Friday, July 10, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 4 - White Water Rafters

The alarm clock let out a shrill early call at the start of the 4th day. A quick check out the window showed there to be some sun but also banks of cloud gathering in the distance and slowly heading our way on some light winds, so we didn't hang out around to get out the hotel.

We headed off in the 'campervan' in a clockwise direction around Myvatn with the idea of doing a full lap before breakfast and then concentrating on the Laxa later in the day.  We didn't get far. About 0.5km down the road I spotted a pair of Long-tailed duck in a tiny roadside pool. The phrase 'shooting ducks in a barrel' immediately came to mind.

After taking a few photographs from the 'autohide' we decided to get closer. Spot the bird photographer....

Getting down to the pond not only gave us that preferred intimate low perspective on the birds but also resulted in the water colour turning from the reflected pale blue of the sky to that of the surrounding rusty coloured vegetation.

Time to move on and find some more birds. We carried on, crossed the roaring River Laxa and made our way up the west side of the lake. We saw several by the roadside but only managed some decent photos of a Snipe.

We were having problems approaching the birds with the 'campervan' mainly due  to it being fitted with metal studded snow tyres, which sounded like you were permanently driving on gravel,  and the back door being a noisy sliding one. Neither of which helped with the necessary quiet approach.  We started to get in to a routine of trying to spot the birds ahead so we could drive the last bit with the door open with one driving and the other in the back so we could photograph from either side.

We thought we would check the area around the Myvatn Bird Museum as this looked to be a promising area from our reconnaissance trip the previous evening. The sun was still shining and the lake in this area very still. My attention was immediately drawn to a pair of Slavonian Grebe close to the lake margin in their wonderful breeding plumage. Steve wandered off round the corner to see what he could find and from memory ended up photographing more Long-tailed Duck and some very moth-eaten looking Merganser that were in full moult.
The last time I photographed one of these birds was back in February 2008 on a lake about an hours drive north  from home, this bird of course being in winter 'colours'. I remember that bird being particularly approachable and this pair proved to be equally accommodating.  The main problem I had was getting down to water level as there was a short steep embankment and the only place to lie was on a very narrow ledge. Inevitably I ended up with a wet foot during my shuffling around trying to get the best angle on the birds.

After a while and deciding I was not really going to get anything different from the birds which were just cruising around, I left them and went to find something else to photograph. In the low birch scrub, yet to come into leaf, there were several Redwing singing. Now I have photographed Redwing a good deal when they come over to the UK in the winter but obviously you do not get opportunity to get them singing on their breeding territories. Just for your information the Redwing from Iceland have darker and bolder markings than those from Scandinavia which is something to look out for when they come over to the UK in the winter.

After a bit of creeping around I managed to get a few photographs of the birds singing as they flitted between various song perches that marked out their territories. Overhead numerous snipe were whirring overhead adding to the early morning avian soundscape at Myvatn.

The sunlight was by now fast disappearing with the advancing blanket of cloud and breakfast was calling. So we completed our circuit around Myvatn and back to the hotel. Breakfast was the usaual continental spread of meat, cheeses, bread, cereals and also included on the buffet counter a large bottle of cod liver oil and some shot glasses. Bit early in the day to play cold liver oil slammers but Steve decided to partake and by the look on his face after he slugged back the yellow oil probably wished he had refrained from his sudden urge for healthy Icelandic living.

After a good breakfast we headed out once more, again travelling clockwise around the lake towards the River Laxa. Again we had not gone too far when we spotted a conspicuous white bird sat on top of a larva boulder slightly set back from the road. A pair of ptarmigan with the male still nearly in full white winter feathers. We parked up the car and sneaked over to a nearby fence line which we used as temporary supports to help steady the long lenses.

After a short while the female slowly slipped down behind the multi-coloured lichen covered larva leaving just the male standing their looking very conspicuous with the snow now all but melted away. It was good to finally get one of these birds in front of the lens of my disaster attempt on the Cairngorms a few years back.

A short drive further on and we came to the bridge that crosses the River Laxa, which is the main outflow from Lake Myvatn. This is the view looking upstream from the bridge. As you can see the skies by this point had changed from the clear blue of the morning to dull and overcast.

The Laxa is a very powerful river and certainly somewhere you would not want to accidentally slip into and care was required getting down at water level to photograph the birds.. We immediately spotted a pair of Harlequin that seem to revel in the rapids. Here is a short video to give a flavour of the place.

P1020360 from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

Again Steve and I went our separate ways which is always the best approach when you are photographing birds on foot as to stay together effectively halves your chances of getting close. I started with some Barrow's Goldeneye which were in the area just upstream of the video. This species is an Icelandic specialty and the only place it can be found in Europe. Its Icelandic name translates to house duck due to it tendency to nest in building roofs given the general lack of trees. It has different black and white patterning to Goldeneye and also the black feathers of the head have a purple to blue iridescence rather than green. Not an ideal bird to photograph in relatively poor light but hey you have to start somewhere.

Later in the afternoon the sun did breakthrough once more and I revisited a pair of the Barrow's Goldeneye which I located downstream of the road bridge. As you can see they really need a bit of sunshine on them to appreciate them at their best.

Whilst lying on the bank there were half a dozen Red-necked Phalarope on the river in front of me. As I sat watching them I noticed they were drifting down on the current feeding and then flying back a short distance back upstream to repeat the process.

Given this was being repeated over and over I decided it might present a chance to try and get a flight photograph. These waders are tiny and very fast flying and so a difficult photography challenge and under these circumstances  where an bird is repeatedly and reasonably predictably going through the same movements it greatly increase your chances of success. Recognising such opportunities is an important part of wildlife photography. Even so it proved a tricky task but I managed one photograph I was happy with in the end.

The final bird of this post is one that many bird watchers wish to see and photograph on a visit to Iceland, the beautiful Harlequin duck. Again this is the only place in Europe where this species is found and its preference is for fast flowing water in which it seems to revel. If you have watched the video above, the birds I zoomed into at the end where a pair of mating Harlequins. Having spent the limited burst of afternoon sunlight with the Barrow's Goldeneye, all my Harlegquin Duck photography that day was spent under overcast skies.

I was keen to try and capture a sense of the tumbling white rapids these birds often disappear into with a second thought. I had a photograph in my head of one breaking through the crest of a wave. However, was unlikely to happen as they tend to raft down the rapids and make their way upstream in the quieter river margins.

I was keen to get some of these birds in some sunlight but that would have to wait to the following day when we spend our second day at Myvatn and that will of course be in the next post...


Paul Foster said...

Certainly brings back the memories Richard, reading your excellent blog.The long tailed duck were in exactly the same place as last year on the little pool!Looking forward to more from you Icelandic safari!!!

Dave Williams said...

I'm already checking flights!!!!!
Stunning stuff Rich.

Toby Houlton said...


Loving your blog entries on Iceland. Stunning shots as always.

Really like hearing how you get the shots and the efforts involved.

Sounds like a real adventure!

Keep up the good work.

Toby Houlton

Christian Staunton said...

Amazing photos Rich, thanks for sharing them. Iceland is definitely going on 'the list' now!


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