Trip Report: Iceland, 20-24 April, 2000

Don Cotton, Noel Raftery, Fergal Henry & Brian Cahill, Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland;

Four friends from Ireland took the opportunity to visit Iceland on the Easter weekend of 20-24 April 2000 with the aim of enjoying the scenery, taking photographs and bird-watching. The weather was much better than expected with blue skies for the entire visit but low daytime temperatures (1-4°C) and a strong breeze for four of the five days giving a considerable wind-chill effect. A car was hired from Geysir/Avis at a very reasonable rate with unlimited kilometers and Collision Damage Waver (CDW) at a cost of less than Kr 20,000 for the four days. As we managed to drive 1,600km and shared the costs, this was a very satisfactory arrangement.

20 April 2000

Evening drive south-west from Reykjavik and around the base of the Reykjanes peninsula via Kleifarvatn (lake) to Grindavik and home on more major roads. This was the first experience of a tundra landscape for some of the party and also of volcanic activity and lava fields. At the southern end of the Kleifarvatn we came across an area with steaming geothermal springs, bubbling mud and sulphurous smells right next to the mountain road. Bird highlights were a male Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca carolinensis) with two Teal of the nominate race (A. crecca crecca) and a male Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) with two females that might have been of the same species or may have been Tufted Duck, all on Kleifarvatn. Two Ptarmigan on a snow patch within 10 m of the gravel road were viewed in fading light, but at close range from the car.

21 April 2000

Circuit from Reykjavik to western end of Snaefellsnes peninsula. On the outward route we followed the coast, taking the road tunnel under Hvalfjordur. We were impressed by the large numbers of Eider duck in every bay of the sea, and by the large numbers of Golden Plover and Greylag Geese in the pasture fields. A small mixed flock of migrating White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese, probably all the way from Ireland and on their way to Greenland, were an unexpected bonus. A brief sighting of a Gyrfalcon chasing Golden Plover was made near Faskrudarbakki which is about 60 km north-west of Borgarnes. At the western end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula the small harbour at Gislabaer and the coastal walk to Hellnar provided attractive coastal scenery with diverse bird life including Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers. Returning along the northern shore of the peninsula there was some good wader habitat between Rif and Olafsvik, and in a fjiord we saw a flock of over 340 Brent Geese, also heading for their breeding grounds in Greenland.

22 April 2000

Round trip taking in Pingvallavatn (lake), Geysir and Gullfos (waterfall) then returning by a circuitous route to the main road (route 1) near Hella with an evening diversion through farmland between the main road and the sea where there were many large flocks of geese.

Our first stop of the day was north of Selfoss where Route 350 splits off from the 35 beside a bridge over the Sog river. Here we had wonderful views of Barrow's Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck. Pingvallavatn was frozen but the river leaving the lake had two pairs of Goosander. We returned to the 35 via Route 36 where Noel and Don had seen White-tailed Sea Eagles along the banks of the Sog river on a previous trip (28 November 1998), but unfortunately there were no eagles this time. Apart from enjoying the scenery we had many encounters with flocks of Pink-footed and White-fronted Geese as we ventured along roads between pasture fields. One road took us through lava fields resembling a lunar landscape, and close to Hekla volcano we stopped to collect some ash and pumice which were deposited about a month earlier when the volcano had a minor eruption. Near to the coast there was a large flock of Barnacle Geese which we thought might have just arrived from southern climes, and we wondered if they were some of 'our own' geese from Sligo, Ireland. We could not approach close enough to see if they had any rings, but a memorable experience was reading the codes on two pink-footed geese (CSV & FIZ) and three white-fronted geese (FOL, 7CF & F7F).

23 April 2000

Our aim on this day was to go as far east along the coast whilst stopping at anything that took our interest. This meant passing through the lowland areas covered on the previous day with minor stops, until we reached the waterfall at Skogafoss near Skogar. Here we saw Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) which was one of the few plants in flower. We diverted off the main road after Skogar to visit Myrdals Jokull (glacier) which was covered in black ash from the Hekla eruption. Continuing eastwards along the main road we spotted sea cliffs at Dyrholaey where we hoped to find Brunnich's Guillemot. There were thousands of Puffins on the sea and a selection of other sea birds including some Guillemots and Razorbills but Brunnich's Guillemot had evaded us! At the highest point there is a lighthouse from which one can look over the cliff edge to view magnificant coastal scenery including a natural sea arch and a sea stack.

24 April 2000

On this day two of us continued to birdwatch with the aim of finding Brunnich's Guillemot, whilst the others went into Reykjavik to see the city. We went to the western end of the Reykjanes peninsula and visited just about every accessible piece of coastline during our 5 hours before we had to be at the airport. No Brunnich's Guillemots were found but we did visit two areas of sea cliffs as well as several fishing harbours. The village of Sandgerdi was particularly good for bird abundance and diversity, and excellent photographs of Eider Duck were obtained in the harbour. The Reykjanesta cliffs between Hafnir and Grindavik were scenically the most interesting site just 20 minutes drive from the airport. A dead White-sided Dolphin was found on the beach at Gardskagi which had a rope tied around its tail and net marks on its body indicating that it had been caught by fishermen and dumped. Those who went into Reykjavik city centre enjoyed close views of Greylag Geese, Whooper Swans and a selection of duck on the artificial lake.

Overall impressions

Once clear of Reykjavik the beautiful and mostly unspoilt scenery was a continuous pleasure to behold. The low volumes of road traffic made driving relatively easy, but the surfaces were only sealed on major roads. Several birds were exceptionally common such as Fulmar, Eider Duck, geese, Golden Plover and Redwing. We were particularly pleased to see migrating White-fronted, Brent and Barnacle Geese which would have included birds that spent the winter with us in Ireland. The lack of Snow Buntings was a mystery, and we were disappointed not to see Brunnich's Guillemots, and we had also hoped that Red-necked Phalaropes might have been around suitable freshwater lakes and marshes.


Hagemeijer, W.J. & M.J. Blair (1997)(eds.) The EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds: their distribution and abundance. T & A D Poyser, London.

Icelandic Breeding Birds with Number of Breeding Pairs (after Hagemeijer & Blair 1997) and Birds Seen During Visit to Iceland 20-24 April 2000

SpeciesBreeding Pairs  Th 20 Fri 21 Sat 22  Sun 23 Mon 24
Red-throated Diver1,400      
Great northern Diver300      
Slavonian Grebe4006 1   
Fulmar1,410,00010 30005020001000
Manx Shearwater7,000      
Storm Petrel70,000      
Leach's Storm Petrel110,000      
Gannet25,000  5 15 
Shag8,000  10   
Whooper Swan1,90082020 10010
Pink-footed Goose19,000   8001000 
White-fronted Goosenon-breeding 50 800500 
Greylag Goose14,1001003001000 30020
Barnacle Goose<10 20450   
Brent Goosenon-breeding 340+    
Wigeon5,000 410 42
Green-winged Teal
1 male
10 8020
Tufted Duck7,00034  620
Ring-necked Ducknon-breeding1 male     
Eider245,0001001000250 1000500
Harlequin Duck2,400 1020 8 
Long-tailed Duck3,200 2    
Common Scoter500     3
Barrow's Goldeneye280   30  
Red-breasted Merganser3,0006  1 6
Goosanderfrequent  4 3 
Ruddy Duckrare      
White-tailed Eagle30      
Gyrfalcon350 1    
Oystercatcher14,00050104 5010
Ringed Plover38,500 10  42
Golden Plover240,000100500 503000300
Sanderlingnon-breeding     4
Purple Sandpiper17,000 150  22
Dunlin240,000    10 
Snipe240,0002001050 5030
Black-tailed Godwit9,00051 501002
Redshank71,000103020 30100
Turnstonenon-breeding 6  42
Red-necked Phalarope39,000      
Grey Phalarope50      
Arctic Skua7,100      
Great Skua5,400      
Black-headed Gullcommon200200 102020
Common Gullfrequent      
Lesser Black-backed Gull30,000100   5080
Herring Gullfrequent 10  106 
Iceland Gullnon-breeding     1
Glaucous Gull12,200100200  30200
Great Black-backed Gull21,00010 10101010
Kittiwake690,000 100  1000500
Arctic Tern360,000      
Guillemot1,190,000    500 
Brunnich's Guillemot690,000      
Little Aukuncommon      
Razorbill340,000    506
Black Guillemot14,000 1    
Puffin2,400,000    2000 
Rock Doveuncommon      
Snowy Owl2      
Short-eared Owl180      
House Martinrare       
Meadow Pipit700,000 1 264
Rock Pipitrare      
White Wagtailcommon     2
Wheatearcommon    1 
Redwing180,000205030 20050
Mistle Thrushrare      
Ravencommon22030 610
Starlingfrequent10   1020
House Sparrowrare      
Snow Bunting70,000 2 1 2

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; July 22, 2000