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

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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

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