Thursday 17 July 2014

Iceland Trip Report

I've just come back (I say just, it's probably about two weeks ago now) from another one of my long weekend trips in search of birds. This time the destination was Iceland, a place I've wanted to visit for a long time. We deliberately booked at the height of the solstice so as to maximise the available light, and the fact that all birds would be back on territory.

  • A four day trip in late June, Friday evening to Tuesday afternoon, with Mick S and Richard S.
  • Birded the Snaefellsnes pensinsula for two days, including visiting the Island of Flatey. Third full day spent on a long drive to Myvatn and back for Wildfowl.
  • Icelandair flight to Keflavik (west of Reykjavik) from Heathrow departed 2110 on Friday night, alllowing a full day at work, and arriving at about 2330 the same evening (there is one hour time difference the opposite way to mainland Europe), costing about £250 at the time of booking. It's possible that closer to the time Easyjet flights would have been available.
  • Car hire via Hertz, horrendously expensive (as is most anything in Iceland), at something like £430 for a small Toyota. This included millions of different insurance options as many roads in Iceland are unpaved, and volcanoes apparently wreck cars.
  • Accommodation was booked for three nights at the Harbour Hostel in Stykkishólmur, and was £45 per night per person. Basic, but clean. We elected not to bother sleeping on the first night, and instead drive/bird slowly up to the peninsula from Keflavik.
  • We did a small amount of research before we left, which told us we probably had to go to Myvatn, but as we were looking for photographic opportunities with common birds, we basically winged it.
  • Mobile reception was pretty good almost everywhere we went, so we used Google Maps. I have a roaming deal mind you.
  • We had a couple real meals, including some Guillemot (!) but mostly subsisted on junk. Expensive junk.
  • It never got dark. Sunset and Sunrise practically merged into other. There were a few hours around midnight during which it was too dull for photography. It really screws you up.
  • Sleep was limited to 13 hours over the course of 4 days. Punishing.

Day 0-1
Picked up the car and were on our way by around midnight. Found some cash machines in Reykjavic, and then headed north on Route 1 to Borgarnes, where we left the main ringroad and took the 54 up towards Snaefellsnes. We explored a few side roads round here, including the 533. It was relatively 'dark' at this time of day/night, so opportunities fairly limited, but we got some nice sunshine by about 4am. Birds everywhere, Redshank and Snipe on every post, Black-tailed Godwits and Golden Plover in the wet meadows, and Red-throated Diver in small pools. Many many close opportunities on the waders, but we were probably too eager and didn't do much thinking, so very few images from this period.

The aim was to get up to Stykkishólmur for the 9am ferry across to Flatey, and we made this very comfortably. A ticket as a foot passenger was around £35, and it's a 90 minute crossing to the island, which is a stop-off as the ferry crosses the bay to the northern peninsula. The ferry then returns twice, once at 1330, and once at 2000. The island is tiny, you can walk from end to end in ten minutes, and the major draw is the presence of loads of incredibly tame Red-necked Phalarope, as well as few Grey Phalarope. These latter breed in the northern end of the island, and during the summer months this is unfortunately out of bounds so we we never saw one. The other species kept us fairly engaged though, as well as many fairly tame Redshank, Puffins, a handful of Snow Bunting and millions of Arctic Terns. I had an absolute ball, but Mick and Richard couldn't find their mojo and decided to take the earlier boat back to Stykkishólmur. I stayed, spending more time with the Phalaropes on the rising tide, but also a session with the Fulmars up on the low cliffs at the far end. The tiredness was getting to me though, and by 6pm I was totally done in. I caught the ferry back across and met the others at the harbour, to discover they had had a much better afternoon, including finding a photographable Red-throated Diver, a quality Golden Plover, and some Phalaropes that were possibly better than the ones on Flatey. They promised me a tour the following day, and we went off to find some dinner.

Day 2
I think we managed about four hours of sleep, but the thought of all the birds that Mick and Richard had found the previous afternoon was too exciting, so we were up and out pretty early. First stop was the Diver, which we enjoyed for a couple of hours, including some mega-stealth crawling through vegetation, a strategy that was to help us get close to various other birds that we found on the shallow pools that are dotted all over the Icelandic landscape. 

Their Golden Plover was still there too, in some lava fields, and allowed for some great opportunities. A bit further west, past Grundarfjordur, we stopped at the series of small pools, but found no Phalaropes. Mick however spotted a diving Harlequin Duck from a bridge, diving in a bend of the river close to the sea, and so our afternoon was sorted! The bird soon flew through the bridge and off up the river, and whilst following it through the bins we found another two birds, this time a pair. Although quite a long way up, we felt they were drifting down, so we set up on the bank below the bridge, out of sight, the theory being that the birds would ride the rapids through the narrow bridge and immediately find themselves in front of our water-level lenses. Amazingly this actually happened, with the pair coming down first, followed soon after by the third bird. Boy oh boy did we have a great time! And to cap it off, a single Phalarope turned up and allowed some amazing reflective shots.

The rest of the afternoon was spent following the 54 anticlockwise around the western end of the peninsula, with hightlights including an immense Arctic Tern colony at Rif, and Kittiwake cliffs at Arnarstapi. All common birds, but the quantities were extraordinary. We found a family of Great Northern Diver which meant more stalking through long vegetation, and our first Slavonian Grebes which were unfortunately too far out to do anything with. With so many stops the light had now gone, and so we headed back to the digs. With such a successful day we felt we had cleaned up on Snaefellsnes and so decided to get up even earlier and head to Myvatn for a change of scenery, and hopefully some new species to photograph.

 Day 3
A 2.45am start was incredibly difficult, but it was over five hours to Myvatn, a large lake in the north of Iceland famous for wildfowl. The journey was pretty extreme, requiring the first 100km or so on unpaved roads, before finally joining Route 1. Sharing the driving, it didn't seem to take as long as I thought it might, and there were several highlights along the way, the first being tons of Pink-footed Geese as we drove up a mountain valley. An incredibly wide river flood plain, mainly gravel, gradually became narrower and narrower until we crested the top of a pass and carried on down the other side - waterfalls, cliffs, huge snow-covered peaks. It truly is an impressive country, but we couldn't really linger. During the valley descent, as the landscape became more lush, we stopped to photograph some of the many Black-tailed Godwits - there must have been young around as they were not amused by our presence, so we carried on. Beautiful birds though in their summer finery. As we neared Myvatn we crossed over some high moorland, and stumbled across an amazing waterfall - a major tourist attraction called Godafoss - without realising where we were. This stop proved pretty inspirational, with the three of us picking up probably our best ever images of Whimbrel and Snow Bunting.

We finally hit Myvatn at about 9am, and decided to drive around it anti-clockwise looking for opportunities. Although the lake is pretty large, you cannot actually get close to the shore other than in a few areas, but luckily for us the Barrow's Goldeneye, a major target and a Western Pal tick for all of us, seemed to prefer an area where you could park up. We tried our luck with a lone male on a smaller pool, before spotting a group of birds resting in a bay on the lake proper. More commando tactics ensued, a particularly nasty crawl including getting several mouthfuls of bugs (Myvatn is called Midge Lake - they don't bite, but there are simply loads of them). It was well worth it though, as before too long all three of us had our lenses poking through the vegetation and out over the water. Cue many many images, some of which actually worked. There were probably around twenty birds, a mixture of males, esclipse males, and females. They were no doubt well aware of the motor drives, but none of us broke the horizon so it's possible that didn't associate what they could hear but not really see with human activity. I certainly hadn't thought that we would be able to get this close in without the birds flushing, but as with all the birds we targeted, we did a pretty clean job both in and out. I recall one Whimbrel flushing, and then one of the highlights of the trip was seeing Richard still stalking it not realising it had flown off ages ago when I was already back at the car!

After exhausting the possibilities of these birds, and via another cute baby Wheatear, we carried on to the bird centre up on the northern side for some well-earned lunch and something to drink. very friendly staff who told us where to look for certain species, but apart from the Goldeneye, it seemed that most birds were very far out. Carrying on back round, west, we found some Red-throated Diver chicks from the road, and were pleased to be in position when the adult flew back in with food. This resulted in some "action" images, though not the artistic stuff we were hoping for. A bonus Common Scoter and ducklings were pretty lucky, and a Wigeon flying around also got the treatment. Plenty of Red-necked Phalaropes, including up to 50 birds in one small bay, but we never bothered with them as we already had what we wanted and by then the wind had started to get up and the surface of the water was very choppy. I think we ended up doing two circuits of the lake before reluctantly realising that Wildfowl photograpy was over, and instead concentrating on yet another Golden Plover for a while.

So started the long drive back, punctuated by a small group of Great Northern Diver on a smaller lake called Masvatn, and a flyby Gyr Falcon at Akureyi whilst stopped at a traffic light - the bird unfortunately sailed off into the distance pursued by Gulls. Gradually the weather deteriorated and before long we were driving in pretty poor visibility back over the mountain passes. Luckily the road here was pretty good, and it wasn't like it was particularly busy, and of course it never got dark. We again shared the driving, and arrived back in Snaefellsnes just before midnight - a twenty hour day!

Day 4
Although I tried to get up early, it just didn't happen, and I had a lie in until 7.30am. Mick was up and out and making the best of the weather, but by the time we got out it had deteriorated quite badly. Retracing our steps back towards Reykjavik we realised we did not have a great deal of time before our 4pm flight, so with the bad weather the day was mostly a write-off photographically speaking, but we did get to visit the Blue Lagoon near Keflavik briefly. Easy flight back to Heathrow and I was home by 10pm, but utterly wasted from lack of sleep. Once the memory cards were safely downloaded I had one of the best nights sleep I can remember. 

Trip List
Red-throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
Slavonian Grebe
Whooper Swan
Pink-footed Goose
Greylag Goose
Tufted Duck
Harlequin Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Common Scoted
Barrow's Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Gyr Falcon
Golden Plover
Ringed Plover
Black-tailed Godwit
Red-necked Phalarope
Arctic Skua
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Black-headed Gull
Arctic Tern
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Short-eared Owl
Sky Lark
Pied Wagtail
Meadow Pipit
Northern Wheatear


  1. A totally fantastic trip which I hope we can repeat !!!!!!

  2. An excellent read Jonathan. Superb pictures too. Particularly the Phalaropes but there all good.

  3. What was the midget situation like?

  4. Lol, bloody phones!
    I meant mosquito (midges)