Friday, July 24, 2015

Immersed in Iceland: Day 5 - Myvatn Circuits

We had another early start on our second day in the area around Lake Myvatn. The weather forecast the night before looked promising by drawing back the bedroom curtains revealed bright but overcast skies overhead. Hopefully it would brighten later as I was keen to try and get some Harlequins in better light on the River Laxa. We intended to follow a similar routine to the day before with a circuit of the lake before breakfast followed by looking round to see what we could find and of course a return visit at some point to the rapids of the River Laxa.

Once more we had not gone too far in the 'campervan' before we came across our first bird, stood in the road, a Ptarmigan. It moved to the verge and crouched low in amongst the multi-coloured short vegetation. These birds must feel fairly vulnerable when they are are still in their winter whites with no snow to conceal them from the watchful eyes of Gyr Falcon.

We traveled on our clockwise circuit seeing several more Ptarmigan but too distant for photographs, the birds standing out very obviously against the dark volcanic rocks. Around the north-west side of the lake we came across another bird close to the road. This one was perched relatively high up and to avoid photographing against a flat white sky we both ended up standing on the door sills to give some elevation and get the angle for a better coloured background of a volcanic mound behind.
Our next encounter was a Snipe on a post which eventually left us with a shrill call before speeding off in whirring display flight.
It was turning into a bit of a Ptarmigan morning as we encountered another bird perched up on some lichen clad lava and another on a grass verge, together with a bonus Whimbrel in the road. That was a total of around 8 Ptarmigan we had seen in one lap of the lake before heading back to the hotel for breakfast.

While I was in Iceland and as soon as I got back, I had a few people contact me saying they were visiting within the next week or so and asking for pointers as to where to find birds. As you can see it would pointless giving any suggestions in the Myvatn area as it just seems to change from one day to the next.

After a good breakfast including Steve topping up his cod liver oil levels, we headed back out but didn't get far. About 20m to be precise as there was a Snipe feeding along the top of a grass embankment on the edge of the hotel car park. Its raised position giving the appearance of photographing the bird at ground level. The overhead cloud was starting to break up.
Off down the road once more, for another Myvatn circuit. Crossing a small swift flowing river we spotted a couple of Harlequin Ducks lurking in the quieter flowing margins and so stopped for a short while to try and get some photographs.

Back on the road with our noisy studded snow tyres, we decided to head right round the other side of the lake and back to the area around the Bird Museum, picking up a dozing Snipe en route.
Driving up the Museum track we found a very vocal Black-tailed Godwit calling from a grass mound with a Whimbrel stalking around about 2 metres away. We parked up and once again headed off in separate directions.

It was all to much so I decided to have a lay down round the back of the Museum building, although with good reason as there were a pair of Slavonian Grebes drifting slowly on the still water. I managed to position myself so that the reflection of a volcano in the background created some nice dark water to show off the colours of the birds against.
I wandered back round and found Steve down the bottom of an embankment having some fun with a group of hyperactive Red-necked Phalaropes. This was turning into a busy morning! A few more Phalarope photos were consigned to the memory card.
Behind me the noisy Godwit was still strutting its stuff on the grass mound, so I left Steve with the tiny waders and spent some time creeping up on what turned out to be a very accommodating bird. This allowed me to get a range of photos with different background just be slightly shifting my position up and down the mound.

Not bad for morning's work as it was close to midday now. The warm still air had encouraged a small explosion of non-biting midges from the lake. A hint of what could happen if the conditions had not been so cold. I can imagine 'Midge Lake' thoroughly deserves its name at certain times of year. 

I think this is one of the days when we forgot to have lunch as we were so absorbed in the photography. This had a few times over the trip and we would suddenly realise we were starving around 5pm.  Once again we hit the Myvatn circuit. We stopped off by a lake at a small nature reserve area on the east bank. As we made our way down to the lake, clouds of flies erupted from the grass. The dense swarms producing an audible humming in the air. We didn't stop there long and carried on to the River Laxa bridge. It was clouding up again and I was starting to wonder if I would actually ever get some Harlequin Duck in some sunlight. We stopped a while and took some photos before moving on once more with a view to returning when the distant blue sky had made its way over.

We headed back towards the Hotel and decided to try a large slightly raised isolated lake immediately to the west known as Stakholstjorn. This place had a very strange landscape of mini volcanic pseudocraters. An Arctic Tern on a post posed for us at the start of the footpath. These terns were very common in Iceland but strangely this is one of the very few photographs I took of them during the whole trip. 
We went our separate ways once more with Steve heading off to a small pool at the very far end and I decided to hang back for a Long-tailed Duck.

Moving on around the lake, I saw two large black birds at distance and then heard that eerie haunting wail of the Great Northern Diver which echoed around the weird landscape. Such a beautiful evocative sound. One of the birds only appeared close momentarily before diving and resurfacing a long way away. 

Walking past numerous Phalarope, a pair of whistling Wigeon caught my eye and ear next as I continued my walk around this large lake. 

While nearby several Whooper Swans were chasing each other about. The heads and bodies dis-coloured orange by the iron rich waters.

The bird above had a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ring and it is ironic to think that this swan may appear back in England in the winter at Martin Mere which is fairly close to my home. Meanwhile at the other end of the lake Steve was getting some stunning images of Slavonian Grebe on the small pool. I decided to spend some time with a pair of these birds on the main lake that were hunting sticklebacks in the margins. 

As you can see by this point the sun had finally reappeared, it was time to return to the River Laxa where we would finish our day by its rushing waters in some wonderful evening sunlight. Yes, finally some Harlequin Ducks in the sun.

It felt like we had squeezed a day and half into one but a very memorable one with a great variety of beautiful birds in such a stunning location. Myvatn had revealed its avian treasures. 

That night we went for Pizza and the forecast was not looking good for another day at Myvatn so we would be departing in the morning and heading northwards to try and keep with some better weather.

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...


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