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This June Andy Walker made a scouting trip to Iceland to have a look at some of the areas we’ll be visiting on the Birding Ecotours 2018 Iceland Tour http://birdingecotours.com/tours/destination/country/iceland. Here’s a summary of some of the highlight birds he found, and some he managed to photograph.

 

Passerines:

 

There are not a huge number of passerines in Iceland, but some special ones, and they are so plentiful and in-your-face that you can’t fail to get great views. Redwing, for example, is an abundant breeding species in Iceland and is found almost everywhere. Other species likely to be encountered that I had no trouble locating included Northern Wheatear, the Icelandic form of Common Redpoll (rostrate), which also occurs in Greenland and Canada, White Wagtail, Snow Bunting, Northern Raven, and the endemic subspecies (and surely a potential future split) of Eurasian Wren, which is much darker than western European subspecies, with a longer bill too.

Redwing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redwing taking some food back to its nest.

Raptors:

 

Gyrfalcon is the big draw here, and it’s not surprising. It is a mega falcon – HUGE! I saw a couple of birds during the week. An immature female was hunting close to Lake Mývatn and flew right in front of my car! Luckily I could pull off the road and watch it hunting, or, more exactly, getting chased off by dozens of locally breeding shorebirds. I also had a couple of sightings of a male in a similar area, likely to belong to a breeding pair. An immature male Merlin was also busy putting the fear of God into the locally breeding Meadow Pipit population. It’s always an exhilarating moment when one of these raptors dashes into view.

 

Seabirds (gulls, terns, auks, etc.):

 

Iceland is well known on the European birding scene for having an excellent breeding seabird population. Top draw is Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot), which has a very limited breeding distribution in Europe. When you add in Common Murre (Common Guillemot), Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, European Shag, and Northern Gannet, the cliffs come alive with a range of interesting sights, sounds, and smells. While I was at these sea cliffs, as well as enjoying great close-up views of all the above species, I also saw locally breeding European Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater as they foraged out at sea. Great Skua was frequently observed trying to steal food from returning nesting seabirds, or just to take the young seabird nestlings themselves.

Northern Fulmar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Fulmar with a snow-capped mountain in the background.

Several species of gull breed in Iceland. Black-headed, Common, European Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed Gills can probably be considered to be Europe’s commonest and most widespread species, but Glaucous Gull also breeds here, and Iceland Gull, although just a non-breeding visitor to Iceland, can usually be found year-round in low numbers. As well as observing many gulls breeding across Iceland, as is usual with gulls, I found some interesting aggregations of non-breeding birds of various ages and variable plumages in several small coastal fishing villages, with Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull being the pick for me, having been out of the UK for the winter.

Arctic Terns are EVERYWHERE! Breeding colonies are dotted around in every conceivable place, along the coast in cliff-top vegetation, or flying along fast-flowing mountain rivers, around lakes and marshes, and even hawking for insects along roads. Fantastic views of these species are guaranteed, every day! But do not assume that every ‘tern-like’ bird you see flying around is actually an Arctic Tern, because Parasitic Jaegers (Arctic Skuas) breed on the island and are often found chasing terns and raiding nests for food. It was great to see both pale- and dark-phase birds over the course of the week.

Arctic Tern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arctic Tern foraging oblivious to my presence a few metres from it!

Shorebirds:

 

Iceland is stacked out with breeding shorebirds. You can hear and see Common Snipe and Common Redshank literally 24 hours of the day. The Icelandic subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit, which is stunningly beautiful, is common, as are Whimbrel, European Golden Plover, and Dunlin. However, there are one or two breeding shorebirds that are the real draw to Iceland, and Red-necked Phalarope is one of those. The females are the more brightly colored of the pair, as it is the males that raise the young. On certain wetlands they can be super-abundant and often very confiding. With a bit of luck and some careful placement (watching for the angle of the sun and making sure you don’t end up in the water yourself) you can get some great photos of these dainty shorebirds. The sight of lots of baby shorebirds is a real joy to behold, and the cuteness ratings go off the scale!

Black-tailed Godwit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black-tailed Godwit starting to moult into its non-breeding plumage (phone-scoped with IPhone 7 and Swarovski ATX95 scoped)

Red-necked Phalarope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red-necked Phalarope – a female off feeding, she plays no part in raising her young after laying the eggs. The male (who is more drably plumaged) does all of that.

Wildfowl (divers and ducks):

 

Two species of loons (divers) breed in Iceland, Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) and Red-throated Loon (Red-throated Diver). Both species were fairly frequently recorded, and both species were looking spectacular in full breeding plumage, even more so when they had tiny babies either in tow or riding on their backs. The sound of Common Loon echoing around the mountains was spine-tingling.

Common Loon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) was found on several large water bodies and out on the sea. Take a look at Birding Ecotours You Tube for a video of this bird and its mate with their tiny baby.

A few species of geese breed in Iceland. Greylag Goose is common, and once you get into certain areas you start finding Pink-footed Goose and Barnacle Goose too, which were nice to see.

Another of the big draws for birders, especially European birders, is the breeding duck population with several key species present. Top of the list is Harlequin Duck, closely followed by Barrow’s Goldeneye. The former is scarcer than the latter, with Harlequin Ducks generally found on fast-flowing rivers and Barrow’s Goldeneye out on larger lakes. I had fantastic views of both during the week, Barrow’s Goldeneye chicks being my favorites of all chicks observed, Iceland also gives the rare chance to see breeding Long-tailed Ducks in Europe. This species is probably more frequently seen in their largely white-necked and white-headed non-breeding plumage with a grayish back, but during the breeding season they moult into a glorious black neck head with a striking long tail and a dark back.

Harlequin Duck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harlequin Duck was one of the highlights of this Iceland trip. By late June most of the males have left the females behind at the nest sites and have gone back out to sea. Most of the time I was in suitable Harlequin Duck habitat I was just finding females, then right at the end of my trip I spotted a pair along a river with this stunning drake present. One spectacular bird!

Several other ducks occur, and good views are practically guaranteed of the following species: Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser (Goosander), Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, and Common Scoter. Indeed, to see most of these species with young was highlight enough for me. Lake Mývatn was literally covered in baby ducks while I was there, as were many of the small waterbodies I visited or drove past. During my week there I even found a couple of American rarities in the form of drakes of both American Wigeon and Ring-necked Duck. There are great possibilities for finding other interesting species such as King Eider, Surf Scoter, and Velvet Scoter, but you’ve got to leave something for the next time, right?

 

Summary

 

In addition to all the great views and photo opportunities of the incredible birds found in Iceland, the landscape views were seriously spectacular: huge sea cliffs, giant crags, roaring rivers crashing through waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, volcanoes of all shapes, sizes, and activity, numerous waterbodies, lava fields, boulder fields, stunted forest, heathland, and 24 hours of daylight! And although I didn’t have time to do it on this trip, the whale watching off northern Iceland is considered some of the best in the world, with a good chance of Blue Whale. All of this combines to a really great place to visit, and I can’t wait to get back in June 2018!

Tours by destination



Bhutan

Ibisbill

Bhutan, known as the land of the Thunder Dragon, is a quaint, quiet, and scenically spectacular country with a strong conservation ethic rooted in ancient Buddhist traditions. Vast areas of unspoiled forest still cover the Himalayan foothills, that spread over much of the country. We expect to find most of Bhutan’s fabled Eastern Himalayan species such as Beautiful Nuthatch (and other nuthatches), Ward’s Trogon, the unbelievable Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Ibisbill, and of course Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, and other vivid pheasants. Other highlights include Wallcreeper, spectacular sunbirds, five species of parrotbills, up to ten species of laughingthrushes, striking and gorgeous forktails along the fast-flowing rivers, in addition to a plethora of other tantalizing jewels.

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China

Blue Eared Pheasant

Covering approximately 9.6 million square kilometers, China is the world’s second-largest country by land area. China’s landscape is vast and diverse, ranging from forest steppes and the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts in the arid north to subtropical forests in the wetter south. Particularly interesting for birders are the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Qinghai.

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India

Sarus Crane - India

Joining a birding tour in India, a vast country twice the size of South Africa, should be on any birder’s wish list! The country shares borders with Pakistan to the west, China and Nepal to the north, Bhutan  to the northeast, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east.  Sri Lanka lies to the south, the Maldives to the southwest, and Indonesia to the southeast of India in the Indian Ocean. India is the seventh-largest country in the world by area and, with over a billion people, is second only to China in population, although its much higher birthrate makes it likely to reach pole position in less than ten years. It is an extremely diverse country, with vast differences in geography, climate, culture, language, and ethnicity across its expanse, and prides itself on being the largest democracy on Earth.

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Indonesia

Green-backed Kingfisher

The fauna of the vast island country of Indonesia is characterized by high levels of biodiversity and endemism due to its distribution over a vast tropical archipelago. Many sources credit Indonesia as the most species-rich country on earth. Indonesia is divided into three ecological regions; western Indonesia, which is more influenced by Asian fauna, and the east, which is more influenced by Australasian species. The Wallace Line, across which lies the Wallacea transitional region, notionally divides the two regions. There is a diverse range of ecosystems, including vast rainforests, beaches, sand dunes, estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds, coastal mudflats, tidal flats, algal beds, and small island ecosystems. 1718 avian species are distributed across the entire country, which straddles all three of the Asian, Wallacean, Australasian regions.

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Israel

Long-eared Owl - Oz Horine

Israel is at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many birds’ migration paths pass straight though Israel twice a year: each spring about half a billion birds migrate through the country northwards to the breeding areas, and each autumn they move to their wintering areas to the south. The continental bridge effect also means that Israel has more birds than expected – about 540 species. For some of these, Israel is the northern distribution boundary; for others the southern.

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Japan

Whooper Swan - Mark Brazil

Japan’s avifauna is incredibly rich, with more than 600 species having been recorded here.  More than 60% are migratory, therefore winter is the preferred birding season in Japan. This is the time for watching wintering Hooded and White-naped Cranes in addition to the native Red-crowned Crane. and many other resident and migrant species  in addition to the approximately 60 endemic or regionally endemic species.

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Malaysia (Borneo and the Peninsula)

Black-and-yellow Broadbill

To know Malaysia is to love Malaysia – a bubbling, bustling melting-pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese, and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony. This multiculturalism has made Malaysia a gastronomical paradise and home to hundreds of colorful festivals. It’s no wonder that Malaysians love celebrating and socializing. As a people, they are very relaxed, warm and friendly.

Geographically, Malaysia is almost as diverse as its culture. Eleven states and two federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) form Peninsular Malaysia, which is separated by the South China Sea from East Malaysia, which includes two states (Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo) and a third federal territory, the island of Labuan.

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Mongolia

Eurasian Hoopoe

The very name Mongolia conjures up images of a vast, remote and distant land — the land of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan) and the Mongol hordes. While Mongolia is certainly vast and much of it is remote, it is also home to an exciting array of poorly known and rarely observed birds that occur only here. As we traverse this vast land we will often be traveling on rarely used roads, and occasionally driving across steppe grasslands, using GPS to navigate our way to exciting wetlands where no roads venture.

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Nepal

Ibisbill

The former kingdom of Nepal, now officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a land-locked country in Asia and one of the most mountainous on the planet. It is located in the central Himalayas, and of the world’s ten highest mountains eight are in Nepal. This land was cut off from the outside world for many decades after the second world war. But now it has opened up its boundaries to travelers, and it offers birders the opportunity to experience the immensity of birding the world’s highest mountain range without the high costs associated with visiting Bhutan.

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Philippines

Palawan Peacock-Pheasant

The Philippine Archipelago (more commonly known simply as the Philippines) is a remarkable collection of over 7000 individual islands. From a birding point of view, it uniquely combines influences from tropical south-east Asia and the more temperate parts of the continent (Japan, China and Korea). However, about a third of the birds are endemic, including some of the most spectacular species on the planet. Philippine (Monkey-eating) Eagle is the largest eagle on earth, and is reason enough for most wildlife enthusiasts to visit this island nation. This critically endangered bird (see http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3528) has a world population of just a few hundred, and as the national bird of the Philippines it is an appropriate representative of the disgusting plight of this archipelago’s avifauna. This is, quite simply, one of the “must-visit immediately” countries of the world, since the birds are quite literally going extinct due to massive scale deforestation. Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, Luzon Bleeding-heart, 17 endemic owl species, six kingfishers, 10 hornbills, 11 parrots, two broadbills, two pittas, Celestial Monarch (which truly does look celestial) and Sulphur-billed Nuthatch are just a few of the over 200 endemic birds that are becoming increasingly out of reach to the birder as each year goes by. If you’re a serious birder, we strongly advise that you visit the Philippines, but do it now before it’s gone.

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Sri Lanka

Red-faced Malkoha

Sri Lanka is a picturesque island situated at the southern tip of India and home to 33 currently recognized endemic species. Sri Lanka is a continental island and has been connected to India for much of its geological past through episodes of lower sea level. Despite these land-bridge connections, faunal exchange between the rainforests found in Southern India and Sri Lanka has been minimal. This lack of exchange of species is probably due to the inability of rainforest organisms to disperse though the interceding areas of dry lowlands. These dry lowlands are still dry today and receive only one major rainy season, whereas Sri Lanka’s “wet zone” experiences two annual monsoons. This long insularity of Sri Lankan biota in a moist tropical environment has led to the emergence of a bewildering variety of endemic biodiversity. This is why southwestern Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats of southern India are jointly regarded as one of the globe’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is the westernmost representative of Indo-Malayan flora, and its abundant birdlife also shows many such affinities.

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Taiwan

Mikado Pheasant - Chun Hsien Huang

Taiwan has more than 200 mountains that soar above 3,000 meters in height, and its unique geology and topography have created breathtaking scenery and alluring coastal scenes. Geographically, Taiwan is situated at the point where the Asian continental shelf meets the vast Pacific Ocean, providing it with an unparalleled ecological diversity and a huge number of plant and animal species concentrated in a relatively small place, perfect for ecotourism. Taiwan has world-class geological features, such as the awesome Taroko Gorge, and it has the highest mountain in Northeast Asia, Yushan or Jade Mountain. The island also has some of the friendliest people in the world and eight magnificent national parks, and it is a gourmet’s paradise with the finest of Chinese cuisine – all of which imprint indelible memories in the minds of its visitors.

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Thailand

Silver-eared Leiothrix

Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand and the capital of the Chiang Mai Province, 700 km north of Bangkok. The district is covered by many mountains, chiefly stretching in the north-south direction. The river Ping, one of the major tributaries of the Chao Phraya River, originates in the Chiang Dao Mountains. The highest mountain of Thailand, Doi Inthanon at 2 565 meters, is located in this district. Several national parks are also found here: Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep-Pui, Mae Ping, Sri Lanna, Huai Nam Dang, Mae Phang, Chiang Dao. Here in the north the birder will find numerous Himalayan foothill species, while in the south the avifauna mainly consists of Malay Peninsula birds.

The peninsula of southern Thailand, part of geological Sundaland, is a birders’ and naturalists’ paradise. Bounded by the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west, this lush tropical region boasts a maritime climate and a unique combination of terrestrial and marine attractions that rank among the best globally. Our tour is designed to incorporate the most spectacular of the region’s unique karst limestone scenery while searching for the region’s diversity of specials.

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