The skies are full of birds on this Iceland adventure
Alan Jarrett heads to Iceland, the land of the midnight sun, in search of birds – but for once his midnight vigils are for the joy of watching the birds, and there’s no shotgun or decoy in sight
It was February and a harsh wind blew across the saltmarsh and, thankfully, over the tiny gutter where I waited. The first cracks of dawn began to penetrate the grey skies, so that a lighter hue increasingly took shape.
Soon it was possible to pick out features close by where the ragged storm-wracked spartina grass grew, and then the first birds as waves of gulls began to make their way in for breakfast. It would be some while before I enjoyed mine.
Soon, the first cries of the pinkfeet were being carried by the wind, and before long the massed skeins were overhead, but far too high for a shot – as is invariably the way of things so late in the season. This was to be my last trip of the season, and was a blank save for an incautious wigeon.
Back at the car was a time to reminisce, to think back over those exciting dawns and magical moonlit flights. To fast-forward to days hopefully still to come. Also to think of a mid-summer jaunt to the land of the pink-footed geese, where wildfowler and wife would take the ‘Golden Circle’ to absorb the sights and sounds of the mystical island of Iceland.
Twice in the past I had made this trip with a gun. As we’d expected, pinkfeet had been scarce, for these ‘mountain geese’ visit the lowlands but seldom – although on both occasions errant pinkfeet had featured in the bag.
On both trips, greylag had been the main quarry. This time, no birds would be harmed in the telling of this tale – even if there were many wistful occasions!
Mid June is the time of 24-hour daylight. It is a time for birds to breed with every likelihood of success. But if there was a single overriding impression of the birds of Iceland, it would be summed up in one word: snipe! They were everywhere – carrying out their sky dances in a seemingly neverending succession of displays.
They were ‘drumming’ the whole day through, coupled with a high-pitched call I had never heard from this bird before. Not just single birds either, but multiples coursing the airways in that bewitching display. They were to be found in marsh and field; in forest and town; on mountain and moor. A panoply of sound the like of which I could scarcely have imagined.
We drove south to Vik, where I had shot geese 14 years before. Arctic terns nested in a colony close to the road and reacted with fury to any interloper. They had colonies elsewhere too and each time they mobbed furiously, whether the target be horse or man. We dubbed them the ‘bovver boys’ of Iceland and they never failed to perform!
On through the eastern fjords with their rafts of eider duck, soaring fulmar and kittiwake, and gaudy puffin plummeting from the cliffs in search of sand eels to feed their young. There was black volcanic sand and contrasting white birds as an ever-present backdrop to the trip.
In the north lay the fabled Lake Myvatn – famed throughout the world for the numbers of wildfowl which come to breed.
The lake did not disappoint. Its name is well founded: My (flies) vatn (water). Surely there can be few places with so many flies? They swarm in your face, invade the car at every opportunity and generally make your life a misery if they can!
The attraction of these northern climes for nesting birds are three-fold: 24-hour daylight; prodigious, endless supplies of high-protein food in those flies; and a marked shortage of predators. Certainly, the impact of predation seems to be effectively nullified by the overwhelming numbers of birds.
Excitingly, for me, I found my iconic bird of Iceland at Lake Myvatn (as well as here and there elsewhere) – the great northern diver. It is a bird of vast transatlantic migration, and so rare in England as to cause me a yelp of delight on finding a pair with a solitary chick.
There were ducks of every kind, including a great assemblage of another transatlantic migrant in the Barrow’s goldeneye. They were almost all
‘Snipe were everywhere – carrying out their sky dances in a seemingly never-ending succession of displays’
drakes, causing me to assume the ducks were on nesting duties.
We searched the high tops and moors for that harbinger of spring to the Icelanders, the golden plover. We found them only occasionally. No doubt anyone on a more serious birdwatching trip could have found many more.
High through the mountain passes we found our first pinkfeet – a pair with four goslings in close attendance. It was an unexpected thrill, and took my thoughts back to that February morning, and made me wonder whether I had seen these two geese before. But over the next pass, the rocky crags gave way to narrow plains where there were more pinkfeet. They were doing well, with most pairs guarding up to five goslings.
Our timing had been fortuitous, for most of the goslings were scarcely a week old. Now they were head down feeding furiously as they began the process of packing on weight to prepare them for their eventual journey south.
I sat for a while at some unnamed mountain pull-in and glassed them, idly tallying their numbers. Dozens of geese and their young in every suitable place, and when we moved on it was with the certain knowledge that these mountains are full of pinkfeet.
As we drove west, there was no way of knowing whether we would see any of these individuals again over some east coast estuary. Only that in a few short weeks these balls of down would be fine free-flying birds shouting exultantly at the heavens.
They would leave their home for mine, and with good fortune and perseverance we would meet again a few months hence.
Snipe are an extremely prolific bird in Iceland
Alan reminisces about the lonely vigils waiting for pinkfeet
Daylight – at midnight!
A great northern diver with young chick