Saturday, June 13, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 1 - Red Throats and Camping

I must admit leading up to this year's annual camera jaunt overseas I was starting to get a bit nervous. A couple of weeks beforehand I was checking the network of webcams around the Icelandic road network and all I was seeing was a blanket of snow with the black line of a road running through it. The country had been suffering its coldest spring in many decades and I thought that this probably did not bode too well for photography prospects. I was half expecting to find the place frozen with few birds to be present. I was even more concerned as we were supposed to be camping on this trip. Fortunately the thaw started and patches of the barren landscape started to appear through the diminishing layer of snow and bird reporting websites were showing the birds were there or arriving.

A 3 am alarm sang out and I sprung out of bed, gathered my bags and headed off to pick up my friend Steve before heading onwards to Manchester Airport for an early morning flight. All photographers hate airports and you could probably almost here the groan as both our camera bags came out of the X-ray machine only to be sent off down a different conveyor for a bag inspection. Fortunately the security person checking them was obviously a photographer and more interested in what kit we had than anything else. After a two and half hour flight we were touching down in Keflavik Airport at 08:10 local time. We passed through the airport quickly and were met by the car hire company and taken to their depot a short-distance away Evidence of the cold spring passed by and reflected in tan coloured flat landscape punctuated with chunks of lava rock. We did spot our first birds on this short drive with a couple of Golden Plover (which quickly during the trip became known as 'GPs' as they were so common) together with a couple of Whimbrel in display flights around the car hire office. 

My concerns about the camping element of our trip quickly materialised as we were shown to our 'camper-van'. This being a generous term for a VW Caddy, which was not much bigger than my Nissan Note, with the boot space filled with a piece of flat pack furniture that provide a sink, electric cool box, single ring gas stove and draws with cutlery and plates. With the fold up mattress, a tent, a couple of sleeping bags and our luggage and camera bags there wasn't room left to swing a mouse let alone a cat.

Anyway we would worry about our domestic arrangements later it was time to go and find some birds to photograph. 

As a bit of aside, for those wanting to know and to get any questions out the way, the kit I took with me for this trip was a Canon 1dx, 7Dmk2, 600mm F4, 300mm F2.8 and teleconvertors all contained in the trusty GuraGear Kiboko. A monopod and skimmer with a Uniqball head were in my other bag.

Prior to the trip we had read a lot of information and formulated a very loose plan. We had a 'hit' list of birds we would like to photograph but were intent on trying to photograph a few species well rather than dashing round trying to get photographs of as much as we could. One thing was certain we had no intention of visiting the well known sea bird colonies at the North-East and North-West extremities of the island as that will involve too much travel. Our plan basically was that we would try and be where the good weather and light was by keeping a close eye on the forecast. The first couple of days looked most promising in the South-West corner of Iceland and so that is where we would start the trip.

First we called in to get supplies from a supermarket only to find we were too early and it was yet to open so we settled for a bit of late breakfast from a bakery next door and then hit the road. Off we went through the strange landscape dominated by fractured lava flows and black ash and past the famous Blue Lagoon with it billowing steam. After a brief stop at Grindavik to check the harbour we continued onwards to our first destination near Selfloss which is about an hour south-east of Reykjavik. This is a large flat area punctuated by numerous small pools and well known  area for it relatively large population of Red-throated Divers, a species featuring high on our 'hit list'. Before starting any photography we went into Selfloss and visited a Bonus supermarket to stock up some food supplies for the campervan.

The gravel access road  was relatively long and we stopped to take our first bird photographs of the trip, with a track-side Whimbrel and Redshank.

Eventually we reached our destination at a small parking area at the end of the track. Immediately we could see the distinctive shapes of some Red-throated Diver on some of the numerous pools.

The sun was out on arrival and looking at the sky been pushed towards us on a moderate and cold breeze it looked like we were going to be faced with weather from all seasons through the afternoon. The weather proved to be rapidly changeable going from sun one moment to heavy hail the next before turning back to sun. The poorer moments of weather always accompanied by the icy wind picking up strength.  I decided to try the pair of birds on the closest pool to the car park on the basis they might be a bit more accustomed to people. I watched the birds for a short while and when they started diving, made the short dash to the edge of a pool and dived down flat on the floor while they were underwater.

 So far so good, they definitely knew I was there but were not showing any particular adverse reaction and were just holding position in the rippled surface about 60m away. Time to wait for the birds to come close which actually came sooner than expected as one of the birds started to make its way towards me. Looking through the view finder I had that lovely feeling photographers get as the bird you are focusing on gets bigger and bigger. In fact this birds actually seemed to be curious about the new object (me!) that had appeared at the edge of pool and came very close for an inspection.

This was my first opportunity to see a Red-throated Diver in its summer plumage up close and what beautiful birds they are. The pale grey head, red eye, rusty red throat patch and the vertical stripes extending down the back of the head and neck. This was the first of the close visits the birds made while I lay there over the next few hours. During periods waiting for the birds to come close there was plenty for the eyes and ears to absorb. Drumming Snipe overhead, pale and dark phase Arctic Skua hawking rapidly across the barren grassland, the shrill calls of Dunlin and more Red-throated Divers flying round in pairs and landing with sharply angled v-shaped wings on other distant ponds before letting out there characteristic eerie wailing calls. I could think of much worst places to be on a Thursday afternoon as the hazy effects of the 3am started to creep over me. The sharp clattering downpours of hail were a bit uncomfortable and the wind had a surprising cold bite to it as the next batch of poorer weather blew through. However, when the sun came out it was a truly wonderful place to be. On a couple of occasions I could have quite easily drifted off into a blissful sleep, serenaded by the whirring Snipe above. So here are a small selection of images of the divers  taken during a couple of further close visits, under the changeable weather through the afternoon.

At some point during this period we had a break and made some 'food'. I think it may have been some fried egg and ham rolls with an attempt at a cup of tea. It was not a very memorable meal and highlighted the pain it was going to be preparing food with the meager catering facilities on this tiny campervan. While in the supermarket we had bought a carton of what we assumed to be semi-skimmed milk and turned out to be some kind of very thick strange cultured milk. Steve initially tried some of this yogurt in his brew but we both eventually drank the welcome warming cup of tea black after much laughter. We discussed progress with the photography. Steve was having some problems with the Divers on his pool refusing  to come close and became side tracked with the arrival of a small flock of Red-necked Phalarope. We returned back to our spots to try for a bit longer.
Wonderful birds to start to the trip.

The day was pushing on, the tiredness becoming more intense and the weather coming at us going downhill fast. So we decided it was time to try and find a campsite nearby. We discovered that we had been only provided with one tent which Steve kindly agreed to occupy for the first night while I stayed in the van. It was during the setting up of the tent in a strong icy wind and driving rain and the major hassle I experienced trying to turn the van into sleeping accommodation that it really struck home that the camping plan had been a major mistake. After full long days out in the cold you need to return to some home comforts and electricity to charge up cameras and download photos etc. Steve disappeared into his tent and eventually I managed to get myself inserted into a mummy sleeping bag, and squeezed on top of the mattress that was sat on a board suspended off the front seat belt brackets. I was consumed by tiredness at this point and drifted off into a restless night of sleep. During one of my waking moments in the early hours I decided that this would be our first and last night camping on this trip. It was supposed to be a holiday not a survival course.....


Dave Williams said...

Never mind the excellent images I'm really enjoying your report. Warts and all, just as it should be ! Bring it on , can't wait for the rest.

Paul Foster said...

Shame about the camper van Richard.I was on my own when I went last year and just about made a do with it,plus the weather was more favourable which helped!

As Dave said,looking forward to your next instalments of your trip!!

Matt Latham said...

Like Dave, it's great to hear the story alongside the quality images. Sounds like a fantastic place.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog post thanks for sharing. The thing that puts me off Iceland at this time of year is the strong light and the photos show that. Hopefully you got some with better light at some point. Well done anyway and I look forward to reading more about your travels.


Iain Leach said...

Recognise a lot of what you've posted. Look forward to the next instalments....

Nigel Moore said...

Lovely pics and smashing info. Looks like my decision to wait another year was sensible. really looking forward to more reports

Camper van rental Iceland said...

Wonderful shots. Where did you take them?
In case someone else wants to go camping in Iceland, here is how:

Safe travels!


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