South West Iceland

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Situated close to the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic between Greenland and Norway, Iceland is the westernmost landmass of the Western Palearctic ecozone. It’s a large, sparsely populated, island with a total land area of around 40,000 square miles and a coastline of just over 3,000 miles. Most of the population lives on or relatively close to the coast, as the vast heart of the island mostly consists of inhospitable mountainous lava desert, wasteland and glaciers. The island is on the northern end of the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge’, which separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This mid-ocean ridge runs right up the Atlantic until it meets Iceland where it bisects the island diagonally from the southwest corner near Reykjavik up to the northeast.

Due to its location, and the fact that in geological terms it’s still a relatively young island, Iceland has extensive and continuous volcanic and geothermal activity. There are as many as 30 active volcanic systems; the most famous of which are probably Hekla and Eldfell. The last notable eruptions were Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Grímsvötn in 2011. The eruption under Eyjafjallajökull is particularly memorable as the resultant volcanic ash plume managed to totally disrupt northern European air travel for several weeks, affecting an estimated 10 million travellers. The subsequent eruption at Grímsvötn, the island’s most active volcano, also sent enormous amounts of ash up into the atmosphere, raising concerns that it would again result in grounded flights and a repeat of the previous year’s travel chaos. Fortunately, that threat didn’t materialise the same way, which gave cause to many questioning whether the previous restrictions were an over-reaction to the situation. Another interesting geological fact relating to the island’s location on the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge’ is that it is still growing in size by a small amount every year as the rift between the two plates continues to widen.

Hjálparfoss (double waterfall), Þjórsádalur Valley
Hjálparfoss (double waterfall), Þjórsádalur Valley

As you drive the circuitry coast road around the south and west of the island you will experience varied and magnificent scenery with an unspoiled natural beauty. Our trip was from two bases – the first was at Skalholt in the southwest, east of Reykjavik, and the second in the west of the island at the fishing town of Grundarfjörður on the north coast of the wild Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Skalholt is roughly halfway between Selfoss and Geysir and proved to be an ideal base for the first few days of the trip as it provided good access to the popular sites around the area as well as being conveniently located for getting down to the south coast. It’s an area of fertile lowland, rivers and lakes, with waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes, but it was the flat marshy areas lying just behind the coast road that proved the most interesting from a wildlife photography point of view – Stora Dimon and Steig being particularly productive. We also took a trip out to Heimaey, which is the largest of the Vestmannaejar (Westmen) Islands and an important seabird site.

Guillemots ~ Vestmannaejar (Westmen) Islands
Guillemots ~ Vestmannaejar (Westmen) Islands

We then travelled up the west coast of the island via Þingvellir (anglicised as Thingvellir) National Park to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural and geological importance and 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 at the Lögberg (Law Rock) and disputes settled. The ‘Althing’ continued to convene at Þingvellir until 1798. It was subsequently moved to Reykjavik where it became the current parliment. Whilst there is little evidence there today apart from a few grass covered ruins, the ‘parliment fields’ still hold deep symbolic associations for the people of Iceland. The whole area is now a protected World Heritage Site. Situated at the end of Þingvallavatn, which is Iceland's largest natural lake, the park lies in a rift valley that forms the crest of the ‘Mid-Atlantic Ridge’. There were a number of inlets and pools around the area, all of which were temporary home 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 hatch safely without interference.

Red-throated Diver  ~  Þingvellir
Red-throated Diver ~ Þingvellir

The Snæfellsnes peninsula is just over 50 miles long with a magnificent moutain 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 West Fjords. This large bay has an estimated 2500 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 2.5 hours later on the return trip to Stykkishólmur.

Driving west along the north of the peninsula you pass various fjords, including Kolgrafafjörður, which has a long dirt track around it and is one of the few places you might be lucky enough to spot the protected White-tailed Eagle, then past Grundarfjörður and Ólafsvik, until you reach the tip and the famous Snæfellsjökull glacier.

White-tailed Eagle ~ Kolgrafafjörður
White-tailed Eagle ~ Kolgrafafjörður

Remember that the above description only covers the South West of the island. Undoubtedly there are many other areas well worth visiting, albeit much further from Reykjavik and the airport at Keflavik. Three such areas are the vast sea-cliffs at Látrabjarg in the West Fjords, the Flói Nature Reserve in southern Iceland and the rarely visited Mývatn-Laxá area in the northeast, where they say that more species of duck breed than anywhere else in Europe.

The other really interesting thing about Iceland’s geographical location is that whilst its bird population is largely of European (Western Palearctic) origin, several species have arrived from North America (Nearctic). This provides bird watchers and photographers from the UK with a good opportunity of seeing such species as the Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye that, with the possible exception of Scotland, they would probably not see elsewhere. These three species breed nowhere else in Europe than Iceland.

Harlequin Ducks ~ Kirkjufell
Harlequin Ducks ~ Kirkjufell

The country is also the southern breeding limit for several Arctic birds and the northern limit for several other species. Examples are Pink-footed Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Rock Ptarmigan, Glaucous Gull, Brunnich’s Guillemot, both Red and Red-necked Phalarope and Snow Bunting.

We managed to see some of these and quite a few others that I haven’t specifically mentioned. In total I personally photographed 37 different species (see my Western Palearctic bird list) during the week we were there, which I was very pleased with given the circumstances!

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

Arctic Fox ~ Laugarás
Arctic Fox ~ Laugarás

Sorry, but I can’t finish this write-up without a mention of the weather. We visited Iceland 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 unlucky 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 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!)
Typical Icelandic Scenery (when the sun is out!)