Friday, 20 March 2015

Iceland Gulls Galore in Iceland - 12th - 16th March 2015

March 12th and we headed off to Terminal 1 at Heathrow for our flight to Reykjavik in Iceland. Terminal 1 is closing in June and it was very quiet and quite empty but it is still linked to the new Terminal 2 so we wandered over there to have a look around as our flight was delayed due to bad weather in Iceland.

I have always wanted to visit Iceland and had originally planned to visit a few years ago in the summertime but the Icelanders had recommenced whaling and so I decided to go elsewhere. I did e-mail the Icelandic Minister for the Enviroment to voice my objections and reasons why I would not visit Iceland but received a standardised response.

I had the same reservations last year before visiting Malta due to their continued spring hunting of birds against EU law. However the TV presenter Chris Packham headed an excellent campaign last year to raise awareness of this issue resulting in a referendum being held in Malta this year. He had advised against boycotting Malta, arguing that birders should visit to promote birding tourism to help convince the Maltese that not shooting birds would be more lucrative. And so it is with whaling in Iceland - if tourists go to see whales it provides alternative income to hunting whales. And so I decided I would go and see things for myself.

Hallgrimskirkja - the view from one of our hotel room skylights

Reykjavik - the view from the other hotel room skylight and where we saw the Northern Lights

Unfortunately the weather in Iceland was Shite and it was Shite with a capital S. I wasn't expecting it to be great but it was bad, even the locals were saying it was bad, and as a result all whale watching excursions were cancelled each day we were there which was a big shame.It was also very sad to see so many restaurants in Reykjavik quite openly advertising whale meat on their menus, all of which we avoided like the plague.

We did visit a new exhibition on the whales of Iceland in a warehouse on the quay in Reykjavik which had life sized models of whales and dolphins found in Icelandic waters and which was quite interesting if a little expensive.

 Blue Whale with Bowhead Whale and Sperm Whale in the background
 Sei Whale
Blue Whale

Despite all this Iceland was great - stunningly beautiful and eerie with a slight feeling of dangerousness and lots of snow and ice. The weather changed hourly and for 2 nights we had hurricane/gale force winds which were not condusive to sleep when your hotel room is in the eaves of the roof - very noisey, rattley and a little disconcerting with images of the roof blowing off in the back of my sleep deprived mind. Flights were cancelled, tours were cancelled and our 2 day car hire was changed to just 1 because of the wind. But it was still great!

 Icelandic Wilderness
Gullfoss Waterfall

Bird wise I saw 24 species, not bad considering the weather and the time of year. Whooper swans on the lake in the centre of Reykjavik were very tame like mute swans are in the UK and with a lone pink footed goose, greylag geese, wigeon, mallard, tufted duck and red breasted merganser on show too I returned on a number of occasions to have a look at them. Just outside the harbour in Reykjavik a large congregation of birds would hang around close to shore where an upwelling of water appeared at regular intervals instigating a feeding frenzy and allowing great views of Iceland gulls along with glaucous gulls, common gulls, herring gulls, kittiwake, lesser- and greater black backed gulls, black headed gulls, fulmars, eiders, black guillemots, shag and cormorant. I'm not sure what the upwelling was, maybe natural thermal upwellings or probably sewage!

 Tjornin Lake, Reykjavik
Whooper swans (one with a crinkly neck)

Whooper Swans

 Whooper Swans
Whooper Swan

Pink Footed Goose , Tjornin Lake, Reykjavik
Iceland Gull

 Male Eider
 Black Guillemot
 Juvenile Glaucous Gull with Iceland Gulls
Glaucous and Iceland Gulls
 Iceland Gull
Congregation of birds along Reykjavik Waterfront
 Gulls and Fulmars
Juvenile Iceland Gull

Ravens were seen everywhere, even in the icy wilderness far from human habitations, and I saw 2 small flocks of snow buntings flying overhead as we drove around the snowy wilderness. In Reykjavik I saw a few starlings and a male blackbird, the starlings had unusual sounding calls and song, presumably an Icelandic accent and not a Janner one!

Colourful graffiti, Reykjavik

And so to the Northern Lights - we saw them! Pretty jammy considering the weather but see them we did. Our booked night time boat trips out of Reykjavik to look for the Lights were cancelled every night due to the bad weather and it was pretty cloudy most of the time but our hotel reception guy (nicknamed Mr Chuckles due his slightly offish and grumpy demeanour) told us that the sky would be clear at 2am on the 15th and we should look out of our North facing window to see the Northern Lights. I set my alarm for 3am but was awake at 2:30 and on looking out of the window it was mostly clear and we saw what we assumed were the Lights, a thin and wavery line across the sky like a band of green tinged fog that we could see the stars through. We got dressed and walked down to the waterfront where a couple of guys were taking photos, we had a look at what they had taken and it was quite clearly the Northern Lights, the photos being much better than what our eyes could discern in the huge amount of light pollution being made by the city lights. The lights came and went as did the clouds and on heading back to the hotel due to coldness and tiredness we saw the Lights right over the hotel, again a thin, green tinged, wavery line difficult to see due to the light pollution. However on getting back in our room the Lights really kicked off and gave a great display, twisting and turning and merging across the sky before the cloud rolled in again - amazing to see despite the light pollution, if we had been out of the city it would have been a fantastic sight. We had been very lucky but it has just made me want to see them properly even more!

 Northern Lights from our hotel room  - the smudgey, greenish streak in the middle (crap photo)
Northern Lights - more smudgey green streaks - another crap photo

And so Iceland was amazing - cold, wet, windy, icy, snowy and tiring but with some great views of some birdlife and the Northern Lights - feeling totally flat now I am back in the UK and back to work but I have had a wonderful experience. Hopefully whaling will come to an end soon in Iceland too.

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