21 July 2015

Birding Iceland in summer - destination development in progress

Iceland is known throughout the world as the land of fire and ice. Large parts are covered by glaciers while others steam of boiling water from the ground. There are few countries where nature has such a strong presence. Then there are the birds. Rich wetlands, rivers and coastal sites are filled with amazing birdlife. A dream destination. We recently visited Iceland, invited by the good people of the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail. Together with a group of nature based tourism businesses and local communities we aim to put northeast Iceland on the map, and to develop better infrastructure for visitors and local communities. In October last year we spent 2 weeks visiting people and seeing sites. Our recent 2 week July trip was a great follow up, looking into a few new places, analysing potential of previously visited sites and, as always, meeting people who are into making new things happen!

The following blogpost show some of the sites we visited and a few of the birds we saw. This visit was part of our research leading up to a broader destination development scheme.

Also check out our previous Icleand trip in October 2014 for more info. The two photos above is of a Great Northern Diver, and the wetlands outside Raufarhöfn in the northeast.

Top sites visited included Husavik, Laxa river, Myvatn, Langanes, Melrakkasletta, Flatey, etc

Northeast Iceland offers the most concentrated and finest birding in Iceland. 

Mind the bird poo - Birding architecture in progress

One example of a an early phase design project: 
There are a lot of parameters that goes into placing and designing a bird hide or a photo hide. With the folks at the northeast Iceland birding trail we really hope to make a couple of cool pieces of birding architecture. The iconic Harlequin Duck is of course on top of the wish list for a photo hide. With good help from Husavik-based birder Gaukur we just might have the perfect place. At a stream near Husavik there are nearly always Harlequin Ducks present. With a properly placed and designed hide, the photo opportunities will potentially be amazing. In order to make a design that fits the site we have made detailed measurements and drawings of the site itself. Considering both sea winds, valley breeze, wave heights and spring melt water in the stream is key. Then a sheltered approach to the site is important, making sure the birds are not scared and fly away. Finding out where the birds prefer to stay is actually easy - where there is most bird droppings is their favoured site. Then there is a whole lot of other things to sort out too. Work is in progress...

Harlequin, male and female at the stream site 

Measuring potential site for Harlequin Duck photo hide

Husavik - the hub of northeast Iceland

Biotope aerial of Husavik, our base camp for many of our days in northeast Icleand. Just five minutes from Husavik you can find one of the best places in Europe to see and photograph Great Northern Diver. This very nice pond is in fact man made. At the nearby building project run by the Husavik municipality they decided to use the waste material to build a small dam and a pond. A very forward thinking project that made sure Husavik now have a beautiful and very bird rich pond near the town. Great for visitors, schools, kindergartens, etc. Now we aim complement this pond with better infrastructure, providing sheltered viewing opportunities and even better photo opportunities. In short: a birding to the people project. 

 Man made pond, with Husavik in the background

Great Northern Diver

Buzzing at lake Myvatn and river Laxa

13 species of duck breed in this area. A waterfowl species count higher then anywhere else in Europe for such a concentrated area. Myvatn basically means ´mosquito lake´. To a large extent the birds in the area feed on their larvae. However they are not mosquitos. Thankfully the Myvatn Blackflies are not bloodsuckers, which makes a very big difference. In fact there are no bloodsucking mosquitos in Iceland, and for someone used to the king size Taiga bloodsucking mosquitos this is a huge relief. Sure, the Blackflies can be intensely annoying, but they only occasionally bite (lightly). Thanks to the rich insect life the wetlands of Myvatn and the river Laxa is amazingly bird rich. We spent a couple of days checking out a series of sites and of course we enjoyed some great photo opportunities too. A big thanks to Myvatn Sel-Hotel for providing accommodation. 

Biotope aerial over Myvatn and the nearby ponds and lakes.

Diving Harlequin Duck

Drake Harlequin 

Barrow´s Goldeneye drake - another Iceland speciality. In icelandic it is called ´husand´, which translates to ´House Duck´, as they like to breed in boxes at farmhouses. In addition they breed extensively in hollow lava rock. If I could rename this bird then Lava Duck would be a pretty cool and fitting name. 

Wigeon, female. One more of the gazillion ducks we saw during our Iceland trip.  

Herding and birding at Ytra Lon Farm Hostel 

Mirjam and Sverrir run the Ytra Lon Farm Hostel at Langanes, the norteasternmost corner of Iceland. They have built the farm from the ground. At the Langanes peninsula they have made their living from sheep herding and a another Iceland speciality: eider down collecting. We always enjoy meeting people with whom we share a passion for nature. Seeing how Mirjam and Sverrir have worked with the land to make it productive both for themselves and for the local eider population is really great. The care that goes into their work is inspiring, and in return nature gives back to them. When they started their farm in the early 1990s there was about 25 eider nests on their land, today there are more then 350 eider nests on small islands at their farm lake. And Sverrir is planning to make another eider island to provide the eiders with nesting sites the fox can not reach. We joined Sverrir on a day out checking the eider nesting sites. At the end of the breeding season Sverrir collects the down from the nests. This is premium quality down harvested without hurting any animal (unlike what we see in goose down industry).  

Ytra Lon Farm in amazing surroundings. Ptarmigan, Golden Plovers, Artic Terns, Common Snipes and many more species are everywhere.

Enjoying a day out with Sverrir, checking the local eider population. A great experience! 

Mirjam and Sverrir explaining the eider down harvest. In the boxes are down from about 325 nests.

Melrakkasletta and the northeast shores

Thanks to the kind support from The Nest guesthouse we stayed to nights in Raufarhöfn. This is a perfect base camp for a couple of days of exploring the little visited wetlands, ponds and shores of the northeast. Again we where amazed by the numbers of birds present.


Dunlin stretching 

Golden Plover 

Purple Sandpiper 

Flatey bird paradise

This island is a 30 minute fast boat ride from Husavik. It truly is a bird paradise, with Icelands biggest Arctic Tern colony, counting several thousand individuals. In addition Red-necked Pahalaropes are everywhere. The same goes for Puffins which are becoming more numerous every year on the island. Flatey is also the place to go in Iceland to see the very stylish Red Phalarope. We had one Red Phalarope and 1000+ Red-necked Phalaropes. At Flatey we looked at how one can best preserve this beautiful place for birds and for people, while fascilitating for more visitors. A great place that needs to be treated with the outmost care. 

 Biotope aerial over Flatey. The pond next to the harbour was filled with phalaropes.

 Red Phalarope, male.

Fly by Red-necked Pahalarope 

Puffins breed in thousands on Flatey.

No visit to Iceland is complete without great views of Puffins. 

Arctic Tern drinking water at a pond 

 Arctic Tern

Thanks Iceland - see you again soon

A very big thanks goes to Hermann Bardarson of the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail with whom we have visited lots of sites, met a lot of people and businesses in the northeast. Also a very big thanks to Gunnar at Fjallasyn guide company for providing us with a great car during our stay in Iceland. And I forgot to mention the Gyfalcons: we saw a total of 14 Gyrfalcons. All in all: brilliant birding, great people, top sites and potential! 

Stay tuned for more niceness from northeast Iceland. Good things are in progress...

Tormod Amundsen
Architect & birder / Biotope