Trip Report: Iceland Stopover, November 26-28, 1996

Bill Smith, P.O. Box 901341, Homestead, Florida 33090, USA;

I have always had an interest in Iceland's birds and culture, but visiting the Virginia-sized island-country in the North Atlantic has seemed financially daunting. During the summer season when most people go, on-the-ground costs per couple per day easily could exceed $500 for room, board, and transportation, while airfare to Iceland itself has always seemed exorbitant. However, the national airline Icelandair runs an efficient hub system connecting its flights to North America and to Europe, and offers competitive through fares for transatlantic passengers. Periodically they also offer a subsidized 1-3 day stopover option, and now is one of those times. Thus, my wife and I were able to fly to London for the same as others' winter fare, while staying at almost any hotel in Reykjavik (including its best, the Hotel Saga) for two nights for $110/night per couple, including breakfast daily (beginning 4:30 a.m.!) and transfers to/from the 50-km-distant airport. We found a good off-season deal (by Icelandic standards) on a small hire car from Geysir ( ~$75/day including 24.5% tax, full insurance, and 200 free km/day. Hertz, bookable even at a much-reduced rate through the airline, was more.

Our flight arrived at modern Keflavik Airport about 6 am, and we were at the hotel by 8. Once settled, we called Geysir, who picked us up and took us to their office to complete paperwork. Since birdable light at this season begins about 10 am, we were heading east for the River Sog, nearest site for Barrow's Goldeneye, before dawn in a light snowfall. After finding them below Ulfljotsvatn, we drove past flocks of Snow Buntings through magnificent scenery to Hvalfjordur, where we birded to the east end of the fjord, then back towards Reykjavik. Off a picnic table at Hofsvik, a bay about 25 km n of Reykjavik, we had our first Harlequin Ducks. We then went into the city as light began to fade towards 4 pm, and stopped at the Natural History Museum to thank the staff for their pre-trip advice. We ate dinner at a very traditional, small romantic restaurant Thrir Frakkar hja Ulfari, where I tried the tasty sauteed (Thick-billed/Brunnich's ?) murre/guillemot in game sauce.

After a long sleep, we were out the next day again before dawn, heading west out the Reykjanes Peninsula towards Keflavik. We mainly birded at Sandgerdi, Gardur, and Hafnir, with highlights including more Harlequins, Shags, the local races of Winter Wren and Redwing, and a vagrant wintering American Black Duck. We returned to Reykjavik in time to do some shopping, then ate at a pleasant small restaurant downtown, Hornid. We turned in the car keys to the hotel's front desk as agreed with Geysir, having driven just under 400 km in 2 days. If daylight were longer, we would have needed the unlimited km option, offered at ~$85/day. Next morning, we had early breakfast and were picked up at 6 a.m. for our 8:30 onward flight. Our total ground cost for 2 people for 2 days was ~$550 (excluding shopping), about half what it might have cost in summer.

Iceland is beautiful, fascinating, and the people very pleasant and helpful. English is widely spoken, so it really was a no-problem place to visit. We could have stayed one more day on the stopover package for roughly a commensurate increase in cost. In summer, undoubtedly we would have wanted to range farther, and probably the 3-day limit to the subsidized stopover (not to mention higher costs overall) would have been confining. Anyway, brief as it was, we enjoyed our visit to Iceland immensely. Incidentally, that name is a misnomer; temperatures hovered around freezing.

Annotated List of Birds Seen

  1. Cormorant, Great (Phalacrocorax carbo)
    3 seen Hvalfjordur, 35+ from Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  2. Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)
    1 Sandgerdi, ca. 20 at Gardur.
  3. Heron, Gray (Ardea cinerea)
    1 Hafnarfjordur along highway Reykjavik - Keflavik.
  4. Swan, Whooper (Cygnus cygnus)
    20+ Ulfljotsvatn, ca. 50 on Reykjanes Pen.
  5. Goose, Graylag (Anser anser)
    ca. 10 flying near Reykjavik Tjorn.
  6. Teal, Green-winged (Anas crecca)
    ca. 10 in 1's and 2's on Reykjanes Pen., all nominate crecca.
  7. Duck, American Black (Anas rubripes)
    Flushed with 2 Mallards from shore near Nordukut Farm stakeout at Sandgerdi, flew to island off Sandgerdi town, too far to study.
  8. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
    Common, all waters.
  9. Wigeon, Eurasian (Anas penelope)
    ca. 25 Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  10. Duck, Tufted (Aythya fuligula)
    ca. 50 on Reykjavik Tjorn, a few on Reykjanes Pen.
  11. Scaup, Greater (Aythya marila)
    ca. 75 in tidal creek east of Hafnir.
  12. Eider, Common (Somateria mollissima)
    Thousands, all coastal waters.
  13. Duck, Harlequin (Histrionicus histrionicus)
    7 off picnic table at Hofsvik ca. 25 km n of Reykjavik. Also 7 Sandgerdi, 25+ Hafnir Harbor.
  14. Oldsquaw (Clangula hyemalis)
    ca. 100 Hvalfjordur and ca. 100 around Reykjanes Pen.
  15. Goldeneye, Barrow's (Bucephala islandica)
    1 male, 3 female-types in River Sog, ca. 2 km s of Ulfljotsvatn.
  16. Merganser, Red-breasted (Mergus serrator)
    A few widely.
  17. Merlin (Falco columbarius)
    Single near Hvalfjordur, and 1 each in Sandgerdi and Gardur. Semi-endemic race subaesalon.
  18. Oystercatcher, Eurasian (Haematopus ostralegus)
    ca. 1,500 Hvalfjordur, ca. 250 Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  19. Redshank, Common (Tringa totanus)
    ca. 10, Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  20. Turnstone, Ruddy (Arenaria interpres)
    ca. 20, Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  21. Sandpiper, Purple (Calidris maritima)
    Hundreds on flats at east end of Hvalfjordur, ca. 50 Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  22. Gull, Black-headed (Larus ridibundus)
    ca. 100 in field near Reykjavik Tjorn, ca. 20 Sandgerdi Harbor.
  23. Gull, Mew (Larus canus)
    ca. 25 Sandgerdi Harbor area.
  24. Gull, Herring (Larus argentatus)
    ca. 25, Sandgerdi - Gardur.
  25. Gull, Iceland (Larus glaucoides)
    Hundreds Hvalfjordur, some Reykjanes Pen.
  26. Gull, Lesser Black-backed (Larus fuscus)
    Single sighting (ad.) Hofsvik.
  27. Gull, Glaucous (Larus hyperboreus)
    ca. 50 widely on Reykjanes Pen.
  28. Gull, Great Black-backed (Larus marinus)
    A few Hvalfjordur, more Reykjanes Pen.
  29. Raven, Common (Corvus corax)
    Fairly common and widespread.
  30. Wren, Winter (Troglodytes troglodytes)
    Single sighting Gardur, otherwise not noted. Endemic race islandicus.
  31. Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
    ca. 15 Sandgerdi - Gardur. Semi-endemic race coburni.
  32. Starling, Common (Sturnus vulgaris)
    4 in Reykjavik city, ca. 200 Reykjanes Pen.
  33. Bunting, Snow (Plectrophenax nivalis)
    Flocks seen widely in interior and along west coast of Reykjanes Pen.

Return to trip reports.

This page served by Urs Geiser;; December 19, 1995