LAXÁ HARLEQUINS

A drake Harlequin Duck shoots the rapids of the Laxá in Northeast Iceland (Mike Watson)

Picture a landscape of a rushing torrent, lined with marigolds, cascading through lush green marshes and heathland dotted with lovely wildflowers. Dark volcano cones loom and snow-covered mountains stretch into the distance under a suffocating blanket of leaden skies. This is Iceland, the domain of the Harlequin Duck. Just as attractive as the landscape, which it inhabits, this hardy little duck could well be the prettiest of all, depending on your favourite colour. Blue maybe? Finished with striking ivory white spots and stripes, as well as deep chestnut flanks and head markings drake Harlequins are masterpieces of natural design. My friend Gary (Rocket) Jenkins’s photos from the Laxá (‘Salmon River’) published in Birding World were the best that many of us had seen at the time and later, in 2013, I travelled to northeast Iceland myself and saw how the birds fitted into the landscape. Since then I’ve had an image in my mind’s eye that I wanted to capture and earlier this month I returned with a Wild Images group to try to do just that. We had hoped for some interesting light at the time of our visit to the Lake Myvatn area. After a stormy couple of days the weather was due to clear and maybe there might even be a little sunshine. That’s it! Mixed cloud and sunshine is just what we wanted.

I don’t use automatic exposure settings and in fast changing light conditions like this it is hard work to keep up, constantly metering from the vegetation on the banks of the river. However, it is absolutely necessary to get close to the correctly exposing the dark blue plumage of the ducks against the foaming river (automatic settings never get it quite right unless the subject is massive in the frame). Once you’ve set a shutter speed sufficient to freeze the action, all you need to do is to concentrate on focusing on the birds, which is another challenge, as they disappear momentarily behind standing waves in the white-water of the river or paddle frantically, opening their wings and half flying through the rapids. With plenty of time to spend close to the water’s edge (don’t fall in by the way!) we enjoyed a steady stream of birds coming and going and some superb action in the water. I think we got pretty close to what we wanted. This appeared to be a great time to catch the drakes. When the females have settled down to nest but the drakes have not yet disappeared downstream towards the coast. A week later and they were all but gone.

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MIDSUMMER RARITIES IN ICELAND

A Snowy Owl 'in the middle of nowhere' was probably our most exciting find.

SPRING BIRD MIGRATION CONTINUES WELL INTO JUNE IN ICELAND and it is probably the best month for rarities there. High Arctic breeding birds still on their way north occur alongside overshoots and long-stayers. I managed a total of 84 species during my stay in Iceland earlier this month, on back-to-back Wild Images and Birdquest tours including a good number of rare migrants and actually equalled the Birdquest Iceland life list total prior to 2017! I might even make it into treble figures one day at this rate. However, it is worth remembering that the top Icelandic listers are over 300, with totals consisting mostly of vagrants! Just off the flight from Manchester (on which, by chance, I was sitting in the next row to Reykjavik birder Edward Rickson) virtually the first bird I saw was the super-smart drake White-winged Scoter at Sandgerdi. A WP lifer for me and a great welcome back to Iceland! It has been hanging around the Reykjanes Peninsula for the last few years but there is a lot of foreshore along which to search for it and it can go missing for days. Having been around so long now, the local birders hardly keep tabs on it.

The long-staying Reykjanes Peninsula North American White-winged Scoter at Sandgerdi

Very soon afterwards I caught up with Iceland's first Black-winged Stilt just south of Sandgerdi, which had been around for a couple of weeks and had understandably caused quite a stir when it first arrived. Next stop North America? Although technically it was already standing on the North American plate here. It paced around a shallow pool surrounded by eiders and Arctic Terns. Sandgerdi is a true WP rarity hotspot and in the space of a few weeks this year this area also hosted Bonaparte's, Sabines and Little Gulls, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-crowned Night Heron and Bufflehead!

Iceland's first Black-winged Stilt, Sandgerdi.

Other notable sightings on my travels included King Eider (two adult drakes), American Wigeon, Mandarin (certain Belgian-ringed escapes at Húsavík but another on Flatey of uncertain origin), Black Tern, a couple of Little Gulls, Common Crane, Long-tailed Skua (four, including one on territory hundreds of km from the single known breeding area), a pair of Bramblings and best of all, a magnificent Snowy Owl, also away from any known breeding areas 'in the middle of nowhere'. We looked for the owl again about a week later and despite some hours spent searching were unable to refind it. However, with so much wilderness it is easy to find your own birds in Iceland and were it not for the eye-watering cost of food and accommodation more birders would surely explore this fabulous country. Finally thanks to my birding friends in Iceland: Gaukur Hjartason, Yann Kolbeinsson and Edward Rickson without whose help I would certainly have seen a lot fewer birds!

Common Crane, Aðaldal.

Mandarin, Flatey.

Belgian-ringed Mandarin, Húsavík.

Long-tailed Skua, also 'in the middle of nowhere'

Brambling, the female of Iceland's only breeding pair.

RED PHALAROPES IN ICELAND

Red Phalarope (female), Flatey June 2017

RED PHALAROPE IS ONE OF ICELAND'S RAREST BREEDING BIRDS and is therefore high on everyone's wish list. It breeds at scattered locations around the coast, including two Flateys ('Flat Island'). One in the north and one in the southwest. I was lucky to spend three weeks in Iceland this summer and visited Flatey in Breiðafjörður twice with Wild Imaged and then Birdquest, including staying overnight on this delightful island. I enjoyed numerous sightings of Red Phalaropes but all either brief, in flight, distant or during rain showers until almost an hour before we were due to leave the island when a gorgeous female dropped in to a small area of seaweed where a group of the much more numerous Red-necked Phalaropes was feeding. Luckily the big red stayed long enough for me to wade through the seaweed and get a bit closer to it. Although it has a massive worldwide population and is classified as being of 'least concern' by BirdLife International the breeding grounds of this circumpolar High Arctic breeder are mostly very remote. Iceland is one of only a handful of accessible places where western birders can catch up with it in its red breeding plumage.

A couple of days later, strong northerly gales and snow brought another Red Phalarope to Húsavík in northern Iceland and I was able to see that one as well, although it was strange twitching just before midnight. This bird stayed for a couple of days, feeding in the surf just off a black volcanic sand beach below the cliffs south of the town, a genuine WP hotspot, where my friend Gaukur Hjartason had found a Franklin's Gull a couple of weeks earlier. I was able to approach this bird as well but it did involve getting my feet wet and scurrying up the beach every now and then when there was a bigger wave. A wonderful location on the shore of Skjalfandi ('shaky') Bay.

Red Phalarope (female), Húsavík June 2017

Footsteps on the beach at Húsavík, on the trail of the Red Phalarope.

Footsteps on the beach at Húsavík, on the trail of the Red Phalarope.

PALLID HARRIER IN BOWLAND... REVISITED

Pallid Harrier, Bowland

'SECONDS ARE ALWAYS NICE' said a guy I passed in Dunsop Valley who I saw a few evenings ago. Fourths aren't bad either. I've been up in Whitendale watching this amazing bird four days running now, including taking Alexander on one of the hikes up the valley. The harrier is becoming a local celebrity in the same way that the eagle owls did a few years ago and is attracting a steady stream of admirers. It has taken me a while to work out the best plan to get the shot I had in my mind's eye and this is almost it. A little less shadow on the underparts would have been ideal but I shouldn't complain when it has taken me around 17 hours over four days to get this far. Some of this was simply in poor light conditions and this evening the light was perfect low angle, 'golden hour' light. However, from time to time I still put the camera down and simply watched the bird's wonderful sky-dancing displays instead. Surprisingly a sound as well as sight experience when it's purring trill high overhead is sometimes the first sign that it has commenced its aerobatic display over the valley. It was great to see some old friends today too! Also in the valley today were Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Hen Harrier (briefly - Bowland's one and only this year), Merlin, Common Sandpiper, Short-eared Owl, Ring Ouzel (singing), Common Cuckoo, Common Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Dipper and Grey Wagtail. Another day to remember in Bowland!