Monday, 23 February 2015

Urban birding - Reykjavik in January

When I made the decision to visit Iceland in the depths of winter many people kindly informed me how stupid I was being. Snow drifts, minus temperatures and icy, closed roads. Not exactly ideal conditions for a birding trip. Indeed, during our eight day stay we confined almost entirely to Reykjavik, excluding our two visits to Keflavik airport upon arrival and departure. This being the case, surely I should have left Iceland feeling somewhat low and unfulfilled? This was however very far from the case.



Birding in Reykjavik provided an entirely new experience for me, drastically different from anything I am used to in the UK. Despite looking superficially similar to the Britain, the avian makeup of Reykjavik proved wholly different to what I am used to. Indeed, here you could walk along 100m of street and see nothing. Not one bird; quite the opposite of England where Jackdaws and Collared Doves adorn most chimney pots and House Sparrows chirrup from every available shrub. Despite this, Reykjavik provided some of my most memorable wild encounters to date with numerous surprises and immaculate views of usually timid birds.

Beginning in the various streets and gardens and a bit of perseverance turned up a number of familiar faces amongst the snow. Starlings were relatively abundant, whilst both Blackbird and Goldcrest could be unearthed with a little effort. The latter taking me somewhat by surprise. Redwings were by far the most abundant bird here, though admittedly I could probably see more in an afternoon in Northumberland than I did during my whole trip. What was really surprising however was just how confiding these birds were; frequently following any human possessing anything remotely edible. On one occasion I even had one land by my hand and help itself to my hotdog, totally undeterred by my presence. Truly amazing. Elsewhere amongst the multi-coloured houses and picket fences Snow Buntings existed in surprising numbers with perhaps fifty or so noted on a daily basis. Elsewhere only the odd Mealy Redpoll and the “kronk” of the ever present Ravens kept me entertained, except on the my last full day when a Merlin tore over the main street no doubt in search of the aforementioned buntings or Thrushes. 




Away from the suburbs Reykjavik boasted a few rather nice “green spaces”. Among these Tjorn lake and the surrounding park land which remained consistently frozen during the entirety of my visit. Consistently that is except for the presence of a small patch of water towards the town centre kept open by the constant traffic of webbed feet as the resident wildfowl congregated along the shore to make use of hand-outs courtesy of locals and tourists alike. Mallard were of course numerous here, as were Tufted Duck whilst Greylag Geese congregated in their hundreds. Slightly more interesting was the presence of one or two very confiding Wigeon and a hand feeding Pink-Footed Goose. 


Though even these were eclipsed by the next resident with some 75 Whooper Swans also found milling around on the small, unobtrusive patch of water. Behaving more like Mutes than the timid migrants I am used to these birds were more than happy to take food from the hand, allowing for supreme close up viewing of what has to be one of my all-time favourite birds. Anyways, things got even better when one of the lumbering white giants lifted from the water revealing a easily read ring. A little chin wag with Kane Brides and the origin of the bird were revealed with rather surprising results. Turns out the Swan, which should have been residing somewhere in the UK was ringed at WWT Caelaverock during March 2014. By Kane himself! Quite a surprising find though the reasons for it forsaking migration remain unclear. 



Moving away from “swan lake” a gander round the rather unassuming patch of water and sedge that is Vatnsmyri nature reserve turned up the trips first Gadwall alongside a couple of Eurasian Teal and few Ravens. All seemed quiet until an excited squeal from Liam heralded the arrival of the first of our Icelandic target species. A awe inspiring Gyrfalcon! Watching the colossus for a good five minutes and it drifted over head and off towards the town centre the true size of the bird became clear. Moving or should I say skipping onwards around the pool a final scan of the pool prior to departing turned up yet another surprise. A drake Green-winged Teal. Not something I was expecting to find on a half frozen puddle in the centre of Reykjavik. The bird in question showed immaculately allowing for my best photos of the species to date but before long the light faded and we set off towards our hostel.



Finally we come to the last and arguably the most awesome aspect of the city. The famous Reykjavik seafront. I visited the coast daily throughout our stay, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of Liam. This proved a fruitful endeavour with the highly urbanised harbour and built up coastline throwing up some truly fantastic birds. Eiders were the most numerous species here, closely followed by Long-Tailed Ducks. Both of which set about courting on a daily basis making for memorable viewing as the amorous drakes tirelessly pursed the females and constantly squabbled amongst themselves. Other ducks seen here include a few dozen Red-Breasted Merganser, a single Wigeon and a probable drake White-Winged Scoter. The latter of which was noted by Liam as we returned from our ‘whaleless’ whale watching trip. Though I didn’t see the bird, there has been one in the area for quite some time now and thus the “velvet scoter type” bird noted by Liam was probably the yank rarity, at least according the officiator of the “Birding Iceland” page. Rather surprisingly however the probable scoter was not the most interesting duck to be seen on the Reykjavik coastline. This award goes to a rather peculiar bird noted by yours truly on the third day of our trip. After lengthy debate among NGB members, the twitter community and even Chris Packham I have come accept the bird as a partially leuistic Long-Tailed Duck (minus the long tail). This in mind, the hotch-potch of white and brown, the small stature and the solitary nature showcased by the bird had both of scrambling around like maniacs, inventing numerous explanations for the oddity and its peculiar visage. I do believe the words Harlequin, hybrid and even Bufflehead were uttered more than once. My bad, but it truly was an odd sight.



Aside from ducks the harbour boasted a wealth of other species scrapping out a living amongst the various snow-capped fishing boats. Black Guillemots were encountered frequently whereas some fantastically showy Little Auks continuously delighted. Both Shags and Cormorants numbered well into their hundreds whilst some twenty or so Red-Throated Diver and four Great Northern Diver made for excellent viewing. The latter of which lounging around ridiculously close to our positon on the sea wall. Finally we have the gulls! By my own admission gulls have never been a favoured taste of mine. Whereas numerous birders get overly excited by the noisy white things I usually remain at home, tempted only when one of them lands practically on my doorstep. This changed in Iceland however and I feel I have developed a new found fascination for these conspicuous chip thieves. Both Glaucous and Iceland gulls were a daily occurrence here, both of which gave fantastic views as they loafed around in the surf. Liam was able to pick out six or so Kumlien’s gulls during the course of our visit subsequently giving me a lesson into Iceland gull taxonomy. Alongside the white-wingers a host of familiar faces put in regular appearances with Black-Headed Gull, Herring Gull, Common Gull and Great Black-Backed Gull all locally abundant. Liam did however manage to string me both Boneparte’s and Ross’s gulls during the duration of our visit, the latter of which would have been a truly sensational find.



And there you have it. I may not have been stunned by the bedazzling plumage of drake Harlequin Ducks or indeed had the pleasure to behold Barrow's Goldeneye in the wild but despite this my eight days in Reykjavik will go down as some of my best to date. Other birds noted during the trip though absent from the above log include; Fulmar, Kittiwake, Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, Razorbill and Feral Pigeon though all of these obviously fade into obscurity when pitted against my first views of a wild Gyr and the sheer bliss associated with sharing a Hot Dog with an obliging troop of Redwings. I love Iceland and will certainly be back again in the near future, perhaps in summer on this occasion.

-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.

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