Saturday, August 22, 2015

Immersed in Iceland - Southbound for Sunshine

We were woken early on the morning of the 7th day to the rhythmic percussion of hammers on metal. Outside the bedroom window the workmen had made an early start on the hotel building extension. We watched one for a while who was wrapped up like an Eskimo and just seemed to be hammering a girder with no real purpose, possibly just making some noise to sound busy. After breakfast we loaded up the happy bus and hit the road. Today was going to be mainly spent travelling, so there will not be many bird photos on this post, and the plan was to get from Husavik and back down to Borgarnes.  We needed to head southwards to try and keep with some good weather which look fairly settled in the SW corner of Iceland for the next couple of days.

So with the grind of snow tires on tarmac once more we drove through the strange scenery of the volcanic landscape.. Over mountains, through valleys with deep snow, past tumbling waterfalls, alongside fast flowing gravel rivers, the landscapes of Iceland passed at a steady 56 km per hour. Somewhere en route, but don't ask me where as I couldn't tell you, we where passing this lake and two large black birds close to the margin just caught the corner of my eye.

Two Great Northern Divers were cruising the margins and it seemed too good an opportunity to let pass by. The lighting was tricky as it was coming from behind the birds creating some awkward shooting conditions for these  predominantly 'black and white' birds. On their next dive we covered the distance from the road to the lake margin in one move and were lying down by the edge by the time they surfaced.
It was was freezing with a harsh breeze cutting across the lake.We managed a few photos of the birds as they tracked along the margins. This included a photo I was wanting to get of the lines of water beads which form on the birds heads when they surface.

The birds were steadily moving to the far side of the lake shown in the photograph above, so we followed and figured if they hit the far bank then we could get some more favourable light on them. However, they never made it that far and dived around the couple of small islands before heading off back up the long lake. We obviously did not know it at the time but these would be our last Great Northern Diver photographs of the trip. It has been such a pleasure over the previous few days to occasionally be in the presence of these magnificent birds.

The kilometers passed as did the hours. Periodically we would stop to have a break and stretch the legs and take in a view or two.
We pulled into one lay-by for a break opposite an attractive waterfall tumbling down into a fast flowing river. There was a sign there explaining the view but it was all about the small bridge rather than the cascade, describing  it to be the first concrete bridge built in Iceland. I suppose in a country that has so many waterfalls its first concrete bridge is more of a novelty.
As you can see as we were heading south the weather was improving. At least it was until around 70kms north of Borgarnes where there was a tiny roadside lake in the mountains with a Great Northern Diver which we had spotted on our journey north a few days early. This was unusual given the birds preference for large bodies of water and potentially offered a good photo opportunity. The bird was still there and so we stopped. Unfortunately the weather had other plans and dark skies poured in on the strong upland winds accompanied by lashing rain, sleet and hail. In the distance down in the valleys it was clear and sunny, the weather was forming over the mountains. We waited a while to see if it would clear but the nasty weather just kept developing over the summits and in the end we gave up.

We finally arrived in Borgarnes in the late afternoon when we pulled once more into the car park of the Hotel Bru. The birch scrub surrounding the car park alive with the song of Redpoll and Redwing and the calls of  Snipe. It would appear that familiarity gives discount as we got the the same sized room for the night for about 25% less than our visit a few days earlier. Having settled in to our room we pulled out the maps to see if there was anywhere to head with the cameras that evening. A short distance to the North-West was the Myrar peninsula which was reportedly  a good area for Red-Throated Diver so we thought we would try that, making the circuit around road 533.  Well we did see divers, in fact we saw a pair mating, but all rather distant. It was in fact very quiet along the road in terms of birds but the wind was very strong and bitterly cold and I expect a lot were lying low.

It struck me after we had just photographed a Golden Plover to the side of the gravel track that despite being so common I had not really got any really good photos of Golden Plover.


This often happens when you are overseas and with the very common birds that you think you will have plenty of opportunities to photograph them at some point in the trip and then you suddenly realise you are running out of days rapidly and still haven't really photographed them.  We came across a Golden Plover and so I asked Steve to stop the 'campervan' and I was going to try and creep up on it on foot. This went well and I got some frame filling images I was happy with in the soft evening sun.

A slight shift in position to change the background.

While I was creeping up on the bird, there was suddenly the alarm call of a Black-tailed Godwit which had become upset by a hunting Arctic Skua. Steve, who had stayed in the van, managed to get some photographs of both of these birds in flight. Mind you I was more than content with the 'GP' photos. My view is the only competition there should be in wildlife photography should be with yourself.

We picked up the Skua again further down the road but it refused to come over to the side where it would be nicely lit and so had to make do with some photos in some tricky back light.
The gravel road seemed to go on for ever and with the lack of birds and the amount of time we had been on the road that day our enthusiasm was waning rapidly, so we decided to pack it in and head for some food in Borgarnes before returning to the hotel.

Checking the weather forecast for the next day, we decided we would stay in the area and head north and west along the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (we called it 'Snaffles' for ease). This was an area neither of us had intended to head to or had really done any background research on, so we would just have to head up there and see what we could find on our travels.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Immersed in Iceland Day 6 - Northward to 'Whale Town'

We had a slower start on Day 6 to recharge our batteries a little after two long days at Myvatn. The forecast was correct and a thick layer of lead coloured skies stretched out across the area.  It looked like it would be clearer to the north and it certainly looked clearer in that direction as we sat eating breakfast from our elevated location overlooking the lake. Steve was disappointed by the lack of cod liver oil put out for breakfast. We decided to head northwards with Husavik as our destination. Husavik is probably one of the best places in the world for watching whales but our minds where firmly fixed on the bird life.

Having checked out of our hotel on the shore of Myvatn, we headed northwards. Our first stop was back at Lake Masvatn, just to the north of Myvatn as one of the Great Northern Divers was still in the unfrozen strip of lake at the southern end. We stopped as a temporary thinning in the clouds let some decent light through which was definitely lacking on our first attempt. We went through the same procedure of creeping down and laying down behind the low embankment and ended up with some photographs that were much better looking than those taken in the previous gloom. The 'Great Northern Loonacy' withdraw symptoms temporarily fed we hit the road once more.

Before our visit to Iceland we both did quite a lot of internet research. One useful information source was the North East Birding Trail which gave maps and descriptions about all the areas in the north east of Iceland. This guide is mainly aimed at bird watching but does make mention of a couple of sites which can be good for photography. Photographers always need to be much closer to the birds than bird watchers. So we decided we would check out a couple of these on our travels up to Husavik. The first of these sites were some farm ponds at Hraun. As we followed the loop off the main road out to the ponds, Steve who was driving at the time brought the 'campervan' to stop. There by the side of the road, at close range, was a Gyr Falcon feeding on the very last remnants of a goose carcass. An impressively large and powerful looking bird. I was in the front passenger seat so could not photograph the bird which was on driver's side. So Steve said he would take a couple of photos and then we would quietly back up (well at least as quietly as we could on our noisy tyres), rearrange ourselves in the 'camper', and then have another go. When we returned a couple of minutes later the bird had unfortunately departed and we spotted it way off in the distance perched on a post. There was virtually nothing left on the carcass so there did not seem much point hanging around to see if it would return, and with our target ponds relatively lifeless, we continued onward and northwards to 'Whale Town'.

The other birding trail site we decided to try were a couple of 'small' lakes to the south of Husavik where there was reported to usually be a pair of 'friendly' Great Northern Diver. On arrival the lakes were not particularly small at around 4 and 8 hectares each. We spotted a solitary bird splashing around in the middle of the larger southern lake and followed our way around to the south side, stopping briefly to photograph a Golden Plover in some by now fairly harsh sunlight accompanied by a strong but icy wind.

We pulled in to a small parking area and had a sandwich, washed down with a cup of Yorkshire's finest brew. By the time we had finished this there was no sign of the diver. I decided I was going to make my way out to the end of a peninsula off the southern bank of the lake to try as it seemed to offer the best chance of close encounter. Steve took the 'campervan' and headed back around the lake. He had just reached the north side when the bird appeared from the left and in front of me. It must have been tucked out of sight down in the bay to the west of the peninsula.


It was very active and diving constantly looking for fish, each time it dived it would cover a large distance underwater and it was difficult to know where it would appear next. Its general direction seemed to be towards the bay to the east of the peninsula and so on its next dive I quickly ran over and got down on the ground in a place where I thought it might appear. It seems my guess was too good and it surfaced at point blank range right in front of me. Lovely to see the bird so close but all I could fit in frame was its head before it dived down once more and reappeared back in the middle of the lake and out of camera range.
On our drive away from the lakes, we stopped briefly for a Snipe which we did not managed to photograph and found ourselves both distracted by a low grunting call from a copse of trees  that for a few moments had us both perplexed. It then dawned on us that what we had heard was a Woodcock but we were unable to see this bird with its excellent cryptic camouflage.

After a very short drive we finally reached Husavik and headed straight to its small harbour which was quiet in terms of birds. A whale watching boat pulled in with a deck full of people who had been out looking for the ocean's leviathans. They all looked half-frozen which was hardly surprising given the raw wind that was blowing in off the sea.


There was a small beach to the the south of the harbour and at its northern end the black sands gave way to a narrow channel of flowing water. Packed into the channel were large numbers of Fulmars and white-winged gulls together with the occasional Kittiwake. The source of the water was a discharge pipe from a fish processing factory and every remnant of appearing fish waste would send the birds into a frenzy.  Typically as we walked over all the gulls scattered long before we were anywhere near them. They are such nervous birds in Iceland compared to the UK.  We stayed by the channel for a while with Steve mainly opting for taking some water level photographs of the Fulmars at close range while I tried to capture the birds taking off and in flight.

Fulmars need quite a lot of effort to get airborne with a long run across the surface but once in the air their flight is effortless and graceful on their long stiffly held wings. The occasional Kittiwake also found its way on to the camera memory card, together with a passing adult Iceland Gull.


We left the fish waste channel and took a coffee break in the small town and checked out some maps on where to head next. We opted for a likely looking beach in a bay about 6 kms further north to see if we could find some waders to photograph. On the gravel track down to beach our journey was interrupted  by a male Ptarmigan, Golden Plover and a well camouflaged Snipe
The beach looked promising, a gently arcing, steeply shelving bay of black sand being pounded by a turmoil of blue-green waves been whipped up by the biting wind.  At the south end of the beach a tumbling stream flowed down into the sea which Arctic Terns and a variety of waders were bathing in. Just back from the wash of the waves a line of Eider. Well all I can say is we tried but generally failed on that beach. The stream was to deep to cross and the birds incredibly twitchy. In the end we decided the best plan would be to lie by the stream and hope the birds would come back to use it. A few did and even though we were lying down the very slightest movement saw them walking away. However, the main problem was the heat haze. I stuck my hand into the black sand next to me and it felt strangely very warm which seemed at odds with the very cold air blowing in off the sea. The meeting of warm and cold is the perfect recipe for heat haze and it was really bad. You could see it shimmering around the birds in the viewfinder and there was just no chance of getting a sharp image. We were just wasting our time there. The few photos we did get of Knot, Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher all went straight in the desktop trash. The only photo I kept was of a male Eider taking off into the strong onshore breeze and some Greylag geese flying overhead.

We worked our way back up the gravel track, and picked up a Whimbrel, a preening Snipe and found two Ptarmigan including the one we had seen previously but this time accompanied by the female in her summer colours. The camouflage of these birds is superb and we were there for a while before we spotted the female bird sitting close by.



On arrival back in Husavik we found a room in the FossHotel for the night. Our room was slightly odd in that the carpet was a photo-reproduction of grey pebbles which gave a very odd look to room and matched nothing else in it. By the time we left the hotel to find something to eat it was too late. Generally the restaurant kitchens seem to close at 9pm and so that is last orders for food. After enquiring at a couple without success, the only remaining option was a fast food cafe in the petrol station and what was served would definitely be classed more as fuel than food.

An interesting day but fairly tough in that icy wind. For me the highlight was the time spent with the two Great Northern Diver which are such superb looking birds. We checked the forecast and the plan for the next day was to hit the road again and head back towards the south-east as that is where the weather forecast looked most promising for the next few days.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 5 - Myvatn Circuits

We had another early start on our second day in the area around Lake Myvatn. The weather forecast the night before looked promising by drawing back the bedroom curtains revealed bright but overcast skies overhead. Hopefully it would brighten later as I was keen to try and get some Harlequins in better light on the River Laxa. We intended to follow a similar routine to the day before with a circuit of the lake before breakfast followed by looking round to see what we could find and of course a return visit at some point to the rapids of the River Laxa.

Once more we had not gone too far in the 'campervan' before we came across our first bird, stood in the road, a Ptarmigan. It moved to the verge and crouched low in amongst the multi-coloured short vegetation. These birds must feel fairly vulnerable when they are are still in their winter whites with no snow to conceal them from the watchful eyes of Gyr Falcon.

We traveled on our clockwise circuit seeing several more Ptarmigan but too distant for photographs, the birds standing out very obviously against the dark volcanic rocks. Around the north-west side of the lake we came across another bird close to the road. This one was perched relatively high up and to avoid photographing against a flat white sky we both ended up standing on the door sills to give some elevation and get the angle for a better coloured background of a volcanic mound behind.
Our next encounter was a Snipe on a post which eventually left us with a shrill call before speeding off in whirring display flight.
It was turning into a bit of a Ptarmigan morning as we encountered another bird perched up on some lichen clad lava and another on a grass verge, together with a bonus Whimbrel in the road. That was a total of around 8 Ptarmigan we had seen in one lap of the lake before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.

While I was in Iceland and as soon as I got back, I had a few people contact me saying they were visiting within the next week or so and asking for pointers as to where to find birds. As you can see it would pointless giving any suggestions in the Myvatn area as it just seems to change from one day to the next.

After a good breakfast including Steve topping up his cod liver oil levels, we headed back out but didn't get far. About 20m to be precise as there was a Snipe feeding along the top of a grass embankment on the edge of the hotel car park. Its raised position giving the appearance of photographing the bird at ground level. The overhead cloud was starting to break up.
Off down the road once more, for another Myvatn circuit. Crossing a small swift flowing river we spotted a couple of Harlequin Ducks lurking in the quieter flowing margins and so stopped for a short while to try and get some photographs.

Back on the road with our noisy studded snow tyres, we decided to head right round the other side of the lake and back to the area around the Bird Museum, picking up a dozing Snipe en route.
Driving up the Museum track we found a very vocal Black-tailed Godwit calling from a grass mound with a Whimbrel stalking around about 2 metres away. We parked up and once again headed off in separate directions.

It was all to much so I decided to have a lay down round the back of the Museum building, although with good reason as there were a pair of Slavonian Grebes drifting slowly on the still water. I managed to position myself so that the reflection of a volcano in the background created some nice dark water to show off the colours of the birds against.
I wandered back round and found Steve down the bottom of an embankment having some fun with a group of hyperactive Red-necked Phalaropes. This was turning into a busy morning! A few more Phalarope photos were consigned to the memory card.
Behind me the noisy Godwit was still strutting its stuff on the grass mound, so I left Steve with the tiny waders and spent some time creeping up on what turned out to be a very accommodating bird. This allowed me to get a range of photos with different background just be slightly shifting my position up and down the mound.


Not bad for morning's work as it was close to midday now. The warm still air had encouraged a small explosion of non-biting midges from the lake. A hint of what could happen if the conditions had not been so cold. I can imagine 'Midge Lake' thoroughly deserves its name at certain times of year. 

I think this is one of the days when we forgot to have lunch as we were so absorbed in the photography. This had a few times over the trip and we would suddenly realise we were starving around 5pm.  Once again we hit the Myvatn circuit. We stopped off by a lake at a small nature reserve area on the east bank. As we made our way down to the lake, clouds of flies erupted from the grass. The dense swarms producing an audible humming in the air. We didn't stop there long and carried on to the River Laxa bridge. It was clouding up again and I was starting to wonder if I would actually ever get some Harlequin Duck in some sunlight. We stopped a while and took some photos before moving on once more with a view to returning when the distant blue sky had made its way over.




We headed back towards the Hotel and decided to try a large slightly raised isolated lake immediately to the west known as Stakholstjorn. This place had a very strange landscape of mini volcanic pseudocraters. An Arctic Tern on a post posed for us at the start of the footpath. These terns were very common in Iceland but strangely this is one of the very few photographs I took of them during the whole trip. 
We went our separate ways once more with Steve heading off to a small pool at the very far end and I decided to hang back for a Long-tailed Duck.

Moving on around the lake, I saw two large black birds at distance and then heard that eerie haunting wail of the Great Northern Diver which echoed around the weird landscape. Such a beautiful evocative sound. One of the birds only appeared close momentarily before diving and resurfacing a long way away. 


Walking past numerous Phalarope, a pair of whistling Wigeon caught my eye and ear next as I continued my walk around this large lake. 

While nearby several Whooper Swans were chasing each other about. The heads and bodies dis-coloured orange by the iron rich waters.

The bird above had a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ring and it is ironic to think that this swan may appear back in England in the winter at Martin Mere which is fairly close to my home. Meanwhile at the other end of the lake Steve was getting some stunning images of Slavonian Grebe on the small pool. I decided to spend some time with a pair of these birds on the main lake that were hunting sticklebacks in the margins. 



As you can see by this point the sun had finally reappeared, it was time to return to the River Laxa where we would finish our day by its rushing waters in some wonderful evening sunlight. Yes, finally some Harlequin Ducks in the sun.




It felt like we had squeezed a day and half into one but a very memorable one with a great variety of beautiful birds in such a stunning location. Myvatn had revealed its avian treasures. 

That night we went for Pizza and the forecast was not looking good for another day at Myvatn so we would be departing in the morning and heading northwards to try and keep with some better weather.

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