Saturday, June 27, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 3 - Road Trip and Loonacy

We decided on a slow start for day 3 as we had it planned mainly for travel from south to north. So after another sulphur tornado shower and a leisurely breakfast, the 'campervan' was loaded up and we hit Route 1 to Myvatn. The weather forecast proved correct with thick grey cloud rolling in across  snow-capped volcanic ash hills and being pushed along along by a brisk northerly wind. We wound our way through the at times alien looking volcanic landscape, across mountain passes, through valleys carved into typical u-shapes by ice and alongside the wide braided gravel channels of rivers. We spotted birds on our drive but given the weather decided to keep going on the long journey until we reached our destination. It is around 400km (250 miles) between Borgarnes and Myvatn which is a journey time of around at least 5 hours.

This is probably a good time to tell you a bit about the roads in Iceland. The main roads are hard surfaced and generally very good and many of the small side roads are made from gravel and ash. A common feature is that all the roads are raised up on embankments which apparently is to keep them above deep surrounding snow through the long dark winters. The road  edges tends to be marked with small yellow plastic posts and very few places have side barriers except in  some sections when you pass through the mountains, so you need to concentrate or you could easily end up in big trouble. The maximum speed on the main roads is 90km/h (about 56mph) and they have been designed with slow long bends so once up to speed you rarely need to slow or change gear. You just cruise along at a constant and very fuel efficient speed. There are few places where it is easy to pull off these roads if you want to stop or look at something. Despite the lack of traffic it seems this causes annoyance to some if you stop merely by the fact that they have had to go round you and change lane.

The hours passed as did a whole variety of landscapes that would have many landscape photographers dribbling but we pressed onwards. We stopped briefly for some lunch in a service station cafe before carrying on our journey once more. As we headed north and eastward the weather seemed to be improving and we were getting close to our destination now.  Just to the north of Myvatn, Route 1 passes a 'small' lake at around 200m altitude called Masvatn. I say a small lake but this is relative as it still has an area of around 4 square kms. The lake was covered in ice except for a small thawed strip along its southern end, as we drove past I spotted a pair of Great Northern Divers.
As you can see conditions were far from ideal for good photography but given the birds were confined to a narrow band of water it seemed like too good an opportunity not to stop and try and get our first photographs of these birds in their breeding plumage.

I have photographed Great Northern Diver before but these have always been juvenile birds in winter plumage that have taken up temporary winter residence on one of the local marine lakes back in the UK. When you first see an adult, which are surprisingly large birds, in its full breeding colours and patterns it is a breathtaking sight. A black and white combination of spots across the back and stripes around the neck cut through with a broad collar of iridescent blue-green.  Iceland is the only country in Europe where these breeding Divers (or Loons as they are known in the USA) an be found. There are estimated to be around 300 breeding pairs in the country.
Usually when photographing divers you make your move to position when the birds are submerged but this pair were just slowly drifting around on the grey water. Neither of us were sure how these birds were going to respond to our presence so we needed a plan to get close. By the edge of the lake was a very low embankment, about 30-50cms high and so the plan was the that we would individually creep down a short slope and lay down by this low ridge to give us some cover with the camera rested on top of the bank We both got into position and the birds, apart from drifting back towards the edge of ice temporarily, seemed OK and settled. As we lay there for a while they slowly worked their way back across towards us until at one point they were too large in frame. The clouds thinned a little at one stage to let a bit more light through before the gloom closed in once more.
Regular readers on this blog will know of a terrible affliction called Puffin Fever. This results when you visit a sea bird colony and you become completely obsessed with photographing these birds whilst ignoring all the other wonderful seabirds that are also around you.  I suppose it must have been at the this point in the trip that I discovered a new bird photography condition which I will call 'Great Northern Loonacy'  which stayed with me for the rest of the trip. Having seen these stunning birds I wanted more, much more of them and hopefully in some better conditions. The difference between Puffin Fever and Great Northern Loonacy, is that former does not really present much of challenge as you tend to be surrounded by thousand of puffins at a sea bird colony and you can usually just walk up to them. The 'Loonacy' is a more difficult urge to satisfy as these breeding birds show a preference for expansive inland lakes and when in diving mode can cover large distance underwater so you are never quite sure where they are going to appear next.

On arrival at Myvatn we went and found ourselves a hotel to stay for the next couple of days. After a bit of haggling at the reception on price we booked in for the next three nights at Hotel Gigor in the south-west corner of Lake Myvatn. A swipe of the keycard revealed a very small twin room but with a nice view over the lake.

Given the weather, and with the forecast looking good for the next two days, we decided to spend the remainder of the day without any photography but doing a bit of useful reconnaissance around the lake so we could get together a bit of a plan of where to head the following day. This is probably a good moment to give you some background on Lake Myvatn.

This is an extensive shallow lake covering an area of around 37 square km but only has a maximum depth of around 2.5m. The lake is set in a weird volcanic landscape which includes groups of small pseudocraters as shown in the photo below.

The lake is very nutrient rich and is known for producing vast swarms of non-biting midges and from where it gets its name of Myvatn which translates to  'Lake of Midges'. The abundance of flies in turn attracts the large numbers of birds species to the area to breed. Thirteen species of duck breed around the lake which includes a mixture of European species and American species. It also attracts grebe, waders and divers. The productivity of the lake is impressive as is the abundance of birds present. The River Laxa is the main outflow from the Lake and this is well known to birdwatchers and photographers for the populations of Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye that can be found in the clear fast flowing water. The peripheral lakes around the north-west side of Myvatn are protected bird breeding areas where entry by the public is not permitted.

So we did our tour around the lake and saw plenty of birds and decided that our approach for the following day would be an early start, a circuit of the lake to see what we could find, a return for breakfast and then spend a good proportion of the day on the banks of the River Laxa. From what we had seen from our look around their appeared to be some exciting photography prospects ahead for the next couple of days...

1 comment:

Dave Williams said...

An excellent account and photos Rich. Having just returned from the Isle of May I can appreciate your comments about Puffins, particularly when you are restricted to a small island with not too much variety.


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