TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Iceland

Sunday 11 - Wednesday 21 July 2004


Leaders:
Andy Jones

Mike Read


TRIP DIARY

Sunday 11th July
Those travelling from England met up at the Iceland Air check-in and after a slight delay, were enjoying the 'delights' of the Heathrow departure lounge. Our flight had a slightly delayed departure but by the time we arrived at Keflavik, we were only a few minutes behind schedule. Once customs and collecting luggage were completed, we met Andy and as we pulled away from the airport car park, a male Snow Bunting flew past.
The journey towards Reykjavik was interspersed with sightings of various birds like Whimbrel, Arctic Skua and Raven while plants included flowering Thyme, Dandelions going to seed and the introduced Alaska Lupin. All the while, Andy was giving us lots of geological information on the mid Atlantic Ridge away to our right or the aluminium smelting factory on our left.
We drove to Bessastadir, close to the Icelandic Prime Minister's residence, and had time to make a brief visit to the lovely church as well as bird watch. Birds included Whooper Swans, Greylag Geese, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Redshanks, Ringed and Golden Plovers, Oystercatchers and Dunlins. Of the ducks, Tufted, Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers all had young with them. As we left the area, a Lesser Black-backed Gull flew alongside us for some distance but part of its journey was through an Arctic Tern colony. The latter species dive-bombed and harried the Gull so much that we almost felt sorry for it - almost!
Soon after leaving the Reykjavik area, a flock of about 40 Golden Plovers flew ahead of us. We crossed the mid-Atlantic Ridge and moved from geological North America into Europe passing two areas of hot pools as we went.
A brief stop at Kerid had us doing what typical British road-menders do, looking into a big hole in the ground! This was much more interesting than road mending though. Here we were looking into a huge crater, one of 3 or 4 along this ridge, caused by volcanic activity. We did see a few birds here including Common Snipe, Meadow Pipit, Redwing and Arctic Skua while among the noted flora were Lady's Smock, Wood Cranesbill, Arctic Fleabane and Downy Willow.
From here we drove on until we reached Skalholt just before 7 p.m. Here, more waders and Redwings greeted us as we headed into our rooms and then after a good evening meal, some went for walks while others just headed to their rooms.

Monday 12th July
After an 8 o'clock breakfast, we assembled at the minibus to head out for the day to explore some of the local(ish) area. As we drove up the drive, a couple of Common Snipe were in display flights and this was repeated by some different birds of the same species at our first stop, Bruara (Bridge River).
The main species to be observed here was Red-necked Phalarope and there were 18 of these delightful birds drifting along on the fast-flowing river. When they reached a certain point, they would take off, fly about 50 metres and begin the whole process all over again. A lone Whooper Swan flew past, as did 3 Black-tailed Godwits. We also found a few plants here including Northern Green Orchid and Moonwort.
Beyond Laugaras, we visited a sheep sorting 'wheel' where we located a pair of Northern Wheatears that obviously had young in a nest somewhere in one of the walls. Meadow Pipits were numerous, a couple of Whimbrels called a short way off and a pair of Common Ravens wandered through the grass intent on finding a meal.
After a brief stop at Árnes, we drove beside Thor's River searching for birds as we went. Some geese on the bank caught our attention but unfortunately, it was just a family of Greylags. A quick scan further along soon revealed the presence of more birds but these turned out to be a few family groups of Pink-footed Geese; there were about 34 individuals of this species in 5 - 7 families.
At Gaukshöfdi, a high bluff overlooking the river, plants took pride of place with Chickweed Willowherb, Roseroot, Snow Gentian, Scottish Asphodel, Northern Green Orchid and Frog Orchid all being found. We paused here for lunch and then set off further in to the valley for more exciting finds.
At Hjálparfoss, further plants included Arctic River Beauty; Grass of Parnassus and Moss Campion but the biggest surprise was to find a pair of Harlequin Ducks loafing about on a rock. These allowed a fairly close approach and we all had wonderful views. After crossing the bridge, we took the dirt road towards Stöng and passed a veritable swarm of pseudocraters. Strangely, they were no longer 'craters' as they had been filled in by the ash from the 1104 eruption of Hekla Volcano. The same fate had befallen the Stöng farmhouse and many square kilometres of the surrounding countryside.
Birds seen at the excavated building and during the subsequent walk to another fine waterfall included Arctic Skua and Redwings. One pair of the latter species had recently fledged young (we saw one of the chicks teetering on a twig) and the adults were most protective and even dive-bombed a Lesser Black-backed Gull that was in the area.
As we drove back to Skalholt, we saw another Northern Wheatear, a group of 4 Ravens, had a recently fledged Arctic Tern chick land on the road in front of us and in one recently cut grassy field, there was a group of perhaps 15 Golden Plovers.
After dinner, Andy gave us a fascinating slide show, which further demonstrated the intriguing geology of Iceland.

Tuesday 13th July
The day began bright and sunny; it lulled us into a false sense of security!! Before breakfast there was a fine view to Hekla, though the top was veiled with cloud and there was an even better view to the Myrdalsjökull (glacier). There was even a Common Snipe perched on top of the nearby church tower.
We drove past occasional Common Ravens and the usual Waders and Arctic Terns and took a short break at Hvolsvöllur for banks and post offices. By the time we were departing, the first spots of rain had begun to fall and the wind had increased a little. Further along Route 1, occasional Arctic Skuas were noted.
At Seljalandsfoss, we took a walk behind the falls and added quite a few new plant species to the list. A walk along beneath the cliff had us searching for the Icelandic sub-species of Winter Wren and after hearing one or two, we actually saw one … then another. Among the host of blooming plants were Marsh Cinquefoil and masses of Wood Cranesbill. As we completed our walk, 2 or 3 Great Skuas could be seen flying out over the nearby flat area where they may have been breeding.
We then drove to the Sólheimajökull finger of the Myrdalsjökull glacier with a pause for better views of another, much closer Great Skua on the way. The wind was strengthening a little more and the bird spent much of its time sat down perhaps to stop its legs getting cold! After lunch, we walked up to the glacier and were amazed at the clarity of the ice, once the volcanic ash had been washed off. This ice had originally fallen as snow perhaps as much as 5 - 700 years earlier. Amazing! There were a few plants to be added to the list including Twayblade and Small White Orchids, Hairy Stonecrop and Crowberry (with its delicious berries).
During the journey to Vik, more Skuas (of both types) and Waders were seen, as was a little flotilla of about 8 Tufted Ducks on a roadside pool. At the little town itself, we drove to the beach and then walked along to the cliffs which were a teaming seabird city with high-rise accommodation at that! Atlantic Puffins was by far the most numerous species with many thousands of pairs nesting in sight of where we stood. There was also a smallish colony of nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Fulmars dotted here and there and both species of Skua causing mayhem. A few hundred Puffins were swimming on the sea and hundreds more were flying up to their nest sites among the Angelica. The Skuas, typical of the genus, would be circling above watching for any fish-laden Puffins and they would then chase, dive at and generally harry the auks in the hope of securing an easy meal. Sometimes it would work, sometimes the Puffins would crash in to the sea but more often than not, they would reach the safety of their burrows and deliver their precious cargo to their chicks.
After a pause in Vík for coffee (and ice creams for some!) we drove to Dyrhólaey. As we crossed the causeway to this prominent headland there were a few waders to be seen as well as a few female Common Eiders, which were escorting a group of ducklings. Sea Pea and Oyster Plant were two new flowers noted here. When we reached the top of the headland, the wind was very strong. To their credit, everyone donned waterproofs and walked out to and past the lighthouse to look at the arch in the little peninsula. More Puffins whirled around, a few Fulmars drifted past and a handful of Common Guillemots were glimpsed by one member of the group willing to look through his binoculars. However, as it was rather difficult to stand up, we decided on a hasty retreat back to the minibus.
The return journey to Skalholt went well though the gales were buffeting the vehicle quite a bit and at one place we had to slow down considerably to drive through a sand storm that was being whipped up!

Wednesday 14th July
Just after leaving Skalholt we saw about half a dozen Red-necked Phalaropes as the first river bridge. Along the road to our first stop we noted an Arctic Skua, Golden Plovers and numerous other waders.
As we reached the side of Pingvallavatn (Thingvellir Lake), we paused to look across from the European plate to the cliff of the North American plate. In the canyon stretching away beside us, a Winter Wren gave everyone good views. After a pause at the visitor centre, we drove to the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament Pingvellir and were soon walking up to where the Vikings were thought to have met to discuss legal matters and settled disputes. Further up the slope we took a pause to look over the lake and managed distant views of Red-breasted Merganser, Tufted Ducks, Mallard and a pair of Great Northern Divers (Common Loons) with 2 chicks. In the trees by the little church, there were about 4 Common Redpolls and during the walk back to the bus, a female Black-tailed Godwit is very bold and demonstrative in trying to draw people away from her young.
From here, we drove down to the lakeside for lunch and almost immediately find a female Ptarmigan with 8 chicks. During lunch we were able to watch another pair of Great Northern Divers, these had one chick, and numerous Arctic Terns taking insects off the Wild Angelica flowers.
We then set off for Snæfellsnes and at Hvalfjördur we paused to see the hundreds of Common Eiders and here we also found a couple of Purple Sandpipers, Ringed Plover, a Northern Wheatear and a few Oystercatchers one of which had some coloured rings on its legs.
As we approached Borgarnes there was a Great Cormorant on some rocks in the fjord and at the back edge of town the waders (Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks & Dunlins) were forming high tide roost flocks. We also saw more Eiders and a group of 8 Common Teals.
From here we drove out on to the Snæfellsnes peninsula seeing a pair of Whooper Swans with young as we went. Driving over the higher ground to get from the southern to the northern shore we glimpsed another couple of Wheatears and a few more waders. On reaching the major road, instead of turning towards our destination, we turned right so that we could take a detour through the 'Berzerk' lava field.
A short way along the route a male Merlin dashed across in front of the vehicle and disappeared down a gully. Only one member of the group actually saw it despite our searches. On a small lake a pair of Red-throated Divers looked superb in the afternoon sunshine and then a little further along there were 7 more on another lake. At the shore we saw yet more Eiders as well as a good group of Greylag Geese (many with young), occasional Golden Plovers and a group of 3 Common Ravens.
Just after rejoining the tarred road we paused to admire some Arctic Poppies and then saw a male Snow Bunting. As we rounded various coastal bays we saw a couple more Red-necked Phalaropes on a pool and among the numerous gulls on the sea were plenty of Glaucous Gulls. At one point we were watching groups of Gulls, Puffins and Arctic Terns feeding on surfacing fish and close to one of these groups was a Common Seal.
We completed the journey to Grundarfjördur and from the hotel windows we continued the birding with Glaucous Gulls, Northern Fulmars, Eiders and Purple Sandpipers amongst the species noted during dinner.

Thursday 15th July
We left the hotel at 9 a.m. and began the journey to the nearby Olafsvik but paused at the first two bays to check the birds. They included 22 Red Knots as well as numerous Redshanks, Dunlins, Golden Plovers and a few Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and Ringed Plovers. The gulls seemed to be all Glaucous Gulls and Lesser Black-backed.
By 10 a.m. we were on board the whale watching boat and heading out in to the fjord. Almost immediately we saw a couple of Black Guillemots and a Shag overtook us. By 10.30 we were watching our first cetaceans, a group of at least 6 White-beaked Dolphins. We stayed with them for a while and then shortly after we moved on, our first Minke Whale was sighted. This is a very elusive species to observe as they submerge for some time and only surface for a quick breath! However, we continued to work this area for some time and estimate that there were about 8 individuals in the immediate vicinity. This species we continued to occasionally see throughout our time at sea.
Birds were also numerous here with Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Arctic Terns as well as various Auks all abundant. From time to time, Arctic or Great Skuas would put in an appearance and pursue anything carrying a fish. A large fin in the distance alerted us to the presence of Orcas (Killer Whales) and soon we were getting much closer views. These were much more co-operative than the Minkes as they would often swim just below the surface and show the white patches on their bodies before surfacing. We remained with a male for some time and then moved over to a female and calf. After about 40 minutes with the Orcas, a different species of cetacean was sighted, a Humpback Whale. This too proved fairly easy to watch especially as its exhalation was rather loud and alerted you to the direction in which it was surfacing.
Now the time had come for the boat to head off in search of Blue Whales, which are usually found in the deeper water beyond the edge of the Continental Shelf. This is where we went and despite constant vigilance and the fact that at one time we were over 80 km from land, we found none of the World's largest living mammal. Eventually we came back towards our starting point and saw more Minke Whales as we went and by 4.45 p.m. we had arrived back at Olafsvik.
To finish the day we had two more locations to visit. First we drove to the roadside pools at Rif and here we found a large assembly of Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, thousands of Arctic Terns, about 250 Red-necked Phalaropes and a good quantity of Dunlins. We then took the dirt road out to Öndverdarnes headland. There were lots of seabirds on their breeding ledges including Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Brünnich's Guillemots. At one time we had all three auk species in the telescope view at once and the Common Guillemots included both the ordinary and the bridled forms of the one species.
Leaving this area we added Northern Wheatears, Snow Buntings and Ptarmigan (this time with 2 chicks) to the day list. We returned to the hotel in good weather and enjoyed another fine evening meal to complete the day.

Friday 16th July
Following an earlier breakfast, we left the hotel at 8 a.m. for the drive to Stykkisholmur and the ferry to the island of Flatey. As we left town there was a field on the right of the minibus where a flock of Golden Plovers were assembled and on the left, there were frequent groups of Common Eiders, many with ducklings. As we approached Stykkisholmur there was a group of 5 Red-throated Divers on a small pond.
We boarded the ferry and set off at 10 o'clock as scheduled. There were a couple of Black Guillemots before we had gone more than a couple of hundred metres and throughout the sailing we saw plenty of Atlantic Puffins, Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes with much smaller numbers of Cormorants and Shags, about 8 Grey Seals, a lone Gannet and even a couple of Snow Buntings on the boat!
We arrived on Flatey at 10.45 and were soon looking at 3 Black Guillemots and some Eiders in the harbour area. Across at the opposite shore we found more of the latter species plus some Purple Sandpipers among the seaweed-covered rocks. Here a Common Redshank called in alarm at our presence and presumably it had young in the area. Common Snipe were also to be found in the grassland and as we walked further along, we found a few Red-necked Phalaropes, some Dunlins, more Purple Sandpipers and a lone Knot in a small bay. Seaside rocks often held Snow Buntings including young birds with their yellow beaks.
We strolled through the village and past the start of the Arctic Tern colony. After pausing to admire the Black-legged Kittiwakes with their well-grown downy young, we moved a little further and decided to have our picnics overlooking the area where many Puffins and a few pairs of Black Guillemots were nesting. The STOP sign told us that we were now approaching a reserve but that the exclusion from the area had finished the previous day. On we went and a bay held lots more Red-necked Phalaropes and a few other waders. Overhead we were constantly aware of the noisy hoards of Arctic Terns which vociferously objected to our presence but thankfully they were less aggressive than expected and did not actually press home a blood-drawing attack!
Time was now pressing and while some of the group made a brief visit to the island's church and then strolled back by way of the main track, others walked the longer route via small pool which now held 4 Red-necked Phalaropes but of their cousin, there was still no sign.
The return ferry was a little late and no new birds were seen despite constant searches. After landing, we drove to a small woodland where we had coffee (etc) and biscuits before taking a short stroll in search of Mealy (Common) Redpolls. We found about a dozen including some that were obviously young of the year.
Our final pause was at Helgafell, a mountain, well, a hill really, and we climbed to the top with full silent reverence to comply with local customs. We all agreed that this was a very special place and from the top we took in the fullness of the peace combined with the magnificent views. Occasional wader calls all around added significantly to the experience as did seeing a pair of Great Northern Divers with 2 young on the nearby lake.
The drive back to the hotel seemed to pass quite quickly and in relative silence. After dinner everyone enjoyed a tour of the town which gave an indication of life in a small Icelandic fishing town. The most unexpected discovery was that in this part of Iceland, an "hour and a quarter at most" lasts for about 120 minutes!

Saturday 17th July
We began the day with an 8 a.m. breakfast and an hour later we were leaving Grundarfjördur … but heading west. We checked the birds in the bay at this end of town but only found a couple of Ravens, numerous Arctic Terns and Eiders and a flock of gulls which all proved to be Glaucous Gulls. At 9.20 we were driving out of the other end of town and beginning our journey towards Akureyri in the northern part of this stunning location. There was a Red-throated Diver on the bay and a little further on there were plenty more Eiders and a pair of Whooper Swans with 3 cygnets.
The swan sightings increased when we reached Alftafjördur, which translates as Swan Fjord. Here, Whooper Swans gather to moult before taking on their autumn flights to Britain. We estimate that there were at least 675 individuals present as we passed together with about 65 Greylag Geese. Further along the road we paused to overlook the 'outer' end of Hvammsfjördur and the many islands scattered there but all we found were a couple of Common Seals and some very distant groups of gulls (thought to be mostly Glaucous) which seemed to be actively fishing.
Towards Búdardalur we had a Ptarmigan fly up from the roadside, an Arctic Skua or two flying around over the slopes towards the high ground and then a male Merlin swooped on to a post as we overtook it! Needless to say, we stopped and then everyone saw the bird as it overtook us.
Beyond Búdardalur we drove over the high ground at Laxardalsheidi and saw a few Snow Buntings, a Purple Sandpiper on the roadside and a pair of Whooper Swans with young on a lake. To shelter from the strongish, cooling breeze, we had our lunch at the small village of Bordeyri and here we saw a couple of Great Northern Divers, numerous Eiders and Arctic Terns and a group of Dunlins.
After this we drove to Blönduós and in the hope of finding rare gulls, drove out to the mouth of the river. As usual, there were plenty of Eiders and lots of Greylag Geese, Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes, some of which were bathing in the fresh water. While checking out 'yet another' of the latter species, a small duck swam out around a rock and back in to join a dozen of its colleagues. This turned out to be a group of 13 Harlequin Ducks and among them were 4 males one of which was in fine plumage still. A little later we went for a walk on the Hrutey, an island set between two arms of the same river. Again there were plenty of Greylag Geese including many with families of young. There were Frog and Small White Orchids to be found among the numerous flowers while Redwings and Redpolls were found in the trees. At one end of the island, a more open area held a pair of Golden Plovers and judging by their bold and vociferous displays, they had young nearby.
Route 1 from Blönduós took us over some hills and past a small lake which held a group of about 14 Tufted Ducks then a little further on we saw our first Black-tailed Godwit for a couple of days and our first Common Gull of the tour. After a pause at the services in Varmahlíd, we continued along the same Route 1 and along the Heradsvótn (river) we saw a few family and non-breeding groups of Pink-footed Geese numbering at least 66 individuals. Also at this location were 3 Common Ravens and an Arctic Skua.
Heading through the beautiful Öxnadalur e just had to pause to take some photos of the jagged ridge of Háafjall and then we were soon heading around the town of Akureyri where Eiders dotted the shoreline and a lone Red-breasted Merganser was feeding.
We reached the accommodation by 6.30 p.m. and were soon settled in and enjoying another good evening meal. After dinner, many of the group went for a walk towards the meadows and had good views of a Short-eared Owl drifting past on silent wings.

Sunday 18th July
As we approached Route 1, there were plenty of Common Eiders, Mallards, Greylag Geese and Common Gulls to be seen as well as a couple of Whooper Swans. We headed east and saw the usual waders by the time we reached Godafoss, the Falls of the Gods. Waders also featured at this popular tourist spot with Golden Plover and Whimbrel both probably having young in the area. There were also 3 Harlequin Ducks seen above the falls.
A large roadside lake held a Great Northern Diver and a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers. When we came in sight of Myvatn, we paused at a viewpoint overlooking the Laxá River. The view was quite stunning and in the distance we could see steam rising where the mid Atlantic Ridge was at its thinnest. On the river itself we could see a female Harlequin Duck with at least 6 ducklings. In the distance we could see more birds on the river but could not identify them. A short drive later and we were watching about 45 Barrow's Goldeneye plus another 2 female Harlequins (with 3 and 4 young respectively), a couple of female Wigeons and a handful of Tufted Ducks.
On Myvatn itself, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye were easy to find and much more numerous than the previous year. This was no doubt due to what seemed to be an abundance of the lake's famous midges this year, though Andy assured us it was not as bad as some years. There were also a few Red-breasted Mergansers, Wigeon, Mallard and Gadwall many of which had smallish young though the one or two Common Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks that we saw did not seem to have bred. Other species noted on the lake at our first few stops included lone Red-throated and Great Northern Divers plus a few each of Slavonian Grebes and Red-necked Phalaropes.
Just beyond Reykjahlid, we took a short walk in search of plants and in a large rock fissure we found lots of Wood Cranesbill and some Herb Paris while along the level area around the fissure there were plenty of Frog and Small White Orchids and a few Arctic Gentians. Within the fissure there is a hot pool and while some of the group began their lunches, Andy and James took a warming 'swim'.
We then drove to the volcanic area near Krafla and took a fascinating walk to see the steaming fissure at the top of the mountain. Throughout the period of the eruptions (from 1975 until 1984), a number of fissures opened at various times and overall they totalled about 15 kilometres in length. Along the footpath leading to the site we noted a few Golden Plovers and Snow Buntings as well as some Cassiope which had sadly finished blooming. After a brief pause at the Hverir mud pools, we returned to Route 1 to continue our circuit of Myvatn.
We found a female Gyr Falcon perched on a rock some distance from the road but it was at a rather awkward stopping place. We all jumped out and from a partly hidden position, watched the bird for some time while Andy went away in the bus and returned to collect us a while later. This as a fabulous bird and she even coughed up a pellet while we watched. We paused beside the final Myvatn bay that we passed and saw many of the species already noted but also seen here were a couple of female Pintails. Trackside pools here held more Red-necked Phalaropes and a pair of Slavonian Grebes with 2 small young.
Before beginning the journey back to Öngulsstadir near Akureyri, we paused by the bridge over the Laxá River and repeated our good views of the group of Barrow's Goldeneyes. To our pleasant surprise, there seemed to be more female Harlequin Ducks present and many of them were accompanied by small young. One female with 6 ducklings moved away as we pulled up and the young seemed to scuttle along in her wake. One duckling found a better mode of transport and hitched a ride on mum's back … twice! And then she dived ….
A final pause to look back to Myvatn and further along the river enabled us to take in the fabulous scenery that surrounded us. We then began the hour-long journey back seeing a couple of Arctic Skuas and a Whimbrel chasing a large gull as we went. In the bays near Akureyri there were the usual Common Eiders and a group of about 50 Black-tailed Godwits. After dinner, again many of the group wandered in search of the local Short-eared Owl and were not disappointed.

Monday 19th July
We left the hotel at 8.30 to head for the ferry to the island of Hrisay. We saw little as we made our way to the ferry port but there were the usual Common Eiders, Mallards and Black-tailed Godwits to be seen close to Akuyeri. We boarded the ferry and a few minutes later were stepping ashore on the island.
Half a dozen Common Eiders were in the harbour and as we walked through the small town, there were Redwings and a family group of 4 Snow Buntings around the buildings and a couple of Redpolls flew past. Further on at the fish drying racks there were Common Redshanks, Whimbrels and Golden Plovers all behaving as if they had young and in fact there were at least 2 tiny chicks with the latter species. Also by these racks we saw the first of perhaps 15 Ptarmigan, this one was the only male though. Most were females with young of various ages from 3 days old to 'flying cheepers'.
At the furthest point of the walk we had a look at some sea cliffs which held a few breeding pairs of Northern Fulmars. Also here were many more Eiders on the sea and these were joined by a rather fine male Harlequin Duck which still retained much of its breeding plumage. This was the first of two such males and we also saw a couple of females as well.
As we started to walk back along the cliffs, we found a Red-throated Diver, 3 Red-breasted Mergansers and more Black Guillemots. A Northern Wheatear flew off as we approached and as a ferry cruised into the fjord, a Great Skua seemed to be harrying a group of Kittiwakes.
After catching the return ferry at 1 p.m. we drove to the formerly bustling fish factory port of Hjalteyri where we had lunch in the company of more Common Eiders, passing Fulmars and a group of mostly juvenile Arctic Terns. Anyone foolish enough to approach the terns was immediately dive-bombed by the adults, not the most restful of experiences!!
By just after 3 p.m. we were arriving in Akureyri for the opportunity to visit the shops, the swimming pool and the Botanical Gardens. Some of the group managed two of these alternatives but it seems no one managed all three.
We ended the day with a traditional Icelandic Christmas dinner: a starter of pickled herrings, a main course of smoked lamb and then cheeses to complete a very generous and tasty meal.

Tuesday 20th July
We left the hotel at 9 a.m. and as we go, Common Snipe are drumming overhead and a little way along the road, another Snipe flew across the road so closely that it nearly joined us in the bus! Greylag Geese, Common Eiders and Black-tailed Godwits were all added to the list before we reached Akureyri where we made a brief stop. We then drove through the mountains (the road reaching 540 m above sea level) to Varmahlid where we paused for fuel and coffee; we were soon to begin the drive across Iceland's interior on the infamous 'mountain road'.
Soon after joining this road at Blöndudalur we saw a male Snow Bunting fly across the road in front of us and then on one of the early reservoirs, a pair of Great Northern Divers were resting. Other species seen before we reached the lunch stop at Hveravellir included Ringed Plover, Northern Wheatear, Arctic Skua and Purple Sandpiper. In various places, Arctic River Beauty was relatively abundant.
During the hour-long lunch stop, some of the group took the opportunity to bathe in the thermal pool nearby and here we saw Common Redshanks, Golden Plover, White wagtail and more Snow Buntings.
We set off again at 2 p.m. and although we had good views to the Hofsjökull and Langjökull glaciers between heavy rain showers, we saw no bird life until about 3.15 when a couple of Golden Plovers were feeding on a vegetated area. We eventually emerged from our Icelandic (rear end) massage and reached tarred roads and Gullfoss at 4.30. We all agreed on two things; it had been a fantastic experience and it was nice now the bumping about had stopped!
After enjoying the fabulous spectacle of Gullfoss (Golden Falls) for a while, we moved along to see the erupting geysers … at Geysir. Another opportunity was taken by many of the group to indulge in a little souvenir shopping at these two locations before we drove towards Skalholt. We had one more brief stop to make and that was at Faxi, a much smaller waterfall than Gullfoss. Here we saw a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes, two female Red-breasted Mergansers and 2 probably juvenile Harlequin Ducks that seemed to be searching for a potential nest site among the rocks.
After another excellent dinner at Skalholt, we went through the days bird list (as usual) and then had a couple of 'competitions'. The first was a 'collective noun' competition that had us suggesting strange and even weird names for groups of any wildlife subjects. Suggestions included a barrowful of goldeneyes, a highway of terns, a zip of flies, a gangling and a reef of knots, an eddy of eagles, a maccadam of ptarmigans, a twist of phalaropes and finally a donkey of pintails! And remember, this was just a small selection from those suggested. Some were unprintable and to go through the whole list would make members of the group feel somewhat queasy ................. again! As much for the longest list (which tells you a lot about them!) as anything, the prize went jointly to Graham and Catherine.
Then Andy announced the winner of the 'stylish sandwich making' competition. Graham was again the winner though it may have been as much to do with self-promotion as his 'sandwich making genius'. To complete the evening, Andy gave a presentation of pictures he had taken during the tour. These included a wide variety of images from flowers and details through to a whale tail and bird watching from a thermal pool.

Wednesday 21st July
During breakfast, despite our high regard for Graham's proven prowess at making sandwiches, no one could persuade him to make everyone's sandwiches! The church bell sounded at 08.55 and by 9 a.m. we were leaving for a little more birding before going to the airport to fly back home.
At the bridge over the first river there were about a dozen Red-necked Phalaropes as well as a few Common Redshanks. Near Hveragerdi we took a little detour and searched an area where Sea Eagles had been seen in recent weeks but unfortunately there were none present. However, along this road we did see Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plovers, Oystercatchers and many Northern Fulmars. We rejoined Route 1 and headed for central Reykjavik where we had time for some 'retail therapy' or some birding at the lake. Here we found plenty of Mallards, Tufted Ducks, Common Eiders and Greylag Geese all coming to be fed by local people. These birds were joined by hoards of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which argued endlessly over even the smallest pieces of bread. Arctic Terns were also present, as were a few female Scaups together with their families of ducklings. It was here that we added our final new species of the tour, Feral Pigeon!
From here we drove out past Keflavik airport to the lighthouse at Gerdskagi here we had our picnic lunches while watching passing sea birds. At this particular headland, the birding was quite good with Great Skuas harrying Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes as they flew along. Also out at sea there were a fair number of Gannets and Fulmars while along the shoreline, the numerous waders included Dunlins, Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Redshanks.
It was then time to head for the airport (via an exciting tour of a housing estate!) where we bade our farewells to Martin (rather hurriedly) and our local guide Andy. Once checked-in, we relaxed in the departure lounge area and made a few last minute purchases before heading for the flight(s) homeward.


SPECIES ACCOUNTS

BIRDS
Red-throated Diver
First 2 then 7 seen on 14th at the Berzerk lava field then seen on 16th, 17th, 18th & 19th
Great Northern Diver
Two breeding pairs seen on 14th at Pingvellirvatn then seen on 16th(4), 17th(2), 18th(1) & 20th(2)
Slavonian (Horned) Grebe
Just seen on 18th in the Myvatn area with at least 20 individuals
Northern Fulmar
Seen every day except 11th
Northern Gannet
A few were seen during the whale watching trip on 15th and about 3 were seen from the ferry to Flatey the following day. The most numerous sightings came during our picnic at Gerdskagi on the final day
Great Cormorant
First noted near Borgarnes on 14th, the day we travelled to Snæfellsnes and then seen on the next 3 days as well as at Gerdskagi on 21st
European Shag
First seen during the whale watching trip on 15th then seen on the next 2 days
Whooper Swan
Seen every day except 15th (the whale watching day) with at least 675 seen on Swan Fjord on 17th
Pink-footed Goose
34 seen beside Thor's River on 12th then 66 seen on the Heradsvótn (river) near Varmahlid on 17th and a few seen there during the return journey
Greylag Goose
Seen in varying numbers on 8 days in widely spaced locations throughout Iceland
Eurasian Wigeon
Seen at Bessastadir on 11th and at Myvatn on 18th
Gadwall
Just seen at Myvatn on 18th in small numbers
Common Teal
8 on 14th at Borgarnes, 10 on 16th on Flatey and a smaller group at Varmahlid on 17th and 21st
Mallard
Noted in small numbers every day except 13th
Northern Pintail
Just a couple of females seen at Myvatn on 18th
Tufted Duck
Seen every day except 12th
Greater Scaup
Good numbers seen at Myvatn on 18th and a few females had ducklings with them on Reykjavik Pond on 21st
Common Eider
Seen every day except 12th. On some days, particularly 14th and 17th, we saw hundreds of individuals but most males were already well on the way to attaining eclipse plumage
Harlequin Duck
What a good trip for this species. We began with a pair at Hjálparfoss on 12th then saw a group of 13 at Blönduós on 17th, at least 25 on the Laxá River on 18th and then 2 males and 2 females on Hrutey on 19th. The best plumaged males were1 at Blönduós and the 2 on Hrutey. Just to finish with, we saw 2 juveniles at Faxi on 20th
Long-tailed Duck
Surprisingly only a couple seen at Myvatn on 18th
Common Scoter
3 or 4 at Myvatn on 18th
Barrow's Goldeneye
Hundreds seen at Myvatn and about 45 on the Laxá River on 18th
Red-breasted Merganser
Small numbers seen on 7 days with the first, a female and 5 young, at Bessastadir on 11th
Merlin
A male was glimpsed on 14th not far from Stykkisholmur and then much better views of one on 17th near Búdardalur
Gyr Falcon
A fine female watched for some time near Myvatn on 18th
Rock Ptarmigan
A female seen during lunch beside Pingvallavatn on 14th had 8 chicks then the following day a female with 2 larger chicks was seen at Öndverdarnes , one as glimpsed during our journey on 17th then on 19th on Hrutey there was at least 15 including a male and also a good number of chicks
Eurasian Oystercatcher
Noted every day in small numbers
European Golden Plover
Noted every day
Greater Ringed Plover
Noted every day except 19th
Black-tailed Godwit
Seen on 8 days with the best views at Pingvellir on 14th where a female was trying to draw people away from where her chicks were feeding
Whimbrel
Seen every day
Common Redshank
Seen every day
Ruddy Turnstone
Seen on 3 successive days from 15th at various places around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and then at Gerdskagi on our final day
Red-necked Phalarope
18 on the river near Skalholt on 12th then seen on 5 successive days from 14th with the most being about 250 on Rif pools on 15th. About 6 were seen on 20th with 4 of these near Akureyri and 2 at Faxi and there were a few at the river close to Skalholt on 21st
Common Snipe
Seen every day
Red Knot
22 in the bay just west of Grundafjordur on 15th and a single individual on Flatey the following day
Purple Sandpiper
Noted on 4 days from 14th on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and also seen on 17th & 20th as we crossed breeding territories on high ground
Dunlin
Noted on 7 days, 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 21st
Great Skua
Seen along the south coast of Iceland on 13th then during the whale watching trip on 15th and then a single individual seen from Hrisay on 19th. There were perhaps half a dozen at Gerdskagi on21st
Arctic Skua
Seen every day except 16th
Common Gull
Seen on 4 successive days from 17th in the north of Iceland
Herring Gull
Seen on 3 successive days from 13th on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and then a single bird was at Blönduós on17th
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Seen every day
Great Black-backed Gull
Not as numerous as the previous species. Seen every day except 11th, 18th & 20th
Glaucous Gull
Noted on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on 4 consecutive days from 14th
Black-headed Gull
Seen every day
Black-legged Kittiwake
Very numerous from 13th to 17th around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and then seen on Hrisay on 19th, close to Akureyri on 20th and then at Gerdskagi on 21st
Arctic Tern
Seen every day
Common Guillemot
Seen at Vik and Dyrhólaey on 13th and then at sea during the whale watching trip and at Öndverdarnes on 15th
Brünnich's Guillemot
A few were seen during the whale watching trip on 15th and then we had excellent views of them on their breeding ledges at Öndverdarnes later that day
Razorbill
Many seen during the whale watching trip on 15th and then we had excellent views of them on their breeding ledges at Öndverdarnes later that day
Black Guillemot
First seen during the whale watching trip on 15th and then seen the following day at Stykkisholmur and on Flatey. Finally, at least 5 were around Hrísey on 19th
Atlantic Puffin
Very common. Seen on 5 successive days from 13th
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon)
Yes, we eventually found this species beside Reykjavik Pond on 21st
Short-eared Owl
A single bird was seen in the evenings of 17th and 18th at Öngulsstadir
White Wagtail
Seen every day
Meadow Pipit
Seen every day
Winter Wren
3 seen at Seljalandsfoss on 13th, a couple were at Pingvellir the following day and a single bird was in the Akureyri Botanical Gardens on 19th
Redwing
Seen every day
Northern Wheatear
Noted most days in small numbers
Common Raven
Seen every day
Common (European) Starling
Noted on 7 days
Snow Bunting
We started with a male flying past our minibus as we left Keflavik airport on 11th. This was followed by small numbers being seen on 7 consecutive days from 14th
Common (Mealy) Redpoll
4 at Pingvellir on 14th then about a dozen near Stykkisholmur on 16th, a similar number at Varmahlid on 17th and also noted in smaller numbers on the next 2 days


MAMMALS
Common Seal
One seen close to Grundafjordur on 14th and a couple noted close to Stykkisholmur on 17th
Grey Seal
At least 8 seen during the ferry ride to Flatey on 16th
White-beaked Dolphin
At least a dozen seen during the 'whale' watching trip on 15th
Orca (Killer Whale)
16 or more seen during the whale watching trip on 15th
Humpback Whale
We had extremely good views of one for about an hour during the whale watching trip on 15th
Minke Whale
On 15th we saw this species quite frequently throughout the trip so it is hard to estimate numbers but we suspect that at least 15 individuals were involved
Wood Mouse
One was seen being released from a humane trap near Stykkisholmur on 16th; does this count?


PLANTS
This was a superb botanical foray, enormously helped by Andy’s encylopædic knowledge, and sadly marred by losing my flora, plant list and detailed itinerary in Akureyri. This is compiled from memory with Elisabeth’s help, but even so is inevitably incomplete.
Nomenclature follows Fitter, Fitter and Blamey, Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe, 5th edition.



Juniperus communis ssp nana Juniper
Caltha palustris Marsh Marigold
Trollius europaeus Globe Flower
Ranuculus repens Creeping Buttercup
Ranunculus spp.
Papaver radicatum
Arctic Poppy
Betula nana Dwarf Birch
Betula pubescens Downy Birch
Montia fontana Blinks
Arenaria norvegica Arctic Sandwort
Honkenya peploides Sea Sandwort
Stellaria spp.
Cerastium spp.
Sagina spp.
Lychnis flos-cuculi
Ragged Robin
Silene acaulis Moss Campion
Silene unilfora Sea Campion
Silene dioica Red Campion Introduced.
Persicaria vivipara Alpine Bistort
Rumex acetosa Common Sorrel
Rumex spp.
Armeria maritima
Thrift
Viola canina Dog Violet
Viola tricolor Wild Pansy
Salix herbacea Dwarf Willow
Salix lanata Woolly Willow
Salix phylicifolia Tea-leaved Willow
Populus trichocarpa Western Balsam Poplar. Introduced from USA as a windbreak.
Erysimum hieracifolium Hawkweed-leaved Treacle Mustard
Cardamine pratensis (or C. nymanii) Lady’s Smock (Cuckoo Flower)
Cochlearia officinalis Common Scurvy-grass
Capsella bursa-pastoris Shepherd’s Purse. Agricultural weed.
Cakile arctica Sea Rocket
Empetrum nigrum Crowberry
Calluna vulgaris Heather, Ling
Cassiope hypnoides
Vaccinium spp.
Sedum rosea
Roseroot
Sedum spp.
Saxifraga hypnoides
Mossy Saxifrage
Saxifraga spp.
Parnassia palustris
Grass of Parnassus
Filipendula ulmaria Meadowsweet
Rubus saxatilis Stone Bramble
Potentilla palustris Marsh Cinquefoil
Potentilla anserina Silverweed
Fragaria vesca Wild Strawberry
Geum rivale Water Avens
Alchemilla alpina Alpine Lady’s Mantle
Alchemilla vulgaris
Common Lady’s Mantle
Sorbus aucuparia Rowan
Vicia cracca
Tufted Vetch
Lathyrus japonicus Sea Pea
Trifolium repens White Clover
Lupinus nootkatensis Nootka Lupin
Epilobium latifolium Arctic Riverbeauty
Epilobium spp.
Geranium sylvaticum Wood Cranesbill
Carum carvi Caraway
Ligusticum scoticum Scots Lovage
Angelica archangelica Garden Angelica
Angelica sylvestris Wild Angelica
Gentianella campestris Field gentian – violet and white forms
Gentiana nivalis Alpine Gentian
Mertensia maritime Oyster Plant
Myosotis arvensis Field Forgetmenot
?Prunella vulgaris Selfheal
Thymus praecox ssp arcticus
wild thyme
Hippuris vulgaris
Marestail
Plantago maritima Sea Plantain
Veronica serpillifolia Thyme-leaved Speedwell
Veronica spp.
Bartsia alpina Alpine Bartsia
Rhinanthus minor Yellow Rattle
Pinguicula vulgaris Butterwort
Galium boreale Northern Bedstraw
Galium pumilum Slender Bedstraw
Galium verum Lady’s Bedstraw
Succisa pratensis Devilsbit scabious
Taraxacum spp various Dandelions
Hieracium spp various Hawkweeds
Erigeron borealis Alpine Fleabane
Achillea millefolium Yarrow
Chamomilla suaveolens Pineappleweed
Matricaria maritima
Sea Mayweed
Eriophorum scheuchzeri Scheuchzer’s Cottongras
Eriophorum angustifolium Common Cottongrass
Phleum pratense Timothy
Tofieldia pusilla Scottish Asphodel
Paris quadrifolia Herb Paris
Platanthera hyperborea Northern Green Orchid
Pseudorchis albida Small White Orchid
Coeloglossum viride Frog Orchid
Dactylorhiza maculata Heath Spotted Orchid - Hrisey
Listera ovata Common Twayblade - Glacier snout






As tours go, this was outstanding for the variety of things that we did, saw and learned about. Much of this was down to our local guide, Andy Jones, a trained geologist, a former employee of the RSPB and a generally all round good egg! There was even more than the usual amount of good humour not least because of the 'collective noun competition' on the final evening.
We ended up with 64 species of birds and 7 mammal species (including 4 species of cetacean) during the trip and this is a fine total for an Icelandic journey.
Special thanks must go to James and Elizabeth for resurrecting the plant list following the loss of their checklist and Icelandic plant list. It may or may not be complete but it is still a fine list considering that there are only about 400 species of flowering plants growing in Iceland.
Everyone agreed it was a super trip and we had been very fortunate with the weather compared to the previous year. I sincerely hope I have the pleasure of your company on future Travelling Naturalist tours.

Mike Read


© The Travelling Naturalist 2004