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Iceland Tour 2019 [Trip Report]

Ivan Phillipsen

This 11-day tour in July 2019 focused on the birds, botany, and geology of Iceland. The Trip Leaders were Ivan Phillipsen and Patty Newland.

Map_Iceland_Tour_1

Day 1 – Local Birding in Reykjavík

The adventure begins! Once the whole group had arrived, we had an orientation gathering at our hotel in downtown Reykjavík. Then we walked a couple blocks to an alehouse where we had lunch at long tables, Viking style.

Our first birdwatching outing followed. We drove out to the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula. We birded the area around Bakkatjörn pond, including the beaches on the north seashore. Here we started getting familiar with Iceland’s common species, such as Eurasian Oystercatcher, Red-necked Phalarope, and Arctic Tern. A few less common species we found were Purple Sandpiper, Common Shelduck, and Long-tailed Duck. This was a very pleasant way to ease into our exploration of Iceland’s avian fauna.

In the early evening we had free time to explore the vibrant city of Reykjavík and to enjoy dinner on our own.

Day 2 – The Golden Circle

Today, we headed east of Reykjavík to drive the world-famous ‘Golden Circle.’ This is a popular tourist route that visits several amazing geological sites.

Our first and most extensively explored stop was Thingvellir (spelled ‘Þingvellir’ in Icelandic). This site is fascinating from the perspectives of both geology and human history. Thingvellir is perhaps the best place in the world to get a first-hand appreciation for the immense forces in the Earth that drive plate tectonics. Here you can see impressive fractures in the bedrock that reflect the volcanic action driving apart the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Thingvellir is also the meeting place of Iceland’s original Althing, the world’s oldest surviving parliament. We walked in the footsteps of Icelanders who came here for almost 1000 years to create laws, settle disputes, trade, and enforce punishments.

Our group walked the trails to see the waterfalls and interesting geological formations. And we had some nice bird sightings, including a pair of nesting Red-throated Loons (i.e. Red-throated Diver).

Our next stop was for lunch. But after our meal, we walked across the street to witness several exciting eruptions of Geysir, the geyser from which all geysers get their name.

Our final stop on the Golden Circle was the enormous Gullfoss waterfall. The falls roar through a canyon of dark basalt in an multi-step fashion. Despite the large crowd of tourists, this waterfall is worth experiencing.

We returned to the city for another free evening.

Day 3 – Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Ferry to Flatey

Saying goodbye to Reykjavík, we drove north in our vans to the beautiful Snaefellnes Peninsula. We drove a rough road through the amazing Berserkjahraun lava flow before making our way to Stikkisholmur to catch the ferry.

The ferry ride north to Flatey Island was lots of fun. There were birds everywhere, floating in the ocean or flying low over it. Here we got our first looks at Atlantic Puffin, which was very exciting for most of us.

We spent the night on tiny Flatey (“Flat Island” in Icelandic). This experience was a highlight for some of us. The collection of colorful homes in this isolated community is charming. The sky and grass at our feet was thick with bird-life. Arctic Terns and Common Redshanks were crying in all directions. The terns here would sometimes dive-bomb us, defending their nests hidden in the grass.

Walking around the island after settling into our hotel, we saw more puffins, a raucous Black-legged Kittiwake colony, Snow Buntings, and countless Common Eiders.

Day 4 – Látrabjarg and the Westfjords

We took a pre-breakfast bird walk around Flatey Island, getting up close looks at many of the species living here. We watched a flock of about 12 Red Knots foraging in the tidepools right next to our hotel.

We walked to the ferry and took it north to begin the next leg of our great journey. We went ashore in the remote Westfjords region of Iceland. The Westfjords are scenic and wild. We would spend the next few days exploring one fjord after another in this amazing region.

From the ferry we drove as far west as one can drive, to the westernmost point of Europe: the cliffs of Látrabjarg. We went to find seabirds and were not disappointed. The cliffs were teeming with Northern Fulmars, Common Murres, Thick-billed Murres, Razorbills, and Atlantic Puffins. We could get delightfully close to the puffins, which was a thrill.

To get to our lodging that night, in the town of Ísafjörður, we had a long, winding road to drive. The landscapes we passed were gorgeous. We stopped to admire the incomparable Dynjandi waterfall.

Day 5 – Hornstrandir Nature Reserve

The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve was our destination today. We met up with a local guide and took a long boat ride out to this isolated peninsula. We spent the day taking hikes around the reserve, admiring the native plants, scenery, and birds. We used a quaint farmhouse as our home base.

This is farthest north we would travel in Iceland. At about 66.29 degrees north, we were close to the Arctic Circle. The silence and solitude of Hornstrandir were wonderful. The day was both invigorating and relaxing. We were hoping to see Arctic Foxes here, but they eluded us. This is Iceland’s only native mammal.

Our local guides prepared a delicious dinner for us in the farmhouse. We took the boat back to Ísafjörður in the evening, then drove onward to our next lodging.

Day 6 – Heydalur Guesthouse and Local Activities

Our lodging last night and tonight was at a pleasant, remote guesthouse. The property had several ‘hot pots’– hot springs suitable for bathing. Many of us took advantage of these to relax and soothe our muscles. Some of us went horseback riding on Icelandic horses, while others took this day to enjoy some rest. We took a casual birding drive to explore the surrounding fjord. The tidal flats at the fjord’s mouth yielded some interesting birds, including our first good looks at Parasitic Jaegar. Some of us got to see Rock Ptarmigan well. We looked for Gyrfalcon in the rocky highlands, but we would have to wait a couple days before seeing that majestic bird.

Day 7 – Road to Lake Mývatn

Mostly a day of road travel. We left the gorgeous Westfjords behind to journey across northwestern Iceland. We had a nice lunch at a guesthouse that also serves as an equestrian center. We got to see a display of horseback riding, including the special gaits of the Icelandic Horse.

We also visited the historically significant site called Glaumbaer. This is the location of a thousand-year-old farmstead. The present site has some very old buildings with traditional turf-grass roofing.

We were lucky when we made a special birding stop to find a large group of Pink-footed Geese in the agricultural fields flanking the Héraðsvötn River. Most of the world’s population of this species breeds in the highlands of Iceland.

Passing through Iceland’s second-largest city, Akureyri, we came at last to our final lodging. We would spend our last four nights here, northwest of Lake Mývatn.

Day 8 – Birding Lake Mývatn

We met up this morning with our local birding guide, who promptly led us to a nearby lake where we had a special experience: seeing an Arctic Loon side-by-side with a Common Loon. Arctic Loons have been recorded in Iceland only a few times. We had great looks at these beautiful birds and the experience was no doubt a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.

We then made our way to the shores of Lake Mývatn. This lake is what drew us to this part of Iceland. It is among the most famous birding hotspots in the world and is— quite literally— a hotspot for geological wonders as well. The lake hosts more breeding duck species than anywhere else in the world. Thousands of ducks and other birds were paddling around on the shallow lake, foraging for insects and aquatic plants.

We visited several sites along the margins of the lake with our local guide. In Höfði Forest, we experienced Iceland’s natural birch forest ecosystem. The island’s early settlers cut down most of this habitat long ago. This was the only site where we got to see Eurasian Wren.

One amusing highlight of the day was watching some female Harlequin Ducks teaching their young ducklings how to swim in the frothing waters of the Laxá River.

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Day 9 – Big Loop: Tjörnes Peninsula

We spent this whole day making stops along a great loop around the Tjörnes Peninsula, location of the town of Husavik. We birded and checked out several awesome geological features.

One of our last stops with our local guide was to a spot where we found two fledgeling Gyrfalcons. This bird is one of Iceland’s primary predators and the country’s national bird. We trained our scopes on these young Gyrfalcons and got to enjoy long looks at them.

The top birding highlight of the day was at the tip of the peninsula where we had good looks at numerous Great Skuas. This site also provided us with our best views of Northern Wheatear and Ruddy Turnstone.

Moving on, we spent time in Ásbyrgi canyon, walking the trails and enjoying the thick birch forest there.

As rain moved in, we came at last to Europe’s most powerful waterfall: Dettifoss. We walked the rocky trail down to the roaring chasm. By the time we made it back to the vans, it was pouring rain. We counted ourselves lucky that most of the day had been plesant and dry.

Day 10 – Geology of the Krafla Volcanic System

Our last full day in Iceland. We ventured out again to the shores of Lake Mývatn to study it’s geological marvels. First up were the pseudocraters on the south shore. These were formed thousands of years ago when a big lava flow flowed into a precurser to Lake Mývatn. Steam exploded up through the cooling lava to form these dramatic craters.

Next, we walked among the fantastical lava formations of Dimmuborgir. Towers of basalt here are often covered in cushiony fringe moss and other native plants. The scenry is like something out of a fairy tale.

Eastward lies Hverir, where we headed next. This volcanic hotspot is peppered with boiling mud pots and sulphur spewing fumaroles. Heavy rains caught us as we finished our walk here.

Luckily, our next stop took us indoors to the visitor center at Krafla Power Plant. This is Iceland’s first geothermal power plant. We learned how geothermal heat is harnessed here.

We made a quick stop to check out the volcanic crater of the Krafla volcano. It is filled by a small lake, milky blue in color.

Several of us opted to spend a relaxing hour at the Mývatn Nature Baths. This is a large, open air wading pool, steaming with geothermal heat. It’s similar to the more famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík, but smaller and less crowded. This was an appropriate way to end a day of learning about Iceland’s geology and geothermal power.

Day 11 – Goðafoss Waterfall and Goodbyes

We checked out of our guesthouse, gathered our things, and headed toward Akureyri and the airport. We made one last nature stop to see the stunning Goðafoss waterfall. It was drizzling as we took a group photo in front of the falls. We had a great group and a wonderful adventure across Iceland’s varied landscapes.

 

Full bird list [download]

Bird Species Highlights

  • Pink-footed Goose
  • Rock Ptarmigan
  • Red-throated Loon
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Great Skua
  • Razorbill
  • Thick-billed Murre
  • Atlantic Puffin
  • Arctic Tern
  • Gyrfalcon
  • Goldcrest
  • Snow Bunting
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