26 October 2014

BIRDING ICELAND - Harlequin Ducks & more niceness along the Northeast Iceland birding trail

Harlequin Ducks in Laxa river, Northeast Iceland, october 2014

Northeast Iceland - nature destination development

Biotope recently visited Iceland, invited by the people behind the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail. Naturally we were quite excited about getting this request. Iceland is well known in the birding world as one of the best places in the world to expereience birds like the stunning Harlequin Duck and the Iconic Gyrfalcon. 

We consider it a great compliment to be invited to this amazing birding destination. Our invitation was based much on our work as birder architects and destination developers in Varanger. The people behind the Northeast Iceland birding Trail have done a great job of creating a very solid birding concept and crystalizing a trail that takes you to the finest birding sites Iceland has to offer. Our mission was to spend one week driving the birding trail, and identify further potential to develop the region. In particular we looked at potential sites for bird hides, photo hides and wind shelters. 

The 7th of October we met up with key man Hermann Bárðarson in Husavik, after a 45 min flight from Reykjavik. The next 8 days we spent driving around Northeast Iceland, met a lot of great people, saw some wonderful places and enjoyed some spectacular birding! 

I have already visited Iceland in 2006, as an architecture student, when a friend of mine and I drove around Iceland for one month. This was a bit of an exploratory trip, and we spent all nights outdoors and visited new places every day. Coming back now to research Northeast Iceland as a birder architect is quite a privilege. We do love our jobs at the Biotope office!

Harlequin Duck movie: a 2 minutes & 30 seconds iPhonemovie of Laxa Harleys filmed through the Swarovski ATX 95mm telescope. 


Sunrise over the famous lake Myvatn. We arrived with the first snow. Magical. Biotope aerial.
Dramatic scenaries at the shores of Öxarfjördur. Biotope aerial.  

Getting to Iceland is easy. Flights to Reykjavik is surprisingly cheap. Our plan was to continue directly to the northeast. This is where the great birding takes place. Iceland have experienced something of a travel/tourism bonanza since the 2010 volcanic eruption. However it is the aeras near Reykjavik that have seen the significant growth. The Northeast very much feels like the wild, but still accessible Iceland. Much like our own region Varanger, which in a Norwegian context was a bit of an "outsider" place. We really love these places! With fishing towns, unique bird- and wildlife and a sense of potential for something different. Like developing a niché destination. A place where special interests thrive. Like birding. In short: Challenge accepted.

Flights coming to Reykjavik from everywhere are numerous. The trick is to take the Keflavik International Airport bus to Reykjavik Airport (literally in Reykjavik city). After a 45 min bus ride, and a dinner at the nearby hotel, we got on the flight to Husavik. This is a new and a small scale operation, and a travel option not easily found via google. The Eagle Air experience plane was something of a mix of a taxi and a private jet! Small and personal, no luggage check, just walk on board and 45 minutes you are there. Smooth.

The Northeast Iceland birding trail map. Our mission for the next 8 days.

We started our visit with a meeting with the birding trail people. During our 8 days in the northeast we would collect a wide range of site photos, info about possibilities, infrastructure, etc. Everything well documented, mapped and GPS-located, of course.

Most important was the recording of sites for potential bird hides, photo hides and wind shelters. Like  in Varanger wind is very often an issue. When driving around northeast Iceland,  you are really struck by the nonstop birding qualities of this region (just like Varanger!). The numerous wader sites, ponds and river deltas hold impressive numbers of birds. Even in mid October, considered something of a slow season, we saw good numbers of birds. Duck wise it was beyond amazing! 

Above photos: River Laxa meets the sea + Harlequin drakes (iphonescoped). If a single species is ever a reason to travel, it must be the Harlequin Ducks of River Laxa. (In addition we have Varangers own Steller´s Eider, of course. And I guess Hokkaido´s Steller´s Sea Eagles is another species worth travelling to see. Needless to say we do have a bit of a northern preference...)

Husavik harbour: Fishing harbours are always great bird sites, and Husavik is no exception. Husavik town (about 2000 inhabitants) is only 15 minutes from Husavik airport, and marked the start of our little adventure. Our aim was of course not only to look at the obvious potentials, like the Laxa River Harlequin Ducks, but to explore new ideas too. For example there is a small outlet from the local fish factory, that always provide food for gulls and ducks. In ordinary touristic terms a factory dump or outlet would not be considered an attraction, but the world of birding is far from ordinary. With hundreds of white gulls around (Glaoucous & Iceland Gulls), this would be a great place for a photo hide. Watching gulls is easy here. Photographing them at a distance is easy too. But getting great photos is difficult, at least without disturbing the birds. Our aim is always to provide great viewing and photo opportunities, but not at the expence of the birds. A strategically situated bird photo hide could solve this, and provide visiting birders and bird photographers with unique photo opportunities. In general during our trip around northeast Iceland we looked for these very specific sites that could provide better birding opportunities. 

Northeast Iceland aerials

Our birder architect tool kit, includes a small quadcopter for aerials. Seeing and understanding a place is much more interesting from a birds perspective. Below are a few aerials from our trip around the northeast. Any birder will recognize the qualities of these habitats and places. 

Kopasker town. Nice wetlands, sheltered harbour and good sea watching.  

Raufarhöfn, is a good base camp on the Melrakkasletta peninsula, with loads of ponds and wetlands. Going back in May, aiming to get great photos of Red-throated Divers, phalaropes and more.

Langanes and Ytra Lon, is at the far northeastern corner of Iceland. Again, we have to come back in May to see some of the spectacular birdlife along the beach and the wetlands. 
Most key bird sites are found along the north shores of the birding trail (+ inland at Laxa and Myvatn). However any visit to Iceland is an amazing landscape experience too. Driving the mountain pass from the northeast coast and to Myvatn was otherworldly. No wonder NASA prepped their astronauts with a visit to Iceland before going to the moon. Aerial approx 1 hr drive east of Myvatn. 

Lake Myvatn aerial, where the river Laxa starts. Lake Myvatn holds a record breaking 16 species of breeding ducks! The highlights for any birder visiting the region is the high numbers of Barrow´s Goldeneyes and Harlequin Ducks. The lake is open all year, but of them only Barrow´s winter here. The Harleys winter along the rough shores of Iceland. When we visited we saw some 30 Harlequin Ducks and 350 Barrow Goldeneyes! We where also met by the first snow this year. 

Aerial from further down stream. Laxa starts at Myvatn and ends near Husavik. That is about 1,5 hours straight driving. 

From Gull watching to Duck bonanza and a grand finale
Outlet near lake Silfurstjarnan. A possibilty for a Gull photo hide. We had some 250 Iceland Gulls here, and this site always holds a lot of birds. 

Barrow´s Goldeneyes photographed with iPhone 5s through Swarovski ATX 95mm telescope (iphonescoping), at Myvatn / Laxa.

While viewing opprtunities where plentifull and awesome, I could not help but dream of a couple of cleverly situated duck photo hides. We have registered a few very nice sites, and hopefully hides will be coming up in the not too distant future!

Humpback Whale may very well have been the most impressive "bird" on the trip. Conveniently Husavik is known as one of the best places in the world for whale watching. There are three companies doing daily boat trips to the Skajlfandi Bay, advertising a 98% chance of seeing whales (season is from March to November). We enjoyed every moment of our trip, with great views of Humpback Whales,  White-beaked Dolphins and Harbour Porpoise. Humpback Whales can be individually identified by the pattern on the underside of their flukes (tails). We saw three different individuals of these ocean giants on our trip. A proper grand finale in Northeast Iceland!

The people!

One of the great things about being birder architects is that we meet a lot of great people. Both birders, and locals at various destinations who enjoy nature and are really keen on developing their places with the best of nature in mind. Both for the benefit of their visitors and the local avian residents. 

A very big thanks to Hermann Bárðarson for taking the initiative to invite us, and for great company and local knowledge throughout the trip! 

A big thanks to Páll Pálsson and Þorkell of the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail board for sharing knowledge and ideas on our first day meeting. We also enjoyed the friendliness and hospitality of so many people around northeast Iceland. Big thanks to the Mirjam at Ytra Lon Farm hostel at Langanes for great hospitality. Thanks Benedikt at Kopasker Hostel for great food and hospitality. Thanks Halldóra at The Nest hostel for small paper bird niceness and great accomodation. Thanks Erlingur for food and company at Nordurljos Hotel in Raufarhöfn. Thanks to Bergþóra at Geotravel for showing us around Myvatn. Thank you Ásdís Erla at Sel-Hotel Myvatn for great accommodation and brilliant food. Thanks also to Arnheiður for joining and co-arranging the last big meeting at Myvatn. A big thanks also to birder Gudmundur "Knot-finder" for showing us the the top sites along the northeast shores. We are looking forward to seeing you all again soon!

And finally a big thanks to Iceland for being cool and bird rich!

One more highlight from the northeast Iceland trip: young Gyrfalcon, 1 of a total of 11 Gyrfalcons seen in 1 week. Surely this arctic top predator is the coolest bird in the world! Photographed with iPhone 5s through Swarovski ATX 95 telescope. Not to bad for an iphonescoped Gyrfalcon.

We will be back for more Iceland niceness. 
Nature destination development to be continued..

Update, New birding Iceland articles from Biotope:

Birding Northwest Iceland - May 2016

Tormod A. 

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