I’m just back from a hectic but rewarding trip to Iceland and I have managed to lay some ghosts to rest in the process. As a teenage birdwatcher my identification bible was the Collins Guide by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. Many a rainy evening I would look through it and find myself drawn to the beautiful looking Harlequin Duck that had a remote green blob in the north-west of Europe indicating the only place to see it outside of a wildfowl collection. I finally went to Iceland 5 years ago and whilst the trip was rewarding on many fronts and I certainly saw and photographed these stunningly colourful ducks, things didn’t quite work out image wise beyond some decent record shots so it felt a bit like unfinished business when I returned this time. Fortunately all fell into place both at a coastal site where a drake in clear glacial waters and early morning light was a welcome sight after a 4.00 am departure from my bed.
The Lake Myvatan area in the north of the country is the main place to find and see these birds in their real element though as they swim and feed in the fast flowing waters of the river Laxa and a couple of long sessions waiting by some rapids gave some great opportunities to show just how strong and agile they are as swimmers as well as a chance to try some more creative interpretations of their efforts in the fast flowing waters.
Harlequins aren’t the only Icelandic speciality on the duck front though and Barrow’s Goldeneye is also unique to the island from a European perspective – a morning spent with 4 males though saw little activity other than sleeping and gliding, so beautiful as they were (and the light was pretty decent as well) they will have to be one of the reasons to warrant a future return for some action.
There never seems to be much to worry about on the action front when it comes to Long-Tailed Ducks though. They were pretty much paired up by the time of this trip and gathering on many of the little pools to be found around the main lake, and the noisy and very characteristic call of the males was an almost constant sound in some places as they looked to protect their less colourful but equally pretty female partners from the attentions of others.
This constant calling and occasional but ever watchful sleeping would be broken on fairly regular intervals though with a mad dash across the pond to see off a rival male who’d swam a bit too close, and once seen off a little shake of the wings to regain composure would be necessary before normal service was resumed.
I always look forward to going back to good sites as there are always new and different opportunities that present themselves, and my previous trip proved disappointing as far as one of the most beautiful families of water based birds, namely the Divers. Great Northern sadly eluded me once again but an evening and early morning session with a family of Red Throated Divers was particularly special – what a magnificent call to listen to close up, what an elegant bird when it glides by like a battleship, what a powerful bird when it takes to the air across the still morning waters of the pool and what a gentle bird too as a parent.
The pretty breeding water based birds though all have to give way to the elegant and dainty Slavonian Grebe when it comes to charm and cuteness. I spent most of the Spring photographing a local pair of Great Crested Grebes at home this year so it was fascinating to watch and capture some of the antics of these smaller relatives who are only now at the beginning of their breeding cycle, a full 2 months after the chicks in Shropshire were on the verge of fledging. It’s a reminder of the temperature variances and the very brief nature of summer as you head further north.
Ducking, diving and grebeing (if there is such a word) besides there is and was a lot more that this remote, harsh, challenging and beautiful country had to offer so I’ll be looking to cover some of this in an additional blog next week before I head south this time in search of Mediterranean butterflies by way of contrast! As a taster though here’s a Whooper Swan family who probably wintered at Caerlaverock or Martin Mere where my photographic year so often begins: they certainly have a long trip south ahead of them as well once their summer is over.