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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Sitting in the cold, gray waters of the North Atlantic, Iceland is a country that has long inspired the imagination of travelers and birders alike. This is the land of ice and fire and of ancient sagas, where the mighty Gyrfalcon drifts over a dramatic volcanic landscape dotted with glaciers, gushing geysers, hot springs, mighty waterfalls, and endless emerald-green vistas. Iceland is almost too beautiful to be believed.

The birdlife is equally dramatic and varied, with such special species as Barrow’s Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck; the spectacle of thousands of breeding alcids and waterfowl; and lakes inundated with Red-necked Phalaropes. In recent years, the waters of northern Iceland have become famous as a place to see Blue Whales, and while they can never be guaranteed, a boat trip offers arguably the best chance of seeing this legendary mammal anywhere in the world. Orcas also make relatively frequent cameos.

IN DETAIL: You don’t have to venture far from the airport for birds and after everyone had arrived from their overnight flights, we were out birding within a 15-minute drive. The morning was spent focusing on the Reykjanes Peninsula, on which the airport is located. Our first stop was a small set of ponds that gave us our first taste of birding in Iceland. Graylag Geese, Mallards, and Tufted Ducks lounged along the shorelines while large numbers of gulls roosted on the rocky islands. Lesser Black-backed was the dominate species, but we pulled out Black-headed, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls along with a couple Black-legged Kittiwakes. We also had our first shorebirds, with the likes of European Golden-Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher, and several Common Snipes winnowing above. Wherever you are in Iceland, there are almost always snipe displaying above. Turning our attention behind us, we discovered a family group of Snow Buntings, including a striking black and white male.

Moving on, we turned our focus to a small gravel road, which passed through natural habitat and farmlands. Shorebirds were well represented and provided our first Whimbrel, Dunlin, Common Ringed Plover, and Common Redshanks, which favor teeing up right on fence posts. A distant pond added Whooping Swan, a raft of Red-breasted Mergansers, while a large gull breeding site added Herring and Great Black-backed. Careful scanning of the rocky terrain turned up a couple Rock Ptarmigans, which darn their more camoflauged brown plumage this time of year. Meadow Pipits were in full song displaying overhead while Redwings sang from fence posts, White Wagtails fed in a puddle, and Northern Wheatear hopped from rock to rock. Near the end of the road we drove through a large Arctic Tern colony, which is always a sight.

We arrived at Garður, the point of the peninsula, and the Garðskagi lighthouse. The shoreline here hosts a couple hundred Common Eiders, mainly females and young individuals. We also picked out a Ruddy Turnstone and a Sanderling working the shoreline. Out on the rocky point were several European Shags among the thousand Black-legged Kittiwakes. Focusing our attention further out into the sea, there were constant streams of aclids flying by, mainly of Common Murres and Razorbills, and at least one Atlantic Puffin. Careful scanning of the horizen found a few dozen Manx Shearwaters among the larger numbers of Northern Gannets and Northern Fulmars.

We made one more brief stop before lunch at another small pond where a rare-to-Iceland Ring-necked Duck had been present. It took no time spotting it and we were able to get good comparisons with the visually similar Tufted Ducks, which swam nearby. We also picked up our first of many Red-necked Phalaropes.

After a delicious lunch at a local bakery, we travelled north towards Borgarnes. Along the way we birded a coastal area to search for a King Eider, which was seen on the first Iceland tour that just finished, but it was no longer present. We did pick up Eurasian Wigeon among throngs of waterfowl and our first “Icelandica” Black-tailed Godwit. A visit to some bird feeders in town before checking into our hotel provided Eurasian Blackbird and a small gathering of Common Redpolls.

After dinner, we were out again to target the Eurasian Woodcock. Despite being light out for 24 hours, they still are most active at ‘dusk’. With some time to kill, we checked on a White-tailed Eagle nest, which was discovered on the last tour, and had one adult sitting on an islet in the bay. We also had our first Black Guillemot. Moving on, we stopped for several dozen Common Shelducks, which has colonized this area in recent years. A couple of acrobatic Parasitic Jaegers entertained as well. We eventually arrived at a stand of conifers to try out luck at the woodcock. During our wait, we enjoyed excellent views of two Long-eared Owls, which graceful flew back and forth offering quite the show! These were discovered a few years ago on a WINGS tour and have been reliable ever since. Eventually a woodcock made a single flight pass before disappearing in the distance.

After a long, busy, but successful day, we slept in a little the next morning before having breakfast and continuing our journey north. Iceland has a road that circles the entire island, which is aptly named the Ring Road, and is where most of the tourists drive. With that in mind, we take any opportunity to get off of this road and travel the quieter backroads. This morning we did a detour, which allowed us to bird at a slower pace and make more frequent stops. Black-tailed Godwits were numerous as were Redwings, Common Redshanks, and others. A series of small lakes hosted many breeding pairs of Red-throated Loons which we were able to watch display and call all the while in full breeding plumage. We also found our first Eurasian (Green-winged) Teal and had a good selection of gulls and Parasitic Jaegers.

After a nice sit-down lunch, we arrived on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and completed a full loop of the peninsula before checking into our hotel. Our first stop was Ytrigtuna, which is known for a large Common Seal colony. Among the many seals, we found a stunning drake King Eider, which was hanging out among the Common Eiders. Continuing on our loop, we visited a series of large ponds, adding a vagrant Common Pochard in addition to a couple breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes. With the incredible Snæfellsjökull Volcano in view, we made a stop at a large cliff face over the coastline. Here, we enjoyed views of a couple of thousand Common Murres, which had ten or so Thick-billed Murres mixed in, offering us a great opportunity for comparisons. We also saw hundreds of Razorbills, a few Atlantic Puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars at close-range, and a surprise Harlequin Duck down below at the shoreline. With time for one more stop, we visited a productive beach and quicky spotted four Purple Sandpipers among Dunlin working the shoreline right below us. Also present were was a single Iceland Gull and two Common Gulls.

The next morning was supposed to be our whale watching trip into Breiðafjörður Bay, but the weather was not on our side. Instead, we retraced our steps and birded the Snæfellsnes Peninsula more and had a relaxed day of birding. A stop at a scenic waterfall also gave us views of a couple up-close Harlequin Ducks, which are always nice to see. Otherwise, we added Great Cormorant, Common Merganser, and found a rare flock of a half-dozen Brant in a scenic river valley.

Typically we take the ferry across to the Westfjords stopping on Flatey Island, but this year the schedule didn’t allow this key stop. Instead, we opted for the scenic route around the bay, which offered flexibility for stopping for birds and soaking in the incredible scenery, which only got better as we approached the Westfjords! Along the way we spotted Long-tailed Duck and no fewer than five White-tailed Eagles, including a family group at a nesting site. We also kept a mental count of some of the more common and easily counted species, tallying over 500 Whooper Swans and 2,400 Common Eiders. Every bay, inlet, and rocky shoreline had eiders present.

We eventually arrived at Breidavik, our accommodation for the night, where a walk before dinner yielded plenty of breeding birds on-territory including Red-throated Loon, European Golden-Plover, Redwing, and Meadow Pipit. After dinner we headed to the nearby Látrabjarg cliffs, one of the largest seabird breeding colonies in all of Europe. Timing is key, you must visit late in the evening when most of the puffins have returned from fishing during the day. We enjoyed a number of Atlantic Puffins just feet away, offering phenominal photographic oppertunities. Common and Thick-billed Murres, Razorbills, Northern Fulmars, and Black-legged Kittiwakes were also well represented with over 6,000 inviduals combined. A Common Raven soared around at eye level while a flock of Purple Sandpipers rested on the rocky shoreline. Nearby we found a couple Lapland Longspurs. This species is rare for Iceland, as they do not breed on the island, but instead end up here after flying off-course en route to Greenland and decide they’re better just to stay put than to try again.

On the mammal front, we had both Common and Atlantic Gray Seals offering excellent comparisons, and on our drive back to the accommodation we stumbled upon an Arctic Fox. Always thrilling to see!

The following day was mostly a travel day as we left the magnificent Westfjords and worked our way east across northern Iceland. The scenery was ever-changing, which made the drive quite enjoyable. Along the way we observed a gorgeous pair of Long-tailed Ducks and a surprise Merlin flyby, which is not a bird you see on every tour. Before reaching our stopover accommodation, we visited a local wool factory, which offered some local shopping of homemade goods made from Icelandic wool.

The next morning we set off, continuing our journey east with many planned stops along the way. The Héraðsvötn river valley, one of the largest in Iceland fed by the Hofsjökull glacier, also hosts a large population of breeding Pink-footed Geese. This species has rapidly increased in numbers, particularly at lower elevations as it was previously only found at higher glacier fields. After our successful wild goose chase, which involved many ducklings, we continued towards the picturesque town of Akureyri, and visited a large forest on the edge of town. Here we had Goldcrest, Eurasian Wren, Common Redpolls, many Redwings, and a single Fieldfare. The latter is a recent arrival to this area and is now breeding in this forest.

After a tasty lunch in Akureyri, we continued east where we made a detour inland to a secret Long-tailed Jaeger breeding site. High up in the mountains, we arrived at a vast tundra and eventually found one flying around, showing off its long tail streamers. A great way to end the day before checking into our accommodation.

After breakfast the next morning, we made a short 15-minute drive to a cliff face that has been hosting a family of Gyrfalcons. This year had been an awful year for Gyrfalcons with very few birds to be found on the island. Fortunately during my last tour last week, we found a breeding site with four young. Today at least two were still visible on a prominent ledge. No tour to Iceland is complete without seeing a Gyrfalcon!

With such a major target in the bag, we headed to our next location, stopping for a couple dozen Barrow’s Goldeneye at a river crossing. At Lake Vestmannsvatn, a lone Arctic Loon has been returning for a number of years now. A very rare bird for Iceland, this individual returns to the same lake every summer where it remains alone. We quickly found it and had great scope views. We also enjoyed seven Common Scoters swimming in a group right off the shoreline.

A small scenic lake near Húsavík surrounded by hillsides covered in Alaskan Lupine has been hosting a vagrant Eurasian Coot, which we ticked off right away. It was a productive spot for photos with Arctic Terns, Horned Grebes, Tufted Ducks, and a Common Loon being photogenic. The rest of the morning was spent on our backup whale watching trip, but out of Húsavík instead. Six Humpback Whales were had along with no fewer than twenty White-beaked Dolphins. A successful trip, all before lunch.

North of town we positioned ourselves at a vantage point where Great Skuas often come in very close as they work up and down the shoreline. We ended up having four individuals flying over our heads offering excellent views! We also had four more Purple Sandpipers and several Snow Buntings.

Before lunch we made one last stop at a lake, which has been hosting a Black Tern for the last several years. It wasn’t present at first so we enjoyed four hundred Red-necked Phalaropes blanketing the lake until the Black Tern made an appearance. With another target in the bag, we had lunch at a nearby national park and spent some time searching for rare gulls, finding a single vagrant Bonaparte’s Gull and yet another flyby Merlin.

The next morning we stopped at the small river crossing near our accommodation to see If we could pick up any new waterfowl. Among the usual Eurasian Wigeon, Mallards, Tufted Ducks, Long-tailed Duck, and Barrow’s Goldeneye, we spotted a single Northern Pintail. We then headed to the magnificent Dettifoss, which is alleged to be the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, before continuing to Lake Myvatn via some geothermal bubbling pools of mud and steaming fumaroles.

Lake Myvatn, which translates to “lake of midges”,  is a volcanic lake and hosts thousands of waterfowl. We completed a full loop around the lake stopping at a number of vantage points where we tallied a dozen species of waterfowl, plenty of Red-necked Phalaropes, and Horned Grebe among others. We stretched our legs at a small forest which held Goldcrest and also enjoyed some locally made ice cream made using milk from local dairy cows. We eventually arrived at our very comfortable accommodation for the night.

After a long day traveling back towards the capital, we arrived at our hotel and had a good rest before our final morning of birding. We ended the tour right where we began on the Reykjanes Peninsula, reveling at all of the breeding shorebirds, mixed gull flocks, and singing Meadow Pipits. We officially ended the tour at the Garðskagi lighthouse where we enjoyed the countless alcids, Manx Shearwaters and Northern Gannets moving offshore and the Common Eiders and Black-legged Kittiwakes closer to shore.

                                                                                                                                                                                  - Ethan Kistler

Created: 06 October 2023