TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Iceland - Great Auk Pilgrimage!

29 May - 5 June 2004


Leaders:
Andy Jones

Kevin Shaw

Trip Diary

Saturday 29 May

We all arrive in Stanstead in plenty of time, and take the smart transit train to Gate 2 for our departure. Our flight takes us over northern Scotland, with wonderful views (for some!) of Loch Broom and the Outer Hebrides. As we approached Iceland, those on the other side of the plane had their turn, as the Westman Islands came into view. We landed safely at Keflavik, and our leader Andy was waiting with a friendly welcome and a large red minibus. Joyce and Terry want to change currency, leading to a crisis in Iceland as they empty the machine and perhaps the central bank too.

It is a lovely, warm, sunny evening, and as we begin to cross the lava fields, with swathes of Alaskan Lupin all around, Andy picks out the peak of Snæfellsjökull, more than 70 miles distant, its snowy peak outlined against the evening sky. The drive to our hotel is a delight, with our introduction to Iceland's rough mountainous countryside enhanced by a brilliant sunset. We take a breather beside the crater of Kerið to enjoy the sky, listening to Redwing song and watching our first Golden Plover nearby. The mountain between ourselves and the sunset reminds Sean of Ayers Rock, and the whole landscape has an awe-inspiring grandeur. We could get used to this! We also enjoy a sighting of Ptarmigan, the bright white male sitting up in clear view, no doubt with a sitting mate nearby. Some of the group are lucky enough to glimpse a white Arctic Fox, glimpsed as it darts along a ditch near the road.

Our hotel 'Brattholt' is warm and friendly despite the late hour of our arrival, and the welcoming soup and green salad is just what we need.

Sunday 30 May

The first of many buffet breakfasts, which appear to be standard in Icelandic hotels. A good variety of cereals, cold meats, cheese and hard-boiled eggs. A few salad stuffs are welcome, and crisp biscuits and hot drinks complete the choice. We take our picnic from this selection too on most days. We make our sandwiches, then we are off! The experience of Iceland itself, its rugged beauty and majestic sense of space make this a very different nature holiday.

We begin at the roaring waters of Gullfoss, where white glacial meltwater thunders over an impressive two-step drop into a deep gorge. The waters fail to drown out a singing Redwing, which gives us good views. A Raven pair prospect along the sides of the steep cliffs, and we suspect the have stolen an egg from some agitated White Wagtails. A brief comfort stop, and we pull up opposite the mighty Hekla volcano, where we are delighted by Harlequin Duck in the river. At first we see a pair, but soon several males and another single female join them. Great views for all! Roger takes a photo which looks as though it might be a goodie÷. We make close acquaintance with Whimbrel, and during the day see our first Black-tailed Godwit: in fact Imogen sees twelve together! In the afternoon we marvel at the natural architecture of the canyon and waterfall at Hjálparfoss and Gjáin, plus the unforgettable experience of standing inside the Viking longhouse of Stöng.

Andy's detailed knowledge of geology and history enhances our day - the area comes to life in stories of hard-earned survival in a hostile land. Nothing hostile however about our lovely lamb dinner, and we are neither cold nor wet - a lovely day.

Monday 31 May

We rise to overcast skies, but the cloud cover is high, and so are spirits as we head to the famous geysers at ÷ Geysir! Andy advises us that the main geyser only erupts once or twice per day, but the lesser spout nearby shoots 60 feet in the air every 5 - 8 minutes, so we expect some entertainment. Two minutes out of the bus and up goes ÷. the main geyser! It isn't a major eruption but it is enough to impress us as we hear the great roar and smell the sulphurous fumes. We line up for photos, some put hands in hot (not boiling) pools, and see plenty of birds. Redwing, White Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Whimbrel, Raven, and for some of the group a few Redpoll flying around the visitor centre car park. The smaller geyser gives full value, and we try to capture the broiling waters, building water bubble and final massive explosion on film.

A few miles down the road and a small pool contains our first Red-necked Phalaropes. We are close enough to distinguish males from females, and excellent views of a bird new to many in the group are most enjoyable. The Sog River offers great views of Arctic Tern and Fulmar, and although the hoped for Barrow's Goldeneye appears to have deserted this part of Iceland, we see Greater Scaup and a variety of commoner duck including our first Eider. Perhaps the star bird here is a superbly plumaged Great Northern Diver, which shows its 'necklace' to us all, and we take in the dark, bottle-green head and chequered back pattern for future reference.

The breathtaking waterfall at Seljalandsfoss gives us another first - the chance to stand behind the cascade! We get a little wet, but survive and enjoy the spectacle. Slightly along the ridge we hunt out three elusive Wrens - this Icelandic race is on average 17% larger than its British cousin, and we all see the bird eventually. Andy then enjoys the highlight of his week, seven House Martins! These tiny hirundines wheel above us in characteristic fashion, and with plenty of small flies around the waterfalls, we hope they will stay. As we head to the southernmost part of Iceland we see Great Skua and lots of Arctic Skua, and Elizabeth is first to spot Dunlin in bright breeding plumage. By now we have seen around a dozen Phalaropes, darting suddenly onto the surface of the water, then gathering flies with quick stabbing movements.

Our final stop today is the wonderful glacier at Solheimajökull, a small finger of the much larger Mýdalsjökull glacier. The weather turns colder as we drive towards the glacier, and we are warned to watch out for quicksand as we walk to the ice. We are all affected by the sheer size and power of the mighty glacier, even though this is a small part of a smallish glacier. Two orchid species - Frog and Northern Green - are spied on the way back to the bus, and we proceed to Dyrhólaey for a well-earned shower and roast chicken. Afterwards the group watch a video about the Westman Islands - we are off there tomorrow!

Tuesday 1 June

After a hearty breakfast we drive to the coast near Vík, where black sands, mighty cliffs and rocky outcrops teem with birds. Our first Puffins are numbered in thousands, and we also see our first Gannets as well as more Great and Arctic Skua. A lone male Harlequin scoots around the corner, only some of us get a sighting, and we hear Whimbrel, Redwing, White Wagtail and Wren behind us. A brief detour to the post office and we see÷. Swallows! About a dozen and a few more House Martins too, a reminder of mainland Europe as we face the sea with Antarctica the next landfall. A large colony of Arctic Terns also remind us of long distance migration - these are the planet's most accomplished migrants, rarely seeing darkness as the move between the poles.

Next we are off to the airport at Bakki, keeping the Westman Isles in view most of the way. As we approach, everyone enjoys views of a lovely Long-tailed Skua which seems determined to cross ahead of the bus and race us to the islands. The bird's long tail streamers can be clearly seen. We enjoy lunch by the runway, prepared to scramble at short notice, and are transported across the 10 kilometres across the ocean in two shifts. A memorable flight in a six-seater plane (and that includes the pilot!), giving us superb views of the white glacial waters of the River Markarfljót emptying into the cold Atlantic over the black sands - wonderful! The beautiful main island is seen from the air, with the pretty town houses seeming incongruous next to the raw power of the nearby volcano, which erupted fearlessly only thirty years ago.

After a brief walk around the harbour we take a thrilling boat trip right round the main island, enjoying excellent views of auks, Fulmars and gulls. Views to the south feature the new island of Surtsey, born in 1963 and now a place of scientific research as the first plants and birds colonise the land. Our voyage concludes deep in a cathedral like cave made of compressed volcanic ash, where a virtuoso saxophone solo is performed by our skipper, a multi-talented chap who also drives the island bus and runs a café with his wife! We see several white-winged gulls including both Glaucous and Iceland around the harbour, and everyone is full of memories and ready for dinner and bed.

Wednesday 2 June

Grey skies and rain - oh no! Will we be able to walk up to the volcano? Over breakfast the skies clear and it another beautiful day on the Westman Islands, we are so lucky with the weather this week, on the mainland it is grey and wet. The group splits into two parts: Elizabeth, Joyce and Kevin stay in the town while Andy leads Imogen, Roger, Pauline, Sean, Terry and Beryl up to the new crater formed in 1973. The walking group see Golden Plover eggs, apparently abandoned high on the lava close to the crater path. This group also find four Snow Bunting and have a high old time on the crater rim, looking down onto the town so nearly obliterated by the eruption. The smaller group have fun with gulls, separating Iceland, Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Kittiwake. We learn the key field marks and test our knowledge on real life birds standing patiently around for us to view. After a chat with a very pleasant Viking fish sorter, we look at interesting exhibits in the nearby museum/aquarium.

The two groups reunite as one at lunchtime, a pleasant change from sandwiches in the Café Kró. Apart from Raven this may be the only corvid in the country! Our guided tour in the bus is highly entertaining, as our driver/guide demonstrates the national sport of rope swinging (honestly!) and describes Surtsey as 'a mouse lying on its tummy with its tail sticking out'. We watch Puffins, which confuse some of the group by cleverly imitating sheep. Later we are driven to the crater and walk up to the lower rim, enjoyed the splendid view of the new volcanic land and the surviving portions of the town. In 1973 the volcanic eruption buried 360 houses and nearly reached the harbour itself - this would have been a mortal blow to this successful fishing town. Mercifully the entire island was evacuated and no lives were lost. Thirty years on, and a local couple have established a wonderful garden in the middle of the lava. We visit and are welcomed in Icelandic by the lady responsible: her husband sensibly ignores visitors and keeps on working!

Another brilliant flying experience as we return to the mainland, and a scenic drive in bright sunshine to our final base for the week, the Fosshotel Hlið, which is as comfortable, spacious and clean as all the places we have stayed. We glimpse Ptarmigan in flight, then it's more chicken at the table!

Thursday 3 June

Our hotel is beautifully located, with open views across the lava field towards the sea. Today the area is alive with birds, and before we even board the bus we see Whimbrel, Redwing, Black-tailed Godwit, White Wagtail, Wheatear, Snipe, Raven, Meadow Pipit, Redshank and Black Headed Gull. Add to this the Ptarmigan seen after dinner last night by Imogen, Roger and Terry, and we already have a good list. We drive west to the area around Reykjavík and Andy shows us a large lake near the President's Palace - Bessastaðir. There are many ducks, geese, gulls and terns here, and we soon add a lone Brent Goose to our list. Most people also see Long-tailed Duck, there are two birds here but they don't co-operate for long. The next stop is a breeding site for Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, and we are lucky enough to see five birds in brilliant plumage, their bright yellow 'horns' showing clearly.

We see a beautiful second year Iceland Gull at a nearby pool, the bird showing almost pure white in brilliant sunshine, lounging with Herring Gulls which makes a great contrast in plumage. We also add a juvenile Glaucous Gull to our list as we arrive at Sandgerðdi to board our boat, the appropriately named 'Moby Dick'! The crew are extremely friendly and helpful, and we chug out of the harbour and turn south towards Eldey. Soon the island is visible, rising like a 'grainsack' from the dark Atlantic waters. Our first excitement is a Minke Whale sighting by the crew, but the animal has made a deep dive, and we don't see it. Several times we smell whales (not very nice, perhaps they had paté sandwiches too!) but don't see one, until suddenly a Minke Whale appears right next to our boat! Everyone enjoys great views as the whale surfaces again before departing. The vast bulk of the whale is broken only by a single, small dorsal fin.

Soon we are seriously Eldey watching as we get close to the island. The top appears white, but it isn't - the island is covered in Gannets! About 15,000 pairs nest here, and we circle the island twice, admiring the gannets and searching the auks for an elusive Brünnich's Guillemot. We can clearly see the shelf where the last Great Auks were taken - it is the only point on the island which is accessible by even a small rowing boat, so this must be the place, a strange feeling as we watch the Atlantic Grey Seals which live there now. We watch, listen to and smell the unmistakable experience of a major seabird colony. As we return, a single Manx Shearwater and a lovely pale phase Pomarine Skua are added to our list as they fly by the Moby Dick. We also have great views of both Great and Arctic Skua harassing Kittiwakes.

Before we leave for a late dinner we take advantage of the bright sunshine to do a little wader watching. Sanderling, Turnstone and (eventually!) Purple Sandpiper are all located on a beach packed with gulls and terns.

A very full and rewarding day - how lucky we have been to reach Eldey, the weather still fine and the calls of auks and terns ringing in our ears.

Friday 4 June

A drive away from our hotel takes us to a cliff face where we enjoy prolonged views of a magnificent White-tailed Eagle. The bird perches, soars, attracts Raven which forces it to land, and generally shows off for over ten minutes. We note the broad wings and large, wedge-shaped white tail, and also see the enormous yellowish bill, itself larger than some of the birds we have seen this week. Next we visit the coast at Eyrabakki, where the cold glacial river enters the open sea. Again we experience the eerie effect of white waters and pitch black sands. A small lagoon on the seaward side offers good views of about 30 Merganser, some Eider, two Purple Sandpiper and a superb Red-throated Diver. This last bird gives us a chance to see its triangular red throat patch, surrounded by grey plumage and difficult to see at first glance. As the bird flies away with an eel offering, it displays characteristic shape, with the centre of the bird held higher than the head and tail. Crossing the road to the river side of the confluence, two Red-necked Phalarope are sailing out to sea, and around six more Red-throated Divers are milling about. We take lunch by a striking Art Deco lighthouse at Hveragerdi, at 80 feet the tallest building in southern Iceland. Here the birds we have come to know and love on this holiday are all around us - Whimbrel, Raven, Arctic Skua, Redshank, Snipe, Wheatear, Meadow Pipit - we see them all! It's a beautiful sunny day, around 20 - 22C, and not a cloud around us.

We drive the short distance to Flói, where we enjoy two real delights. The first is the sight of displaying and quarrelling Red-necked Phalarope, with up to six birds around us and on nearby pools. Brilliant views of this rare and delicate wader. The next experience is the arrival of a Red-throated Diver maybe 50 yards away, keen to swap places with its sitting mate. We beat a retreat to give the birds their space.

It is our last afternoon in Iceland, so we decide to take a break. Pauline, Elizabeth, Sean and Kevin go swimming, a unique experience in a thermally heated, open-air fifty metre pool. We are very, very clean when we emerge. Everyone else goes shopping and visits a nearby garden centre. Later we enjoy more great views of White-tailed Eagle, and finish the day with an entertaining talk on Great Auks given by Andy.

Saturday 5 June

We have plenty of time before our afternoon flight, and this gives us the opportunity to catch up with Brünnich's Guillemot, a bird which has frustrated us so far. Andy takes us to Hafnberg and we walk through spectacular scenery, with lava under our feet (the path is sandy and easy to follow) and birds all around. We can see the cliffs ahead, which seem miles away in the arid landscape, but our journey is made most interesting by Wheatear, Golden Plover, Arctic Skua and a lovely male Snow Bunting. At the cliffs, Andy quickly locates a single Brünnich's amongst all the Common Guillemot, and we clearly see the white facial line, shorter beak and darker shade of body colour. With five auk species around us, this is a very fitting end to the holiday.

Off to the airport, and a final bit of shopping before an enjoyable and smooth flight back to Stanstead. We say our goodbyes with smiles all around - a memorable and very enjoyable holiday.

Our thanks particularly go to Andy Jones, from Iceland Naturalist, whose patience and professionalism made everything run so smoothly - without Andy it would be very difficult to cram so much action and memories into one week. His outstanding knowledge of Iceland and its geology was invaluable too, the whole country springing to life with tales of eruption, lava flow, social struggle and success against the elements, and not least stories of Yule Lads and smelly sharks!

Thanks to everyone who participated for your good humour and company throughout - it was a pleasure to be with you on a wonderful holiday.

Kevin Shaw

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The Great Auk Pilgrimage - by Joyce Dawson

The weather forecast was said to be good

So our leaders suggested the party should

Motor to the harbour near Keflavik

To board a boat called 'Moby Dick'.

A pilgrimage we will make across the sea

To contemplate the demise of the last two Great Auks

If nothing else it will make a change, said he

To the daily routine of waterfalls, geysers and our usual walks.

So off to the 'Fire Island', Eldey we sailed

To see the rock two bold fishermen had scaled

And how with rowboat and club the story goes

The poor birds they killed with several blows.

So slaughtering the last two birds, their feathers to take,

Unaware of the disaster this action would make.

With a packed lunch at the ready

We boarded our boat painted white and green

An old fishing vessel so sure and so steady

A nicer one had never been seen.

The sun was shining and we were all excited

When Minke Whales on the port side were sighted.

Razorbills, guillemots, puffins and skuas too

Added to our interests the excitement grew.

But when the rock itself hoved into view

Screams of delight were heard - quite a to-do!

For Eldey was peppered by gannets galore

32000 they tell me, could be more.

All soaring and diving to our delight

While the captain obliged and got it quite right

By twice circling the rock for a half hour or more

And we spied the seals maybe more than a score.

With cameras clicking and scopes to the fore

You can understand why we clamoured for more.

But time does not wait for gannet or man

So the skipper obeyed the captain's command

As it really was time to head back to land.

But remember that rock as the scene of a rather sad show

When the last two great auks met their doom long ago

T'was the pleasantest cruise, you all agree I am sure

To mark the sad day in June 1844.

BIRDS

Red-throated Diver One 30th, 8/9 4th including breeding pair at Floi

Great Northern Diver One 31st Sog River, one 3rd at sea

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe Five 3rd at breeding site near Reykjavik

Northern Fulmar Common, seen every day

Manx Shearwater One at sea, 4th

Northern Gannet Seen each day 1st - 4th. Thousands on Eldey!

Great Cormorant Two leaving harbour at Sandgerdi, 3rd

Whooper Swan Common, seen every day, peak 100 31st

Pink-footed Goose Over 100 30th, biggest flock c70

Greylag Goose Common, seen every day, peak 24 30th

Brent Goose One pale bellied at Bessastadir, 3rd

Eurasian Wigeon Pairs seen 31st, 1st, 3rd, 4th

Common Teal Seen 31st, 1st, 4th

Mallard Common, seen every day

Tufted Duck Seen virtually every day

(Greater) Scaup Good views 31st and 3rd

Common Eider Seen each day 31st onwards

Harlequin Duck 12+ on 30th inc group of 5 at Gaukshofdi, one at Vik 1st

Long-tailed Duck 2 at Bessastadir, 3rd

Red-breasted Merganser Seen 30th, 31st, 3rd and around 30 on 4th at Stokkseyri

White-tailed Eagle Two, 4th

(Rock) Ptarmigan One on 29th as we drove, two at Hlid 2nd, three above Hlid 3rd

Eurasian Oystercatcher Common, seen every day

(European) Golden Plover Common, seen every day

(Greater) Ringed Plover Common, seen every day

Black-tailed Godwit Common, seen every day

Whimbrel Common, seen every day

Common Redshank Common, seen every day

(Ruddy) Turnstone Seen near Sandgerdi 3rd, Stokkseyri 4th

Red-necked Phalarope 16+ en-route from Geysir 31st, c12 Floi 4th

Common Snipe Common, seen every day

Sanderling Near Sandgerdi, 3rd

Purple Sandpiper Seen near Sandgerdi 3rd, two at Stokkseyri 4th

Dunlin Seen in ones and twos five different days

Great Skua Seen coast/sea each day 31st - 4th

Pomarine Skua One pale phase at sea, 3rd

Arctic Skua Good numbers every day

Long-tailed Skua One flying in front of bus at Bakki, 31st

Common (Mew) Gull One, 31st whilst driving to Dyrholaey

Herring Gull Good numbers at sea/cliffs 1st - 4th

Lesser Black-backed Gull Common, seen every day

Great Black-backed Gull Each day 1st - 4th

Glaucous Gull One adult Heimaei 1st, juv at Sandgerdi harbour 3rd, one 4th

Iceland Gull Three adults harbour Heimaei 1st, four following day same place, two including lovely 2nd year white bird Sandgerdi 3rd

Black-headed Gull Common, seen every day

(Black-legged) Kittiwake Common 1st, 2nd, 3rd at Vik and Westman Islands

Arctic Tern Common, seen every day, breeding colonies at Vik (1st) and Hveragerdi (4th)

Common Guillemot Lots! 1st and 3rd at cliffs Westman and Eldey

Brünnich's Guillemot Only two for certain but well seen on 5th at Hafnberg

Razorbill Lots with Guillemots 1st and 3rd

Black Guillemot 1st and 3rd, good numbers, fewer than other auks

(Atlantic) Puffin 1st, 2nd and 3rd Westman Islands and Eldey

Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Singles in flight three different days

Barn Swallow C12 at Vik 1st, seen again 3rd, 4th

House Martin 7 at Seljalandsfoss 31st , 10/12 at Vik 1st

White Wagtail Common, seen every day

Meadow Pipit Common, seen every day

(Winter) Wren 3 seen separately at Seljalandsfoss 31st , one heard at Vik 1st

Redwing Common, seen every day

Northern Wheatear Infrequently seen on four days

Common Raven Common, seen every day

Common (European) Starling Seen small numbers every day

Snow Bunting c6 2nd on Heimaei, lovely male at Hofnberg

Common (Mealy) Redpoll Inflight at Geysir, 31st

MAMMALS

Common Seal Seen 1st and 4th

Grey Seal Seen 1st and 3rd, most notably on Great Auk shelf, Eldey

Minke Whale One seen twice, at sea 3rd

Arctic Fox Glimpsed by some whilst travelling, 29th

OTHER GROUPS

Five Spined Stickleback Good numbers in tiny pond, Floi

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FLOWERING PLANTS OF ICELAND 29/05/2004 TO 05/06/2004

30 May 2004

306 Dandelion Taraxacum spp. (everywhere in glorious technicolour)

5 Lyme-grass Leymus arenarius

191 Nootka Lupin Lupinus nootkatensis

24 Common Lady's - mantle Alchemilla vulgaris

20 Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris (leaves only)

41 Heath Dog-violet Viola canina

44 Wild Thyme Thymus praecox ssp.arcticus

76 Arctic Riverbeauty Epilobium latifolium (leaves only)

60 Mountain Avens Dryas octopetela

61 Moss Campion Silene acaulis

62 Thrift Armeria maritime

68 Lady Smock Cardamine nymanii

129 Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus

111 Northern Rock-cress Cardaminopsis petraea

153 Iceland-purslane Koenigia islandica

165 Cold Eyebright Euphrasia frigida

219 Biting Stonecrop Sedum annuum

233 Field Horsetail Equisetum arvense

233 A Brittle Bladder-fern Cystopteris fragilis

243 Dickie's Bladder-fern Cystopteris dickieana (in Viking house)

244 Dwarf Willow Salix herbacea

241 Woolly Willow Salix Lanata

241 Dwarf Birch Betula nana

247 Aspen Populas tremula (planted near town)

267 Juniper Juniperis communis

324 Capitate Sedge Carex capitata

31 May 2004

253 Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa

257 Frog Orchid Coeloglossm viride

229 Common Moonwort Botrychium lunaria

194 Northern Green Orchid Platanthera hyperborean

190 Alpine Lady's-mantle Alchemilla alpina (near the waterfalls)

160 Creeping Buttercup Ranunculus repens

158 Silverweed Potentilla anserine

156 Marsh-marigold Caltha palustris

127 Alpine Rock-cress Arabis alpina

89 Tufted Saxifrage Saxifraga caespitose

56 Water Avens Geum rivale

97 Alpine Snow Saxifrage Saxifraga nivalis

1 June 2004 - Vik

81 Sea Campion Silene uniflora

101 Sea Sandwort Honckenya peploides

1 June 2004 Heimaey

174 Roseroot Rhodiola rosea

13 Field Forget-me-not Myosotis arvensis

75 Oxeye Daisy Leucanthemum vulgare

77 Burnet Rose Rosa pimpinellifolia (leaves and prickles only)

87 Mossy Saxifrage Saxifraga hypnoides

Red Campion Lychnis dioica N.B NOT IN ICELAND BOOK

98 Common Mouse-ear Cerastium fontanum

107 Common Chickweed Stellaria media

3 June 2004

15 Oysterplant Mertensia maritime

82 Alpine Mouse-ear Cerastium alpinum

187 Colt's -foot Tussilago farfara

4 June 2004

353 Russet Sedge Carex saxatlis

338 Common Cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium

311 Scheuchzer's Cottongrass Eriophorum scheuchzeri

109 Fleshy Stitchwort Stellaria crassifolia

55 species

I have not recorded the frequency with which we saw the plants, but the dates when we first saw them.

All names and spellings are taken from: Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland, by Hordur Kristinsson, together with reference numbers.

Beryl Murfin


© The Travelling Naturalist 2004