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June 2006

"Iceland in June, with its Birds & so Much More"


Icelandic scenery during the FONT June 2006 Tour
(photo by Cheryl Pearce)



Photos of Icelandic Birds & Scenery from our June 2006 Iceland Tour

List of Birds during our Iceland Tour - June '06

Cumulative List of Birds during our Iceland Tours

Complete List of the Birds of Iceland   

Other Iceland Past Tour Highlights, before & after this tour  

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Iceland

The following account written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:

Our June 3-11, 2006 birding & nature tour in Iceland was our 13th tour in that country, and our 48th tour in Europe since 1990. During our June '06 Iceland Tour, there were both some wonderful birds and some wonderful experiences.

Iceland is a fascinating country. In relation to nature, its geology is particularly notable. Its scenery is especially superb. 
Even though the island country nearly touches the Arctic Circle, and even though it's called "Iceland", it's not as cold as other places with such a northerly latitude. The proximity of the Gulf Stream has an affect.      

But there is ice in Iceland. There are glaciers, including the largest in Europe. When we visited that glacier late one evening, during our June '06 tour, it was truly a magnificent sight, enhanced by a beautiful male Harlequin Duck swimming in the water close to us. Harbor Seals were lifting their heads above the water, peering at us, as we admired the panorama of frozen ice and evening sky. In that sky, numerous and noisy Arctic Terns flew about.    

When we visited that glacier a couple years ago, during a tour in late May, the ice was covered with many resting Black-legged Kittiwakes. During our recent '06 tour, in early June, there was not a single kittiwake at the glacier, but there were hundreds of Arctic Terns, either sitting on the ice or in flight above it. Looking at them one thinks about how they came such a long way to be there. Arctic Terns that breed in Iceland, when not there, travel many miles over the Atlantic Ocean, to off the southern tip of Africa, and even beyond, into the Indian Ocean to waters off western Australia, before retracing their journey back to Iceland. No other bird in the world travels that far. And as we watched and listened to them, just before midnight, when it was still quite light, one could also think of how no other bird in the world experiences so many hours of daylight.     

Iceland is place of both ice and fire. In addition to glaciers, there are geysers where hot water emits from the ground. The word "geyser" is Icelandic. 
And there are volcanoes throughout the island. During recent decades, there have been eruptions and fiery fissures. Less than 50 years ago, an eruption on the ocean floor off the southern coast of Iceland produced an island.

Mid-Atlantic Rift

It is only in Iceland that the Mid-Atlantic Rift is above the surface of the sea. Elsewhere it's on the ocean floor. In Iceland, one can walk across a short bridge over the rift between "continents". Most of the birds in Iceland are Eurasian. The 3 exceptions, that are American birds, are the Common Loon, Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica), and Harlequin Duck. These 3 species nest nowhere else in Europe.

As we were at the Mid-Atlantic Rift, there was the beautiful song of the wren, the "Icelandic Wren", an endemic subspecies of what's called the Winter Wren in North America. In Europe, it's simply called the Wren. It's the only one of the 74 species of wrens that ranges throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It's the only wren in Eurasia. It has 41 subspecies. Watching the one in Iceland, as it moved about on the rocks, we could see that it appeared slightly larger and longer-tailed than the Winter Wren of North America.              

Given the latitude of Iceland, it's rather surprising how many bird species have actually been recorded there. The list of species for the country, prior to our tour, was 354. Of these, 73 are regular breeders. We saw nearly all of them during our tour. Of those 73 regular breeders, 17 are resident. 9 are partially migrant. 21 are largely migrant. 26 of the regular breeders are totally migrant. Another 26 species of birds are irregular breeders in Iceland. 
9 species of birds occur in Iceland only during their migration. 10 other species occur in Iceland only in the winter. 2 species (both pelagic) are summer visitors, having bred in the Southern Hemisphere. 
35 species of birds on the Iceland List are vagrants that occur annually. And, lastly, there are 126 species on the list that have occurred in Iceland as what might be called irregular vagrants, either recorded once or just a few times. Vagrants in Iceland come from opposite directions, with some from Eurasia and others from the Americas.          

A complete list of 354 species of birds in Iceland is elsewhere in this website. There's a link to it above. In the list, the number of sightings (as of 2002) is given in parentheses. That number may not reflect every sighting, but it gives an interesting measure of how often the Icelandic vagrant birds occur.    
Actually now, that list of Icelandic birds contains one more species. The story follows: 

With such an extensive country-list, it would seem incredulous that we would add a species to it during our tour. But that we did. Just after leaving the small island of Flatey, in a large bay in northwestern Iceland, from the ferry, a Yellow-billed Loon was spotted on the water, at first very close to the boat. Seen well, the bird appeared large, as did its bill that was lightly-colored throughout, including the culmen and tip. Its head was also lightly-colored, more so than the head of the Common Loon in winter plumage. We did see a number of Common Loons, or Great Northern Divers, in a few plumages, during our tour. The White-billed Diver (as the Yellow-billed Loon is called in Europe) nests there only in the High Arctic region of far-northern Russia. West of Iceland (and west of Greenland), the species nests in North America, in the High Arctic of Canada and Alaska. In Europe, it has been found, away from its far-northern nesting area, off the Norwegian coast (mostly from late April into the first few days of June), and off Britain and Ireland (between October and mid June). Our sighting, off the western Icelandic coast, was on June 9, 2006.     

That little island known as Flatey, in the big bay filled with small islands known as Breidafjordur, in western Iceland, is quite a place. On the island, there are 4 or 5 year-round residents, 5 if the son of the elderly lady who operates the little post office is there (he was hurt in a boating accident and sometimes is away). We met that lady from the post office during a previous tour (her name is Leena), and this time (in June '06), we sat with her outside in her yard, having coffee and cake. We were serenaded at the time with the constant winnowing of diving Snipe in the air right above us (they may have been nesting in the tall grass just the other side of the wooden fence). Her common bird of the yard was the Snow Bunting. She feeds a flock of them, as she fed us (but I think bread, and not cake and coffee). One of our favorite experiences on the island, was, as we were waiting for the ferry to return, watching adult Snow Buntings, close to us, feeding their adolescent young. 

During our 3 to 4 hours on Flatey Island, there was always the sound of birds. There were, in addition to the song of Snow Buntings and the winnowing of Snipe, the continual calls of shorebirds such as Redshanks, Oystercatchers, and Golden and Ringed Plovers. But it was to see another shorebird that we primarily went to Flatey. That species was the Red Phalarope, which is a rare breeder in Iceland (with just a relatively few pairs). Throughout Iceland, we saw many Red-necked Phalaropes, in their breeding garb, either spinning around on small pools, or along coastlines. As we disembarked from the ferry onto Flatey, Red-necked Phalaropes, nearly close enough to touch, were by the pier. Our target, the Red Phalarope, we surmised would not be as easy. However, with a bit of luck, and being at the right place, we watched 3 bright brick-red females circling about in the water, near to where we assumed 3 duller males were sitting on the nests. We were told by the post office lady (and it was true) that those birds had just returned to the island. The Red Phalarope is the last of the birds to arrive in Iceland in the spring, having come from the ocean off the southern African coast.

A while back, the Red-necked Phalarope was called the Northern Phalarope. But that was a misnomer, as the Red Phalarope is a more-northerly breeder than the Red-necked. In most European bird guidebooks, the Red Phalarope is called the Grey Phalarope. In Iceland, however, it's called the Red Phalarope as that's its color there when it visits for a short while to nest before going back out to sea.       

So, like the Yellow-billed Loon, the Red Phalarope is a High Arctic breeder that we were fortunate to see (and on the same day). But, in the case of the phalarope, we saw it near a breeding site. It's a site, it might be mentioned, that's protected due to Eiders. There's a sign indicating in 4 languages that entry beyond it is strictly prohibited. You see, to the 4 people on Flatey Island, the down from the nests of Eiders is very important. When we sat on large rocks and observed the Red Phalaropes, we were before the sign, to our left. To our right, and not much more than an arms-length away, Black Guillemots stood tamely on a couple other rocks, neatly-dressed in their black-and-white breeding attire. And so it seemed quite appropriate that as they stood there, they were "well-behaved", generally still and quiet. 

Behind us, on top of a little knoll, there was a small church. We were generally "well-behaved" as we entered to take a look. The colorful murals inside were not of saints or deities, but instead of fisherman. Overhead, on the upper wall, puffins were depicted. On the ceiling, directly overhead, there was a large painting (nearly life-size) of a White-tailed Eagle.     

From the ferry from Flatey, after the unexpected loon, and during a ride when the Icelandic weather was the best it could possibly be, we enjoyed watching, from the boat, Shags and Cormorants, Fulmars, Arctic Terns, Common Murres (including the bridled form), and many Atlantic Puffins, either sitting on the water (usually prior to diving), or in the air with their short fluttery flight. 
However, as we returned to the dock that we had left earlier in the morning, we had not seen, as hoped, a White-tailed Eagle (other than the one painted on the ceiling of the church). 

So, after a fine seafood dinner, some rather spontaneous arrangements were made for another boat-trip into another part of the bay to see a White-tailed Eagle. And that we did, as we watched a frosty-colored adult circle in the sky around our boat 3 or 4 times, sometimes being pursued by a couple Ravens.            

The young captain of the boat, called in for our mission on short-notice, also enjoyed our successful endeavor. The eagle was at a place where the normally-scheduled boat-trips don't go. A pair along the normal route had apparently abandoned their nesting efforts due to previous bad weather.
The young captain, who grew up on one of the more-remote little islands, also enjoyed talking about other birds that we saw, such as cormorants and shags, and the fulmars, kittiwakes, terns, and puffins. He asked what we liked better to eat, cormorant or shag. (Our fine seafood dinner, about an hour earlier, we told him, was neither.) He told us that a bird not to be eaten was the Fulmar. He also said that if we ate the eggs of either Arctic Tern or Kittiwake, we'd prefer not to eat again the egg of a chicken.    

The White-tailed Eagle was not the only raptor we saw during our June '06 tour in Iceland. We saw Merlins and we were again, as we have been during our Iceland tours in the past, fortunate to watch Gyrfalcons. We saw 2 adults, a pale male and a slightly darker and larger female, on a cliff-ledge on the other side of a gorge with an invisible stream far below. We heard the calling of a young, "kerreh-kerreh-kerreh", elsewhere on a cliff, not visible from where we were. But as we stayed still and quiet, close to the ground in high tussock-grass, we certainly had a tremendous opportunity to observe Gyrfalcons at a place, remote and wild. When we were quiet, the only sounds were those of birds: in addition to the call of the Gyrfalcon, there were also those of the Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Greylag Geese, and the ever-present sound of the Snipe in the air.                 
But, more still than we were, and more quiet too, were 2 Pink-footed Geese crouched low to the ground, protecting their nest. They were so still. In our telescopes we could see that one blinked an eyelid, maybe. 

Raptors are not the birds in the Iceland spring and summer that most nesting geese and shorebirds need to be concerned most about. No, the most common predator in much of Iceland is the Parasitic Jaeger (or, as it's called in Europe, the Arctic Skua). The species occurs in Iceland in two color forms, both a light and a dark morph. Interestingly, in the Icelandic population, the all-dark form seems to be (at least where we were) about as common as the light morph. Many pairs that we saw were one of each. Not too far from the Gyrfalcon location, we watched a pair feed. One bird (the light one) went to the ground and got an egg (apparently of a Golden Plover). It flew to a nearby spot where it was joined by the other jaeger (the dark one). They shared the egg. From our vantage point, we could see that the egg was not hard boiled!         

But the Parasitic Jaeger, however, is not the top avian predator in Iceland in the spring and summer. The Great Skua may well have that distinction. That powerful species is not everywhere in Iceland, but in the southeastern part of the island it is particularly common. During our evening drive mentioned earlier to a glacier, we went along one stretch of highway with a fantastic number of Great Skuas by the road. In less than a half-hour, we passed by over a hundred Great Skuas! And that was without a concerted effort to count more. There are more breeding pairs of Great Skuas in Iceland than anywhere else. (Other islands on which they nest include: the Faroes, the Orkneys, and the Shetlands.) It's said that there are 6,000 breeding pairs of Great Skuas in Iceland. The species is among the earliest to arrive in the spring. They're at their nest sites in late March, having spent their non-breeding months at sea.
There's something that can be said about Great Skuas near the road we took to and from the glacier. It's this: While many birds, in open vast areas, fly away when approached by a person (even if only a short distance), skuas, however, from various spots in such an area, fly TOWARD a person who ventures out from a vehicle! It's said that they're even aggressive toward Icelandic Sheep that happen to wander into an open area where they nest on the ground.    

Atlantic Puffins

Another species with more breeding pairs in Iceland than anywhere is the Atlantic Puffin. During our Jun '06 tour, in southern Iceland, one morning, as we walked along a trail by grassy ledges at the top of an ocean-side cliff, we enjoyed our looks, eye-to-eye as it were, with Atlantic Puffins outside their burrows. As our tour continued, we saw many Puffins in a number of settings: sometimes on cliffs, sometimes not, but always on, or by, the water. There are many Puffins in Iceland to see, with as many as 3 million pairs in the breeding season.

Another seabird that we saw in large numbers during its breeding season in Iceland was the Northern Fulmar. They nest on cliffs, where we often saw swarms of them flying about. Estimates are now that there are more than 2 million breeding pairs of fulmars in Iceland.

About 20 species of waterfowl nest in Iceland, among them the Whooper Swan (that we saw with cygnets), a few species of geese (that we saw with goslings), and an assortment of ducks (that we saw with ducklings). Particularly enjoyable among the ducks were, of course, the Harlequins, the Long-tailed Ducks, and the Common Eiders. The Common Eider is the most common of the ducks in Iceland, with a population greater than that of all of the other duck species combined. 
When we visited ponds in southern Iceland at the beginning of our tour, we saw ducks, yes. But when we returned to those ponds about a week later, near the end of the tour, we found that there had been, when we were gone, a population explosion. Those ponds were then like nurseries with parent ducks (mostly Eiders and Mallards) and parent geese (Greylag) with strings of offspring.              

Those numerous waterfowl babies were not the only very young birds we saw during our tour. We also saw baby shorebirds, and among them we particularly liked the little Oystercatchers.

As we were birding along a remote and picturesque stretch of the northern Icelandic coast, we found, among the Common Eiders, Eurasian Oystercatchers and other birds of the coastline, one of our best sightings of the tour. What a treat it was! There it was, in full breeding plumage, a male King Eider on a stony beach with Common Eiders
There is, maybe, no drake waterfowl in the world that's as striking to see, in full breeding plumage, as the King Eider. Oh yes, male Mandarins and male Wood Ducks come to mind as exquisite and beautiful, and the male Harlequin Ducks (that we certainly enjoyed in Iceland in June '06) are definitely colorful. And yes, the other eider species are not bad either, but to see a drake King Eider in its full breeding attire, as we did in such a scenic setting on a clear day, is, simply put, superb. It doesn't get much better.
To begin with, there's the "shark-fins" on the bird's dark back. They're unique. You might take a look at that feature of the breeding male in a good field guide. And there's the blue, and green, and orange, and red on the gaudy head.
Also, regarding the King Eider that we found along that Icelandic north coast, it was unexpected. Even though King Eiders can be found in Iceland, they are, like the Red Phalarope and Yellow-billed Loon, breeders in the High Arctic, that is north of Iceland. There's a population that breeds in Greenland. Most of those found in Iceland are from Greenland. Otherwise in Europe, the King Eider breeds only in far-northern Russia. In far-northern Norway, it occurs in the winter.

King Eiders can be found in Iceland throughout the year, but they are mostly found there in the late winter. Female King Eiders, it's said in the books, rarely occur in Iceland in the late spring and summer. So imagine our surprise when we realized that our spectacular male King Eider, along the northern Iceland coast on June 8, 2006, was with a female King Eider! Yes, there were 2 King Eiders that appeared to be a pair. Again, according to the books, King Eiders have not been known to breed in Iceland. It's too bad that we just couldn't go back sometime later to that spot to see if there were little King Eiderettes.                                            
There have been cases where male King Eiders have bred in Iceland with female Common Eiders, producing hybrids. In fact, it's said that such hybrids can annually be found in Iceland.
We were so pleased to find as we did, along that north Iceland coast, true male and female King Eiders.

A little while later, along that same dirt road by the north Iceland coast, there was another notable duck, a vagrant from North America. A male Green-winged Teal, Anas carolinensis, was by itself on a pond, with the sun shining on its features.

Yet another vagrant waterfowl in Iceland was seen later during the tour, a drake Garganey. And the last bird added to our trip-list was another vagrant waterbird in Iceland, the Common (or Eurasian) Coot.   

Prior to our June '06 tour, the best vagrant found during FONT tours in Iceland was a Great Crested Grebe, in May 2003, in a bay along the north Iceland coast. According to Icelandic bird data on the internet, there have been only 6 records for that Eurasian species in Iceland (We do not know if the bird we saw was included in those 6.)         
As good (as far north) as that sighting was, I was a bit surprised when I later read that a Great Crested Grebe was recorded even further north yet, in western Greenland, back in the summer of 1857, in the notes of the explorer Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock. Admiral McClintock, a competent naturalist, was, during that voyage, on his way from England to northern Canada, in an effort to ascertain the facts regarding the ill-fated expedition of the earlier explorer, Sir John Franklin, after whom the Franklin's Gull was named.       

Regarding gulls, again during our recent June '06 Iceland tour, and again along the northern coast of Iceland, one morning in a small fishing town, we tallied 8 species of them: Black-headed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed, Common, Glaucous, and Black-legged Kittiwake, in addition to the Iceland Gull. There were a few Iceland Gulls on the shoreline with Glaucous Gulls, providing a nice comparison.
Seeing the Iceland Gull in Iceland is easy during our tours there in October. Numbers come south at the end of the summer from Greenland where they breed. Iceland Gulls don't nest in Iceland. 
During the late spring and summer, only a few Iceland Gulls can be found, locally, along the north coast. 
The Iceland Gull of Greenland & Iceland is not the same population as the Iceland Gull found in North America. It is Larus (glaucoides) glaucoides, whereas the American bird (that breeds in northern Canada) is Larus (glaucoides) kumlieni, and thus is called, by some, the Kumlien's Gull.       

From the internet we learned of some other gulls in Iceland when we were there, that we were unable to see: Sabine's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, and a Laughing Gull. The Icelandic birders were most excited regarding the Laughing Gull (with only 9 previous records for the country). It's quite something, really, that such a bird from eastern North America would end up in Iceland. It's 3,882 kilometers from Boston to Iceland, and Laughing Gulls are really not abundant as far north as Boston.

There's much more I continue to say about birds in Iceland, but it's time now to finish writing this report. 
There were other birds, that have not been mentioned, that were good to see during our June 2006 tour in Iceland, including:
- the (Rock) Ptarmigan - we had a number of good looks, but our first had the most red on its head.
- the Horned Grebe (or Slavonian Grebe as its called in Europe) in its wonderfully colorful breeding plumage
- the pairs of Red-throated Loons (or Red-throated Divers), in their nice breeding plumage, as they sat still on the also still water of glacial pools
- and the flocks of shorebirds including brilliant Black-tailed Godwits (an endemic breeding subspecies in Iceland), Purple Sandpipers in their breeding plumage (an endemic resident subspecies in Iceland), and those other shorebirds that would continue further north to breed in the High Arctic, notably Red Knots, and also Sanderlings and (Ruddy) Turnstones.

And looking back to our first day of the tour, we stood on shore at the end of a cape, by where a large bay and the ocean meet. We were not far really from the offshore island where the last Great Auk died over 150 years ago. 
We were looking out at birds, so many birds. It was apparent that there were large schools of fish under the surface of the water attracting large, actively feeding, flocks of birds above them. Many Gannets were diving. There were also many Gulls. Numerous Arctic Terns were noisily flying and feeding. Parasitic Jaegers were harassing the Terns. Manx Shearwaters were flying about. And there was a continual procession of alcids flying by: in addition to Puffins, there were Razorbills, and both species of Murres (known as Guillemots in Europe). The Common Murres (or Guillemots) flew by in strings of birds, one group after another, seemingly without end.
With the birds and the fish, beneath the surface of the water and breaking the surface, there were Minke Whales (at least 2), feeding as well.

Iceland doesn't have many species of land mammals, but we were fortunate one evening to have a look at a dark (nearly black) Arctic Fox as it ran across the road in front of us. Then it stopped to look at us, as we looked at it.
We also saw a number of Harbor Seals, particularly along the north coast. Sometimes they were in water feeding on fish attracting groups of birds, and sometimes the seals were simply basking on the rocky shoreline in the sun.

Something that Iceland doesn't have much of are butterflies. We only saw one. (There are 82 species of Lepidoptera species in Iceland, mostly moths.)

But there are some wonderful wildflowers in Iceland in the late spring and summer. Among species seen during our June '06 tour were:
Nootka Lupin, Lupinus nootkatensis
Wild Pansy,
Viola tricolor
Common Butterwort,
Pinguicula vulgaris
Wood Crane's-bill,
Geranium sylvaticum 
Sea Pea,
Lathyrus japonicus maritimus
Hairy Stonecrop,
Sedum villosum
Moss Campion,
Silene acaulis
Sea Campion,
Silene uniflora
Armeria maritima
Lady Smock,
Cardamine nymanii
Sea Mayweed,
Matricaria maritima
Alpine Mouse-ear,
Cerastium alpinum
Alpine Bistort,
Bistorta vivipara
Wild Angelica,
Angelica sylvestris
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Caltha palustris
Alpine Cinquefoil,
Potentilla crantzii
Potentilla anserina
Rhodiola rosea
A more-complete list of wildflowers and some other plants in Iceland will soon be elsewhere in this website. 

The birds voted by the participants, following the tour, as the "Top Birds" were:  

 1  -   Gyrfalcon
 2  -  White-tailed Eagle
 3  -  King Eider
 4  -  Atlantic Puffin
 5  -  Red Phalarope
 6  -  Great Skua
 7  -  Rock Ptarmigan
 8  -  Iceland Gull  
 9  -  Black Guillemot  
10 -  Snow Bunting
11 -  Garganey
12 -  Harlequin Duck
13 -  Northern Gannet
14 -  Pink-footed Goose
15 -  Black-tailed Godwit

Yes, we liked Iceland - again!

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