Tuesday 27 June 2017

Iceland Round Three

I looked at my holiday calendar in March of this year and realised that I had very few dedicated bird photography trips. Mistake. I tend not to bother in this country nowadays, in and around London where I live it's very hard to create the conditions that I like, and I don't frequently have unfettered access to a car at the weekends. I do however have access to my passport and good links to several London airports. Cue abroad. So a few days after realising I was short of opportunities I booked my third trip to Iceland for a weekend at the start of June. My shortest trip ever, and also by far the cheapest.

  • A two day solo trip in early June.
  • Two key sites identified. Eiders and Arctic Terns close to the airport, and then Red-throated Divers about 90 minutes away.
  • Wow Air flight to Keflavik for £101 (which included a piece of chargeable hand luggage) departed Friday night after work and an early return on Monday that saw me back at my desk before lunch.
  • Car hire from Avis, but taking advantage of "free weekend" voucher that I had earned after a certain number of previous rentals.
  • Accommodation - see car hire above ;-). This did somewhat limit the amount of sleep I had, but I took the view that the daylight hours at this time of year would want to see me out and about and thus limit that anyway. So why pay? I took a small sleeping bag, Iceland in June is still not a warm place.
  • Took most food with me - A loaf of bread, a pack of salami, 4 bananas and 4 Double Deckers. I bought a couple of coffees and a few bottles of water.

Day 0-1
Wow Air from Gatwick was right on time, and got me into KEF for about 11pm local time. I presented my car hire voucher and without fuss was given a brand new VW Golf with 20km on the clock. I handed it back with over 800 on it, but more on that later! I headed west towards the slowly setting sun at Gardur. This was a popular event on a clear evening, and there were plenty of people parked up around the Light House taking it in. I did the same, noting happily that the public toilet in the car park was nice and clean and appeared to be 24h due to the next door campsite.

When the sun finally disappeared underneath the horizon, I drove the short distance towards the Eider Colony, found a quiet spot away from the birds, parked up and settled down for what would be a very short sleep. It was 1am and still perfectly light.....

I woke up at 3.30am in broad daylight feeling somewhat worse for wear but determined to make good use of the fine conditions. I unpacked my photography gear, got dressed and carried on up the road to the birds. This area contains both an Arctic Tern colony as well as an Eider nesting area. This is roped off and fiercely guarded by locals who have a vested interest once the Eiders have finished breeding, but once it was clear that I wasn't a feather rustler and was only taking photos from the car windows they seemed to lighten up a bit. The light was amazing, I had really lucked out in my choice of weekend - Iceland in June can easily be miserable, wet and grey affair. I spent the entire morning here slowly rolling up and down the road, stopping whenever a good situation presented itself. It felt the like the entire morning,  but when I had had my fill I looked at my watch and discovered it was only 8am! I headed off to my previously spotted toilet for morning ablutions, and had a spot of breakfast - namely a banana.

I felt I had had enough of the Eiders, and there didn't seem to be as many next to the road as there had been early morning - presumably the birds were off feeding. With the weather still decent I decided to check out my next spot, the reserve at Floi. Rather than go via the Blue Lagoon and Grindavik I took the northern route via Reykjavik, taking a short-cut before I got the city. This took me through a landscape of lupins and lakes which was really very pleasant , so I stopped a while for a snack and a break. There were a few unusually tolerant Redwings around, and whilst chasing them around I noticed a small Grebe on the nearby lake. A quick check through the bins confirmed this a smart summer-plumaged Slavonian, and it appeared to favour an area very close to the bank, which was also extremely close to a footpath which had numerous walkers and joggers going round it. Thrushes forgotten, I watched for a while and the human traffic seemed not to be bothering it, could this be this one of those incredible opportunities?

It could! I spent a fabulous half hour with this bird as it cruised along mere metres from me. I wondered for a while if there was a partner bird hidden in the bankside vegetation, but if there was I never saw it. The bird was also calling frequently with no response, so maybe it was still trying to attract a mate? Whichever, it was a superb place and although busy by Icelandic standards this seemed to work in my favour as the bird was used to people. By this time the light was actually getting a little harsh, so I carried on over the pass to the Divers at Floi. This side of the mountains the weather was not as good, but at least the harsh sunshine was gone. I still had just enough light for decent speeds, but really I was here for the soft evening light and so crossed my fingers that by that time the nice weather on the coast might have come a bit further inland. 

I had unfinished business here from my last trip when I felt Shaun and I had departed the site far too early, and rectifying this had been in the forefront of my mind when booking the trip. As ever the entrance track was good value, with numerous Godwit and Snipe along the edges, but as it was the Divers I was after I didn't really linger. Parking up near the triangular toilet (I had this all figured out!) I was pleased to see numerous RTDs dotted on almost every small pond. There was even a bird nesting on the first pond in what I reckoned was the exact same spot as my last visit. I didn't want to linger near a nesting bird so I bypassed this pond and its mate and moved on to the next one, which was larger and appeared to be hosting two pairs, neither of which had an active nest yet. I adopted the usual tactic of waiting until the birds dived (which they frequently did together) and then running as far as I could before going prone when I thought they might resurface. In this manner I got very close to the edge, and whilst the first click of the shutter caused instant alertness, when nothing further followed the birds both relaxed. One even went to sleep right in front of me, and I reckon I probably dozed off too!

Although the light was not wonderful I loosed off far too many frames over a couple of sessions over the afternoon before deciding I wasn't getting what I came for and heading off to see if I could find better weather and something different. I drove a few roads around Villingaholt and Arnessyslu without a great deal of success and had another nap in the car until the early evening when I returned to Floi. The cloud layer was still thick but as time progressed the sun sank below it and partially gave me the light I had come looking for. Unfortunately this also came with a breeze that made the water rather choppy, but rarely do you win them all I suppose. Once again the Divers went to sleep, I must be very boring.

This session lasted a couple of hours before the sun sank behind the tall hillsides that border the site. I headed back to the Grebe site to check the bird was still there, which it was, and gave Mick S the directions. Unbeknownst to me he had also booked a trip to Iceland and had been looking for this species further north without success. He decided to head down that evening to give it a go the following morning, agreeing to meet me at the Eider spot at first light. It was about midnight and still broad daylight, sleeping was hard, but on the plus side I had roughly 1,900 images safely nestling on my memory cards. Surely it was worth it?

To be continued....


  1. Really interesting read and some fantastic photos. I've never gone birding abroad but perhaps I will do now. You've inspired me!

    1. Get yourself away Lee, can I suggest you visit Eastern Europe as soon as possible - say, Bulgaria? It is mind-blowing.

  2. Thank you for sharing your birding trip in Iceland, nice read and superb photos.

  3. Thanks all, it is a fabulous place when the weather is kind, and still pretty amazing when it isn't!