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September/October 2008

"3 Gyrfalcons, an all-white fox, avian vagrants, 
and dancing lights in the night-time sky" 

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)


Birds during previous FONT Iceland Tours
(with photos)

Complete Iceland Bird-List
(over 350 species, including vagrants from mainland Europe, Asia, & North America)

Birds during previous FONT tours in Europe (with photos)

An Iceland Photo Gallery   

Other Iceland Past Tour Highlights, before & after this tour

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Iceland


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

is a beautiful place. There's no putting it any other way. 

Oh, a day there with bad weather, especially in the late fall or winter, could possibly be dreary and dark. But, if a day, just about anywhere in Iceland, is clear, the scenery is, for lack of a better word, SPECTACULAR. In fact, it is, actually, with mountains, cliffs, seacoast, waterfalls, and glaciers, just about beyond words.

During our week-long, 15th tour in Iceland,
September 28 to October 6, 2008, the weather was, overall, good.

But during one afternoon and evening, the remnants of what had been, to the south, a tropical storm and a hurricane, passed through. (That storm had actually entered the northern US state of Maine as hurricane - a rare occurrence.) In Iceland, there was, that day, some strong wind, and, as darkness fell, a light snowfall. We were in northern Iceland at the time. The next morning, as we were in the area of the large lake known as
Myvatn, there was another aspect added to our composite of 15 Iceland tours. The countryside was, for the first time during one of our October tours, WHITE with that first snowfall of the season. It was snow, the locals told us, that was about a month early. But on that crisp, clear day, in that beautiful area, we reveled in where we were - Iceland!

That morning, by the shore of the lake, a Gyrfalcon flew quickly by us, in the pursuit of a Raven, as we drove along the empty road. 
So, of course, we stopped. And, then that magnificent bird came back and circled around our vehicle!
We were thrilled. We had just seen a wild, adult Gyrfalcon in Iceland, without either looking for one or going to a particular place. 
We've seen Gyrfalcons during our Iceland tours in the past, but often (although not always)  they've been at places where we expected that "target bird" to be.
So, happy as we already were, we continued along that lakeside road. And then, moments later, outside the window of our vehicle, I heard a Gyrfalcon's call. Looking left, we saw it - in flight, chasing another bird - another Gyrfalcon! For a few wonderful moments, we saw the two magnificent, large falcons flying about in the sky - the chaser, calling as it went, and the other Gyrfalcon being chased. Those wonderful moments made it a wonderful morning, long to be remembered. 

A couple days later, with a clear blue sky above us, and with snow still on the ground, yet another Gyrfalcon was seen. 
Late in the afternoon, as we traveled along a road by a very picturesque stretch of the north coast, a Raven was noticed as it was perched on the ledge of a cliff. To the left of it, there was another bird on another cliff-top ledge - but, no, it was not another Raven. Rather, it was our third adult Gyrfalcon of the tour! As it was rather close, we saw it quite well, before it quickly flew away.
And so, during our Sep/Oct '08 Iceland tour, we saw the most adult Gyrfalcons seen during any of our tours. 
We have seen three (or more) Gyrfalcons previously - during a May/Jun tour: adult male & female, with a chick (or two) on a nest.

Our Sep/Oct '08 Iceland tour was also distinctive in that during it we saw 3 species of falcons. That's hard to do, as two such species regularly occur in Iceland. 
But, early in the tour, as we were traveling along a road by the south coast, we saw a Common (or Eurasian) Kestrel. That species is a rarity in Iceland. First, we saw it on a fence post close to the road. Then, the bird, a female, flew toward us and continued in flight above a field on the opposite side of the road. We watched it fly for a while, as it pursued a Raven.
That Kestrel was just one of the avian vagrants that we saw in Iceland in Sep/Oct '08. There will be more about others later in this narrative.

The third species of falcon of our tour was the other that occurs regularly in Iceland - the Merlin. We saw at least one (usually in flight, but sometimes perched) every day, except one, during the tour.

You may have noticed that Ravens have been mentioned as being near two of the Gyrfalcons and the Kestrel just noted. When something "good" was found, Ravens seemed to be "there".

That happened, also, when we had certainly what was one of the best sightings of the tour. We were traveling in the morning, along the road, noted a moment ago, by the picturesque north coast (where later in the day we saw our third Gyrfalcon). An all-white animal, with a bounce to its fast walk, was seen to the left of the road ahead of us. A couple Ravens dove at it from above. The animal was an Arctic Fox, one of the very few species of land animals that occur in Iceland. (Others, such as the Reindeer that we saw, were introduced.) 
We drove further, until the fox was just outside the window of our vehicle, only a few feet away. What a beautiful creature, that all-white Arctic Fox was to see - as we looked at it, looking back at us! All of its fur was white. Only its nose and the tips of its ears were black.    

In Iceland, there are two distinct color forms of the Arctic Fox
The "blue" variety, which comprises about two-thirds of the population, is a chocolate-brown in the summer, and a lighter shade of brown, tinged with a blue sheen, in the winter. 
The "white" variety is a spectacular pure white color in the winter, molting to a gray upper coat and light-gray to white underside in the summer.    
It was, as noted, the "white" variety that we saw so nicely. And already, in October, it was in its winter attire.
The foxes of the two varieties in Iceland interbreed freely, but their offspring are either "blue" or "white" - there is no intermediate.
Also interesting about the Arctic Fox is its adaptation to the cold, in order to survive the far-northern winter. 
The Arctic Fox is smaller than the widespread Red Fox of the temperate zones. The winter coat of the Arctic Fox is very thick, with plenty of underfur, in comparison to its more lightweight summer coat. The broad paws of the Arctic Fox have long fur on the bottom for protection from the cold. In all, the adaptation is so good that it enables the Arctic Fox not only to survive, but even not to shiver until it's been at minus 70 degrees Centigrade for an hour!

Another spectacular white animal of the Arctic was seen in Iceland, along the picturesque north coast, earlier during the year in 2008. 
Actually, there were two Polar Bears, both appearing there in the month of June, the first on June 3, and another on June 16. Over the years, there have been such occurrences in Iceland, of these animals coming on floating ice from the north, but not many. 

In October 2008, during our Iceland tour, we spent the night in the small fishing town closest to the first '08 Polar Bear appearance. We stayed, there, in the oldest hotel in Iceland. During the 1800s, the wood for that structure came by ship from Norway. 
Later, the next day, just a short distance south of the
Arctic Circle, we looked across a fjord to where the second known Polar Bear in '08 had appeared in Iceland. 

We were on our way to an isolated, remote homestead along that north coast, where, from what we had learned on the internet, a Scarlet Rosefinch, from Siberia, appeared a couple days earlier in a very small fenced-in garden by the sea, with cabbage and a few bushes. 
That bird was no longer there when we were. But it was interesting to meet, at the door of the house, the young man and his son younger yet. Behind him, I could see the computer that had been used to put out the word into cyberspace of that little bird from came to Iceland from Asia.
Again, as I noted a bit ago, there will be more, later in this narrative about avian vagrants in Iceland.

The previous night, in the small fishing town and outside the front of the old hotel, just mentioned, there was, for me, an interesting occurrence. 
I had just gone out the front door and down the steps to the parking lot, to look up above in the sky at the dancing
Northern Lights, or "Aurora Borealis". 
I also saw, at that time, a small bird fly past above me, by a spotlight shining from the corner of the old wooden hotel. The bird was about the size of a sparrow. Of course, there are no sparrows, normally, in that part of the world. 
And while maybe a Snow Bunting, or even a Lapland Longspur, could be, earlier that day, and the next day, no such birds were seen by us anywhere in that area. 
Nor were there, in that area, any Redpolls. We saw many in other parts of Iceland, but not in that region.
Small birds that are vagrants in Iceland in the fall, such as the Scarlet Rosefinch at about that time in the little garden along the nearby coast, travel in the darkness of night. 
I could wonder what that little bird was, flying by at night in the light that shone from the historic hotel, beneath the green lights, high in the sky, of the
Aurora Borealis. The identity of that little wanderer would never be known.

Another wanderer that also appeared along that picturesque northern Icelandic coast earlier in 2008 was a bull Walrus that came ashore on August 7. Such an occurrence was not unprecedented in Iceland, but it is rare. 

During our time, in Sep/Oct '08, along the north coast of Iceland, we saw no Walrus, as we saw no Polar Bears, but we did enjoy seeing the large Gray Seals that were either basking along the rocky shore, or floating on the water like huge cucumbers, with their heads elevated at one end, and their flippers elevated at the other.
Earlier, during our tour, we had seen Harbor Seals, with their heads poking out of the still water of a large pool in front of Europe's largest glacier.  

The long, northern Icelandic coast, to which I've been referring, is rather like the coast of the Maine in the US, in that if it were to be stretched into a straight line, it would be VERY LONG. I couldn't help but think how much territory there was for vagrants such as Polar Bears, Walruses, and Scarlet Rosefinches to appear - and especially to be at places where no human being would be present to see them.

What was present along that northern Icelandic coastline, and certainly more so than expected, were large pieces of driftwood - as big as large tree trunks in forest that does not occur anywhere in Iceland. 
The wood for the old Icelandic hotel, as already noted, was brought by ship from Norway years ago. But the driftwood, as large as tree-trunks, came on its own - possibly, also, from Norway (although, from where we were, looking out to sea from shore, we were looking toward Greenland - where also there are no large trees).
Such as it is, and was for us, along that, once again, picturesque north coast of Iceland. 

Early in this narrative, it was noted that a day with bad weather in Iceland during the late-fall or winter could be "dreary and dark". None of our days, during the
Sep/Oct '08 FONT Tour, were that way. 

Actually, during late September and October, the days in Iceland are with just under 12 hours of daylight, from just after 7am to about 7pm. At that time of year, soon after the equinox, it's about midway between the long days of the Icelandic summer and the short ones of their winter. 

Also, during October, over the years that we've done tours in Iceland, we've found that clear nights, about 3 hours after sunset, to be particularly good for fine displays of the
Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. 
During our Fall 2008 tour, during a couple nights, we enjoyed such displays that were especially good. One of those nights, we were at a hotel very much out in the countryside, with no city lights near us at all, and with fine visibility in all directions. After a marvelous sunset, the planets and stars got increasingly bright. And then, later that night, at that hotel, even from the windows of our warm rooms, with the lights turned off, we saw very well a sky that was filled with the dancing displays of the bright green aurora. Toward the horizon around us, there were gentle slopes, covered with snow, that added to the beauty of the night with the aurora.     

In addition to the beautiful, and even spectacular, Icelandic scenery that's been referred to, and other aspects of our
Sep/Oct '08 Tour noted thus far, there's yet another feature of a nature & birding tour in Iceland in the fall, that's most significant. Put simply, the country is INTERESTING.
Of course, the various geological features are - including the fields of lava, volcanic cones, geysers, and the Mid-Atlantic Rift
In narratives of our previous Iceland tours, that rift has always been mentioned - and that's because it's always of interest. 
In Iceland, the crack (widening, they say, at about an inch a year), with "America" to the west and "Eurasia" to the east, is "on land". Elsewhere, throughout the Northern & Southern Hemispheres it is on the ocean floor.   

And, for birding,
late September and early October in Iceland is extremely INTERESTING. 
That's because so many species of birds can possibly be seen.
You may have noticed the link above to the "Complete Iceland Bird-List, of over 350 species". 
In that list, about 70 species are regular, and mostly common, breeders in the summer. 
Another dozen or so birds are migrants that are more or less regular. 
Another 30 species or so, occur, in most cases, annually, but uncommonly. 
And then there are about 275 bird species that have been found in Iceland, over the years, as vagrants. These come from not only the European mainland, but also from as far east as Siberia, and from the opposite direction, from further south, in North America - and, yes, even from the south in the fall.

The months of September and October are particularly good for such vagrants. And, with the network of bird reports that's on the internet in Iceland, visiting birders (such as us), can readily be aware of what's been sighted - where & when. This element of "expecting the unexpected" adds to the excitement of our fall Iceland tours (as if more excitement really needs to be added!).

During the days of our
Fall 2008 Iceland Tour, and just previously, these avian vagrants were noted in Iceland:
From North America: Canada Goose, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, White-rumped Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull, Red-eyed Vireo, Buff-bellied (or American) Pipits.     
From Europe and/or Asia: Red-necked Grebe, Little Egret, Rough-legged Buzzard, Curlew Sandpiper, Blackcap, Eurasian Reed Warbler, Wood Warbler, Barred Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (a first for Iceland), Common Chiffchaff, Citrine Wagtail, Common Rosefinch, Lapland Longspurs (could be from Canada, but maybe Lapland Longspurs from Lapland)     
And from "wherever": a Cattle Egret and an Osprey.    

Of course, we didn't see all of these, but we did see some.  

During our first day in Iceland, at the tip of a peninsula, where a number of birds can funnel through, we observed the two Buff-bellied (or American) Pipits, that had been there for a couple days, walking about on the ground near our feet.
Another facet of that story is that there was also a birder about there, who looked somewhat familiar to us. Speaking with him, we learned he lived in Norway - and was returning to his home country, by way of Iceland, having flown, as we just had, on Icelandair from North America. 
He had just been, for a week, at an American birding hot-spot, where we also were, prior to Iceland - Cape May, New Jersey. It was there where we had seen him, at the Cape May hawk-watch platform - and that's why he looked familiar!

But about those two Buff-bellied (or American) Pipits: they had come to that spot in Iceland from North America on their own, even without Icelandair (the only airline that flies from North America to Iceland).
Those pipits were said to represent the 16th record for that species in Iceland. Just a couple years ago, it was said that there were only 6 records. 
Probably, the actual number of American Pipits has not increased to such a degree. Rather, the species could have been overlooked, with now, more people aware of how to do the ID. After all, who would have looked so closely at two such similar pipits, the other being the Meadow Pipit, the most common passerine in Iceland. Meadow Pipits generally leave Iceland in September.

In addition to the American Pipits, other species we saw during the tour, unusual for Iceland, included: American Black Duck and American Wigeon. The American Wigeon, by the way, was bird number 101 in the FONT cumulative list for Iceland.   

During the fourth day of our tour, when still in the southeastern part of the island, (and prior to the snow), we enjoyed one of our best lunches of local Icelandic specialties in a little restaurant in a small, remote fishing town along the coast. The lady there enthusiastically told us of a bird sanctuary on the edge of town by the bay. So, after our lunch, we visited the nice place. The next day, on the computer, we learned that on the day before our visit to that sanctuary, a Little Egret had been spotted there. As nice as the place was, it would have been nicer had we been there one day earlier and seen yet another Icelandic rarity.

Also in southeastern Iceland, we learned, when we were in the area, that a Cattle Egret had been found. It was the 3rd record for that species for Iceland. We looked, as we passed by fields, with mostly Icelandic Sheep and Icelandic Horses, but we didn't see the wayward, or lost, egret
That bird, we understood, was not far from the large expanse of snow covering the large glacier in that part of Iceland. As far I know, that's about as far north as a Cattle Egret has ever been found.
As we traveled along, scanning the fields for the bird, I remembered reading that the southernmost record of a Cattle Egret in the world was on the Antarctic Peninsula (also near snow, I presume) at 65 degrees south.

Where we were in Iceland was at about 66 degrees north. The
Arctic Circle is just a portion of 1 degree beyond that latitude. 
When we were in northern Iceland, a few times we crossed the 66-degree line. Two of our lunches were at places north of 66 degrees. We never slept north of that line, but we did stay at hotels just a very few miles south of it. 
Also, along the northern Icelandic coast, we traveled along a road, at the north end of a peninsula, as close as any road goes toward the
Arctic Circle
To get to the invisible circle itself, we would have had to go only a few miles further out to sea. The birds that we saw, there, closest to the
Arctic Circle were Ravens, and both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls.
As for these Iceland Gulls in Iceland, they actually had come from further north. In the summer, they breed in Greenland. They don't nest in Iceland, only coming there in the fall, to stay until spring.    

With reference as there's been here to the
Arctic Circle and snow, one might think of Iceland as being very cold. Actually, during our tour, it wasn't.
Remember, too, that in addition to Iceland being close to the
Arctic Circle, it's also relatively close, on its south side, to something else - the Gulf Stream, which warms up western and northern Europe.   

At the end of our tour, we all wrote on pieces of paper some of the highlights of what we had seen in Iceland. 
Even if there had been no birds that were vagrants or rare in Iceland, there still would have been many highlights, as there are so many notable facets of the nature, and particularly the bird-life in Iceland, with the backdrop of the spectacular scenery and the interesting natural features that have already been noted.

Included in everyone's lists of highlights were the already-mentioned all-white Arctic Fox, the 3 Gyrfalcons, and the brilliant Northern Lights.

Also noted were the following:

There were flocks of Barnacle Geese, having come from Greenland, before continuing to the British Isles. Those flocks were in southeastern Iceland, where not many other birds are found, in a vast area of fluvio-glacial outwash plains. 
In that area, at another time of the year, there is the world's largest breeding population of Great Skuas, and they too, pretty much have that stony region to themselves. 
The strikingly beautiful Barnacle Goose that we saw in Iceland in September were often along picturesque glacial streams.
That was in contrast with the many flocks of Greylag Geese that we saw, as they often were on cultivated fields.
The one sizable flock we saw of Pink-footed Geese was interesting. It was, in a tight group, first in flight and then resting on the water out toward the center of the large
Lake Myvatn.

Also in that part of Iceland, near
Lake Myvatn, we enjoyed seeing large groups of Barrow's Goldeneyes, both males and females, on a rushing river, riding the rapids.
A few female Harlequin Ducks were also there, but not many. Nearly all of the Harlequins that frequent that stretch of fast water in the summer, had left for the seacoast.
That is where we saw tight flocks of them, usually in segregated groups of males and females. In the sunlight, such a group of colorful males was a superb sight.

A flock of male Harlequin Ducks

We seemed always to be seeing Ravens. Mention has been made of them being present by a Fox, a Gryfalcon, and a Kestrel, and as close as we got to the Arctic Circle
But even with their own kind, Ravens were good to see. They were often in pairs, and when they were acrobatically flying together in the sky, yes, they were a great sight.       

It took us a while to see Ptarmigan. But, on our last day, in the morning, they were there! - on a dirt front, in front of us, only a few feet away - and just standing there. They were turning white, and I guess had we'd had been able to watch them for a longer time, we would have seen them do so, a bit more, from brown to white!

Also that morning, in a grove of conifers, we walked about in a " fantasy-forest" of sorts that was loaded with birds - mostly Redwings and Redpolls, but also with some yellowish Eurasian Siskins, a Goldcrest or two, and a wonderful flock of over 20 Red Crossbills
The tops of the spruce trees in that forest were filled with cones, and it was great to watch, in particular, the crossbills feasting on them. Both male and female adult, as well as immature, crossbills were nicely seen.

A note that should be made is that during recent years a sizable number of trees have been planted in Iceland. New forests have sprung up throughout the country. The forest where we observed so well the crossbills with the cones was a bit more established. During early FONT tours in Iceland, in the 1990s, it was one of the few forests we encountered.
With the increase in coniferous forests in Iceland, the face of Icelandic landbirding is changing, with a corresponding increase in birds such as Goldcrests, Siskins, and Crossbills.
Not long ago, Goldcrests and Siskins were not known to breed in Iceland. 
The Red Crossbill is known to have bred in Iceland only once - oddly during the dark, wintry month of DECEMBER, in 1994.

Earlier during our
Sep/Oct '08 Tour, we visited the old cemetery in the only large city in Iceland, Reykjavik. It's another place that's been filled with trees for years, and those trees, when we were there, were filled with food for birds, both cones and red berries. And so it was that the spot was filled with birds - many Redwings and Redpolls, and also some Siskins.         
The Redwing is, of course, a thrush, in the same genus as the American Robin. We saw another Turdus thrush in the trees and bushes in the cemetery - the Common Blackbird, a bird that's common in mainland Europe, but not so in Iceland. It was first found to nest in
Reykjavik in 1969, and has done so regularly (but only in small numbers) since 1991. 

At one place in particular when we were in northern Iceland, during the morning after the first snowfall, we came across a grove of trees in which there were hundreds, probably more than a thousand, Redwings. They were feeding, furiously, on thousands of red berries. It's said that "if you find the restaurant, you find the birds". 
Those Redwings, gathered in a large group, were fueling up before the migration to their wintering grounds in England and elsewhere in western Europe.  

A Redwing

A bird, never in a flock, that we saw a few times during the tour was the Common Snipe, either springing up rapidly from the ground, or flying by us quickly. 
As the Arctic Fox, that we saw, bounced along under pestering Ravens, it flushed a Snipe into the air.

Already mentioned among unusual birds for Iceland that we saw, have been: the American Pipit, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Common Kestrel, Common Blackbird, Goldcrest, Eurasian Siskin, and Red Crossbill
In all, because of birds such as these, 65 species of birds were tallied during our
Sep/Oct 2008 Tour. That's the most bird species we've seen during any FONT Iceland tour in the fall.

Additionally, in that total, were 3 Grey Herons that we saw at a days-end along a stream. That species flies to Iceland at summers-end from Norway.

Also we saw, for the first time during any one FONT Iceland Tour, two species of Godwits, both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed. The first of these species breeds in Iceland. It's an endemic subspecies, notable due to its richer coloration. Most leave Iceland by September. The second of these species, the Bar-tailed Godwit, arrives in Iceland in September, from where it breeds, in Norway.

The attractive little town, in the
southeast Iceland, where we saw the mixed flock of about a half-dozen godwits, is located on a spit of land along the coast. 
Not only is the town attractive, its environs are as well, with, on clear days, as they were for us, a wonderful panoramas was visible of mountains and glaciers in the distance, above the blue water of a big bay.    
That town is a good place, from what we've read, for avian vagrants to arrive in Iceland, having come in from over the ocean, even into the smallest of groves of trees and bushes.

In addition to seeing the godwits there, we had another noteworthy experience in that town. 
From the window of a restaurant (yes, another place where we had lunch!), we saw on the lawn outside, a boldly-patterned bird - a single Eurasian Oystercatcher. It was eating (also, as we were), but a very different meal - one worm after another. One could have more aptly have called it a "Eurasian Worm-catcher".

Later, near the tour's end, we were to see hundreds of Oystercatchers, more appropriately, along the rocky coastline of a fjord, where there were also Purple Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and some European Golden Plovers.

The Golden Plover we had seen, in flocks, throughout the tour, and throughout Iceland, in the north and the south, and in the east and west of the country.
Did I mention that, during the tour, we traveled just about the entire "Ring Road", doing a loop, counter-clockwise, around the island?

As we were on that road, in the central highlands, we were treated to a couple large flocks of Snow Buntings.
In the southeast, we saw thousands of Northern Fulmars, either sitting on or flying about cliff-faces, and often in flight by waterfalls.
In the southwest, we liked seeing big rafts of Common Eiders, including in them numbers of adult males in full breeding plumage. 
The Common Eider is the largest duck in Iceland, and it is also the most common of the many ducks in Iceland.
In southern Iceland, we stopped at a seaside cliff where in the summer, there are many Atlantic Puffins. During that season,  like the eider and fulmar, the puffin is among the most common of all Icelandic birds.
But, it is not common there after the breeding season. Most go out to sea. 
From that cliff, in late September, however, we were fortunate to see a few lingering puffins in a couple flocks, bobbing about, along with ducks, in the waves. 
After their breeding season, we could see that the puffins' notable beaks are not as large, nor as red, as they would be in the summer. 

And so, much of what we saw, as we circled Iceland in
Sep/Oct '08, was great to see.
But, maybe most memorable, was what we saw in southeast Iceland, at a cove along the coast, where, during one sunny morning, at least a thousand Whooper Swans were gathered on the water and by the shoreline. We were fortunate to be there when the swans were. They had come from throughout much of Iceland to that particular spot to stage before flying to Ireland for the winter. 
Yes, that day, as we and the swans were there, along the Icelandic coast, the sun was shining on those large white birds. 
But only a few miles away, in the hills, there were clouds from which some rain was falling. 
And so it was that those Whooper Swans, at the cove, were at the bottom of a bold and beautiful rainbow, with a backdrop of green hills and white glaciers. 
It truly was a magnificent sight and setting - with only the sounds of swans, and no other noise. 
When we there, with such beauty and peace, we knew that it really was a wonderful place to be. 

Overall, however, it could well be said that throughout our trip, we found ALL of Iceland to be a wonderful place, where the fine group of people who were on our
late Sep/early Oct '08 Tour, had, surely, a good and memorable time.     

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