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...

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 2 - Geothermic Restoration

It was probably around 6 am when I eventually gave up on trying to sleep. I slid open the 'campervan' door to see  the sun had already ascended quite high in a cloudless sky having risen from the horizon at around 2:30am.  The air and campsite were still and filled with the sounds of calling Dunlin, together with Redwing and Redpoll singing from the surrounding conifers. I managed to extract myself from the mummy style sleeping bag and slither off the suspended mattress. Having been constricted inside the sleeping bag, I had felt like I had been to bed with my arms tied behind my back. I remember standing outside the 'camper' feeling very tired, aching and generally lacking in life.  I made my way across to the shower block.

Turning on the shower was like opening the flood gates of hell as a torrent of scolding water blasted from the showerhead. High pressure volcanic water, with a distinct odour of sulphur, drawn from deep below the ground poured down on me. I must have stood under this torrent for about 15 minutes and let the water wash my tiredness and sleeping bag aches down the plug hole. I stepped out feeling like a new person, restored back to the life by the geothermic deluge.

Back at the 'campervan', I completely emptied, dismantled the bed and stowed everything away on the basis that it would not be getting used again, before grabbing the laptop, camera batteries and memory cards from the previous day and set up shop in a lounge area to download and recharge. Steve eventually emerged from the nylon cocoon of his tent reporting that he had zero sleep through the night. I was raring to get going, having been restored back to action by the super shower, and we grabbed a quick breakfast from the campsite cafe before hitting the road. We decided to head back to the Red-throated Diver site as Steve had some unfinished business there. Travelling once more along the long gravel track to the car park, we had our first encounter with a Black-tailed Godwit in breeding colours. The bird was in a bit of awkward location and seemed fairly oblivious to us and went back to roost position at very close range.

We also came across a dozing Snipe.

Once we reached the pools I suggested Steve try the accommodating pair of divers I had photographed the previous day and I would follow the footpath to see if I could find some others. I didn't have to go too far and spent a short while with a pair on the small still pool.

I moved on to another pool where I found some more friendly birds that were lazily drifting around. With the air cold and the sun beaming, heat haze was developing and it was easy to see the wobbling air spreading across the extensive dry brown grassland. Under these conditions all you can do is put as little distance between you and your subject. Fortunately the divers I were photographing were close and gently milling around under the late morning sun.

I decided to leave them and headed back to the van for a mug of Yorkshire Tea (have teabags will travel!). Given the conditions the only option left now was to try and find some really close subjects and the perfect candidates were. Red-necked Phalaropes that are generally completely oblivious to people and I had one pecking my finger at one stage. I found a small group of half a dozen birds working their way along one of the pool margins picking off the midges as they emerged from the surface film.
They appear as very buoyant birds and tend to sit high on the water rather than in it and for the first time  noticed they have very coarse breast feather which probably contributes to this. From a distance their movements often seem to have the appearance of leaves or feathers being blown across the surface.

These birds are always fun to photograph and fortunately were not showing their usual spinning feeding behaviour which can make them a headache to photograph but were typically hyperactive. I managed to catch a pair of these tiny waders mating with the more colourful female almost becoming fully submerged in the efforts.

During this Phalarope session disaster nearly struck, as I was adjusting my laying down position at the edge of the pond, I knocked my camera that I had put down next to me and it rolled towards the pond. It was a close call and I just managed to grab it in time before my 1dx with 600mm fell in. That would have been a nightmare so early on in the trip.

It was time to move on. Our loose plan for the rest of the day was to work our way along the south coast before starting to head northward to find somewhere overnight about an hour or so north of Reykjavik. The forecast for the following day looked generally poor so we decided that time would be well used as a travel day for the long drive up to the north-east and our next key destination, Lake Myvatn (which translates to Midge Lake).

Our first stop off point along the south-west coast was at the small fishing town þorlákshöfn. The air was heavy with the smell of fish as we checked the small harbour for bird life. It was fairly quiet with a couple of Black Guilliemots, Long-tailed Duck and some juvenile Glaucous and Iceland Gulls but nothing really offered any photo opportunities as there seemed no easy way to get to water level except by a very treacherous looking route down a very slippery looking harbour wall built from boulders. We decided to see if we could find a beach nearby to look for some waders. We eventually found a 'beach' area of large boulders covered in seaweed with quite a good number of waders. Steve's eye was caught by a small flock of Knot in their summer red plumage. It was tricky progress over the boulders as we headed off in different directions with Steve targeting the Knot and me looking for Purple Sandpiper in their summer plumage.

Both of us have a lot of experience photographing waders back at home and the approach is usually get in to position and let the birds come to you. We were both surprised how shy and twitchy these birds were even the species that are generally less bothered by people such as Turnstone. Here is Steve doing his best to look like a seaweed boulder.

Eventually I managed to get quite a few Purple Sandpiper in front of me, feeding on the rocks in the rising tide, together with the occasional photo opportunity for a couple of other species.

A summer coloured Knot landed reasonably close.
I spotted a Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Knot all sat on the same rock. A nice comparison of the three species in their summer colours, although I was never going to ever get enough depth of field to get them all sharp with the long lens.
A solitary Redshank also put in an appearance.

The afternoon was pushing on and we decided to carry on our journey along the coast with the next stop being the harbour at Grindavik. Large numbers of Fulmar were present and some white-winged gulls including young Iceland Gulls. We found out that afternoon that unlike the UK the gulls are generally very wary of people in Iceland.

We managed a few photographs here before hitting the road again and starting our journey northward.  We decided to make a small detour into an area east of Rekyavik which was supposed to be a Ptarmigan stronghold but due to poor navigational skills actually ended up driving around the wrong area! The tracks we drove around seemed to be a popular horse riding area and there was a lot of laughter watching what appeared to be over-sized people on the fairly small, slight wild and sturdy Icelandic horses galloping along and looking slight out of control.

As we drove along, far in the distance, something white caught my eye as it dropped off a rock. We decided to stop and go and investigate to see if it was a Ptarmigan. It was but we had no chance of getting close to this pair of birds on the edge of some birch scrub, as the ground was covered with the crunchy dried dead stems of thousands of Lupins which seem to swathe large parts of the Iceland. They must be a beautiful sight when in blue-purple flower but the unusually cold spring had reduced them to their first green shoots. However, an important lesson was learnt that in Iceland forget all you knew of where you might expect to find Ptarmigan.

We continued northwards and having cleared Rekyavik by some distance, we put the SatNav into find accommodation mode.  We came across a road side motel but the only life we could find was a dog outside and carried on. On our approach to Borgarnes, we found the Hotel Bru and booked in there for the night. The cost was good for our elongated but slightly warm room in the roof. It had been a long day and we grabbed a quick bite to eat in the town over the causeway. On return to the hotel we went through the evening photo download and back up ritual before crashing and recharging our own batteries before continuing our journey north and eastward the next day.

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.....


Related Posts with Thumbnails