Sunday, October 04, 2015

Immersed In Iceland: Day 10 - Eider and Out

So the final day of our trip dawned with cold grey skies, a stiff icy wind and intermittent showers. The plan was to just wander around the south-west corner of Iceland, with no particular destination in mind, to see what birds we could find. The weather outside the 'campervan' could only be described as grim. We had not gone too far and we unexpectedly came across an area with huge colonies of Eider and Arctic Terns.  This place had a road running through the centre will low roadside fences to protect the colonies from the attentions of Arctic Foxes. We both smiled at the find as we could immediately see the potential with the added bonus that we could do it all without the need of stepping out of the 'campervan' into the pummelling wind. With a bit of careful positioning of the vehicle we would also be able to get a good variety of photographs.

I have always had a great fondness for Eider. The drakes are such striking looking birds in their black and white plumage, mustard yellow bill, rose tinged breast, and a splash of lime green in a patch at the back of the neck.

The females are also attractive but in a more subtle way with the intricate patterning of their brown feathers which provides superb camouflaged and protection when sat on their famous down nests. It is surprising when you look at a colony how you suddenly spot of female that has been sat quietly still and unnoticed in front of you. The colony was in an attractive setting of scattered rocks and low brown and red low growing vegetation. Given our slightly elevated position the sea provided a layer of blue to the back ground which would have some advantage for photographing the birds in low flight rather than against a grey-white sky

Given the conditions and the wealth of opportunities on offer, we would spend the majority of the day there moving between different promising looking spots along the road. To begin with we started getting a variety of portrait photographs of the birds. Often when photographing from an 'autohide' it is good to look for locations where birds are sat on raised areas of ground at the sides of the roads. This allows you to take photographs with the appearance of being at ground level without the need to go on some lengthy commando crawl. With thoughtful positioning and using a shallow depth of field you can get even achieve those 'birds in the mush' images.
Not forgetting the females of course. This one among the rapidly growing lupins.
After taking plenty of portrait images, we shifted our attention to trying to get some flight photographs. The frequent comings and goings of the birds offering plenty of opportunities.  Eider tend to fly fast and low but the stiff wind aided us by slowing them down a little.

Looking back we decided we had made the best decision, given the conditions, to stay with Eider for the majority of day as it produced a great selection of images of these striking ducks for us both.

We made our way back towards Keflavik, via an elongated route, just to see if we could pick up one or two last birds before calling it a day. Most birds seemed to be lying low given the conditions but we did come across a Whimbrel which quickly disappeared in to the undergrowth. There had been reports of a White-winged Scoter just off the promenade and we eventually spotted the dark bird battling through the rough seas with a pair of Eider. As the birds were pushed closer and closer with the strong onshore wind, the weather deteriorated. We attempted a couple of photographs but it was fairly hopeless in the conditions.

For our last bit moments of photography in Iceland we checked out the area around the docks. In a corner where the rough waters had pushed a load of flotsam and debris we found an juvenile Iceland Gull and a couple of Kittiwakes. Not the most scenic of locations to take the last photographs of the trip but it was good to get some Kittiwakes on water which was a first for us both.

We made our way back to the hotel and went through the motions of sorting the 'campervan' out for return to the hire company and packing all our kit and clothing back into order for the journey home on an early flight the next day.

It has been a superb trip spent in great company, wonderful scenery, 'special weather' and with some amazing birds. A visit that will be at the fore of memories for many years to come and no doubt will definitely not be my last trip to Iceland. If you want to see some of Steve's photographs from the trip then please pop over to his blog which is on this LINK . I hope you have enjoyed the journey and it has given an insight into the potential for bird photography that Iceland can provide in the late spring and early summer.

I apologise that reporting this trip has been so drawn out, it has been busy times. Rest assured I have plenty of photographs from this to summer to show you and hope 'normal service' will be resumed :).

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 9 - Where's the Buntings?

An early alarm call found me out of the bed and minutes later creeping past a slumbering Steve at the far end of our long room in the hotel roof. I am well practice in this art of a quiet exit from early morning departures at home , the only difference was the loud spring loaded clunk of hotel door lock as I tried to ease it shut.

Once outside it was not long before I had a curious Redpoll in front of me once more and this time used the backdrop of the dark ash hillside behind as a backdrop.

I wandered around for a while in the birch scrub and down to a rocky beach but it was generally quiet except for the occasional Snipe whizzing around and Ringed Plover. I made my way back up from the beach along a wide but dry river bed of grey pebbles. You could imagine the torrent rushing over the stone bed after a heavy downpour as the water flowed down off the ash hills behind. I had not gone far when an Oystercatcher sprang forth into the air from behind a gravel ridge and started circling me with an alarm call.

I had seen this behaviour before and knew this meant there was a nest nearby but where was it in the expanse of pebbles? I very slowly walked away keeping a close eye on the ground and glad I did as I nearly stepped on the cryptic nest containing three eggs, leaving the birds to settle back down having seen off the intruder. The only other bird I photographed during my early morning start was a passing Greylag Goose that was nicely lit in the early low sun. Time for some breakfast.

After breakfast we checked out the hotel and continued our journey south and west towards the Reykjavik area. We decided to head for  Heiðmörk which is the place we had skillfully managed to fail to navigate to earlier in the week. This is supposed to be a good area to see Ptarmigan.
As we entered the area we decided to stop in the parking area by the channel that connects the Elliðavatn and Helluvatn lakes as there seemed to be quite a few birds in this area.

By now the sun was shining and haze was starting to develop. We needed some close subjects to photograph and were obliged by a few Red-necked Phalaropes and a very confiding Golden Plover which I probably spend too long photographing rather than looking around to see what other birds could be found. This was confirmed as we left as a Great Northern Diver came gliding across the relatively small Helluvatn and was literally just round the corner out of sight all the time.

After a quick brew we decided to take a tour around the tracks of Heiðmörk to see what birds could be found. There are numerous picnic sites dotted over this large expanse of coniferous forest and upland larva areas and as we pulled up to what seemed a very remote one, we spotted a male Ptarmigan on some short grass underneath a swing in a play area. This looked like a good opportunity but as we drew closer in the car, two young children who didn't seem to be with anyone, stepped out of the forest and made straight towards the swing resulting in a rapidly departing white bird. One of those moments that obviously was just not meant to be. On our slow drive around the tracks, bird life was surprisingly absent and our fairly long circuit only produced one Ptarmigan.
It was time to try elsewhere and we headed towards Keflavik and found ourselves back by the lake which first stumbled upon when we arrived. The heat haze was in full force by now and trying to get sharp images through the wobbly air was proving a challenge. We stayed there a while and this produced some bathing Ringed Plover photographs and I went to check the beach where the was a stone causeway with a some Eider.

Time to hit Google on the phone to decide where to head to next and it was indicate there was a small sea bird colony at Keflavik which we went to check but only found some low empty cliffs. What was interesting though was how much more advanced the Lupins were down in this warmer south-west corner with the first starting to come in to flower. In the north they had only just started poking their first leaves up through the soil.

Coming away from there we did find a pair of Golden Plover which we stopped to photograph for a while in the softening light.

Following the coast road along we ended up at the northern end of the mosy south-western peninsula in Iceland at Garðskagi Lighthouse. Stepping out of the 'campervan' we found a large board information with photographs showing the species that could be found. It stated something like 'Snow bunting are a common breeding species along the seawall' This raised our expectations as Snow Bunting, despite being a relatively common bird in Iceland,  had completely eluded us for nine days except for a possible sighting of one flying across the road several days earlier. Well we separated and walked and walked up and down that sea wall and the beach for ages and over a long distance trying to fine any signs of Snow Buntings but there were none to be found. Not even the chirp of a bunting was heard in our searching.

With nothing else there to photograph we decided to move in as it was starting to get late and we still had to find some accommodation for the night. The last bird of the day was a lone Whimbrel feeding along a grass verge on the edge of a car park.

Driving back into Keflavik we booked into the Hotel Keilir for the last two nights. A nice tidy twin room with a great view. After sorting out the days photographs and kit, we popped over the road to a Chinese Restaurant. We were quite late arriving given the standard 9pm kitchen closing time and it was a strange experience as they started packing up the place as we ate. Chairs went up on the surrounding tables and the floor mopped around us. Following my early start I was more than ready for bed by the point and was asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow. Tomorrow I would be waking to the final day of our trip.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 8 - Blast Frozen

It was a relatively leisurely start on our eighth day in Iceland and after breakfast had a quick nose around the birch scrub surrounding the hotel. A few photographs of an unusually inquisitive and well coloured Redpoll resulted, a pleasant way to start the day.
It was time to get the 'campervan' back on the road and today the plan was to head slightly north from Borgarnes and west along the Snæfellsnes peninsula. We had no particular destination in mind and just thought we would drive around and see what we would encounter. The forecast looked reasonable and proved correct with some sun and occasional light shower of rain. Unfortunately the forecast was also correct in terms of the wind which particularly strong in the morning and whipped in off the sea in punishingly relentless and icy gusts.  One of those days when getting out the 'campervan'  was a bit like steeping out of a warm bed and straight into a ice cold shower.

Our first stop off was on the south side of the peninsula at a place called Ytri Tunga as there was a sign post that indicated it was a place to see some seals. Of course we were mainly on the look out for birds and we passed a couple of Whimbrel going up to car park by the farm at the end of the track next to the beach. When we picked up the 'campervan' we were warned to be careful with the doors and the strong winds as apparently it is common for the hinges to be damaged by an open door being caught in a gust. As we were parked at the crest of the beach the actual problem was proving to be getting the doors open against the fierce onshore wind.

We were met with a rocky beach interspersed with areas of sand and quickly spotted a few waders dotted about and headed off in our separate directions, enveloped in the arctic blast of wind coming in off the sea. The waders were proving typically evasive as they had the whole trip and after getting a few photographs of a Purple Sandpiper and a Knot, I spotted half dozen summer coloured Sanderling scurrying around a small patch of sand.

I decided the best approach was to work my way round to the sea side of this patch of sand and onto a rock outcrop next to a narrow channel filled with bladderwrack. Here I would tuck myself into the rocks and wait for the Sanderling to appear along the edge of the sand, giving the unusal perspective of looking back towards shore. This also had a slight advantage in that it would offer a small amount of shelter from the wind. The Sanderling plan never really worked out but as I sat there a small flotilla of Eider worked its way inshore up the channel. These generally nervous ducks were unaware of my presence in among the rocks. At this point I actually became grateful for the strong wind and the rough water it was creating. When photographing birds on water my preferred conditions are flat reflective calm or the dynamic atmosphere created by rough water and spray. The Eider worked their way all the way up the channel, right past where I was crouched, and then all the way back again allowing plenty of time to get some photographs.

With the Eider encounter over I thought I should go an try and find some Grey Seals. A short walk along the beach and scramble over some rocks found me face to face with four inquisitive seals bobbing in the water in front of me. However, A grey seal on grey water under grey skies is never going to make a particularly attractive image.

With the tide advancing quickly and the risk of getting cut off at my position, I decided to beat a hasty retreat. Meeting up again with Steve we decided that being blast frozen was not much fun and we would carry on continue exploring the peninsula. On the track from the farm out to the main road we stopped briefly to photograph another Black-tailed Godwit.
We decided to take a road that cut across the mountainous spine of the peninsula as the north coast would likely be more sheltered from the wind and work our way slowly towards the tip.  As we approached a small town, on the outskirts was a tiny pool with a small island. Driving past a elongated shape caught my eye sticking out of one end of the island.

Given the tiny size of the pond this looked like a good photo opportunity. However, before trying and to give time for the light to improve,  we decided to head to the other side of the road where there were some low cliffs above the sea with good numbers of white winged gulls and Fulmars. Importantly our move to get out of the worst of the wind by heading north seemed to have worked. As we walked to the cliff edge the gulls typically moved off a small distance. It was an attractive place with a river tumbling down through the cliff and onto the black sand and pebble beach.

We started off photographing Fulmars which were incredibly close at times landing on the cliff and scything their way through the updrafts. It seemed we spent quite a while their and I think it was nice just to be out of the blasting wind and enjoying a bit of 'warmth' as the sun started breaking through. One Fulmar even landed on the cliff right in front of allowing opportunity for some full frame head photos. I love the structure and colour of the beaks in these tube nose petrels.

 As we stood there on the cliff edge there was a steady trickle of passing gulls. Tending to ignoring the Herring Gulls (which I can photograph any day at the bottom of my street), we concentrated on the adult Glaucous Gulls, mottled juvenile Iceland Gulls and occasional menacing Greater Black Backed Gull.

The sun was now out and it was time to head across the road to try the Red Throated Divers. Lying in the sun by the edge of this still pond, with half dozen Red-necked Phalarope paddling around in front of us, it felt like we were on a different planet from the conditions we faced on the beach in the morning.
The pair of divers slowly drifted up and down the small pond which provided a great location for photographing the birds. The tranquility of the scene was slightly interrupted by occasional passing cars on the main road and the clattering and banging of a car repair garage behind us.

We left the pond and headed a couple of hundred metres down the road and in to the town to grab some food. Heading out of town there was a high waterfall tumbling off the hill side and we stopped briefly to take a couple of photographs. Obviously I was trying to photograph more fulmars here ;)

With no real destination in mind we naturally followed the north coast along to the tip of the peninsula and where a quick internet search suggested there was a small sea bird colony. Small would be a good description with a few Kittiwake and Fulmar having taken up residence on the low volcanic cliffs.

These ended up being the last bird photographs we took that day. Time was pushing on and we had quite a long drive now to get back to Borgarnes. Also as soon as we rounded the end of the peninsula we were back in the full force of the blast freezer wind which created some reluctance to leave the warm comfort of the 'campervan'. On our journey back to Borganes we occasionally stopped to take a few landscape photos as our respective other halves always like to have a few photos to gain an impression of the places we have visited.

One of the many lava fields

Arriving back in Borgarnes it was quite late and we stopped for a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel. It had been an interesting day exploring the peninsula and it had produced quite a good variety of birds even though our route was made up on the move. The next day it would be time to move on again as we would head back down into the south-west corner of Iceland. Going to bed I set my alarm clock to 'your going to feel like a zombie in the early afternoon setting' as I thought I would go out for a very early morning wander round the birch scrub surrounding around the hotel again before we headed south.....


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