ICELAND
 

26th - 31st MAY 2013
SNÆFELLSNES & MÝVATN

With two really enjoyable trips to Spain over the last couple of years, namely Extremadura in April 2012 and Catalonia in July 2011, as a change a few more northerly destinations were being pondered last autumn as to where to go in 2013.

Attention drifted towards Iceland, which looked like a fairly straightforward place to explore at leisure under my own steam, so another solo trip was planned. With relatively little cover and the target birds liable to be out in the open, photographic opportunities were hopefully going to be pretty good too.

The summers are short this far north, and the end of May through to June seem to be the peak months to visit, with the breeding birds in their best plumage and in full display mode, the weather should be comparatively benign, plus daylight hours are plentiful. My visit fitted into half-term week, the only option I had available in this period.

Any trip is as much about the experience as the birds, even more so for Iceland, where there's not a huge number of species to see. Most were already well known from a Scarborough context, mainly as winter or passage visitors, but with the added bonus of some smart new ones such as Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye (essentially North American species not available elsewhere in Europe), plus Gyrfalcon (mega bird) and Brünnich’s Guillemot - so a case of quality rather than quantity. Throw in terrific scenery, as well as the chance to go whale watching, the all important flight was booked.
     

Sat in the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland, Iceland straddles the North Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian and North American plates. Being just smaller than England size wise and having a population of around 320,000 people (two-thirds of which live in or near Reykjavik), it's the most sparsely populated country in Europe.

Much of mountainous interior is inaccessible apart from during the main summer months, and most of my travelling would be via Route 1, the ring road which runs around the entire country. A mix of fjords, volcanoes, lava fields, waterfalls, geysers and glaciers, it's got plenty of character, an unusual and almost surreal place in parts to visit. 

Even in the last week of May, weather wise almost anything was possible really.  

 

Logistics

Decided to fly with Easyjet from Luton rather than Manchester, as the dates and times suited better for what I was trying to do. A 7.20am departure gave a 9.20am arrival at Keflavik Airport, so a three hour flight taking into account the one hour time difference - the return journey was scheduled for 7.05pm, with an arrival time back at Luton of 11.00pm. The big plus of the early outward flight and late returning one, is that at least you’ve got the chance to get a reasonable amount of birding done, rather than losing a day either end of the trip purely with travel. No problems with Easyjet or the respective airports, all very efficient, and the cost of the return flight was around £226, including hold baggage, insurance, etc.

No weight limit for hand luggage with Easyjet (though a size one does apply), so the expensive camera kit could be taken on board, rather than heading for the hold, which is a big plus – managed to get the laptop, both lens, 7D & optics into the cabin.

Car hire was via Thrifty, at a cost of around £240 for six days hire of an immaculate Mazda 2, which had 2,000 kilometres on the clock when I picked it up. Good value, but the sting in the tail was an excess of about £1,500 - I got around this by taking out a policy in the UK which cost about £40 for a full year, reducing any potential excess to nil and covering any future foreign trips in the next twelve months.

Accommodation was via the booking.com website - plenty of choice on offer. Everywhere I stayed had free internet access.

A struggle obtaining Icelandic Krona pre departure. I usually just buy on-line via the bank, but no joy there as it wasn’t on the list of available currencies. You can probably get by just using debit or credit cards for the entire trip. If you do want cash, as an alternative using the ATM's or exchanging currency when you arrive at Keflavik Airport, is probably as good as any other option.                                   

 

Itinerary

The basic plan was to arrive in Keflavik Airport early on the Sunday morning, heading up the west coast to the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, and the first nights accommodation booked in Hellissandur. Had originally intended taking a whale trip that afternoon out of nearby Ólafsvik for Orca, but I knew before I left the UK that the boat wouldn’t be sailing because of the sea conditions - shame.
 

I’d set off Monday afternoon on a six or so hour drive to the north-east of Iceland, arriving late evening at the start of a three night stay at Rejkjahlid on the edge of Lake Mývatn. From there it was just a short 40 minute commute north to Húsavik, the main whale watching hotspot in Iceland, with two boat trips being considered. If time allowed and things were going well, then the hope was to fit in a visit to Borgarfjörður on the east coast for the long staying drake Steller's Eider, the only one in Iceland.

Thursday afternoon was earmarked for the drift back towards the south-west, with a night booked into a hotel in Blönduós, roughly mid-way between Lake Mývatn and Reykjavik.

Friday morning was expected to be a gradual drive to Keflavik Airport for the evening flight, taking in anything that was available and that I’d missed so far during the trip.
 

The planned route was as per the Google map below:

A & G - Keflavik Airport, to the south west of Reykjavik.
B - Hellissandur, on the west side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, and close to the cliffs of Önðverðarnes.
C - Rejkjahlid, the settlement on the north-east edge of Lake Mývatn.
D - Húsavik, main whale watching location in Iceland.
E - Borgarfjörður just to the north of the Eastern Fjords.
F - Blönduós - stop off location on the drive back to the south-west.
 

 

 

Day 1 - 26th May 2013

Given it was a trip of only six days duration including travel to and from the UK, there was at bit of a worry in the planning stage that I might hit a spell of bad weather – not helped on arriving at Keflavik Airport to driving rain and strong winds. Slow getting the hire car sorted, but can’t complain considering how cheap it was compared to the alternatives, and was eventually underway and heading north in the direction of Reykjavik. Being a Sunday morning, a really quiet drive on Route 41 with little by way of traffic, and after a bit of a slip navigating the capital, was on Route 1 in the direction of Hvalfjörður.
 

 Harlequin Duck - Hvalfjörður

Took the decision to drive around the fjord rather than take the tunnel – should have just paid the toll of about £6, as it took ages. Didn’t really pick up many birds on the longer option either – hundreds of pale-bellied Brent Geese feeding on the fields on the south side, en route to breeding grounds to the north-west, a flyby first summer Glaucous Gull was the first of many, and the undoubted highlight was a couple of drake Harlequin Duck on the mouth of a river literally at the very eastern end the fjord. The latter was the first lifer of the trip and what stunning birds they are - spent 45 minutes or so with these, having a bash at getting a few photos despite the dull light and being buffeted by the wind.                                            

Carried on past Borgarnes, before turning off onto Route 54 heading towards Snæfellsnes.  At the start of the peninsular, picked up another group of Harlequin Duck from the road, including females, but having photographed the earlier birds, and with time now pressing, carried on without stopping. Typical birds encountered on the drive included Arctic Skua, Whooper Swan, Golden Plover, Snipe, a few Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit, and a look at some of the pools adjacent to the road gave Red-necked Phalarope, Scaup and Red-throated Diver.

Whooper swanWhooper swanSnæfellsnes Peninsular, Iceland - May 2013

Whooper Swan - Snæfellsnes

A real mix in scenery so far – bleak and unreal in parts, especially the lava fields, but the snow capped mountains were impressive despite the poor weather. Finally reached Ólafsvik on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula after what seemed like a very slow drive, and having had my first taste of driving on gravel roads. Parked up on the approach to the village, and spent half an hour being splattered by sea spray watching the gulls drifting past in the stiff winds. Glaucous Gulls very obvious now  in their national stronghold, with a few Iceland Gull also being picked up. Refilled the car in Ólafsvik to ensure I had a full tank of fuel, before carrying on to Hellissandur. Did wonder how easy petrol stations would be to find in such a sparsely populated country – no problem really, enough around, and all were automated, so you could just refuel using a debit or credit card outside of the usual opening times. Difficult to imagine that even during the last couple of days of May, it was so quiet and still very much out of season for tourists in this national park.

 Brünnich's Guillemot - Önðverðarnes

Booked into Hotel Hellissandur, unloaded the car, then virtually straight away headed for the cliffs of Önðverðarnes for Brünnich’s Guillemot, taking the left fork towards the lighthouse at Skálasnagi rather than the one at Önðverðarnes itself. By now the rain had ceased, but still had the full force of the wind to contend with – no fencing here, on what was virtually the edge of the continent. A few Brünnich’s on show, and straightforward to find amongst the Guillemot and Razorbill. Some where mixed with the commoner auks, but my impression was that generally they seemed to group together on the ledges. Easy enough to photograph, being at reasonable range, and with the cliffs facing to the west, the light was from the right direction for an afternoon visit. Spent some time scanning the sea for Orca from here as well, but unfortunately no joy – wasn’t helped with the poor sea state.
 

The cliffs at Önðverðarnes

Had a look at the pools near Rif, and plenty of Eider around. I did scan through the flocks to see if I could pick out anything more interesting, in particular King Eider, but without success. Ignorance is bliss, a few days later a belting drake White-winged Scoter was found at this location - had I been careless and missed it, or did it turn up later? Red-necked Phalaropes numerous as expected, and typically showing down to close range - really frustrating to have them spinning around only a few feet away, ridiculously tame, and not be able to capture the moment because of the light.

A tough first day – a lot of travel involved, and photography had proved difficult in dull conditions, strong winds and rain.

 

Day 2 - 27th May 2013

Managed to get a decent sleep despite the long daylight hours (in excess of 20 hours per day). A very good buffet type breakfast with plenty of choice on offer, which ended up being the main meal of the day, booked out of the hotel, and then back on the road.

Originally I’d anticipated spending the day around Snæfellsnes, starting off revisiting the sites I’d covered yesterday in the hope of improving on the photos I already had. Was being hit hard by the weather again – the winds hadn’t let up since I'd arrived in Iceland, the light was still poor, and squally showers were now part of the mix.

Fróðarheiði, Snæfellsnes PeninsularFróðarheiði, Snæfellsnes Peninsular

Fróðarheiði, Snæfellsnes

Attempted to cross to the south side of the peninsula which should have been more sheltered from the northerly winds, but on the climb over the mountains, blizzard conditions swept in, with snow rapidly accumulating. Didn't fancy driving on a gravel road in the snow, especially with some really steep and tight bends to negotiate, so U-turned.

Safely back down on the coast road, and with little by way of new bird sightings, as well as no sign of improving weather, decided at 10.30am to write off Snæfellsnes and start the long drive to Lake Mývatn in the north-east of the country. Passed the fishing port of Grundarfjörður, and the beach was an impressive place for white-winged gulls - the vast majority were Glaucous Gull, with just the odd immature Iceland Gull on show (the adults of the latter species would by now be back on breeding grounds in Greenland). A few miles further east was the bridge over Kolgrafafjörður - spectacular numbers of Fulmar and Gannet feeding here, so it must have been a top spot for fish, and I regretted not putting in a longer spell scanning for Orca.

                                                                                Glaucous Gull - Grundafjörður

A supermarket stop in Stykkishólmur to stock up on supplies, and a quick look at the harbour didn't give anything new apart from Black Guillemot. The Baldur Ferry crosses Breidafjörður from here, stopping off at Flatey Island en route to the Western Fjords, whose breeding birds on the island include Grey (Red) Phalarope. Would have loved to see this wader in its colourful plumage, but the summer ferry schedule which would have allowed a day trip there didn't start until June - my only alternative was a stop-over, and I just didn't have the time spare to do that.

Having left Stykkishólmur, continued heading east across country on the really poor quality gravel Route 54, which runs along the south side of Hvammsfjördur towards Miðdalir - littered with pot-holes in parts, a bit of a slow and painful drive, and my candidate for the worst road I drove on in Iceland, being akin to the forest tracks of Wykeham, but at least the scenery was pretty. Didn't see a huge amount bird wise, the best was probably the first of many Ptarmigan, which was virtually still in winter plumage, plus singing Redwing - the road was too far set back from the rugged coastline to enable easy checking of the sea for anything interesting.

Beyond Miðdalir on Route 59 an Arctic Skua seen feeding on a Whooper Swan corpse in the middle of a field. Thought that would be a one-off, but saw four or five dead swans over the next few miles, presumably having been shot.

A relief to finally link up back onto Route 1 and the joy of driving again on tarmac. Onwards past Blönduós (where I'd be staying on the return journey), before having a stop at the farm pools at Moberg, which gave the first chance to photograph Slavonian Grebe. A few miles further on, stunningly close views of a pair of Great Northern Divers on one of the larger lakes, Vatnshlðarvatn - super confident individuals, a shame that the skies were still lead grey. Such a smart bird in this plumage, and Iceland is the only place in Europe where they breed (another essentially North American species).

                                                                            Great northern diver - Vatnshlðarvatn

Battled on through the mountain passes in increasingly poor weather conditions as the rain got even heavier, then eventually all of a sudden Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city, seems to appear out of nowhere. A nice looking place, and one of the main stop off points for regular cruise ships that navigate around the country. A couple of King Eider had been seen close to the city on the east side of Eyjafjörður recently, but with time getting on and the weather still very poor, I pushed on.

Another Great Northern Diver on Losavatn which was a decent size lake near to the Route 85 turnoff for Húsavik, and driving alongside the fast flowing River Laxa towards Lake Mývatn, Barrow's Goldeneye were very obvious showing at relatively close range. Parked up to take a few record shots in the gloom of what was a new bird for me, and the third lifer of the trip.

A relief on the final approach towards Lake Mývatn to have got the biggest drive over with. A necessary evil, and the balance was all wrong today, with too much time spent in the car as opposed to watching wildlife - having a base for the next three days would give me the chance to reverse that scenario, any driving over this period would be purely optional.

Booked into the Hotel Reykjahlid, great choice, light spacious room on the top floor at the rear, with views out over the lake. Fantasy stuff really - great selection of birds even from the room both on the lake and the back lawn of the hotel. Mývatn itself was tranquil, and after the planning over the winter months, a strange reality actually being here.

A check of the Icelandic Met Office website last thing confirmed that the forecast for the next few days was an improvement, with a spell of settled conditions moving in. After the effort to get here, my luck had changed for the better.

 

Day 3 - 28th May 2013

As anticipated, a real difference in the weather today - at last the strong to gale force wind of previous two days, was no more.

Barrow's goldeneyeBarrow's goldeneyeRiver Laxa, Mývatn, Iceland - May 2013

Barrow's Goldeneye - River Laxa

No real rush to get out after yesterdays lengthy drive - intended having a fairly easy and relaxing day. Started off just driving slowly clockwise around the lake to get an idea of the layout, as well as identify any sites that looked potentially good for photography. A bit restricted in parts for viewing and parking wasn't always a possibility, but eventually pulled over near to the bridge that crosses the River Laxa at the junction of Route 1 and Road 848, which was a great spot for wildfowl. Very straightforward to get close range views of Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye here, the former was especially amenable, and an enjoyable hour or so spent sat on the river bank getting a few images as they swam in the rapids. Also on this stretch of water was a pair of Long-tailed Duck, and 15+ Red-necked Phalarope.

Lake Mývatn translates as 'lake of midges', and reading up before I came, there were a few horror stories of dense swarms of flies making things unbearable. As it was, this was the only time and place I saw any, and it was literally just a few, so I was lucky in this respect - a June or July visit will carry higher risk.

Húsavik, Iceland - May 2013Húsavik, Iceland - May 2013

Húsavik harbour

Late morning started to drift north towards Húsavik, a port on the eastern side of Skjálfandi Bay, for an afternoon of whale watching at what is one of the best places in Europe for seeing whales. A pleasant 40 minute drive across what was a very lunar looking landscape, and with little by way of other traffic on the road.

Had an hour or so to kill before the 1.30pm departure, so headed off to the beach on the south side of town. Lovely views of the Eider flock and a couple of Red-breasted Merganser, numerous Fulmar sat feeding around an outflow close inshore, and maybe just up to double figures for white-winged gulls, mostly Glaucous Gull, as well as a couple of Iceland Gull, none of which were adults for either species. Should have spent some time with the Arctic Tern flock a little bit further along the beach, given the by now excellent light.

Back into town, a quick picnic lunch, plus a tour around the whale museum courtesy of a complimentary ticket, before heading off for the North Sailing cruise. Two companies operate from Húsavik, the other being Gentle Giants, and I used both during my stay. Realistically, there's very little to choose between them, at least for the type of cruise that I did (ie: the standard trip out in the traditional oak Icelandic fishing boats), and both outfits were very good - the links for them can be found at the bottom of the trip report. The cost of each trip was around £40+.
Humpback whalesHumpback whalesSkjálfandi Bay, Iceland - May 2013

Humpback Whales - Skjálfandi Bay
 

Kitted out in 66° North overalls, then off out into Skjálfandi Bay, a superb setting, dominated by the mountains on the western side of the bay. At the planning stage, the most likely species was Minke Whale, which I'd seen a few times previously from the coast of North Yorkshire on cruises out of Whitby, and this was the least desirable prospect. The real hope was that I would get the opportunity to see and photograph Humpback Whale, which would be a new species for me. Blue Whale also use the bay, but they seem to arrive later from maybe mid-June onwards, so this was considered to be an outside chance - all that changed though with a first sighting of one in April (plus the odd sightings since), which meant this species was also very much a possibility.
 

Not really a lot of searching involved for the whales in what is a large expanse of water, the crew already knew where they were likely to be, and the boat headed straight out across  the bay to a couple of Humpback Whales feeding in the lee of the mountains. Great views, backs arching in unison as they fed together and plenty of tail fluking, especially for the deeper dives, but no breeching out of the water. All very relaxed, they seemed tolerant of the boat, approaching closely at times, no chasing was involved, and they were given plenty of space to keep disturbance to a minimum. Half an hour later another whale surfaced in the mid-distance and in the direction that we were heading - it looked huge as it rolled, and the second time it surfaced, views confirmed it was a Blue Whale. Result, and all this in just the first hour of the trip. Stayed with the Blue Whale for about twenty minutes, at which stage the decision was taken by the crew to head back to Húsavik early, as one of the passengers had collapsed (she was OK, but it was a case of playing safe).
 

A wonderful way to have spent an afternoon, and a real highlight of the trip.

Blue whaleBlue whaleSkjálfandi Bay, Iceland - May 2013

Blue Whale - Skjálfandi Bay

Back towards Mývatn late afternoon, and with three days nearly over, plus one of the remaining three designated as a travel day, I was starting to worry that I might struggle to see Gyrfalcon. The hope had been that at some point I would have bumped into one by now, but having failed with that tactic, I was now going to have to actively try to find one. 

A quick pit-stop at the hotel to dump some kit, before a bit of a touristy spell having a walk around the bizarre lava formations at Dimmuborgir - didn't get much by way of birds here, just Ptarmigan and Redwing. Pondered about walking up the Hverfell volcano, then deciding I didn't really have enough time to do it. A regret with hindsight, as the views from the top would have been superb, and how often do you get the chance to walk up a volcano.

Carried on around the Mývatn circuit, and some excellent Slavonian Grebe and Red-necked Phalarope views near to Hofni, both ridiculously tame, so a decent photography session seemed appropriate. Onwards again to the River Laxa bridge, and with the light much better than when I was here earlier in the morning, concentrated on getting flight shots of the Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye.

Slavonian grebeSlavonian grebeMývatn, Iceland - May 2013

Slavonian Grebe - Mývatn

A slow drive along the western side of the lake back towards Reykjahlid, when I pulled over at a safe place to do a three point turn - really fortunate as just then a Gyrfalcon was picked up heading west from the direction of the lake. It was only a quick fly past, but at reasonably close range and relatively low, so a quick grab of the camera from the passenger seat, and managed a couple of record shots. Kept track of the bird until it eventually landed, giving very distant scope views over the next half hour. A protected species, so I'll keep the location vague.

Gyr falconGyr falconMývatn, Iceland - May 2013

Gyrfalcon - Mývatn

Seemed like a good time to call it a day, so back to the hotel for a break and to make plans for tomorrow. Having seen Humpback Whale, Blue Whale and Gyrfalcon within a few hours, today was going to take some beating.

 

Day 4 - 29th May 2013

Into the second half of the trip now, and having had such a good day yesterday, I could pretty much do what I fancied from now on.

Up early for another spell around the River Laxa, as well as the west side of Lake Mývatn. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, couldn't be a greater contrast to my first couple of days in Iceland - beautiful light conditions, ideal for photography, typically hardly anyone else around, not just birders but literally anyone, and a real pleasure being out with the camera. All very relaxed, I had a bit of a session continuing to try and improve on the images I'd managed so far - could happily have spent all day with just Harlequin Duck, such a photogenic bird.

Harlequin duckHarlequin duckRiver Laxa, Mývatn, Iceland - May 2013

Harlequin Duck - River Laxa

Returned to the hotel for breakfast, before heading to Húsavik again for another whale cruise, this time a mid-morning one. On arriving, considerably cloudier than around the Mývatn area - hopefully the cloud would burn off during the cruise. Took a boat trip with Gentle Giants this time as they went out a touch earlier, it was also less busy, and not surprisingly they basically headed straight out to the same area of Skjálfandi Bay where yesterdays whales were.

More individuals seen today, with probably around five Humpback Whales, including three together, but no new species, and no Blue Whale either (kind of reinforced how lucky I was to see one yesterday). An enjoyable trip out, close views again, and just a pleasant experience being out in the bay bobbing about on a boat.

Humpback whaleHumpback whaleSkjálfandi Bay, Iceland - May 2013

Humpback Whale - Skjálfandi Bay

Whale cruise done and dusted, had to make a decision as to whether or not it was worthwhile to make an attempt for the long staying drake Steller's Eider (the only one in Iceland) at Borgarfjörður on the east coast - it was a fair drive from Húsavik, maybe up to three and a half hours. Even though it's been there since 1998, it does go missing in the summer months as it goes up river with the breeding Harlequin Duck it associates with, at which point it becomes harder to find, so there was no guarantee I'd see it. An arctic species, I may never get to Varangerfjord in Norway where most people seem to photograph Steller's Eider in Europe, so after some consideration, it had to be done.

Back to Mývatn, then onto Route 1 towards Egilsstaðir - warning signs when you leave Rejkjahlid as to how far the next petrol station was, so definitely a case of making sure you've got a decent amount of fuel in the tank pre departure. Another longish drive ahead, initially through steaming lava fields, then mountains and valleys. Still fairly cloudy but with good visibility - so far only small numbers of Pink-footed Geese had been seen, but on this drive large numbers were evident, mostly paired up or else in small groups. Also started to see Snow Buntings feeding alongside the road, my first sightings of the trip.

Long-tailed duckLong-tailed duckRiver Jökulsá á Föllum, Iceland - May 2013

Long-tailed Duck - River Jökulsá á Föllum

The rivers that crossed Route 1 were worth checking and Jökulsá á Föllum gave a good opportunity for photographing Long-tailed Duck on slabs of ice. Flowing down from the Vatnajökull glacier, I wasn't that far from Dettifoss, which was a bit further down river to the north - being the largest waterfall in Europe, it was one of the places I wanted to visit, but unfortunately the road hadn't been opened yet.

Seemed like an age before arriving at Egilsstaðir - even though it's the largest town in eastern Iceland it only has a population of 2,300. To get an idea as to how remote this area is the population density of Austerland, the Eastern Region of Iceland, is 2 people per square mile (as a comparative, the figure for North Yorkshire is 320). A bit tricky finding the correct turn-off, before finally heading off in the direction of Borgarfjörður - very quickly the road switched from tarmac to gravel, as it roughly followed the valley of the River Lagarfljót. One of the birds I hadn't photographed yet, despite having seen them regularly was Red-throated Diver, and this part of the drive started to produce a few very close to the road on small pools - brilliant views.

Borgarfjörður, Iceland - May 2013Borgarfjörður, Iceland - May 2013

Borgarfjörður

Onwards towards Borgarfjörður, with a difficult mountain pass to navigate, a genuinely scary drive, but the views were outstanding and included the header at the start of this report. A couple of miles further on to reach the settlement, and then parked up near to the pier. Started to search amongst the close in Harlequin Duck and Eider, with a few birds sat amongst the rocks as well, but no sign. First hint of doubt crept in, but ten minutes of scanning the bay reaped dividends, with the Steller's Eider picked up in the distance with a couple of Harlequin Duck. A striking duck in the looks department, well worth making the effort to see it. It would have been total frustration if I didn't manage any photos, and at this stage it was too far out, but with patience it did start to drift closer in, giving a reasonable opportunity for record shots.

Steller's eiderSteller's eiderBorgarfjördur, Iceland - May 2013

Steller's Eider - Borgarfjörður

A great area for photography, with Long-tailed Duck, Red-necked Phalarope, and Black-tailed Godwit in particular amongst a few other species, giving excellent views in superb light, and the setting made it all the more memorable. These were some of the best couple of hours I had in Iceland.

Red-throated diverRed-throated diverIceland - May 2013

Red-throated Diver - Eyland, Lagarfljót Valley

A quiet drive back to Mývatn for a well earned rest, with the only surprise being a group of Reindeer in the Lagarfljót valley. A bit of a double take, as it wasn't something I was expecting to see, but apparently they are an introduced species to this part of the country.

 

Day 5 - 30th May 2013

Change over day, my last one in the north-east of Iceland.

Started off in the same vein as the last couple of mornings, with a tour around the Lake Mývatn and River Laxa. The main difference today was that most of my time was spent just taking in the scenery and its special wildlife, knowing it was for the last time - no need to worry about photography, as I'd done everything I wanted to do over the last couple of days.

Barrow's goleneyeBarrow's goleneyeRiver Laxa, Mývatn, Iceland - May 2013

Barrow's Goldeneye - River Laxa

After being settled in one place, it was now back to the life on the road. Booked out of the Hotel Reykjahlid after breakfast - difficult not knowing what the alternative accommodation in the area is like, but was certainly pleased with the choice I'd made. Strange to look at the cars in the hotel car park - all pristine looking, apart from my hire car which had a thick coat of dust and sand - bit of a cleaning session required before the hire company sees it again I think! Sort of gave the impression I'd been doing more driving on gravel roads compared to the other tourists.

Decided to do another whale cruise in the hope that I might pick up something different from the previous two trips, so off back to Húsavik. Onto an early boat, and it looked like they'd be just a few passengers on board, until a coach load of tourists turned up and packed out the boat. Cruised across the bay towards the mountains, and although it's always hard being precise on how many whales there are, an apparent influx this morning, with potentially up to eight Humpback Whales seen on this trip. Great views again, so still worth doing.

Humpback whaleHumpback whaleSkjálfandi Bay, Iceland - May 2013

Humpback Whale - Skjálfandi Bay

Never did get anything new, dipped on Minke Whale which I thought would be the easiest species to see, and the only other cetacean on all three trips was Harbour Porpoise. Frustrating to find out later that a cruise that afternoon had both Orca and White-beaked Dolphin - if only.

A couple of new sites to visit today, heading north from Húsavik to the Tjörnes peninsular and from there Öxarfjörður - really wasn't that far from the arctic circle at this stage. The weather had started to turn though - apart from the cloud cover increasing, the dreaded wind had started to pick up again, and it was pretty unpleasant, especially in some of the more exposed areas.

PtarmiganPtarmiganTjornes, Iceland - May 2013

Ptarmigan - Tjörnes

Was struggling to find anything decent to photograph. The main target this afternoon was going to be Great Skua, a few of which had been seen in flight in Skjálfandi Bay during the cruises, but it was grim in the Öxarfjörður area - sand storms were being generated giving poor visibility at times, and heading up the east side of the fjord I decided that was as far as I was going to go - thoughts started to turn to home, and the long trek to the south-west of Iceland, via an overnight stay in Blönduós. 

Had a short stop en route joining the sightseers at Goðafoss, as it was virtually next to Route 1. Translated as 'waterfall of the gods', it was the only one of the major Icelandic waterfalls that I saw - shame it was so cloudy, as I couldn't really get any photos I was happy with.

Goðafoss, Iceland - May 2013Goðafoss, Iceland - May 2013

Goðafoss

King Eiders were still being reported on the eastern side of Eyjafjörður near Svalbardseyri over the last few days - had a look but no joy, and with no detailed directions as such, I wasn't really sure that I was actually in the correct area. Did have Iceland Gull here. Just a bit further on, the sight of a proper petrol station with a power hose and vaccum facilities, meant a major stop in Akureyri to get the car cleaned - spent over an hour trying to get it presentable and good enough to avoid incurring a cleaning penalty from the hire company. Looked pretty smart by the time I'd finished.

Still a fair drive ahead to get to Blönduós, and in truth things were feeling a bit flat since the end of todays cruise. So far enthusiasm had kept me going, despite the travel and at times patchy sleep, but was genuinely feeling tired now. Booked into a small hotel in the old part of the town mid-evening, grabbed something to eat at the N1 service station nearby, then an early night.

 

Day 6 - 31st May 2013

A bright start to the day, though a weather system was due to come through later.

Decided to head back to Lake Vatnshlðarvatn, a twenty five or so minute drive east of Blönduós, to see if the Great Northern Divers were still around. They'd given terrific views early on in the trip, and I was hoping to photograph them in better light. Typically no sign, and I wasn't willing to invest too much time trying to find them, so a 'U' turn and back to Blönduós for a petrol stop - with a 7.05pm flight from Kerflavik, time to head south-west, and get beyond Reykjavik well before rush hour.

Another uneventful drive, stopping off for a break and something to eat in Borgarnes late morning. By noon, the weather was changing quickly, and some spots of rain were just starting to fall. Took the Hvalfjördur tunnel this time rather than driving the long way round, and much heavier traffic by-passing the capital compared to the outward journey. Back on the Reykjanes peninsular, passed the Blue Lagoon, one of the main tourist sites in Iceland, on the way to Grindavik harbour. The weather was just horrific at this stage with squalls of lashing rain, the worst of the trip, and at times it was difficult to stand up in the wind - even getting out of the car seemed like a brave decision.

Iceland gullIceland gullGrindavik, Iceland - May 2013

Iceland Gull - Grindavik

Couldn't locate the Bearded Seal which had been here recently, the sole purpose of the visit, and in these conditions with the optics getting wet, unless I was really lucky wasn't likely to either. Did manage what I thought was a Common Seal, and amongst the gulls were both Iceland and Glaucous Gull.

 

Grindavik

The photos above will give an idea as to how rough the conditions were - a tough race Icelandic folk, this boat disappearing in the swell was actually heading out to sea from the harbour.
 

As a last throw of the dice, headed to the lighthouse at Garður for a spot of seawatching. Manx Shearwater was a new species for the trip, and with Gannet and Fulmar also on show, it was a bit like being on the Yorkshire coast. Only using bins, didn't pick up any Storm Petrels.

A case now of filling in time before heading for the airport and dropping off the hire car. It had been a wasted day really, was always going to lose a fair amount of time on travel, but the few hours I did have spare were ruined by the weather. Just to rub salt into the wound, later I was sat aboard the plane on the runway at Keflavik awaiting take off in perfect sunny conditions - the system had now gone through, but too late to be of any benefit.


Summary

All in, it was an excellent place to visit. You wouldn't go to the effort of organising a trip unless you thought it was going to be good, in reality it exceeded expectations. Abundant wildlife, saw and photographed everything I'd hoped to, loved the feeling of space, the quiet roads and at times superb scenery.

Missing out on Orca was disappointing (the bonus of Blue Whale at Skjálfandi Bay was compensation though), and I would have liked to have seen Arctic Fox as well, but by not going to the cliffs at Látrabjarg that was always likely to be hit and miss.

Favourite memories came from the north-east of the country, probably not a coincidence that's where I had the good weather. Virtually all of my time in the west or south-west of Iceland was windy or wet (usually both), and Snæfellsnes as a result was a struggle - it should have been better than it was, and I'm sure with improved conditions it would of been.

Planning a return trip to the Snæfellsnes area in February 2014 for Orca and the Northern Lights, hoping I'll be lucky second time around with at least the odd day giving a settled sea for whale watching and a clear sky at night coinciding with some solar activity for the Aurora Borealis.

With hindsight, having decided to go as far as Borgarfjörður for the Steller's Eider, I should have rejigged my accommodation, and returned from there via the east and south coast - doing a complete loop of the country, this would have given the chance to see amongst other things  the Jökulsárlon glacial lagoon, with its associated icebergs.

Would I have changed anything else? Having filled my boots photography wise by the end of the fourth day, the focus should really have switched from wildlife to sightseeing, and I regretted not fitting into the trip the main tourist spots of Þingvellir, Geysir, Strokkur and Gullfoss. I had considered doing these on the last day, but made the wrong decision with the abortive attempt to see the Bearded Seal (would have been the correct decision though if I'd actually managed to find it).

If anyone ever fancies giving Iceland a go and wants additional or more specific site info, then drop me an email.

Photos from the trip are in this gallery - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p662392924. Quite a few new ones have been added, so worth another look even if you've seen the album before. 

 

Maps

Marco Polo – Iceland – 1:750,000
Ferdakort  – Snæfellsnes & Borgarfjörður – 1:200,000 
      “         – Akureyri, Mývatn, Húsavik & Asbyrgi – 1:200,000
 

The latter two maps covered in detail the main areas I was travelling to, and were available to buy from the car hire company. Everywhere in Iceland is well signposted, and a Sat Nav isn't essential for touring the country.

 

Links

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/

Hotel Reykjahlid - https://www.myvatnhotel.is/en/home-reykjahlid
Hotel Hellissandur - http://www.hotelhellissandur.is/english_index.html

North Sailing, Húsavik - http://www.northsailing.is/home/
North Sailing Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/whalewatchingiceland

Gentle Giants, Húsavik - http://www.gentlegiants.is/home/
Gentle Giants Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/GentleGiantsHusavik