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June 2012

With Puffins, Ptarmigan, Phalaropes, Foxes, Whales, and More

An Atlantic Puffin photographed during the FONT tour
in Iceland in June 2012


A Photo Gallery of Iceland Birds & Other Nature during our June 2012 FONT Tour

List of Birds & Other Wildlife during our Iceland Tour - June 2012

Birds during previous FONT Iceland Tours

A Complete Iceland Bird-List
(383 species, including vagrants from mainland Europe, Asia, & North America)

Wildflowers of Iceland  (with some photos)

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Iceland

A following narrative was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:

During over two decades, there have been FONT birding and nature tours on varied islands throughout the world, including those in places as far-flung as the Caribbean, Japan, and Iceland. 
In the Caribbean, we've been to Barbuda and Barbados, Dominica and the Dominican Republic, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent, as well as the Caymans, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Guadeloupe.
Off the west coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, we've been, over a half-dozen times, on the tiny island of Hegura, in the Sea of Japan, where in the spring, bird migration has been extraordinary. And we've seen specialty birds and butterflies on the small Japanese islands of Amami and Okinawa.
But different than any other island we've visited has been Iceland, a place with fire and ice and much in between, and many birds. As of our June 2012 tour, we've done 18 tours in Iceland.
Iceland, about the size of the US state of Kentucky, has with it a number of smaller islands. During our June 2012 Iceland Tour, we visited two especially notable, Flatey and Heimaey.

Flatey is one of over 2,000 islands in the big bay in western Iceland with a big name, Breidafjordur. Like Hegura in Japan, Flatey Island is very small, only about a mile long and less in width, and with only a very few motorized vehicles, almost none. Cars can not exit the ferry onto Flatey, as they can not onto Hegura. On Flatey, we saw two tractors and one small utility truck.
In the small village, there are some wooden buildings painted various colors. The place is picturesque. Our weather was superb, making our time on the island and the setting and scenery equally so.
Only 4 people live year-round on Flatey. The other cottages, along with a small hotel and restaurant, are only in use in the summer.  

Whereas people are few on Flatey, birds are many. 
As we walked along the lane, as noted without as stated a car in sight, there were some Red-necked Phalaropes walking on the road with us, catching some small little insects as they went, on the ground and on roadside flowers. Those little phalaropes were literally at our feet. Others were on nearby pools of water spinning around as phalaropes do.
On the roof of one of the small houses, a male Snow Bunting sang a beautiful song. Nesting Snow Buntings are rather common on Flatey.
In the air, above us, Common Snipes were displaying, or winnowing in fast flight, with the reverberating sound that comes from from their wings. Another shorebird, or wader, the Common Redshank continuously scolded us as we walked along our way. Even better at scolding were the Arctic Terns. "Shrieking" would a more appropriate word for them, and even though there's no "Common" as an adjective in their name, they were.
Along the mostly-rocky coastline, there were Common Eiders, many of them, and mostly with their little ones, eiderettes.
Also among the birds along the coast, there were European Shags, that we watched fly, fish and swim.  
As we sat on some coast-side rocks, Black Guillemots in breeding plumage, with their black bodies, white wing-patches, and red feet, were beside us, or on the nearby water.
As we sat on a grassy bluff by the sea, Atlantic Puffins, with their bright red feet, were below us on the water. Others flew out from their burrows between the seaside rocks. Northern Fulmars flew out from their stony perches.
Flatey was a wonderful place to be, and during our entire time there the birds that were always around kept reminding us of their presence. In all, we saw 18 species of birds on the island. But it wasn't so much that we saw 18 species. It was that we "experienced" them.

A European Shag swimming
off the shore of Flatey Island
during our Iceland tour in June 2012


Heimaey Island is one of 15 small islands off the south coast of Iceland known collectively as the Westmann Islands, or in Icelandic, Vestmannaeyjar. The islands are said to have been created entirely by volcanic activity, after the end of the last glaciation and since. Most recently, the 15th of the islands, named Surtsey, was created during a submarine eruption between 1963 and 1967.

Heimaey is the largest of the Westmanns, and the only island of the group inhabited by people. All of the islands are inhabited by birds, notably seabirds, with many of them nesting on sheer cliffs.
Under 3 miles in length, Heimaey Island has had some dramatic volcanic history. In January 1973, an eruption began there, just beyond and above the one town on the island. The entire population of about 5,000 people was successfully evacuated during one night by boat and plane. The eruption continued until May. Lava flowed down into the streets. About half of the town became submerged by it. During our visit in June 2012, we saw remnants of houses now covered by volcanic soil where flowers, notably Lupin, flourish.

The Westmanns, including Heimaey Island, are, as just noted, the haunts of many nesting seabirds. 
During the ferry ride to and from, and near the islands, we saw Manx Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, Great Skuas, Parasitic Jaegers, and gulls, along with many Arctic Terns, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, and numerous alcids including Common Murres, Razorbills, and Atlantic Puffins - a plethora of puffins.     
Manx Shearwaters breed in Iceland only in the Westmanns, and the Gannet and the Great Skua are most commonly seen in Iceland along and off the southern coast.

But it was in far-northwest Iceland where we saw the most seabirds. At the western end of a rugged peninsula, at the western end of Iceland that is also the western end of Europe, we visited the Latrabjarg Cliffs. From there, it is about 300 miles across the sea to the hyperborean coast of Greenland. 
The Latrabjarg Cliffs are massive and truly one of the most impressive places anywhere in the world, and especially so for those who like being where birds are.
The cliffs rise to over 1,650 feet above the ocean, and they continue for 12 kilometers, or 7 and a half miles. And they teem with nesting seabirds including a huge number of alcids, fulmars, and kittiwakes.

A Black-legged Kittiwake
photographed during our June 2012 tour in Iceland

Among the alcids at Latrabjarg, there are tens of thousands of Thick-billed Murres (known in Europe as Brunnich's Guillemots), alongside vast numbers of Common Murres (known in Europe as Common Guillemots).
About 40 per cent of the Common Murres in the North Atlantic breed in Iceland with, it has been said, over a million pairs.  About 75 per cent of the Common Murres that breed in Iceland do so on the 3 largest bird-cliffs of the western fjords of northwestern Iceland. One of those 3 cliffs is Latrabjarg.
Those same 3 cliffs in northwestern Iceland, including Latrabjarg, are the nesting sites of about 90 per cent of the Thick-billed Murres that breed in Iceland, and that area has the largest number of Thick-billed Murres in the North Atlantic. It has been said that about 580,000 breeding pairs of Thick-billed Murres nest in Iceland.   

An estimated one-third of the world's Razorbills nest at Latrabjarg. We saw them nicely on the ledges, either standing erectly or resting on their bellies.
The Razorbills at Latrabjarg constitute the largest known colony of the species in the world. About 60 per cent of Icelandic Razorbills breed there. The population of Razorbills in Iceland has been said to be an estimated 380,000 breeding pairs.
But it is the Atlantic Puffin that is the star of the show at Latrabjarg. Late in the day, atop the cliffs, there are just so photogenic. And so tame, allowing humans to be unimaginably close to them. 
I watched people lying on the ground as they photographed the Puffins. The lying people and standing birds were eye-to-eye.     
I couldn't help but observe as I watched the few dozen people who were there, either lying on the ground or walking on the dirt path, within reach of the Puffins, that they certainly were smitten by them. 
All the people noticed, of course, the impressiveness of the place and the swarms of seabirds on the cliffs, in the air, and in the water. But it was that "chorus line" of sorts of continuous Puffins, one after the other, and so very close, that got the most attention from person after person. People certainly liked the "Sea Parrots", as Puffins are also called.

Looking at the seabirds on the cliffside.
1,650 feet above the ocean,
during our June 2012 tour in Iceland

Following here are some other birds with which we had notable experiences during our June 2012 Iceland Tour:

About half of the Great Skuas in the world breed in Iceland, with an estimated 5,000 pairs. Most nest on barren ground along the southeastern coast. 

One of the Great Skuas, that we saw in that region of Iceland, was very close to us in a pool alongside the road. Seemingly it was holding down some prey in the water. The big, dark bird with the splashing is what first caught our attention. After that went on for a while, however, the Skua lifted up into the sky but with nothing in its talons.

Late the previous evening, we had watched two dark-morph Parasitic Jaegers (or Arctic Skuas) methodically creating havoc among Arctic Terns, and some gulls and shorebirds (or waders), as they, the jaegers that is, continuously and quickly flew around above the other birds nesting on the grassy ground. But in the end, at least as long as we were there, those Parasitic Jaegers came up empty-taloned as well.
Nearby, another predator was in the air and then on the ground, a Short-eared Owl

Red-throated Loons (or Red-throated Divers) in their breeding plumage as they floated on a pool of still water, were, with whatever name, memorable. 
Actually, they were beautiful with their burgundy-red throats, light-gray heads, and the lines on the back of their necks. But when that species vocalized, it lacked the beauty of the sound of the Common Loon (or Great Northern Diver) that we also saw.

The Common Loon nests in Europe only in Iceland, and two other birds also have that same distinction, the attractive Barrow's Goldeneye, and the more than attractive Harlequin Duck. The colorful male Harlequin is downright gaudy. 
But the most fascinating aspect of the Harlequin Ducks that we watched was how they swan so well underwater in a very swift river. Both males and females did so together in pairs. But the female appeared to stay underwater longer in the fast current.

The Barrow's Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck were just two of the species of waterbirds that we saw in the area of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland. That lake is said to have the most nesting ducks of any lake in the world.
One of the most colorful of the waterbirds that we saw there was the Horned (or Slavonian) Grebe in its bright breeding attire. How many birds are there with bright yellow-orange head plumes?

Lacking much color were the Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls that we saw saw along the coast in northern Iceland. They were all-white, with one species, the Iceland, a smaller version of the other. 
The Glaucous Gull is quite common in that area. 
The Iceland Gull was not, as we were there in June. The Iceland Gull is more common in Iceland in the fall, winter, and spring. Actually, the Iceland Gull does not nest in Iceland. It does so further north, in Greenland. A few, mostly non-adults, linger in Iceland in the summer.

In the highlands of north-central Iceland, we enjoyed the Pink-footed Geese. Generally they were timid birds, keeping their distance, but we saw a nice number of them well. We saw flocks of Pink-footed Geese, and a few, at various places, with their young.

A book that I like is entitled "In Search of the Pink-Headed Duck", referring to a duck now thought to be extinct that was in India. In the book, the searchers found much, but not the non-existent duck. 
However, the Pink-footed Goose can be found, as we did find it, in the wild highlands, where no people live, in Iceland.
Also in that area, at some ponds, we found breeding-plumaged Purple Sandpiper, and also in their breeding attire, Long-tailed Ducks.
The Purple Sandpiper does not nest along the coast, and where and when the species does, it is the male that rears the young, with the same role also had by male Red-necked Phalaropes that were also with nesting territories in the same area where we found the Purple Sandpiper.  
Female Red-necked Phalaropes have more color and a bolder pattern in their breeding plumage than the males. 
The Long-tailed Duck has just been classified by Birdlife International as a "vulnerable species", as globally its population has been declining. That is unfortunate, as it is such a beautiful bird, both the male and the female, and both in and out of breeding plumage.

Another bird that is as "non-existent" now as the Pink-Headed Duck is the Great Auk. It did live, formerly, in Iceland, and in fact the last known Great Auks lived there. From the top of a cliff along the south coast of Iceland, we could see the offshore island where the last Great Auks died in 1844. Where we were on that cliff-top, there is now a large sculpture of the bird.

Returning to the Pink-footed Goose, and a positive thread: The total Pink-footed Goose population of Iceland and Greenland combined, in the autumn, has grown ten-fold during recent decades, from about 23,000 birds in 1952 to 230,000 birds in 1995. Most of those birds winter in Scotland and northern England. They depart from Iceland in October.

I've noted that during our June 2012 tour in Iceland that we saw the goslings of Pink-footed Geese and the ducklings of Common Eiders.
Among other birds that we saw as youngsters with adults were those of Greylag Geese, Eurasian Oystercatcher, White Wagtail, and Snow Bunting, in addition to cygnets with Whooper Swans.

In addition to the displaying of many Common Snipe, high in the sky, there were flight displays, again and again, both in the video and audio mode of European Golden Plover, Common Redshank, and Whimbrel.
Among passerine songsters during the tour, there were two Turdus thrushes, the Redwing and the Blackbird. 
The former is common throughout Iceland. The latter is a recent addition to the spring and summer Icelandic avifauna. It is localized.

Outside, one day, where we were having a lunch inside, there was, on the other side of the window, a nice grouping of Redpolls, also feeding on food provided for them.
The resident endemic subspecies of the Common Redpoll in Iceland is Acanthis flammea islandica, sometimes referred to as the "Icelandic Redpoll".  

Another day, after our dinner, in a field behind the restaurant, there were Ptarmigan. First, a male Rock Ptarmigan was nicely in clear view on a rock, posing in the light of the late-day sun. Then the female appeared, equally as nice to view in that late-day sunlight. Not far from the nest, she also posed for a while, before slipping back to it in the grass. What a great experience that was - seeing the Ptarmigans as we did, with both Snipe and Whimbrel displaying around us, by a high hillside next to a pristine seacoast in northern Iceland - after having yet another good, Icelandic meal.    

The Rock Ptarmigan in Iceland in the summer is an endemic subspecies, Lagopus mutus islandorum. In all, globally, there are 27 subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan, with most on islands or in other remote places.   

Yes, there were birds during our June 2012 Iceland Tour - many of them. But, as probably it has been conveyed here, there were not just birds. 
We also saw the cliffs, volcanoes, waterfalls, glacial lakes, icebergs from a calving glacier, hot springs, boiling mud pools, steam vents and other geological phenomena, and innumerable wildflowers.

In conclusion, some comments now about mammals we observed that included both Harbor and Grey Seals, Arctic Foxes, Reindeer, White-beaked Dolphins, Northern Minke Whales, and Blue Whales:  

We saw 3 Arctic Foxes. One was all-dark, the "Blue Fox", and two had white, or "off-white" tails. Later in the year, some Arctic Foxes in Iceland are all-white, as we've seen during our tours there in October.

We saw Reindeer, as we traveled, in 3 groups. The animal, with its scientific name Rangifer tarandus, is called Reindeer in Europe and the Caribou in North America.
It was first introduced into Iceland in 1771, with 13 individuals from northern Norway. There were no further introductions.
Numbers increased and peaked in the mid-19th Century. The population then declined rapidly, until less than 200 were left in 1940.
Now, only in eastern Iceland, numbers have increased again, and are stabilized at about 3,000.    

Off the north coast of Iceland, with a scenic backdrop of snow-topped mountains and coastline, we had the very good fortune of seeing two magnificent creatures, two Blue Whales. 
The Blue Whale is the largest of all living creatures on Earth. And it is the largest ever known to have existed. 
It can be with a length of 100 feet and the weight of up to 150 tons. We saw well portions of the bluish-gray backs of both animals, their fins, and the huge flukes of their tails before they dove. We were able to stay with them for 3 of their dives, each of which lasted about 10 minutes.
So big and so rare is the Blue Whale. It is estimated that only about 1,500 exist in the North Atlantic Ocean, with also about that same number in the North Pacific Ocean. The Antarctic population is said to be only about 6,000 individuals. 
The Blue Whale in the northern oceans is one of 3 subspecies, Balaenoptera musculus musculus. It is believed that the populations, or subspecies, in the Northern & Southern Hemispheres never meet.
We were so lucky that our path, as we did a counter-clockwise "circle tour" around Iceland, and the path of the Blue Whales did meet.

A Blue Whale photographed during the June 2012 FONT tour in Iceland.
1 of 2 Blue Whales that were seen. 

The Blue Whale is classified as a globally endangered species. Following the slaughter of 30,000 of them in the Antarctic season of 1930-31, the population never really recovered. But at least, now into the 21st Century, it is not extinct.
When the big Blue Whale was given its scientific name by Linnaeus in 1758, it sometimes is thought of as 18th Century humor, as the Latin "musculus" means "little mouse". But that word can also mean "muscle" and that would be appropriate for the largest animal the world has ever known, that constantly swims and dives deeply in the ocean.

Also during that same sea-trip off northern Iceland, we saw at least one Northern Minke Whale and a couple pods of White-beaked Dolphins, along with a Pomarine Jaeger (unusual for Iceland) and numerous Arctic Terns, Northern Fulmars, some Common Murres, and again Puffins, with many of them, in groups, sitting on the surface of the sea and then sometimes flying and more often diving.

Yes, we were fortunate to see the Blue Whales, but also fortunate to see and experience so much else during our June 2012 Iceland Tour, that was the 56th FONT tour in Europe and the 18th in Iceland.

A traditional Icelandic lunch 
in the northwestern fjords region 
during a FONT Iceland Tour 


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