Iceland - 'revisited'
Having explored a few different areas of the southwest of the island on our previous trip, we wanted to ensure that any future itineraries would include sufficient time in the north to take in the Mývatn-Laxá region and some of the Arctic coastline and, if practical, a couple of days back on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Looking at the geography and the regions we wanted to visit, coupled with the logistics of getting there, it was clear that the return trip we were starting to plan for June 2019 would need to be a full two-weeks' duration.
We didn’t want to be tied down to a rigid itinerary so decided that we'd hire a small 4x4 in order to give us total freedom to explore, including being able to drive on some of the highland F-roads that tourists are not allowed to use unless they’re in a suitable vehicle. The only limiting, although necessary factor due to the time of year, is that we wanted to ensure that all of our accommodation was pre-booked, which would obviously determine when we would need to move on to the next destination.
The success of the trip would be very much down to research and planning in order to put together a workable itinerary that would allow us to cover as much ground as possible without excessive driving. With that point in mind we decided that to maximise our time in the north, and avoid having to partially repeat some of the route on the way back, we would stopover in Reykjavík on arrival and take the morning internal flight to Akureyri from where we would collect the hire car. We would then travel east to Lake Mývatn where we would stay for three nights, then north to Húsavik on the shores of Skjálfandi bay for a night, before driving back down to Akureyri and up to the fishing port of Siglufjörður for two nights. Then, after six full days in the north, we would continue our journey west across to the Snæfellsnes peninsula where we´d stayed previously, stopping en-route for a couple of nights in the Vidhistaltunga valley close to Laugarbakki and the Vatnsnes peninsula. The last time we visited Snæfellsnes we stayed on the northern coast in the fishing port of Grundarfjörður, so this time we opted for a change of scenery at Hellnar on the even quieter southern side of the peninsula close to the Snæfellsjökull glacier. We would have two days exploring Snæfellsnes before starting the final leg of the trip back down to the international airport at Keflavík. That leg of the journey would be split by staying overnight at a guesthouse located at the southern end of Þingvallavatn, followed by a final night at Grindavík on the southern coast of Reykjanes, which would give us a full day in the south, and provide us with a convenient location for getting across to Keflavík early the next morning for our flight back home.
The above itinerary, which was put together in conjunction with Wildlife Worldwide, would enable us to visit six of Iceland’s eight geographical regions, namely Norðurland Eystra (Northeastern Region), Norðurland Vestra (Northwestern Region), Vesturland (Western Region), Höfuðborgarsvæðið (Captital Region - not shown on the map), Suðurland (Southern Region) and Suðurnes (Southern Peninsula) - the missing two being Vestifirðir (Westfjords) and Austurland (Eastern Region). Whereas we had just two bases on our previous trip in 2015, this time we would have seven, excluding our first night in Reykjavik.
That was the plan, so it was now fingers crossed in respect of the weather.
We arrived in Keflavík mid-morning on Sunday, 9th June. It was sunny and pleasantly warm, albeit rather breezy which it often is on the Reykjanes peninsula. Our taxi was waiting, so we loaded up and set off on the 45 minute transfer to our hotel in central Reykjavík. We were just going to be killing time here so, after booking in and dropping our bags in the room, we walked into town and had some lunch. I can’t remember exactly how long he said it had been, but the waiter made a point of informing us that they’d now had considerably more continuous sunny days through May, and June so far, than they’d had decent days during the whole of the previous year. The question was whether it was going to last?
It was actually really warm walking round Reykjavík, so after lunch we headed down to Tjörnin - the city pond - which is a lovely spot to while away a couple of hours or so watching the various species of waterfowl that reside there, including Whooper Swan, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck and a few Common Eider. Away from the busy end of the lake there’s even a small Arctic Tern colony. We didn’t have our cameras with us, so we just strolled around enjoying the sunshine.
The next morning we were picked up and taken across town to Reykjavík regional airport for the flight up to Akureyri. We’d barely got into the small arrivals hall before our bags appeared, so we got them on the trolley and headed off to the car rental booths eager to be on our way. The chap on the Hertz desk seemed as keen as we were as he took no time at all getting us booked onto the system. He whipped through the paperwork and handed us the car key with minimum formalities. I marked this down as Icelandic efficiency, but I was wrong, because after a fruitless fifteen minutes or so checking every car in the carpark I had to make my way back to the terminal to ask for help finding our vehicle, only to discover that all the car rental desks were locked up and the airport all but deserted. Apparently it was a bank holiday and there were no more flight in or out until later in the afternoon. A great start. Anyway, we eventually found someone, who in turn located a Hertz representative who, after walking round all the hire cars, agreed that ours was strangely not there. Two phone calls later and, to our relief, the car had been located and was being driven over from wherever it had been parked. So finally, with our little Toyota Rav4 loaded up, we set off towards Lake Mývatn. Just a word of caution here - for anyone that may be reading this and is planning a similar trip - which is in respect of the toll for driving through the Vaðlaheiði tunnel. I knew in advance that we would have to drive through this unmanned tunnel so, rather than having to worry about paying the toll charge online, I download the phone app. It was just a simple case of registering your personal and debit card details in advance, and putting in your registration number once you’ve picked up the hire car, and then you don’t have to worry. But, what I completely forgot to do after dropping off the hire car in Keflavik was to deregister. The car ended up back in the north and, inadvertently or not, the person who was driving it failed to make their own arrangements regarding the toll charges so they ended up on my debit card weeks after we returned home!
Anyway that's enough regarding the preliminaries of this trip so, now we’re finally on our way to our first location, I’ll try to keep the focus of the main part of this write-up on the different places we visited and the species we were able to photograph.
Our hotel in Mývatn was conveniently situated on the southern side of the lake in, what turned out to be, one of the few areas where you could easily access the shoreline. Mývatn is a large, shallow, nutrient-rich lake that is home, and breeding site at certain times of the year, to more species of duck than anywhere else in Europe. The lake, surrounding wetlands and nearby River Laxá are all part of the wider Mývatn-Laxá Nature Conservation Area.
View across the road to Lake Mývatn from our hotel window
In the two and a bit days we were there we had success photographing Slavonian Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Duck, Tufted Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye, as well as Harlequin Duck on the fast-flowing Laxá. As a point of interest, Mývatn means ‘lake of midges’ and, of course, it’s these midges and other aquatic insects that attract the ducks. I knew that the midges could be a problem, but I had no idea that the swarms could be so thick at times that you could have trouble focusing through them! I thought Mývatn was bad, but that was nothing compared with one of the stretches of the Laxá where we were literally enveloped in them - take a midge net and keep your mouth closed would be my advice. Despite the midges, I really liked this area and would thoroughly recommend it, but don’t think that because the road, which is about 22 miles (36km) long, goes all the way round the lake that they’ll be plenty of places to stop and walk, because there’s not. There are a few hidden tracks and spots if you know where to look but, of course, if you’re visiting Mývatn for the first time you don’t know where they are. The other factor to consider is that the general area is popular, not only with other tourists that are doing similar self-drive road trips, but also with tour coaches. Fortunately most people are there for the scenery rather than the wildlife, which was surprising as I expected to see far more birdwatchers and photographers than we did.
But, it's worth remembering that this is very nearly ’the land of the midnight sun’ at this time of year - not quite, but you can certainly go out for a few hours before breakfast and a good couple of hours or so in the evening after dinner. Not only are the general conditions better then - lower sun and calmer waters - but there will obviously be far fewer people around. In fact, most of my better shots from Mývatn were taken during these times.
Slavonia (Horned Grebe [Podiceps auritus] | Mývatn
Barrow's Goldeneye [Bucephala islandica] | Laxá backwater
We left Mývatn on the Thursday morning to drive up to our second base in Húsavik, which we did the long way round via Dettifoss - the ‘King of Icelandic Waterfalls’ - and Ásbyrgi where we stopped for a bite to eat. There was no point getting to Húsavik too early, so after lunch we explored further north along the pretty coast road on the eastern side of Öxarfjörður, before doubling back and driving through the Skjálftavatn wetlands and around the Tjörnes peninsula. This headland is supposed to be a good place to see Rock Ptarmigan. We saw a pair fly across the road, but unfortuantely couldn’t spot any in the rocky tundra habitat.
Coastal view across the wild lupins towards Öxarfjörður
Húsavik is a small traditional Icelandic town situated on the edge of Skjálfandi bay. Whilst still regarded as a fishing port, the town’s real claim to fame is that it is globally recognised as one of the very best whale watching locations in the world. Indeed the harbour was full of dedicated whale-watching boats that seemed very popular despite the cost. In fact we saw two boats go out late evening whilst we were having a meal in a lovely timber-clad waterfront restaurant. The town is also recognised as being the oldest settlement in Iceland with the first homestead dating back to 870 AD. Húsavik means ‘bay of houses’. We were only there for a night, but it gave us the opportunity to see some of the northeast region before we started heading west.
Next stop was Siglufjörður, which entailed getting back on the ring road and back through the Vaðlaheiði tunnel to Akureyri, from where we would head north again. After leaving Húsavik you have about 28 miles (45km) to travel before you come to the main road and along this stretch there are a number of supposedly good birding spots. First is a small lake at Kaldbakur, which is usually home to a pair of Great Northern Divers. Next is a bridge over the River Laxá at Mýrarvatn where there’s another chance of seeing divers, plus Common Eider. There’s also a well-known pond that’s worth checking out at Hraun although I couldn’t find it. And finally, there’s a much larger lake called Vestmannsvatn, which is yet another really good spot for Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe and other waterfowl. I certainly wouldn’t say that these locations are a waste of time because you will see birds but, from my experience, you’ll be looking at them through binoculars and not through a camera lens. Anyway, it’s always good to look.
Once you join up with the main road it doesn’t take long to get to Akureyri and onto route 82, which takes you up the western shore of Eyjafjörður. We stopped for lunch in Dalvík and then had a look round the harbour where there were a few Common Eider families with chicks. Dalvík is another fishing port and whale-watching centre like Húsavik, but it's also a ferry port to get to the islands of Hrísey and Grímsey - the latter being just inside the Arctic Circle and the most northerly settlement in Iceland. The next town you come to is Ólafsfjörður where you can either continue on the main road to Siglufjörður via the tunnel, or take a long detour inland on a gravel road that winds across country eventually taking you past Stífluvatn before joining the main road again on the other side of the peninsula. That route, which is quite scenic in places, also takes you alongside Ólafsfjarðarvatn as you leave the town, and it was on this lake that we had our best - albeit still distant - Great Northern Diver encounter.
Great Northern Diver (aka.Common Loon) [Gavia immer] | Ólafsfjarðarvatn
I’m pleased that Siglufjörður was on our itinerary and that we were there for two nights because, not only was it a lovely place to stay, we had all the following day to explore the local area. So the next morning, after enjoying breakfast overlooking the harbour, we started off by heading down to the old deserted airstrip on the eastern side of the fjord where there’s a large Common Eider nesting site.
Common Eider (male) [Somateria mollissima] | Siglufjörður
We spent a productive couple of hours there before an interesting and somewhat hairy drive through the tunnels back to Ólafsfjarðarvatn for another attempt with the diver. I say hairy, because the tunnels are long, very dark and single lane with passing places. The traffic coming towards Siglufjörður has priority so, if you’re travelling the other way as we were, you have the responsibility of judging the distance to the next pull in. I suppose if you’re local and know the tunnel, the system probably works well, but if it’s your first trip through you need to have your wits about you because, although there’s not much traffic on this road, the locals don’t hang around. On one occasion when I had headlights coming towards me I decided to pull into a passing place just to be safe, only for a car to come tearing up behind me and overtake, no doubt knowing he could get to the next passing place in time. And, in the second tunnel, just as I was coming round a bend before the exit, a car suddenly appeared and drove straight at me making it quite clear that it was my responsibility to reverse back to a passing place.
Anyway, we emerged intact, and spent an hour at the lake with the diver. It was another hot sunny day, which warranted stopping off in town for a beer and bite to eat before continuing on to a place called Húsabakki, near Dalvik, where you can access the Svarfaðardalur Nature Reserve. It was far too bright and contrasty when we got there for getting any decent photos, which was a shame, as we saw a lot of species including Redshank, Common Snipe, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern and Arctic Skua. It was a pleasant area to walk round.
We made our way back to Siglufjörður via the long overland gravel road thereby avoiding the tunnels, and were pleased that we did as we stopped and spent a bit of time with some very friendly Icelandic Horses. You see a lot of these beautiful horses as you drive around Iceland, but more often than not they’re in a roadside field where it’s difficult to stop.
Icelandic Horse | Tröllaskagi peninsula
It was now Sunday and we were on day eight of the trip, and were now leaving Norðurland Eystra (the Northeastern Region) heading down the eastern shore of Skagafjörður away from Siglufjörður towards our next destination in the Vidhistaltunga valley near Laugarbakki. The weather up to now had been really good, but as we started to head west it became rather murky. Fortunately it brightened up a bit in the afternoon and by the time we got to our guesthouse it was pleasant enough to have a beer sitting outside with just a tee-shirt on. We were booked in for two nights, because we wanted to spend a fair amount of the following day on the Vatnsnes peninsula, which is the place to go in Iceland if you want to see seals. There’s a road, route 711, that goes all the way round Vatnsnes, so you can do a full circulatory trip if you want. Most visitors start at the small town of Hvammstangi on the western side of the peninsula, which is home to the Icelandic Seal Centre. Shortly after you leave the town you’re on a gravel road for the next forty plus miles. Along this road there are three accessible seal colonies, Svalbarð and Illugastaðoir on the west coast and Ósar-Hvítserkur on the east coast. Unfortunately the weather conditions on the day we were there were by far the worst we experienced during the whole trip, so although I did see a few seals at the Svalbarð site, no pictures were taken and, for various reasons including being informed at the Seal Centre that during the Eider nesting season Illugastaðoir is closed, we didn’t get any further. There was a lot of low cloud and sea mist so visibility was poor, which reminded us of our previous trip when every day was like this. It was also extremely windy and, without the sun, quite chilly. We persevered though, ending up a place called Reykir a bit further along the coast where there was an Arctic Tern colony, but after that gave up and spent the remainder of the afternoon back at our guesthouse.
The weather was much better the next morning as we set off on the longest leg of the trip that took us from Laugarbakki on a deliberately extended, and somewhat convoluted overland, gravel road route to the southern side of Hvammsfjörður so that we could drive the full length of the northern shoreline of the Snæfellsnes peninsula to our next location of Hellnar. I’m glad that we took this route rather than just continuing round the ring road to Borgarnes as it was a very pleasant drive with little traffic. We came off the gravel road near Stykkishólmur, which was the furthest point north that we reached on our previous trip as it’s from here that you catch the Westfjords ferry to Flatey Island.
We were now back in familiar territory so, as we drove on towards Hellnar, I started to get my bearings regarding some of the stop-off places, tracks and roadside pools that we’d visited back in 2015. We passed the access point that takes you on the track around Kolgrafafjörður, and then drove down to the fish processing plant outlet that was behind the hotel we’d stayed at in Grundarfjörður. The hotel was under new management and looked as though it had had a bit of a face lift, but the sea wall and outlet hadn’t changed at all. The Northern Fulmars were still there fighting for any discarded scraps that were being pumped out, and there were a few Glaucous Gulls keeping watch from the rocks. We then drove over the inlet near Kirkjufell where we’d successfully photographed Harlequin Ducks, and then on through Ólafsvik to Rif and past the pools that we wanted to come back to the next day.
Glaucous Gull [Larus hyberboreus] and Northern Fulmars [Fulmarus glacialis]
Time was getting on now so we needed to get to Hellnar and booked into our hotel before it got too late and to ensure we’d get a restaurant reservation. On the map it didn’t look far, but I didn’t appreciate how long it would take to drive round the end of the peninsula. Anyway we got there just in time to book the last reservation slot, not that they appeared particularly busy. Whilst our room in this hotel was the worst we’d stayed in - in terms of size, not cleanliness - the food and wine was of the same high standard that we’d now become accustomed to. We weren’t that impressed with the Icelandic food when we here in 2015 and, consequently, didn’t have any real expectations when we booked this trip, but it soon became apparent that our previous trip had taken account of the high cost you have to pay in Iceland and had used cheaper establishments. I wouldn’t normally talk much about accommodation, food or costs in these write-ups because I want to keep the emphasis on the wildlife and the photography but, as this is far more of a trip report, I guess that it’s only right to point out that Iceland is a very expensive country to visit. Obviously, as with all destinations, prices vary, but if you want to stay in reasonable small hotels or decent guesthouses you’ll probably end up paying far more than you would probably expect to pay. The same goes for restaurant food and drink.
The next morning we headed back to the other side of the peninsula, but instead of returning via the coast road I opted to go the overland route on the F570 gravel road that winds up and around the eastern side of the Snæfellsjökull glacier-capped volcano. This 4WD mandatory track, which is around 19km long, links the southern shore road to the east of Hellnar with the northern coast near Ólafsvik. Out of interest, Snæfellsjökull was the setting for Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and, although we didn’t descend into the volcano as they did in the film, we could see why the location had been used. It was a fun drive across the barren and lava-strewn landscape, avoiding rocks and negotiating a few sections where the road cuts through quite deep snow fields that are kept cleared during the summer months.
A 'through-the-windscreen' shot of the gravel road
We spent the rest of the day revisiting all the places and areas along the north shore that we’d been to on our previous trip but, as I’ve already talked about the more interesting spots from a bird photography point of view in ‘part one’ of this long Iceland write-up, I’ll avoid repeating myself other than to mention how places change. For example, the track around Kolgrafafjörður was reasonably productive in 2015, whereas this year we drove round and didn’t take a single photograph. We experienced this at couple of other locations as we worked our way south and could only conclude that the marked difference between the two trips was simply a combination of going four weeks later this time, plus the fact that in May 2015 the whole of western Europe was still trying to shrug off the cold wintery weather. The Rock Ptarmigan we photographed in 2015 were still moulting out of their white winter coats whereas this year they were in breeding plumage. The other location that seemed very different to what it was like last time was the roadside pond at Rif. It was still a great spot to photograph various species - the highlight this time being a very confiding pair of Red-throated Divers - but somehow it just didn’t feel the same. I guess this is true of many places that are revisited. You have a picture in your mind of how something or somewhere looked previously and expect it to be the same, which is rarely the case - especially when it’s four years later.
Red-throated Diver [Gavia stellata] - Rif, Snæfellsnes
Next morning it was back on the road for the first stage of our drive back to Keflavik. It was a pleasant and uneventful trip until I tried an interesting cross-country alternative route somewhere between Borgarnes and the Þingvellir National Park. The gravel road we were on petered out at an unmarked fork. It was a case of turning right over an extremely dodgy looking bridge or taking a very rough track. The map was no use, and there wasn’t a signal to use GPS, so we took the track, which got worse and worse the further we went. Eventually I came to a place where I could just about turn round. It probably took a good hour to get back to the main road! We did find a nice quiet spot to stop for a sandwich we purchased earlier and did see an Arctic Fox, but overall it was a mistake. We finally got to our little hotel, which was situated close to Þingvallavatn, much later than intended, but we did get to see a bit of the country that not many people would have seen!
On our last full day we had plenty of time in the morning after leaving Þingvellir to explore a few areas along the south coast including the Landeyjar region, and the marshy fields around Stóra-Dimon where we finally managed to photograph a Rock Ptarmigan. We then headed back along the ring road to Selfoss before cutting down to the coast to join the main road to Grindavík. There are a few interesting looking places to explore as you head down the Reykjanes peninsula, although we only made one stop which was at Hliðarvatn as we’d seen a family of Red-throated Divers, as I wanted to take the opportunity of visiting the famous Hafnaberg Cliffs. Unfortunately we didn’t get there until very late in the afternoon and I had no idea how far you had to walk, so it was a bit of a wasted trip.
Rock Ptarmigan (male) [Lagopus muta] | Stóra-Dimon
Well that’s just about it. We stayed in Grindavík overnight and left early in the morning for the relatively short drive to Keflavík for our flight home. Overall it was a really good trip that included so much more that this write-up could possibly cover. We were really lucky with the weather this time and had an itinerary that worked well. Going on our own and hiring a car gave us independence, and deciding to upgrade to a 4x4 enabled us to get off the main road and to explore a few parts of the island that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
Having now been to Iceland twice, I have the feeling that we won't be going there again. Well, almost certainly not from a bird photography point of view as we've managed to get photos of virtually all the birds we targeted. My only regret is that we didn't get across to the western fjords and the famous sea-cliffs at Látrabjarg which is home to millions of seabirds. That would have been nice, but the real attraction for me is that this remote region is the best place in the country to photograph Arctic Foxes.