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Review: Birdwatching in Iceland

Specialist Holiday - Safari/wildlife


Birdwatching in Iceland

  • By SilverTraveller Steve-Newman

    18 reviews


  • Jul 2008
  • Solo

106 people found this review helpful

Iceland has always been seen as something of an inaccessible travel destination, mainly because of the distance and isolation involved and the cost of getting there. Now however the low cost airline travel has opened this fascinating and amazing island up to the traveller. If you’re a nature enthusiast then Iceland has to be one of the places on your must visit list. In particular the island has become one of the worlds hotspots for whale watching with blue, fin, humpback and minke as well as the smaller pilot whales, dolphins and porpoises all being able to be seen here. For the bird watcher Iceland is a paradise. We were there for only four days and in this time managed to fine 63 species including most of the Icelandic specialties such as Harlequin, Barrows Golden Eye, Gyr Falcon, raven and ptarmigan.

There aren’t that many places in the world where you can be waiting at head of the runway to take off when you see an arctic fox padding along just minding its own business. Iceland is a breathtaking place and it starts even before you land when the plane flies along the south coast and you look down on the stunning icecaps and snowfields beneath you. Even from the air you can see the steam rising from the thermal springs that the Icelanders have harnessed for their heating and power source. They also use it for cooking as our scrumptious rye bread we had with some fresh Atlantic char had been lowered in a metal container into the geyser to bake. Landing at Keflavik we took the road to Reykjavik and straight away the mountains announced their presence. The road to the capital cuts through the ancient lava fields where the rocks have shattered and cracked as they cooled looking for the entire world like earthquake fissures. Reykjavik is one of those capitals that has a village feel to it, certainly in the centre with is old corrugated iron buildings, and stone Nordic architecture you get the feeling of an up market Norse fishing settlement. The harbour was no more than a minutes’ walk from our hotel and the small lake where we managed to see glaucous gull. scaup, eider and whooper swan merely another three minutes! Iceland’s has a trap in store for your body clock though. For a start you’re flying an hour ahead of our time but because of its latitude it doesn’t get and the dark until much later.

In May we were sitting in a restaurant at midnight and it was still twilight. I asked our guide what it was like tin the winter. ”Not too bad” he replied ”It gets light at noon and dark again at half past two in the afternoon!’ The next morning after our breakfast of sliced meats, cheeses, jam and eggs with four delicious types of bread we flew north to Akureryi. This is the way to see Iceland by flying over it, only then can you get some idea of the sheer magnificent of what is on offer here. The airport at Akureryi is at the end of a huge glaciated valley and below it is the fiord that stretches up to the Arctic Ocean a few miles away. Hiring a car we drove across country towards Lake Myvatn, which is renowned for its 17 species of breeding duck including barrows Golden Eye and harlequin. Driving in Iceland out of the main settlements is easy because very rarely do you meet another car and the scenery as it unfolds around you is superb, try to imagine the Scottish highlands on a more open and grander scale and you’ll get some idea of what I’m talking about. Half way to lake Myvatn we stopped to look at the waterfall of Godafoss, named after the pagan idols thrown not years ago. Something that strikes you straight away is the power and force of Iceland’ rivers. Running in deep gorges or glaciated valleys they are full of meltwater and when they meet a water fall the resulting spectacle can be awesome. On then to the birdwatchers delight of Lake Myvatn, which is often referred to as Europe’s largest bird sanctuary.

A tarmaced road, which offers views of the waterfowl, surrounds the lake and one of the best places to see both harlequins is at the bridge where the road splits to take either the southern or northern route along the shore. Just before the ridge road run close to the banks of the River Laxia that is spotted with small islands and when we visited it was also well stocked with these two beautiful species of duck. If anyone had told me I would get up as close as fifty yards away I simply wouldn’t have believed them. Both the river and the lake are listed as internationally important wetlands We also had stunning views of Great Northern diver, slavonioan grebe, ptarmigan and red necked phalarope but Iceland is not just about birds. Our hotel on the northern shores of the lake overlooked Mt Hverfjall, at over a kilometre wide and 140 metres deep the largest volcanic crater in the world caused by a single eruption. Some ten-minute drive away we climbed up out of the lake basin past a power station harnessing the thermal springs that erupt from the ground here.

Down into the next valley where the soil suddenly changed to an orange colour and from its floor numerous plumes of white smoke gushed out with a roaring noise reminiscent of a hundred pressure cookers about to explode. This is the Hverarond, famous for its bubbling sulphur mud pots. The smell here is that of chemistry lessons and stink bombs but do stay inside the rope walkways as the crust in places is very thin also be careful not linger to long in one place as I felt quite woozy after a while. Even here though in what appears to be a barren lifeless place a gyr falcon swooped along the ridge closely followed by two ravens, Iceland’s only corvid. A short distance from here and further around the shores of the lake are the Dimmuborgir (Dark castles), a surreal lava park with harsh rock formations towering above and delicate Icelandic flowers dotted around beneath. The next morning we drove north out of Myvatn towards the small port of Husavik to indulge in a spot of whale watching. Iceland though is nothing if not full of surprises and suddenly on our way the road ceased to be tarmac and became dirt. Not only that it was raised on an embankment some six feet above the road and the landscape from the lush surrounds of the lake had turned in to a desert of browns and reds sweeping away miles to the left and right of us. Yet this volcanic landscape was bordered by the snow capped mountains in the distance giving it an air of unreality and at the same a majestic beauty, getting out of the car we just had to stop and experience the total silence.

Iceland is rapidly becoming known as one of the places n the world to watch whales. However whales like birds migrate and if you want to see a certain species you will need to do your advanced planning. Other whale watching trips go out from the west coast for up to 10 hours at a time looking for the larger species. At Husavik we saw several minke whales but these do not raise their flukes out of the water when diving so were not as spectacular as we hoped. This was a short three hour trip which was none the less was well worth it as we also saw Black Guillemot, thousands of puffins and memorably a blue phase fulmar gliding sedately around the boat.

An additional treat was the cup of hot chocolate and delicious Icelandic version of an Eccles cake. In fact food on the island was very good, there are restaurants in Reykjavik selling traditional food but you can also get superb local food out in the country. Seafood as you would expect is marvellous here. Ordering a prawn baguette I had expected the small pink version we get in our prawn sandwiches not a bit of it, mine came with prawns that would have put scampi to shame and was absolutely delicious. However if you like a drink when you are holiday beware as alcohol in Iceland is very expensive with a small bottle of beer costing up to 5.00 in places. Having said that this country has so much going for it you can easily put up with this. The tourist information centre is one of the best I’ve seen for maps and ideas on what to do from jeep safaris up glaciers to bathing hot thermal springs, dog sledge trails, walking and cycling, Helicopter or plane rides over the volcanic areas looked particularly good and if you’re into motoring then it’s possible to circumnavigate the island by car.


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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • ESW
    over 7 years ago
    I have enjoyed reading your review. Iceland is marvellous and we ran out of adjectives to describe it.

    We aren't really bird watchers but were bowled over by the bird life - the sight of a great northern diver swimming under water in Lake Myvatn, the puffins near Bakkagerdi, snipe drumming and its high pitched call which seemed to go on all night. We didn't see the red neck phalarope but did see the splendid bar tailed godwit.