SITTING NEXT TO A RUSHING SALMON RIVER WATCHING HARLEQUINS SHOOTING THE RAPIDS is one of my favourite wildlife experiences. We had such a great time in 2017 on the Laxá (‘Salmon River’) in Iceland’s Lake Myvatn region that I was looking forward to returning this summer. However, things are rarely as good a second time sadly. Although we enjoyed some stupendous close views again the chironomid flies after which the nearby lake was named were out in force making photographing quite arduous, even with a head net. Without it the experience of the non-biting although mega irritating flies is like having someone poke you in the face, ears or mouth every second or two. Expect to eat a few of them by accident as they fly into your mouth kamikaze style. Not painfull but very distracting, there can be clouds of several hundred of them around your head within minutes. The weather before my 2017 visit was very cold and they had not really got going but the weather recently had been unusually warm and the sodding flies were bad. Ah well, plenty of bird food I guess, looking on the bright side. Much worse was the sheer number of anglers all along the river at my favourite spots, which caused the Harlequins to move off elsewhere. I am going to need to find a quiet spot away from them when it return in 2020. Consequently my images were not as dramatic as in 2017 but I managed to get the lovely marigold flowers into backgrounds this time. Fortunately this was a birding rather than a photography tour so no one minded but next time with Wild Images this project is going to need some more effort. I also heard some disturbing news that Harlequins are declining in Iceland and no one knows why yet. My original Laxá Harlequins post can be seen here and you can see the details of my next Wild Images Iceland tour here.
Viewing entries tagged
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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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.
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!
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!
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.