On Tuesday 18th October we set off for our biennial school field trip to Iceland (well, the second time we've been with the students). From my previous October visit in 2014, I knew that there would not be many birds to see at this time of the year, since most of our planned visits were at inland sites, and most species head for the coast this late on. I still though had a decent chance of Gyr Falcon if I kept my eyes open. However, the temperatures in Iceland had been very warm recently, so it may be a little different this time, although the forecast was not for very helpful weather.
So, as we stepped off the plane on Wednesday afternoon, we were hit with almost horizontal rain as the tail-end of a storm was racing across the south-western peninsula. It was incredibly grim, and it wasn't much better when we woke the following morning. Thursday saw us on the coach visiting various sites on the "golden circle" and as we headed over the hills from Reykjavik, the weather hadn't abated at all, and I was genuinely worried that the coach would tip over. Luckily, it got better on and off during the day and we were very fortunate that at none of our stops we got wet, despite it raining regularly all day.
Ravens were the only regular species noted from the coach, and I saw a few Whooper Swans. On the outskirts of the city, Redwings and Greylag Geese fed on the grass verges, but that was about the sum of the sightings from the coach. We stopped for lunch at a little picnic site in the middle of nowhere and there were a few Redpolls flying around, plus a Goldcrest calling from the conifers. I briefly bumped into an Icelandic birder and we mentioned the Goldcrest to each other - but I had to get straight back on the coach. The trouble is with these whistle-stop tours, there's very little time to linger.
We got back to Reykjavik before it got dark and, driving round the city, I noted a few Glaucous Gulls flying on the shore, a few Eiders in the docks, plus some Tufted Ducks on the town lake. We were dropped off by the fantastic Reykjavik Cathedral which I had missed last time. It was a very impressive building.
On Friday, we headed to the southernmost part of Iceland, and the rain continued to fall most of the day. Luckily for us, when we went walking on the glacier, even though it was very damp and the visibility was poor, it was not tipping it down and we were sheltered from the wind.
We stayed the night in the hotel in the countryside, but with the terrible weather, there was no chance of seing any northen lights. On Saturday morning, we were due to spend a little bit of time on the south coast, so I hoped for a couple of birds. At the gift shop at Vik, there were hundreds of Fulmars circling high above the car park below the cliffs. However, the wind was very strong and it was pelting down with rain again, and we had to abandon any hope of any proper coastal visits for safety reasons.
We headed back towards Reykjavik, calling in at a couple of spectacular waterfalls, where we got so wet it was pretty funny. As we pulled in at the geothermal educational centre in Hveragerði, the rain started to ease a lot and a small flock of Redpoll appeared in the trees right next to the hot springs. These were the first Redpolls I had seen in Iceland which were not just flyovers and I managed a few snaps despite the difficulties with the dark conditions and the steam from the hot spring wafting between me and the birds.
I suppose in excess of 30 birds eventually built up in the birch trees but it was difficult to categorise them into a particular form. They were definitely on the large size and bulky in the body. But they seemed rather paler and less streaky than I expected Icelandic Redpolls to be. The breast and flank streaking was obvious but quite light and could not be described as heavy. The colouration of the face and breast was quite a bright buffy colour, but the not-so-streaked backs had a greyish tint to them. The Redpolls of iceland are quite complex it seems, and at this time of year, a few ofthe northern forms could occur here. I don't think that they are pale enough to be any form of Arctic Redpoll - especially with the dark undertail covert streaks in the bottom photo. But I don't think they are dark enough to be true Greenland Redpolls from further north. I suspect - as one might expect - that they are locally-breeding "Iceland" Redpolls which, taxonomically, I think are still lumped with the rostrata Greenlands.
By the time we arrived back at the Reykjavik Youth Hostel to dry out, the sun had emerged for the first time since our arrival. In the low orange sunlight, I strolled around the trees along the edge of the park behind the hostel and the birds were out making the most of the break in the weather. I had a Goldcrest in one of the trees and some more Redpolls flying around, and there were lots of Blackbirds and Icelandic Redwings feeding on the grass. The Redwings from this area are quite dark compared to the Scandinavian ones we ususally see in the UK. Their supercilium is not as bright and obvious and the heavy breast and flank streaking merges into more of a mottled breast band.
Sunday was our last morning in the country and we made our way towards the airport with more rain showers falling on the coach. As we pulled into Blue Lagoon car park, I noticed a lone male, white Ptarmigan perched up on the lava by the roadside just next to the car park. I managed to find a few minutes before we got on the bus to take a good look and a few photos of the bird. My first ever proper white one and a super end to the trip.
As you might have expected, there was not much other wildlife out and about in late autumn in Iceland. I briefly saw a seal off the lava beach and there were a few interesting plants I did not recognise (but not in flower). There were however, hundreds of Winter Moths, with lots at windows and inside buildings, and also flying in the light of the street lights after dark. I suppose that they are so common here because they do not have much competition. I also saw my first ever wingless female Winter Moth, but I couldn't take any photos as it was on the wall right next to the hostel dormitories.
Despite the lack of variety of birds this year - but a few very good sightings - it was, as usual, a terrific trip. What's not to like about geysers and glaciers and waterfalls and swimming in hot springs. Hopefully I will get back to Iceland again, and next time I am sure I'll spot a magnificent Gyr circling the skies.