19th - 23rd FEBRUARY 2014
ORCA & THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Not that you should need much of an excuse to visit Iceland anyway, but if the weather had been better on the first day of my trip back in May 2013, and the whale cruise from Ólafsvik had gone out, chances are I would have seen Orca and this visit wouldn't have been organised. Strange how things can depend on such small twists.
Nine months on back again, and even though I'd be visiting an area I'd touched on first time around, with the change in season, in reality there was virtually no cross-over between the two trips. This one was also a joint one with JHo, our first together since a week on the Isle of Mull back in August 2010, and the focus this time (as opposed to Otters then) was to be whale cruises during the day to see Orca and with luck the Northern Lights during the evenings.
The fjörðs near Grundarfjörður on the northern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsular seem to be the most reliable place in Europe for seeing Orca, as in the winter they follow the herring shoals close inshore, lingering in the area to the back end of March or the start of April.
Bird wise it was expected to be typical winter birding, a case of sticking to the coastal strip and scanning through the flocks of gulls and sea-duck. Potential lifers for myself were the drake American White-winged Scoter that I missed previously, and another visitor from North America, a Lincoln's Sparrow that had been present since early December - smart if we dropped on either, but if not we'd be more than happy with a beach full of white-winged gulls. Jon hadn't seen any of the Icelandic specialities before, so each of those would be a bonus.
Was also hoping on this trip to put a bit more effort into landscape photography.
Daylight hours would to be in the region of 9.30am - 6.30pm, so less than in the UK, and obviously out of sync.
The only foreseeable problems prior to going were that the two main targets were totally out of our control. A few days of rough weather could scupper the boats leaving the harbour, reducing our chances of seeing (or at least photographing) Orca, and again the Northern Lights were dependant on clear skies during the night coinciding with solar activity, which was far from guaranteed.
Virtually a re-run of last May. Had planned to go from Manchester this time, but an unexpected hike in the price of flights back in September, meant it was worthwhile heading south, especially now that there were two of us, with double the saving. Again a departure from Luton with Easyjet on an early morning flight on the Wednesday at 7.45am, and with no time difference arriving in Keflavik Airport at 10.50am.
Broke my usual rule of returning on a late flight, so instead of coming back on the Saturday evening, switched instead to the Sunday morning - the sole purpose of this was to fit in an extra night, to increase the chances of connecting with the Northern Lights.
Car hire was via Thrifty, this time a Ford Kruger 4x4 (a Ford Focus fitted with winter tyres was the original choice, but in the end the decision was made not to chance the weather, and go for a more expensive option) - the cost of this was around £256. Difficult to judge in advance what conditions we'd face on the trip, with a definite risk of snow and ice, so it was all a bit of a gamble - we'd be doing relatively little driving, which was useful bearing in mind the time of year.
The basic plan was to spend the Wednesday afternoon birding around the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is where the airport is located, principally looking at the coastal sites of Garður, Njarðvik, Sandgerði and Hafnir. Iceland Gull should be present in decent numbers, and possible bonus birds include Gyr Falcon, Harlequin Duck, King Eider and the regular drake American White-winged Scoter.
From there, a two hour or so drive to Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular for the start of a three night stay - the route is marked by the white line on the map below.
Whale cruises were booked for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so even if the odd cruise was cancelled due to bad weather, we should at some point get the chance to go out into the fjord and photograph Orca. Failing that, the only option would be to scan from the coast and hope for the best.
If things went extremely well on the Thursday and Friday, then there was an option to head back to the south-west early on the Saturday, taking in a few tourist spots en route, at a push the Golden Circle was a possibility. Either way, we were booked into a chalet that night at Garður, close to Keflavik.
All of the accommodation was self catering.
Day 1 - Wednesday 19th February 2014
The first day is always a tough one due to the travel element. An overnight stay at Leicester Forest East should have made it fairly stress free, but the check-in at Luton with Easyjet was very poor, huge queues and took what seemed like an eternity to get the baggage dropped off, leaving it a lot tighter than I would have liked for the flight. In contrast things were so well organised at Keflavik, we'd probably left with the hire car within half an hour of touching down.
Slightly unfortunate that as we flew along the southern edge of Iceland heading towards Keflavik, most of the country was shrouded in low cloud. Better luck on the approach run, clear skies to the north meaning the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, along with the Snæfellsjökull glacier (which inspired Jules Verne's novel 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'), were beautifully lit, and clearly visible even from 70 or 80 miles range. An interesting landing in the winds, never a problem, but did bounce a few times.
Iceland had been experiencing unusually good weather recently, and this was literally beginning to break down today, with major storm force winds arriving from the south-east. It meant we had to make a decision as to what birds we'd attempt to see, and with rough sea conditions already present and snow showers forecast for later, the American White-winged Scoter was thought better left for Saturday.
First port of call was the short journey to Hafnir, with a very quick scan for Harlequin Duck proving successful - too distant for the camera, but always a smart bird to see. A nice easy start to the trip, and a useful drive on quiet minor roads, which had given me a chance to get used to the Ford Kruga - the first time in my life I've ever driven an automatic car. Classed as an upgrade by the hire company, I'd have been much happier with gears.
Northern Eider - Grindavik
From there a twenty minute drive to Grindavik for the Ross's Gull which has been here over the last week or so. Came to the same location last May looking for the Bearded Seal, and the wind was horrific then - little change today, still windy. Scanned as many gulls as possible, but couldn't manage to dig it out. Consolation was in the form of the numerous Glaucous and Iceland Gulls in the harbour in a variety of plumages, with a drake Northern Eider with a bright bill and sails also proving to be photogenic (some birds had the sails, but not the bright bills, so nothing was clear cut). Time was tight with bad weather imminent, so it was a bit of a rushed stop off.
Common (Mealy) Redpoll - Þoll
Heading towards Reykjavik on Route 41, a very small detour of a mile or so to the feeders at Þoll for the long staying Lincoln's Sparrow. Higher up and a bit colder here, and parked up at the nursery on what was effectively sheet ice. More of a mix of birds than I was expecting too, including five or six Blackbirds, similar numbers of Redwing (didn't think I'd see these at this time of year), a few Starling plus a Goldcrest (even more unexpected) - the main visitors though were Common Redpoll (variable plumage wise) and maybe 20+ Snow Bunting. No sign initially of the sparrow, though it did eventually appear, always keeping low and scurrying about in cover like a Dunnock - proved flighty and difficult to photograph in the poor light, so record shots only.
Snow Bunting - Þoll
Tried to stick it out for better shots, but by mid-afternoon heavy snow showers had started, and to avoid the risk of having problems crossing the mountains on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, it was time to move on. Worth another visit here on Saturday if we get the chance, and a big thanks to the owners and/or staff of the nursery for being so friendly and accommodating.
Icelandic Horse - Kolgrafafjörður
Managed to navigate around the capital without any problem, heading north through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, and then turning off onto Route 54 at Borgarnes. Quieter now traffic wise, and having negotiated the mountain pass successfully, with just a few stretches of ice and drifting snow on the road itself, we'd made good time to reach the bridge at Kolgrafafjörður at just after 5.00pm. Orca have been seen here on a regular basis in the past, and it took a bit of scanning, but after half an hour or so managed to pick up two at the southern end of the fjord - distant, but good enough views for ID purposes. A relief to get one of the targets of the trip under the belt so early on, and hopefully at some point over the next few days we'll get some close - also in this area maybe six to eight White-beaked Dolphins. Great scenery as well, with a typical combination of the fjord being enclosed by steep snow covered mountains.
Glaucous Gull - Kolgrafafjörður
Just a short five mile drive to Grundarfjörður from here, which is a fishing port on the north side of the peninsula with a population of just over 900, so not particularly big. Booked into the accommodation, and a check of my emails confirmed that the Laki whale cruise for tomorrow wouldn't be sailing due the rough conditions, and Fridays cruise was also looking at risk. Likewise a check of the Icelandic Met Office website gave 100% cloud cover, so chances of seeing the Northern Lights this evening were nil.
Not the best news to end the day with, fingers crossed we'll have some luck later in the trip. Hard going so far, constant buffeting by gale force winds, very poor light, and photography opportunities limited to a couple of attempts at high ISO. Still early days, and all to play for.
Day 2 - Thursday 20th February 2014
Grundarfjörður - a sheet ice main road at dawn (Route 54)
Takes a bit of getting used to a late sunrise - not that the sun actually rose, pretty much the same as yesterday with a dark blanket of cloud cover giving occasional snow showers, and no let up in the wind. With the cruise cancelled, the only benefit was that we had a bit more flexibility in what we could do, so started off back to the bridge at Kolgrafafjörður in the hope of better views of Orca. Very exposed to the elements here, even trying to set the scope up in the wind to scan the fjord was difficult. Spent a good proportion of the morning at this location but no sign of any Orcas - compared to yesterday, a swing in the wind from the east to a more north-easterly or northerly direction had created much choppier water. Did manage to pick up the White-beaked Dolphins again, maybe eight individuals or more, but other than that put my efforts into photographing white-winged gulls, including a few birds with dark in the primaries.
Iceland/Kumlien's Gull - Kolgrafafjörður
A quick stop back at the accommodation nearby for a coffee and the chance to warm up, which is the main plus of staying at Grundarfjörður (being so local). A strange mix of birds in the town compared to say the UK - Snow Buntings are really obvious as they flit from garden to garden, flock(s) of 40+ birds present, Ravens loaf around on the lampposts, but other than that just Starlings. Not much in the harbour other than the ubiquitous Eider and white-winged gulls - a new species though was Black Guillemot. Drove west out of the village to scan a few of the bays there - did this a couple of times during the day, best birds being seven Harlequin Duck, twenty Long-tailed Ducks, a few Red-breasted Merganser, plus a single drake Goosander. At the same time had a brief look at Kirkjufell, which is the mountain which dominates the western part of the bay - impressive, and possibly one of the most photographed mountains in Iceland.
Kirkjufell (Church Mountain)
Kept on scanning the bays for Orca off and on all afternoon, and kept on getting the same result - no sign at all in either Grundarfjörður or Kolgrafafjörður.
To end the day, had a drive out to the cliffs and lava fields at the western tip of Snæfellsnes in fading light to take in a bit of scenery, vaguely hoping just driving around may give a chance of Arctic Fox, but no luck - never did manage to catch up with one either. A check of the internet on returning confirmed what I'd feared, that tomorrow mornings whale cruise had been cancelled, though if conditions allowed, the afternoon was a possibility - all beginning to look a bit desperate for Orca photography at this point.
Raven - Kolgrafafjörður
There was a decent chance of the Northern Lights solar activity wise, but another night of full cloud cover did the damage on this occasion as well. Even set the alarm for 1.00am on the off chance, getting out of bed long enough to check the skies, then straight back under the duvet. Really frustrating as they'd shown for four consecutive nights up until Tuesday, most people we spoke to had seen them, and we'd even had to endure viewing a great time lapse sequence on a photographers laptop back in the accommodation. Painful.
Grey Seal - Kolgrafafjörður
If there was a low point of the trip this was probably it, and I was starting to worry - half way through, so far just distant views of a couple of Orca in fading light on the first day, a cancelled cruise ahead of us tomorrow, no Northern Lights yet, and consistently dull conditions making it difficult to get any decent quality images. Has to improve.
Day 3 - Friday 21st February 2014
Confirmation this morning that there would be no afternoon cruise was a blow, but not a surprise, so a re-run of yesterday in getting down to the bridge at Kolgrafafjörður for 9.30am. Still being blasted by the north or north-easterly wind, no change there, and the sea-state was as rough as yesterday. At least there was the odd break in the clouds today, especially to the north over the sea, which was encouraging and from a photography point of view, the light was an improvement.
Map showing the location of the bridge at Kolgrafafjörður compared to Grundarfjörður
The Orcas found straight away, feeding distantly in the same area as we'd had them on Wednesday evening, and at a guess numbers wise we thought maybe four or five. At least now (as compared to yesterday) we knew where they were, so the decision was made to stick it out, in the hope that we would be there when they left. Did have a look on Google maps to try and have a guess as to what kind of distance we were viewing from - difficult but possibly at half to three quarters of a mile range. Not a problem, and good enough to easily ID the adult males by the size of their dorsal fins.
Just to give an idea of the layout of Kolgrafafjörður, it's a really large fjord, and is split across the middle by a long low, almost causeway type bridge. Most of this has a solid rock base, with the only gap for the water/tide to flow through at the western end, and it's this gap that the Orca need to use to either enter or leave the inner part of the fjord. It means that if you're fortunate enough to be there when the Orca pass, you're going to get stunning views.
White-beaked Dolphin - Kolgrafafjörður
Settled down to watch them for a while, and then I spent the next 45 minutes or so down on the spit trying to get some White-beaked Dolphin images. They were showing at reasonable range, but it was always going to be record shots shooting from land, and numerous wasted photos trying to guess where they'd pop up - not too dissimilar to photographing Harbour Porpoise from Scarborough headland.
Jon meanwhile had carried on watching the Orcas, and put the shout up they were heading our way. Had a few minutes to get back up on the embankment, so no need to panic, and started taking a few shots as they powered out of the inner fjord. Not what you would call particularly streamlined, they just bulldoze their way through the water at speed. As they approached, switched down to the 100-400mm lens before moving up onto the bridge itself. Chaos at this point as people started appearing out of nowhere, the odd car being abandoned on the road, and a bus offloaded a group of tourists - a bit of a free for all really.
Orca - Kolgrafafjörður
Towards us and then under the bridge the Orca came, unbelievable good views of one of the top predators on the planet, and significantly more individuals than we initially thought, possibly in the region of ten to fifteen. So close at times, you literally couldn't fit them in the frame, even zooming down to 100mm. In reality it all happened very quickly, just a couple of minutes (if that) when they were at close range, and as with the White-beaked Dolphins, still very difficult to second guess when and where they'll surface. Bizarrely once they moved into the outer fjord, they U-turned, then came back in.
At their closest when directly beneath the bridge, they were probably only twenty feet or so away.
Orca - Kolgrafafjörður
An incredible experience, certainly not one I'll ever forget. What a buzz, and all in a fantastic natural setting.
Pressure well and truly off now - one of the main targets of the trip sorted, and no need for any more cold stake outs at the bridge. Felt like just reward after the long vigils we'd put in yesterday, and our luck seemed to be changing for the better. Back to The Old Post Office for lunch and a coffee, before checking the bays to the west of Grundarfjörður - they weren't as good as previous (highlight was probably a flock of 40+ Purple Sandpiper), so quickly moved on to the waterfalls opposite Kirkjufell for a bit of landscape photography.
Mainly frozen waterfalls at Kirkjufellsfoss (with Kirkjufell in the background)
Tried again for Orca later, but they were feeding in the identical part of the inner fjord as previous, so basically still distant. A check of my emails confirmed that tomorrows whale cruise wasn't going out either as the sea was still too rough, so a full house on the cancellations front. A bit of a relief really, as we'd had great views anyway, the cruises take a decent amount of time to get around the headland to Kolgrafafjörður, and once there the boat can't get past the bridge to the inner fjord. Must be a nightmare for the people operating a business which is so dependant on the weather, but by being cancelled, it was to our benefit as again we had some options as to what we could do tomorrow.
The evening ritual of checking the aurora forecast on the Icelandic Met Office website confirmed it was active, and the clear skies that we had over the sea earlier in the day were still holding - at last it looked as though we may have a decent chance of the Northern Lights. Kept looking at the sky on a regular basis, the clear areas were still there, then disaster struck as they gradually filled in with cloud.
Night skies to the east of Kolgrafafjörður
Decided to drive around along the coast in both directions, to see if we could find any gaps in the cloud cover - getting late on in the trip, and we had nothing to lose other than sleep. It was pitch black away from the town, and we eventually dropped on some potentially interesting cloud/light - ramped the cameras ISO setting up to 3200, took a photo to check, and it was the aurora - the sky clearly lit with a green tinge. A bit of a dilemma, we'd found the aurora, managed to photograph it, but couldn't actually see it with the naked eye. Tried a few other locations, but it never got any better than that, as the cloud cover had by now become complete. Not exactly the dazzling, dancing skies I'd hoped for, but if nothing else, at least it was a start.
Day 4 - Saturday 22nd February 2014
All change today, time to leave the Old Post Office in Grundafjörður and head for the south-west.
It had been a good place to stay location wise being so close to the Orca hotspots, was clean and comfortable, and the shared facilities hadn't caused a problem - even with the rooms being fairly small and basic (reminiscent of student digs), it was pretty good value, and suited our needs. There's not a huge selection of accommodation available in the town, with the only hotel of Frammes booked out well in advance on this particular week, presumably for organised tours, and price wise that was a step up anyway.
Kolgrafafjörður (showing the entrance to the inner fjord on the west side of the bridge, as used by the Orcas)
Packed up, car loaded and the first stop was the top pull in at Kolgrafafjörður. A scan from here revealed that the inner fjord was devoid of Orca, with the last sighting late evening yesterday as they'd headed out to sea. With hindsight they seemed to do a day of intensive feeding in the fjord, followed by a day off somewhere else.
White-tailed Eagle - Kolgrafafjörður
Up until now we'd just had the odd White-tailed Eagle, possibly even the same young bird roaming along the west side of the coastline. It was still windy, but conditions were much better today, and the eagles were taking full advantage, with up to five or six birds in the air at once, including one circling just above us.
From there it was downhill to the bridge, in the hope we'd get a second chance at Orca if they came back in to feed. Gave it a couple of hours, filling in the time with the white-winged gulls and Grey Seals, but no sign, and we really had to be on the move if we were going to make the most of the afternoon. A sad farewell to the fjord, had some great sightings over the last few days here, and plenty of memories to take with us - the only downside had been that constant north-easterly wind.
Iceland Gull -Kolgrafafjörður
Amazingly we actually had a bit of sunshine on the journey south over the peninsular, with the mountains looking superb, so a quick pull in for a few photos. Fantastic light.
By this stage we were pushed for time with an expected arrival of around 2.30pm in Reykjavik, which didn't leave a huge amount of time for birding before the light started to go. First stop was amongst the petrol storage tanks in the harbour area, which must be the least scenic part of the capital, to try for the recent drake American White-winged Scoter - found easy enough, but it was pretty distant and didn't look like it was likely to come in any time soon, so it became a case of tick it and run. Not much else here other than Eider and Long-tailed Duck.
Pondered giving the Lincoln's Sparrow at Þoll another bash (at least I did), but instead headed off to Grindavik to see if we could refind the Ross's Gull. Nowhere near as many gulls here as in the midweek visit, presumably related to the lack of boats in the harbour, and with so few gulls to scan through, we were pretty sure it wasn't here (it was never reported again, even after we'd left).
Definitely running out of time now, so decided to hit the very western part of the Reykjanes Peninsula, with the main target now switching to Gyrfalcon. Headed for Sandgerði with the intention of scanning the coast - a totally different landscape in this part of Iceland, flat and very little by way of snow or ice. En route, literally 100 yards from Sandgerði, we had a Gyrfalcon fly low across the road in front of us - on a roll now, and a cracking bonus in the last couple of hours or so of daylight.
Lighthouse at Garður
Pushed on further north to Garður where we'd be staying for the night. It had brightened up now, the best conditions of the entire trip. Had a session photographing the lighthouses, and also saw our only Wren (the Icelandic race). Booked into the new accommodation eventually, after a bit of a scare when we were struggling to get in touch with the owner to gain access (it didn't have a 24 hour desk). Self-contained tonight, and a lot roomier than Grundarfjörður.
Wren - Icelandic race - Garður
I was shattered at this point - disjointed sleep over the last few nights combined with the travel had taken its toll. Checked to see what the aurora forecast was, and it had been downgraded from 'moderate' to 'low' - looked like our chances were slim. Headed out to the lighthouse at 10.15pm to see if there was any sign - pretty clear, but nothing visible to the naked eye. Saw something interesting in the sky, and conflicting views at to whether it was just white cloud or potentially the aurora. To settle it pointed the camera upwards, took a long exposure at a high ISO, then checked the image - the whole screen on the back of the camera was luminous green, definitely the aurora.
A dash back to the accommodation in the car to get additional equipment, including the all important tripod, and in no time at all the Northern Lights were very visible, stretching across the sky. An amazing couple of hours followed, took care to make sure the experience was taken in, the lights intensified, faded and changed shape on a regular basis, and as an extra we also had a couple of shooting stars.
Northern Lights, Garður
Made an attempt at getting some shots, but difficult to do it justice. Hindered in part by the street lights, and the old lighthouse which would have made a great foreground was floodlit, so it was impossible to get the exposure right for both that and the Northern Lights. Frost-bitten fingers weren't exactly an asset either trying to operate the camera, but after being thwarted by cloud cover on the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, to finally score within a few hours of heading back to the airport, it was an absolutely brilliant way to end the trip.
Day 5 - Sunday 23rd February 2014
A pure travel day. Could have fitted in some birding, especially considering it was a bright start, but after taking an age getting booked in at Luton on the outward leg, wasn't going to taken any chances this morning. Dropped the hire car off without any problem, and arrived at Keflavik in plenty of time for the 11.30am departure. With typical Icelandic efficiency, took no longer than five minutes checking in the baggage. A straightforward flight and journey home via the M1, arriving back in East Ayton at 7.45pm.
So that was it, another trip to Iceland over.
This was the first one I've organised anywhere during the winter, and it was tough going at times. Days are short, and you've got to make the best of whatever weather and light conditions you're given - in our case generally dark skies and apart from the last day when we were leaving anyway, non-stop gale force winds. Before going I thought we'd probably get low pressure systems coming in from the North Atlantic, which would hopefully have at least given some breaks in-between systems. What we actually got seemed to be the top end of the same weather system feeding in a north-easterly, together with its constant supply of cloud.
Temperature wise it was around freezing, obviously colder with the wind chill, but being well kitted out nothing too bad.
The roads were fine, usually clear, quiet away from the south-west, and on the odd occasions when we were driving on snow or ice, the studded tyres held the road really well. With hindsight we didn't need the 4x4, a small run-around would have been fine, but at least we had peace of mind if the weather had deteriorated.
As expected birds were thin on the ground away from the coast, and species wise not a huge variety to see. Did get two lifers in the shape of Lincoln's Sparrow and American White-winged Scoter, but these were basically just add ons.
The highlights were the two main targets, Orca and the Northern Lights, both of which we got great views of in the end, definitely memorable experiences. The landscape as ever was a fitting backdrop, a winter wonderland with its covering of snow, and much more dramatic than when I was last here in May.
The Birding Iceland website has daily updates of news, the link for which is below, and Edward Rickson helpfully gave very precise location details for the rarities so we didn't lose any time (at the expense of the more common stuff) picking them up.
It's a really easy place to visit and if you book far enough in advance the cost of flights is reasonable, especially away from half-term week (we had a school party on both of our flights which took up a fair percentage of the plane). Accommodation was through booking.com, and was just over £50 per night between us in Grundarfjörður for a twin room, slightly more expensive for better facilities at Garður. With both spots having well equipped kitchens, there was no need to eat out, unless you wanted to.
Well worth considering a trip if you haven't been. If anyone intends giving it a go, and wants additional info, then drop me an email.
Full set of photos here - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p658078349.
Never did get to the Golden Circle, so maybe an incentive to go back some point in the future.
Birding Iceland - https://notendur.hi.is//~yannk/index-eng.html
Birding Iceland Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/birdingiceland
Icelandic Met Office - http://en.vedur.is/
Iceland road conditions - http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/
Laki Whale Cruises - http://www.lakitours.com/
Laki Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/pages/L%C3%A1ki-Tours/146335162052642
Laki Tours Promotional Video - Orcas at Grundafjörður - https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=644624718890348