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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



Destinations

Australia

Regent Bowerbird

Australia is a natural wonderland of beautiful beaches, crystal blue waters, amazing ancient rock formations, and pristine rainforests. Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world and has the lowest population density per square kilometer. Australia has 16 world heritage-listed properties, with its historic townships, bustling cities, vivid landscapes, and exotic flora and fauna all adding to its unique appeal. Much of Australia’s exotic flora and fauna cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and the lifestyle is one second to none.

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Fiji

Orange Fruit Dove - Fiji birding tour

Fiji, a country in the South Pacific, is an archipelago of more than 300 islands. It is famed for its rugged landscape of blue lagoons and palm-lined beaches, and for eco-activities from mountain climbing and surfing to soft-coral diving and birdwatching. Its major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, contain the lion’s share of the population, meaning much of the country is uncrowded. The climate in Fiji is tropical and warm most of the year. The two most important and largest islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, which together account for 87% of the population. Kadavu in the fourth-largest island in the archipelago and is a tropical bird watcher’s dream come true. This island has the additional attraction of four endemic species found only on Kadavu, and these species can all be seen on the grounds of most resorts.

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Indonesia

Spotted Catbird - Andy Walker

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.

Although West Papua, located on the island of New Guinea, is politically a province of Indonesia, it is the country’s only province that lies est of the Lydekker Line, which separates the Wallacean and Australian faunal regions. Its avifauna, therefore, is essentially the same as that of the country of Papua New Guinea.

 

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New Caledonia

Kagu - New Caledonia birding tour

Distant land, land of contrasts, pristine land… New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France,  is a diverse and unique destination. Bathed by clear waters at the heart of the Pacific Oceanlulled year round by gentle trade winds, le Caillou (the Pebble) has more to offer than just its heavenly beaches and brilliant sunshine. Sanctuary of the earth’s biodiversity, New Caledonia is THE destination for nature lovers. It boasts of 3,500 varieties of plants, of which three-quarters are endemic, 4,300 species of terrestrial animals, 200 species of birds (including the Kagu), 1,000 species of fish, and 6,500 marine invertebrates.

 

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New Zealand

Kea - Oz Horine

New Zealand is a truly photogenic country that looks more striking than any movie could convey, and within its walls of beaches and mountains, fiords and volcanoes, there is really too much to see and do. You could be surfing, bungee jumping, snowboarding, kayaking, or just hanging out on a beach with a beer; add to that rich Maori cultural experiences, outdoor music festivals, energetic cities, and amazing wildlife, and you’re looking at some seriously good times. As a compact little country it’s easy to get around in just a few weeks and makes for the perfect stop-off as part of a round-the-world trip. Or stay for longer with a working holiday visa and really feast on a country that is the ultimate playground for the young and adventurous.

 

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Papua New Guinea

Raggiana Bird-of-paradise - Ian Merrill

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is indeed a birder’s paradise. Thirty-four birds-of-paradise live on the island of New Guinea, of which thirty-one can be found in Papua New Guinea. The island of New Guinea is home to an incredible 399 endemics! Together with awe-inspiring scenery, endless rainforests, and fascinating highland societies that only made contact with the outside world in 1930, this makes Papua New Guinea a definite must-do destination for any avid birder.

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Samoa

Island Thrush by Matt Prophet - Samoa birding tour

Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) is an independent nation comprising the westernmost group of the Samoan Islands in Polynesia. Many of its islands have reef-bordered beaches and rugged, rainforested interiors with gorges and waterfalls. The islands include Upolu, home to most of Samoa’s population, and Savai’i, one of the largest islands in the South Pacific. The others range from islets with small villages to uninhabited wildlife sanctuaries. Samoa is a postcard of natural beauty. Blessed with stunning land and seascapes and friendly people, who are proud of their country, there are many versions of paradise to discover. The country is part of the Endemic Bird Area (BirdLife International) of the Samoan Islands, and close to its capital Apia can be found one the six Important Bird Areas of Samoa, the Apia Catchments, where 16 globally threatened or range-restricted species have been observed.

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