ICELAND BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Iceland: Day 1 Our tour begins this afternoon at Reykjavík’s international airport at Keflavík. From here we will head north to the small port of Stykkisholmúr for an overnight stay, a journey that offers a good introduction to this spectacular island.
Iceland provides close contact with the awesome force of nature, which created this amazing country and is still shaping it today. This newly formed and distinctly extra-terrestrial landscape is a desolate expanse of vast lava fields and volcanic craters, with bubbling geothermal pools and gushing hot springs – reminders of times not so long ago when the earth burst into flame. Only very recently has the landscape been colonized by lichens, mosses and a few hardy grasses. Along the shoreline, huge Atlantic waves sweep unhindered, smashing onto the razor-sharp skerries and dark, sandy beaches.
The coastal landscape en route is dominated by lush grazing meadows and marshland, interspersed with patches of moorland vegetation. We will pass by numerous rivers, streams and small lakes, many of them close to the road. Along the tussocky edges of these roadside lakes nest strikingly handsome Great Northern and Red-throated Divers (or Common and Red-throated Loons), Whooper Swans and the occasional Horned (or Slavonian) Grebe. Dainty Red-necked Phalaropes are also often seen in the pools and small lakes, and usually give excellent views as they twirl back and forth, catching numerous hatching midge larvae.
On the lush grasslands, we should find scattered pairs of the distinctive Icelandic race of the Black-tailed Godwit, which is now a candidate for full species status. Compared with the Black-tailed Godwits which breed in continental Europe, those occurring in Iceland are smaller and have a more intensely red-coloured breeding plumage. In greener areas and by freshwater pools bordering the coastal edge, the mournful piping calls of European Golden Plovers can be heard alongside the distinctive drumming displays of Common Snipe. Breeding waders are well represented and other species we should see include Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Whimbrel and Common Redshank. Arctic Terns, recently returned from the opposite side of the globe, are ever-present and breed throughout the entire island. We will also stop at an eyrie of the impressive White-tailed Eagle, a rare and localized resident of Iceland’s western fjords.
Iceland: Day 2 From Stykkisholmúr we will take the regular ferry service that crosses the Breiðafjörður and which is the only way to reach the island of Flatey. This is the largest island in Breiðafjörður and is one of the few remaining sites in Iceland where the beautiful Red (or Grey) Phalarope can still be found. Only 20-30 pairs of this species now breed in the whole of Iceland, but we can expect to find this bird foraging on the seaweed-covered shore of Flatey. Half of the island is cordoned off during the breeding season, to reduce disturbance, but the density of breeding birds on the inhabited, open-access side is still stunning and means that we shall be scolded at every turn, with Arctic Terns merrily dive-bombing us and Red-necked Phalaropes spinning around on puddles among the houses! Eider Ducks tend their gorgeous nests and the air is filled with the flutey calls of Common Redshanks.
We will spend most of the day on Flatey enjoying more close encounters with our new friends before we take the ferry back to Stykkishólmur, from where we will travel west to the small village of Hellissandur, for an overnight stay.
As we travel further west the landscape will become increasingly mountainous. Nearing the western edge of the peninsula, we will pass the stunning Snaefellsjökull volcano and glacier, which rises majestically from the adjacent coastline to a height of 1500 metres. The glacier is extremely beautiful and reputedly endowed with great powers: it was the source of inspiration for Jules Verne’s world-famous adventure novel Journey to the Centre of The Earth.
Iceland: Day 3 On low volcanic cliffs at the western edge of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula we should have our first encounter with Brünnich’s Guillemots (or Thick-billed Murres). Small numbers of this predominantly high Arctic breeder crowd amongst the numerous Common Guillemots (or Common Murres), Razorbills, Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes. These seabirds, along with much of the Icelandic fauna, are often unconcerned by human approach and usually offer very good photographic opportunities.
Friendly Snow Buntings nest amongst the boulder fields and Rock Ptarmigan, surprisingly well camouflaged in this open landscape, can be found, unlike their Scottish cousins, only a few metres from the ocean. We will keep a lookout for the attractive Purple Sandpiper, which breeds widely in Iceland’s uplands. Around isolated settlements and in patches of scrub willow and birch we will hear the melodious song of the Redwing. Other passerines, which we should find include Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail and Northern Wheatear, while the Common Redpolls here are of the large and dark northwestern race, which is a good candidate for a split.
This morning we shall also pass coastal lagoons and river mouths where we should find our first Harlequin Ducks, one of Iceland’s major specialities. This beautiful duck, which in Europe is restricted to Iceland, occurs locally throughout this large island, favouring fast-flowing streams and river mouths during the summer months. Other wildfowl we should see at Snaefellsnes include Common Eider and Red-breasted Merganser. We will make an effort to check some large rafts of sea ducks along this coast, which sometimes include King Eider and even occasionally White-winged Scoter (split from Velvet).
Small numbers of Glaucous Gulls are normally present, along with the more common Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We will look closely through these flocks of gulls for a few summering Iceland Gulls, which may even include an individual of the North American kumlieni race (sometimes split as Kumlien’s Gull).
This afternoon we will explore some remote areas in the west of Iceland in search of the magnificent Snowy Owl, although we will need a little luck to find one of these wide-ranging birds. Other species we can expect in this area include Merlin of the local form subaesion as well as Arctic Skua.
We will spend the night at Gauksmyri.
Iceland: Day 4 We will spend the morning travelling to the picturesque fishing town of Húsavík, which will be our base for the next four nights. We will stop along the way to look for Iceland Gull and any other unusual gulls or sea ducks. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration at famous Lake Myvatn.
Iceland: Days 5-7 The Myvatn area is one of the pearls of Icelandic nature and is famed for its variety of birds, beautiful natural rock formations and its many hot springs. The main feature of this volcanic landscape is Lake Myvatn.
This is one of the largest lakes in the country and is internationally renowned for the large number and variety of breeding wildfowl. At least 16 species of duck have been recorded breeding around the shores and many islands of the lake and its outflowing river, the Laxá. The most numerous wildfowl species at Myvatn are Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Greater Scaup. Other common species include Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Common (or Black) Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and a major Icelandic speciality, Barrow’s Goldeneye (a species largely restricted to northwestern North America that in Europe only occurs here). Harlequin Duck reaches its highest breeding density in Iceland on the incredibly picturesque rushing Laxá River and we will spend some time watching them shooting the rapids here. Harlequin Duck is also joined here by a few pairs of Goosander (or Common Merganser).
Other scarcer breeders include Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and Common Pochard. A few species of wildfowl also occur regularly on the lake without breeding. The Common Goldeneye is not infrequent and a handful of males are normally resident on the lake. One or two American Wigeon occur most years, but they can be very difficult to find during the height of the breeding season. Ring-necked Duck and Ruddy Duck are almost annual visitors. Greylag Goose is a fairly common breeder in the Myvatn area, especially in the marshes south of the lake.
Many other birds can be seen on or around the lake. Two or three pairs of Great Northern Divers (or Common Loons) nest at Myvatn along with over 200 pairs of Horned (or Slavonian) Grebes; the former is yet another species that only breeds in Europe in Iceland. A few pairs of Gyr Falcon are resident in the Myvatn area and this is the best place in the country for seeing this splendid falcon. Merlins are not common but may be seen perched on fence posts or telegraph poles or chasing the numerous Meadow Pipits and Snow Buntings.
Great Skuas breed along the coast to the north of Myvatn and we will visit a remote colony dotted across a remote and windswept lava flow. We should not need to search too hard for the skuas as they will be only too keen to come and take a look at the intruders in their realm. Although more commonly seen in southern Iceland, Arctic Skuas (or Parasitic Jaegers) are sometimes observed in the vicinity of the lake and occasionally breed.
Other birds, which we should find in the area include the superb Long-tailed Skua (or Long-tailed Jaeger), Black-headed Gull, Common Raven, the robust endemic Icelandic form of the Winter Wren, and perhaps Short-eared Owl. Pink-footed Geese nest mostly in Iceland’s rather inaccessible interior and we should see a number of them today. The terrain, as in most of Iceland, shows much sign of volcanic activity and we shall stop to admire the basaltic ‘volcanic castles’ at Dimmuborgir and the boiling mud pools and sulphur-encrusted pools at Krafla, an active volcano. This area of northern Iceland also offers a chance to take a close look at the continental divide, where great trenches mark the meeting point of the North Atlantic tectonic plates. We will also make a visit to the awesome Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The 100m wide and 45m tall falls, which featured in the 2012 science-fiction film Prometheus, carry the thundering glacial meltwaters of the Jökulsa á Fjöllum River at an average rate of 193 cubic metres per second!
While based in the picturesque town of Húsavík, located on the north coast of Iceland only 80 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, we will take two whale-watching boat trips into the cold waters of Skjálfandi bay, where we should have an excellent chance of seeing Minke Whales against a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The Minke Whale is the smallest of the northern baleen whales and good numbers visit the bay every summer to gorge on the bountiful supply of shoaling fish. These whales often put on a great spectacle for observers and behaviour such as spy-hopping, breaching and lunge feeding are regularly observed. In addition, we have a very good chance to see Humpback Whale. Acrobatic, often gregarious, and sometimes as curious about us as we are about them, Humpbacks are a whale watcher’s delight. Furthermore, this is one of the easiest baleen whales to identify in the field because it possesses and generously displays a set of distinctive field characteristics. The species regularly shows its distinctive tail flukes when diving, and sometimes breaches clear of the water, or raises its head above the surface for an inquisitive look at passing boats.
The smaller cousins of the great whales, the dolphins and porpoises, are also represented in these waters and we can expect to see the large and acrobatic White-beaked Dolphin. This robust, dark-coloured dolphin is restricted to the cool and sub-arctic waters of the North Atlantic and the inshore waters around Iceland is one of the best places to get close views of this species. As with most dolphins, this is a sociable animal and is often seen in close-knit groups numbering between five and 50 animals. The fast-moving pods are often very demonstrative, leaping clear of the water and readily coming to ride the bow-wave created by ships. We may also come across the diminutive Harbour Porpoise.
If we are very fortunate we will encounter a Blue Whale. This baleen whale is the largest animal ever to have inhabited the planet, with some individuals exceeding 30 metres feet in length and weighing almost 150 tons. The species was very heavily exploited by the whaling industry in the early part of the 20th century and it is thought that only a few hundred animals now remain in the entire North Atlantic. It will be an exciting moment if we spot the huge column-like blow of this species. Following the blow, the Blue Whale’s massive back seems to roll on and on before the small dorsal fin appears. They will sometimes raise their tail flukes clear of the water during deep dives or during shallow dives while travelling.
Iceland: Day 8 After a chance for some final birding in the Myvatn area if need be, we will retrace our steps westwards and then southwards and eventually we will reach the small settlement of Gulfoss where we will spend the night. Just north of the settlement is the spectacular waterfall on the Hvitá River that gives its name to the area, which we will naturally spend some time here to admire.
Iceland: Day 9 This morning we will have time to experience the impressive Strokkur (‘The Churn’) geyser at Geysir (sadly, the Great Geysir itself has long been dormant), which shoots a column of boiling water up to 20-30 metres high every 10 minutes or so and also the very scenic outdoor setting of Iceland’s first parliament at Pingvellir or Thingvellir). The latter site was chosen for both its dramatically beautiful setting beside the Pingvallabvatn Lake and for its acoustics. It served as the site for the Icelandic parliament from 930 to 1798. The area is also fascinating from a geological standpoint as another place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, with some impressive fissures and cliffs at the fault line.
Our tour ends in the early afternoon at Keflavík airport.