Iceland - 'land of fire and ice'

Iceland is a relatively large, but sparsely populated, Nordic island country that is situated in the North Atlantic between Norway and Greenland. It has a total land area of around 40,000 square miles with a vastly disproportionate coastline that measures close on 3,000 miles long as a result of all the fjords and sea inlets - primarily around the western and northern shores - that cut deep into the country, thereby creating numerous peninsulas and headlands.   

 

Although Iceland is not an EU member state, it is part of Europe and, consequently due to its remote mid-ocean location, has recognition in being the westernmost landmass of the Western Palearctic ecozone. The island lies just south of the Arctic Circle, straddling the northern end of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge - the crack in the ocean floor that separates the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates - which bisects the country diagonally from the southwest near the capital city of Reykjavik up to the northeast. As a result of its location, and the fact that in geological terms Iceland is still relatively young, the country has extensive and continuous volcanic and geothermal activity. There are around 30 active volcanic systems with Hekla, Katla, Krafia, Eldfell and, due to their more recent eruptions, Eyjafjallajökull and Grímsvötn being some of the most famous. The eruption under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap in 2010 was particularly memorable as the resultant volcanic ash plume managed to totally disrupt northern European air travel for several weeks, affecting an estimated ten-million travellers. 

 

The majority of Iceland's 360,000 or so population live in the southwest of the island, in or around Reykjavik. Away from this ‘busy’ region, the town of Akureyri - regarded as capital of the north - is by far the largest settlement with a population of around 19,000. Outside of these two conurbations most Icelandic towns are pretty small with no more than a couple of thousand inhabitants. Virtually all of the island’s towns and communities are located on or reasonably close to the coast as the vast central heartland of the country largely consists of inhospitable wasteland, lava deserts or glaciers. The ring road, or secondary roads thereof, link everything together, with the only really remote areas - in respect of their distance from the main road - being the Westfjords (Vestifirðir) and the extreme northeast. The main ring road is just over 800 miles long so, in theory, you could drive right round the island in less than a day.  Obviously that would be pointless, but it shows that you could visit a number of regions during a two-week holiday. It all depends on how much you want to see and how much time you want to spend in any given area. 

Gullfoss (the 'golden falls') on a dull grey day  |  Hvítá river canyon - 32m drop in two stages

 

Whilst most tourists will go to Iceland for the dramatic scenery and to visit some of the volcanoes, glaciers, geothermal spas and spectacular waterfalls that all contribute in making the country the ‘land of fire and ice’, others will be there for the countryside and the opportunity to ride Icelandic horses, go whale watching or pursue more adventurous activities including white water canoeing and glacier hiking. As a country that offers so much, it’s no surprise that Iceland has now become such a popular travel destination, particularly through the late spring and summer months of mid-May to early September when temperatures are higher and days are long.   

Hjálparfoss (double waterfall), Þjórsádalur Valley

  

But, in addition to all the advertised attractions, Iceland is also a great place to go for the nature; particularly the bird life - the avifauna as it’s otherwise known. Iceland is rather special in this respect and, without trying to explain all the reasons why, it’s worth noting that although most of the bird species you’ll encounter will have Western Palearctic (European) origins, some will have arrived from North America. Many of these birds are now regarded as resident species or partially migratory breeders. It’s birds such as the Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye that will attract wildlife photographers and bird watchers from the UK because, with the possible exception of Scotland, you’re unlikely to see them elsewhere. In fact, the three species I’ve just mentioned breed nowhere else in Europe than Iceland. The country is also the southern limit for several Arctic breeding species such as Pink-footed Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Brunnich’s Guillemot and both Red-necked and Grey Phalarope.

Harlequin Duck [Histrionicus histrionicus] | Snæfellsnes

 

We had a guided seven-day tour of the southwest area of the island back in the spring of 2015, then returned in 2019 for a full two-week self-drive trip that started in the north and finished back in the south at Keflavik international airport. To avoid having totally separate trip reports that would undoubtedly include some repetitive information, I’ve adapted the original piece that I wrote so that the two visits follow on from each other but, to keep the size of the write-up manageable, have split it into two parts. 

South and West Iceland

 

Our first visit, which was in May 2015, was a ‘through the lens’ small group photographic tour organised by Greentours and led by Canadian wildlife and nature photographer Tony Beck, who’s a Nikon Ambassador and representative. The original small group of five actually became an even smaller group of three, as a couple had to pull out at the last minute. So it was just the two of us, a lady from Wales, and Tony in a small SUV. Whilst the vehicle could have been bigger, it was a far more friendly and practical option than being driven round in a minibus. Unfortunately the weather was pretty awful for virtually the whole time we were there, which meant that we ended up spending more time in the vehicle than intended. In was actually so bad that if Tris and I had been there on our own, I don’t think that we would have got out much at all. But, Tony was from Canada, and was hardy, and was used to leading trips in all weather conditions, so with his knowledge, good humour, patience and occasional prompting we stuck as close as we could to the itinerary.  

 

We had two bases on this trip - the first was at Skálholt in the Southern Region (Suðurland) about 50 miles east of Reykjavik, and the second in the Western Region (Vesturland) in the fishing town of Grundarfjörður, which is situated on the northern coast of the wild Snæfellsnes peninsula.  

 

Skálholt, which is a site of historic and religious importance, is situated roughly halfway between Selfoss, and Gullfoss (the ’golden falls’) and Geysir. It was a good location for the popular sites around the area and a convenient base for exploring the southwest coast. The region as a whole is one of fertile lowlands, rivers and lakes, plus waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes but, from a wildlife photography point of view, it was the flat marshy land lying just behind the coast road that proved more interesting. We spent our second day driving around that area trying different tracks at Stóra-Dimon, Skógar and Steig where we photographed various species including Red-necked Phalarope, Whimbrel, Rock Ptarmigan and Great Skua.

Red-necked Phalarope [Phalaropus lobatus] | Steig

 

We also took the ferry across to Heimaey, which is the largest of the Vestmannaejar (Westmen) Islands and an important seabird site. Both during the boat trip across, and whilst on the island, we had various opportunities to photograph Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Eider, Common and Black Guillemot, Razorbill and a few other species. Fortunately the weather was a bit kinder that day - it was still dull and drizzly for some of the time, but at least we didn't have the wind and rain that we'd suffered the day before! 

After three days in the south we headed up to Snæfellsnes, which we did via Þingvellir National Park and Borgarnes. Þingvellir (anglicised as Thingvellir) is a site of historical, cultural and geological importance and supposedly the most popular tourist destination in the country. It was the original location of the ‘Althing’ (an open-air assembly) back in 930 where Icelandic laws were agreed and disputes settled at the Lögberg (Law Rock). The ‘Althing’ continued to convene at Þingvellir until 1798 after which it was moved to Reykjavik where it became the current parliament.  Whilst there is little evidence there today, apart from a few grass covered ruins, the ‘parliament fields’ still hold deep symbolic associations for the people of Iceland. The whole area is now a protected World Heritage Site. The park lies in a rift valley at the end of Þingvallavatn, which is Iceland’s largest natural lake.

 

In addition to the main lake there were a number of inlets and pools around the area, all of which are home - at certain times of the year - to various waders, ducks and geese. We even found a small pond close to the ‘memorial flag’ that had a pair of nesting Red-throated Divers on it. Fortunately it was just over a rise and away from the general public’s view, so hopefully the eggs will have hatched safely without interference.

Red-throated Diver [Gavia stellata] | Þingvellir

 

The Snæfellsnes peninsula is just over 50 miles long with a magnificent mountain range running down the middle. The landscape is diverse and interesting. To the north there’s the Breiðafjörður, which is an extensive shallow bay that separates the peninsula from the western fjords. This large bay has over 2000 islands, islets or skerries, one of which is Flatey Island. This well-known bird haven is situated in the middle of the bay and reached via a 1.5 hour cross-bay car ferry from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur. The ferry will drop foot passengers off on the outward trip and pick them up around 2.5 hours later on the return trip back to Stykkishólmur. I'm glad that we went but, without wanting to labour the point about the weather, it was absolutely disgusting for virtually the full time we were on the island. How, or indeed why, people actually want to live there is beyond me. I'm sure that it's lovely when the sun is out, but for much of the year it's going to be a cold isolated place. In fact, I subsequently read that only a couple of very hardy farmers stay there right through the winter months. We were certainly glad when the ferry arrived and we could get back to the mainland.

White-tailed Eagle [Haliaeetus albicilla] | Kolgrafafjörður, Snæfellsnes

 

When you drive the northern coast road of Snæfellsnes you’ll pass various inlets and fjords, including Kolgrafafjörður, which has a long dirt track around it and is one of the very few places in Iceland where you might just be lucky enough to spot the protected White-tailed Eagle. We were very fortunate indeed to find three birds down on the shoreline when we drove round the first time. Unfortunately they took flight as soon as they heard the car, but they spent a good few minutes just circling above the fjord. 

As you continue west towards the Snæfellsjökull National Park you pass through the towns of Grundarfjörður - where we stayed - then Ólafsvik and Rif where there are some interesting pools to explore. In fact there’s quite a few places to stop off at and have a wander around on this side of the peninsula which is why, during the few days we were there, we didn’t get across to the southern side. Apart from Flatey Island and Kolgrafafjörður, there’s a fish processing plant in Grundarfjörður, which has an outlet into the bay and, although it’s not a particularly attractive spot, is a great place to watch and photograph Northern Fulmar and various gulls. Just past Grundarfjörður at the foot of the distinctive Kirkjufell mountain you’ll cross an inlet where you may find Harlequin Ducks. And then, further along the coast, in Ólafsvik and Rif, the pools that I mentioned are good spots for species such as Red-throated Diver, Common Eider and Red-necked Phalarope.

Kirkjufell (church mountain) - photographed during our second visit to Iceland in June 2019

 

As previously noted, the weather was pretty awful, which was a real disappointment given that we were there at the end of May when temperatures were supposed to be rising with the onset of spring. It was also meant to be the best time of the year for bird watching as migration would be at its peak. They say that Icelandic weather is extremely unpredictable - they even sell tee-shirts emblazoned “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”, but even that doesn’t adequately prepare you. We were just unlucky with our timing, as the country, like most of northern Europe, was experiencing the worst spring weather for thirty odd years and consequently landscapes, which should have been covered with alpine flowers were still bare, and birds that should have been feeding young were still mating or sitting on nests. During our week the weather generally varied between grim and utterly disgusting. We arrived in sun and left in sun, but in between we experienced all the elements the country could throw at us including snow, driving rain and arctic winds that were so strong you could hardly stand up!  It was a pity, not just for the photography where you were almost constantly faced with dull overcast grey skies, but also for the scenery.  It was such a shame as the sun, on the odd occasions it managed to penetrate the clouds, literally transformed the otherwise bleak volcanic landscapes - in places the scenery was stunning, but you needed the sun to appreciate it.

Typical Icelandic Scenery (when the sun is out!)

 

Given the conditions, the relatively short time we were there and the regions we were able to cover, I was actually very pleased with what we saw and were able to photograph. I’ve mentioned quite a few species in the write-up, but there were many others such as Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Arctic Tern, Arctic Skua, Whooper Swan, Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, Red Knot and a few more giving a total of 37 photographed species. 

 

We also had two separate, albeit brief, distant sightings of an Arctic Fox.

Arctic Fox [Vulpes lagopus] | Laugarás

 

We didn’t see Slavonian Grebe, Barrow’s Golden-eye or Long-tailed Duck, because you really need to be in the Mývatn-Laxá area in the northeast to encounter those species. That wasn’t on the agenda for this trip, but it would be for the next because, despite the weather, we had a pretty good time and had seen enough of the country to know that we would like to return.

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