Iceland: Part 1

June 26, 2017  •  1 Comment


I’ve recently returned from a quite incredible week dedicated to bird photography in Iceland. A place I’ve yearned to go for some time, I decided this year it had to be done, so planning began a few months beforehand. Having read countless trip reports about Iceland I was itching to get there, with a number of target birds on the list.

I was going to be travelling with fellow photographer and good friend Dave Soons, with Phil Gower  a late addition joining the fun. We had originally intended to hire a camper van for more flexibility but with three of us travelling we opted to go the hire care and hotel route. In hindsight I think this was the better choice – proper beds, plenty of charging points for batteries and gadgets and plenty of room to dry soggy clothes.

Our route would see us travel from Keflavik airport east towards Selfoss where we’d spend our first night, with a visit to the Floi Nature Reserve on the first day with another visit the next day. We’d then head north on Sunday, staying firstly in Borgarnes before a pit-stop stay at Blonduos on Monday. From there we’d drive further east to Lake Myvatyn with two nights there given the abundance of birdlife there. We’d then have a long cross-country drive back to Borgarnes for Thursday night, with no accommodation booked on the Friday night to give us the opportunity to wing it. We also had an early flight home on the Saturday morning so the car would be our place of sleep for the night.

Accommodation was booked in advance using which allowed us to reserve without paying up front, giving some flexibility should anything drastic happen and for plans to be changed. Car hire was relatively pricey at £330 including insurance but for three of us not too shabby.

I did plenty of research beforehand which proved very useful but some of our better days were actually those where we simply walked and explored – probably more a testament to how bird-rich the country is more than anything else and one of the reasons I’ll be going back! I'll cover the trip in a few posts, so here goes with the first part...

Day 1

An early start saw us travel to Birmingham airport bursting with excitement. We talked about our top five targets though this was so tough to call. Check-in was very smooth as was the flight with IcelandAir to Keflavik. Very comfortable and superb service throughout. We arrived in good weather and were quickly packing suitcases into our hire car – a Skoda Octavia estate. Having not driven abroad before it took a while to get the hang of things but we were soon almost the only car on the road south to Grundavik. About 20 minutes into the drive we saw a police roadblock and it turned out to be a breath test station. I’ve never been stopped by the police in all my years of driving but a quick blow into the breathalyser and all was good and on we went, in full-on birding mode. It didn’t take us long to get off the mark with birds seen en-route to Selfoss including our first Ptarmigan, Golden Plovers, a brilliant roadside Artcic Tern colony and Ringed Plovers as well as a few Oystercatchers. Driving through the outskirts of Selfoss towards the town we saw a stunning Great-Northen Diver in a small roadside pool but sadly there was nowhere safe to stop so we drove on. We also started seeing what would be the first of many Redshanks perched on roadside posts along with a few Snipe too. We found our hotel easily enough and checked in. By now the weather wasn’t that great so we freshened up and opted to go for food before driving to Floi to see what we could find. The reserve was only a 20 minute drive away and the main part is reached via a long gravel track which turned out to be a productive place with plenty of Redshanks on posts, a few Snipe and a smattering of Meadow Pipits. Redwings were constantly zipping past if not perched in nearby bushes singing and we also saw numerous Black-tailed Godwits. A real treat though was a hunting Short-eared Owl. It didn’t hang around for long before drifting off high.


We took our time down the track, eager to make the most of the early opportunity to get some images onto our memory cards but eventually we pulled into the empty car park. The reserve has one hide with a path that takes visitors out onto the marshland for a closer view of the many pools that cover the area. We checked out the hide first, spotting a handful of Red-throated Divers including one very close sat on a nest. We were soon watching our first Red-necked Pharlaropes of the trip. Tiny birds but full of personality but more about them later. The weather wasn't ideal with light rain though the light wasn't too bad so we chose to go for a little walk around the marsh areas and see what was on the pools. Our first stop was the Red-throated Diver that we'd seen from the hide. We kept a sensible distance away to get a few shots before quickly moving on to avoid disturbing this beautiful bird. In summer plumage they are awesome looking things!!

Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver

Our lenses were soon being trained on the many Red-necked Phalaropes that were feeding close in along the margins of the pools. It really is true what is said about these small waders being fearless. In fact, they would often go out of their way to come and investigate the strange shapes that we were. This made photography a bit of a race against time as they were extremely spritely and would be within the minimal focal range almost before you'd had a chance to find them through the viewfinder. Great fun! 

Red-necked PharlaropeRed-necked Pharlarope

Whilst watching the phalaropes and divers we were fortunate to also see a Short-eared Owl being seen off distantly by the usual horde of Redshanks and Godwits, with an Arctic Skua also making a low pass though I was too slow and missed the shot. Arctic Terns and the occassional Dunlin made up the supporting cast with Whooper Swans also scattered in the distance. A super place and we didn't really want to leave but called it a day at around 10pm for a good night's sleep in preparation for our morning visit. The drive back saw more of the same along the gravel track with plenty of birds perched on posts including a smart Whimbrel but the light by now had gone a little weird so we made a quicker exit and were soon going through our first day's images back at the hotel. I think we were all asleep within seconds of our heads hitting pillows!

Day 2

Alarms were pinging at 6am and a quick look outside left a lot to be desired. It was dull, grey and piddling down. Exactly what we didn't want. We didn't spend too much time moaning though as opted to head out as soon as we were ready, with the Floi Nature Reserve first on the list before we headed north-west to Borgarnes. We took a slow drive along the track as we had done the day before, with Redshanks, Snipe, Black-tailed Godwits in abundance. 


Once parked up we had a quick scan before again setting off to check out the many pools. A few divers present along with the usual waders, including a very confiding Dunlin which we were confident must've been nesting close-by given it's reluctance to move too far from a certain area. It was slightly brighter now with the rain having eased though there were occasional heavier spells whilst we were walking around. We found another nesting Red-throated Diver on our return to the car and it was very close indeed to the main path. It must've been absent when we went the opposite direction. We were planning on moving past it but it left the nest and entered the adjacent pool relatively closely so we got a few pics as it made it's way out of range.

Red-throated DiverRed-throated Diver I felt slightly disappointed by our visits to Floi - not for the lack of birds but the pretty poor light we'd experienced. Whilst I got some pleasing images I couldn't help but feel we'd missed out. Still, nearly a whole week to go so no reason to complain just yet. Once back to the car we reviewed our results before heading up to Borgarnes - approximately 2 hours away. The drive there was again very smooth with more spectacular scenery to keep us oohing and aahing, though there weren't any stand-out birding moments. We arrived at our accommodation at just gone 4pm and first impressions were really good with us to be staying in our own little lodge with a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains one side, and undisturbed countryside to the other. We had a quick coffee before heading back to Borgarnes for some supplies. Unfortunately we'd dawdled for too long and missed the supermarkets, forgetting it was a Sunday! We therefore had to make do with a nearby convenience store and were limited in what we could get but it would do us for now. We got back to the lodge and discussed plans for the evening, distracted by the constant drumming of Snipe overhead. We also noticed a Snipe perched on a rock no more than 10 metres from our front door. This was a sign of things to come and we agreed we may as well as explore our immediate surroundings first and see what was about. When we were finally ready, the light was brilliant so we began with a walk along a bridletrack just metres from the lodge. This took us straight to a female Golden Plover which moved off from near the track, dragging a wing and calling in the process. Another nesting bird but we didn't look for the nest, instead carrying on and leaving it to return in peace. A Ptarmigan was heard calling as were many Golden Plovers - both very encouraging signs as these were two species I really wanted to get photos of. It didn't take us long to find a smart male Golden Plover using a rocky outcrop to call.

Golden PloverGolden Plover

I managed a few images before we split up to see what else we could find. The habitat was a mix of low scrub with a few trees and rocky outcrops covered in mosses lining each side of the track. I was getting the feeling that this place could be a gold mine and looking back, the evening would be one of the highlights of the week. I firstly heard a Ptarmigan calling at what sounded very close range so was very careful with my movements. I had the sun to my back and was behind one of the main rocky areas so made a very slow and careful climb towards the top. I had some good cover behind some boulders so slowly moved my lens over one of them before easing up to get behind my camera see what was around. Right in front of me was a cracking male Ptarmigan. It was immediately alert so I froze. It seemed to relax so I took the chance and got my eye to the viewfinder. I could just about fit the bird into the frame and once composed took a few shots. This again alerted the Ptarmigan and this time it decided to leave, flying off and calling before dropping out of sight behind some trees into the scrubby area. A superb bird and thankfully some decent photos too!

PtarmiganPtarmigan PtarmiganPtarmigan I walked back down to the track and continued looking for my next subject, drawn to a more substantial area of rocks by a calling Golden Plover. Again, I was very careful in my movements before finally locating the bird which was on a fine mossy rock - I do love a good perch! There was however very little cover so the binoculars came off and I began a very slow belly crawl, taking care not to make any sudden moves, whilst also trying not to hit any rocks with my camera and lens. I was soon within suitable shooting distance and had found some pretty handy cover afterall so began shooting. There were actually two birds - a male and a female and I managed to spend a very productive ten minutes with them, though the male was much more co-operative.

Golden PloverGolden Plover By now, Phil and Dave had found me so I moved back from where I was and waved them over for them to get some shots which they did so it was smiles all round. I had a quick look through the images on the back of  my camera and things looked good. By now we'd spent a good few hours in a relatively small area but as predicted, it was teeming with birds and there were plenty of photo opportunities. Redshank, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwits were calling all around as was the occasional Ptarmigan and Whimbrel. We'd accidentally found a real gem of a location. Walking back towards the lodge with the sun-setting I heard another nearby Plover and told the guys I fancied another crack so I left them to carry on before another spell of belly crawling. I soon found a female bird and she was rooted to her current spot, oblivious to my presence. The light was incredible and I got some shots which I'm really pleased with. It was a brilliant moment with a stunning view of the sun setting on snowy mountain peaks behind a lovely subject. I couldn't help but reflect on how content I was at this moment.

Golden PloverGolden Plover

Golden PloverGolden Plover Golden PloverGolden Plover

I reluctantly left the Golden Plover to carry on it's sunset calling and headed back to the lodge to meet up with Phil and Dave. I actually beat them back thanks to a cheeky little shortcut and we were soon chatting about what a magical spot we'd found ourselves in. To add to the moment, a Short-eared Owl drifted past in the distance. Iceland had won us over. I was absolutely buzzing when I got into bed although it would turn into a very short night's sleep....


Paul Coombes(non-registered)
Smashing read Dave
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