10-18 JUNE 2018
By Andy Walker
This 9-day scheduled Iceland tour commenced in Reykjavík on the 10th of June 2018 and concluded back there on the 18th of June 2018. This tour led through some of the most spectacular scenery in western and northern Iceland, taking in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the magnificent sea cliffs at Látrabjarg, the picturesque Flatey Island, the gorgeous Lake Mývatn, the stunning Skjálfandi Bay, as well as numerous other roadside stops (including the roaring Goðafoss Waterfall).
The tour connected with many exciting birds and yielded a long list of northwestern European specialties. Wildfowl featured heavily, with many breeding birds as well as a long list of vagrants (see below) such as Harlequin Duck, King Eider, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Scoter, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Shelduck, Whooper Swan, Brant Goose, and Pink-footed Goose. Breeding Red-throated and Common Loons were seen regularly, and a pair of the latter with two chicks was a tour highlight, as were the numerous breeding Horned Grebes.
Seabirds were another big focus on the tour, and we enjoyed some very close looks at the comical Atlantic Puffin along with the dapper Black Guillemot, Razorbill, and Common and Thick-billed Murres. We had plenty of Parasitic Jaegers and good views of Northern Gannet, Great Skua, European Shag, nine species of gulls with Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull seen well, and thousands of Northern Fulmars.
Shorebirds were abundant with a great deal of breeding activity underway. It is a great sight to see these birds in their breeding plumage rather than their more familiar drab plumage, some of the most spectacular being Black-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, European Golden Plover, Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Redshank, and best of all the rare breeder, Red Phalarope.
Finding both White-tailed Eagle and Gyrfalcon on nests, as well as several hunting Merlins and Short-eared Owls were all highlights and rated among some of the best tour moments. Assorted other special birds included Rock Ptarmigan, Northern Raven, Eurasian Wren, Common Blackbird, Redwing, Goldcrest, Northern Wheatear, Common Redpoll, White Wagtail, and the gorgeous Snow Bunting.
Some of the vagrants found during the tour included Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon, Canada Goose, Little Gull, and Grey Heron, providing a little further excitement to the proceedings!
A total of 81 bird species were seen (plus one species heard only, Red Crossbill), along with an impressive list of other animals, including Humpback Whale and Arctic Fox. Species lists are at the end of this report.
As well as all the fantastic birds and impressive landscapes we also sampled, day after day, truly amazing Icelandic food and drink, some of the best meals on any of our tours.
Day 1, 10th June 2018. Arrival into Keflavík/Reykjavík and travel to Olafsvík
After I met Claudia at the airport in Keflavík early in the morning, we had a brief stop at some coastal ponds nearby, finding Common Loon, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Whooper Swan, Common Eider, Common Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, and European Golden Plover. After an early breakfast we then traveled north to Reykjavík, where we picked up the other tour participants Tristan, Lyn, Gretchen, and Kristine in the city. In no time at all the journey had commenced towards Olafsvík on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, our base for a couple of nights.
Several birding stops were made along the way. The first, near Borgarnes, yielded numerous Common Shelducks, Dunlin, Grey Heron (a scarce summer visitor in Iceland), Northern Fulmar, and the stunning Black-tailed Godwit. After a nice lunch at a bakery we continued our journey northwest, stopping for Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Parasitic Jaeger, Arctic Tern, Greater Scaup, Whooper Swan, Little Gull (a national rarity!), Northern Raven, and Red-necked Phalarope.
We arrived at Olafsvík in time for a very nice dinner in a local restaurant, our first of many excellent meals on the tour.
Day 2, 11th June 2018. Snæfellsnes Peninsula
The beauty of birding in Iceland at this time of year is more-or-less-constant daylight, meaning very early starts are not always necessary! We had a relaxed breakfast and then headed out for a day birding around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Our first stop was at a few small pools that were covered in Common Eiders and Arctic Terns. Spending several minutes here we started picking off numerous birds; some of the most spectacular were the displaying Red-throated Loons that were flying around our heads before they dropped onto the water and continued displaying. A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers and several Tufted Ducks also looked rather nice. Several herds of Whooper Swans and a couple of Greylag Geese were in the fields nearby, with Common Snipe constantly displaying overhead. Other shorebirds here included tame Red-necked Phalaropes, Black-tailed Godwit, and Eurasian Oystercatcher.
As we continued to a coastal headland we were very quickly enjoying nice views of a couple of Rock Ptarmigans, both sheltering from the rain shower. Beautiful birds! We also had brief glimpses of Northern Wheatears, with more prolonged views at the same spot later in the morning. There was also a stunning male Snow Bunting showing very well here. On the coast itself we spent some time getting to grips with a range of Alcids such as Atlantic Puffin, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, and Black Guillemot. The cliffs were covered with Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes, and both were constantly streaming past, with the occasional Northern Gannet and European Shag doing likewise. Single Red-throated and Common Loons also flew past.
We enjoyed a wonderful lunch in a tiny beachside café and were suitably distracted by some gorgeous breeding-plumaged Red Knots, with similarly smart Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Common Ringed Plover, Common Redshank, and Eurasian Oystercatcher also in attendance. We also spent time watching some baby Common Eiders and a large flock of non-breeding birds bathing.
The afternoon was spent enjoying further looks at the above species at several different sites, though one of the best birds of the day was found under the sea cliffs when we found two small flocks of the exquisite Harlequin Duck. Good, close views were had of one of the best-looking ducks on the planet, and we soaked the views in. As the day’s birding came to a close we headed back to town for another great meal.
Day 3, 12th June 2018. Olafsvík to Stykkishólmur, ferry to Flatey Island, finally to Breiðavík and Látrabjarg bird cliffs
We had a fairly early start in order to make our ferry connection in Stykkishólmur to the picturesque Flatey Island. After enjoying breakfast at a bakery we boarded the ferry and headed north, seeing rafts of Atlantic Puffin along the way. Once on Flatey Island we found it to be a very peaceful place, apart from the constantly alarm-calling Arctic Terns and Common Redshanks and drumming of Common Snipes. Snow Buntings were very evident, and we enjoyed very good views of many during the day. Dodging the odd rain shower (and fitting in another delicious lunch), we looked through the hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes until eventually we found our main target on the island – the Red Phalarope, a bird so beautiful it really needs to be seen to be believed. There were plenty of Alcids to enjoy around the island, and we got some great views of Atlantic Puffin and Black Guillemot. This island is considered one of the most beautiful in all of Iceland, and it is easy to see why after spending a day here.
In the late afternoon we caught the ferry out of Flatey Island and then continued our journey west to Breiðavík, and after another very good meal spent the evening birding at the Látrabjarg cliffs, where, despite the occasional rain shower, we got very good looks at Atlantic Puffin sitting just a few feet in front of us. The sea cliffs here really are incredible and stacked full of Thick-billed and Common Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Northern Fulmars. An Arctic Fox was a nice surprise too, as it searched for an easy meal among the seabird colony. A great experience to be birding in daylight at midnight!
Day 4, 13th June 2018. Breiðavík to Blönduós
Due to the late finish the previous day this morning we had a later, more relaxed start. We spent the majority of the day driving east to our final destination of Blönduós. We made a few stops along the way and built up a decent list of birds. The first stop produced a flock of three vagrant Canada Geese, presumably from Greenland or the north-eastern United States given the prevailing weather conditions. Here we also saw two pairs of displaying Red-throated Loons, Eurasian Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser, and Eurasian Teal.
Another stop resulted in a pair of displaying and then foraging Common Loons and a flock of breeding-plumage Purple Sandpipers, looking very dapper. Here hundreds of Common Eiders were present in a range of plumages too. Another stop will not be forgotten anytime soon, because we enjoyed excellent views of a pair of apparently breeding Gyrfalcons, followed by a pair of nesting White-tailed Eagles – one of the pair getting some attention from an aggressive Great Black-backed Gull. A Common Redpoll flew over, and a Eurasian Wren sang, but it was hard to take our eyes off the raptor fest that was unfolding in front of our eyes!
We continued our journey, getting some excellent looks at about twenty Harlequin Ducks, Rock Ptarmigan, many Common Eiders, and several rampaging Parasitic Jaegers. We arrived at our hotel early in the evening in time for yet another great meal.
Day 5, 14th June 2018. Blonðuós to Lake Mývatn
We woke to a rather wet and wild morning on the north coast and had a quick check of the nearby river mouth, where we found plenty of Common Eiders, a few Red-breasted Mergansers, and half a dozen Long-tailed Ducks, many coming into their dark breeding plumage and looking rather special. A couple of Red-throated Loons were observed carrying food back to nest sites, and we had our best looks of the entire tour at a pair of delightful Common Loons that were duetting with their extremely haunting calls. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were numerous here, and a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also present.
By mid-morning we were on the road towards Lake Mývatn. A couple of stops along the way gave us some very good views of Horned Grebe, Mew Gull, breeding Pink-footed Goose, and Harlequin Duck. Most of the journey was wet, but we still enjoyed magnificent views of the stunning scenery that was a constant along the journey.
As late afternoon arrived the temperature really dropped, and the rain increased, but unperturbed we persisted, and a very productive stop at the lake gave us our first Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Scoter, Gadwall, and Northern Pintail of the trip. We also got improved views of Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, and Horned Grebe. While looking for wildfowl here we also had our best looks at a perched, pale-phased Parasitic Jaeger, but best of all was the highly-sought, and anticipated, Short-eared Owl. One flew right toward us, being heavily mobbed by numerous Redwings and assorted shorebirds before giving a great series of views.
A very nice dinner at our excellent hotel, our base for the next two nights, was enjoyed, and we even spotted Merlin and Gyrfalcon from the dinner table!
Day 6, 15th June 2018. Lake Mývatn and boat trip from Húsavík
We awoke to a very cold morning, even with a few snow showers thrown in, and this would be the order of the day. We spent the morning conducting a circuit of this large, bird-filled lake and enjoyed views of numerous wildfowl species. Long-tailed Ducks were looking spectacular in their breeding attire and showed at very close range. Barrow’s Goldeneyes were displaying, and Eurasian Wigeons were noted with young. One of the better sightings was that of a vagrant drake American Wigeon found with some Eurasian Wigeons, allowing a great comparison of the two to be made. Whooper Swans were found throughout, and we got some very close views of Red-necked Phalarope.
During the afternoon we drove to the pretty coastal town of Húsavík, stopping along the way for a roadside Short-eared Owl, followed by Rock Ptarmigan, Common Loon (with babies), and Horned Grebe (also with babies) at a small pond. We then took a whale-watching trip into the Skjálfandi Bay, where we enjoyed very good looks at White-beaked Dolphin, Humpback Whale (picture at end of report), Atlantic Puffin, Black Guillemot, European Herring Gull, and Great Skua. It was a little cold and rough at times due to the three-meter swell but still an enjoyable afternoon, which we finished with a pair of Harlequin Ducks in a small river near our hotel.
Day 7, 16th June 2018. Lake Mývatn to Blonðuós
This was a more relaxed day as we started our journey halfway back toward Reykjavík. After breakfast we focused on a small area of the lake with lots of birds and found numerous Greater Scaups, Gadwall, Tufted Duck, and Eurasian Wigeon. On scanning through these ducks we found a very good candidate for an adult drake Lesser Scaup, though it remained distant. Long-tailed Ducks were looking spectacular, as were Barrow’s Goldeneyes. We again saw several Horned Grebes at their nests and lots of Red-necked Phalaropes. Another nice surprise was the Short-eared Owl that raced through with its attendant plethora of mobbing birds, likely the same bird seen a couple of days earlier.
After checking out of our hotel we started our journey back to Blonðuós. Along the way we found a few Common Mergansers and more Whooper Swans and had some brief views of Parasitic Jaeger.
The afternoon around Blonðuós gave us the chance to relax and take in some of the local sights. Those of us checking the river mouth enjoyed Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-throated Loon, Arctic Tern, Parasitic Jaeger, and lots of Common Eiders.
Day 8, 17th June 2018. Blonðuós to Keflavík via Reykjavík
We had a relaxed start and headed to the coast and the river mouth to scan the Common Eider flock. It was with great joy that we immediately found a stunning male King Eider! There were also a male Harlequin Duck and several Long-tailed Ducks present. After a bit of maneuvering we managed to get ourselves a lot closer to the sea duck flock and spent some time enjoying watching the birds surf. What a set of incredible birds! Plenty of other birds were also here trying to distract us, like Parasitic Jaeger, Northern Fulmar, and Iceland and Glaucous Gulls.
A supremely beautiful duck, this drake King Eider was a fantastic way to end the tour.
Soon it was time to start our drive south. We made a strategic stop along the way at some small woodland, where we found Eurasian Wren, Common Redpoll (of the Icelandic subspecies, including a gorgeous pink male), and our first Goldcrest. It is amazing to think of this tiny bird surviving in such a harsh environment.
After a delightful lunch on the coast we continued to the edge of Reykjavík, where a bit of birding near the State Government Office (complete with lots of dignitaries celebrating Icelandic National Day) provided a couple of nice unexpected vagrant bonus birds in the form of two drake Ring-necked Ducks and a Brant Goose. But it started to get cold and wet again, so we decided to head to our final hotel of the tour in Keflavík, seeing several Common Loons in the nearby bay on the way, and then had our final dinner-and-checklist session.
Day 9, 18th June 2018. International Departure
The tour participants departed, but not before voting for their ‘Bird of the Trip’. There were numerous birds to choose from, but the following species were considered the best (in no particular order): White-tailed Eagle, Short-eared Owl, Common Loon, Black-tailed Godwit, and King Eider. Late departures were rewarded with a small group of Manx Shearwaters near our accommodation.
A huge thank you to Claudia, Gretchen, Kristine, Lyn, and Tristan for making the trip so enjoyable. It was a pleasure birding with you around Iceland and I look forward to birding with you again somewhere else soon, and I look forward to my next visit to this wonderful, beautiful country!
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.