-tailed Godwit A widespread breeder.
Whimbrel Common breeder.
Common Redshank Common breeder.
Turnstone Heard at Grundarfjördrur.
Grey Phalarope Two females in breeding plumage on Flatey.
Red-necked Phalarope Common breeder. A wonderful spectacle when feeding.
Common Snipe Common breeder.
Purple Sandpiper Up to fourteen at Grundarfjördrur and at least eighty on Flatey.
Dunlin Common. The biggest flock at Borgarnes.
Great Skua Some fifteen sightings off the south coast and in Breiafjrur.
Arctic Skua Very widespread breeder.
Common Gull Only in the north.
Herring Gul l Common in the south, scarce in the west and north.
Lesser Black-backed Gull Very common and widespread.
Great Black-backed Gull Widespread in small numbers.
Glaucous Gull Widespread. Common in Breiafjrur - largest flock - sixty.
Black-headed Gull Very common.
Kittiwake Very common.
Arctic Tern Very common.
Guillemot Breeding - south coast.
Brünnich's Guillemot Many birds from the 'Brimrum' in Grundarfjördrur.
Razorbill Only on Heimaey and from the 'Brimrum'.
Black Guillemot Only in Grundarfjördrur and Eyjafjrdur.
Puffin Breeds in huge numbers.
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Only in the south.
Short-eared Owl A pair at Reykjarettir and ngulsstair.
White Wagtail Common breeder.
Meadow Pipit Common breeder
Wren A very local breeder. One at Gljufurafoss.
Redwing Common breeder.
Northern Wheatear Common breeder.
Common Raven Common breeder.
Common Starling Common in the south and west.
Snow Bunting Widespread breeder, common on Flatey.
Common Redpoll Breeds in well vegetated areas.
Long-tailed Fieldmouse One (presumably a female) in the ladies toilet at Varmahild.
Grey Seal Distant views Breiafjrur and one at Grundarfjördrur.
Minke Whale Up to eight from 'Brimrum'.
Blue Whale At least eight from 'Brimrum'.
Humpback Whale Two from the 'Brimrum'.
Orca Two males and about six females or young males from 'Brimrum'.
White-beaked Dolphin Eight from 'Brimrum'.
Harbour Porpoise At least six from the 'Niels Jonsson'.
The very distinctive 'Icelandic horse' was seen regularly and the 'Icelandic dog' a couple of times.