Isolated in the middle of the North Atlantic and bordering the Arctic Circle, Iceland stands sentinel to the meteorological depressions of the Great North. At the young age of 20 million years, this island offers a landscape known for its birding and midnight sun. By Philippe Jaeger
After leaving Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, we were immediately immersed into nature – lava fields, the smell of Sulphur and an abundance of birds. It was already late in the afternoon when harsh weather, which is something to carefully monitor and consider when exploring these parts, prevented us from commencing our tour of the South coast and the Westmann Islands. An hour’s drive later, we checked into our room at the fishing lodge situated on the banks of the Ranga river, a more than recommendable stay for avifaunal enthusiasts.
We later determined, that through the door’s threshold we could behold a stunning view of Hekla, the volcano located around thirty kilometers away. At the same time we witnessed a ceaseless aerial ballet of greylag geese, whooper swans, black-tailed god wit, and common snipe. One of these snipe perched itself on the jacuzzi’s rim to study us simmering bipeds. The message was received loud and clear; on this island, humans were tolerated by the birds and not vice-versa.
The next morning, we departed at dawn to re-board the ferry which connects the southern coast to the Westmann Islands. After navigating the ocean’s tranquil waters for half an hour, we landed in the port of Heimaey, a village on the largest island of the Westmann archipelagos. It’s here that the 1973 Eldfell volcano eruption ravaged all within sight, transforming the town into a “Pompeii of the North.” The main crater still encircles fumaroles and lukewarm rocks, yet it’s lupine cloaked buttresses create a paradise for birds, dozens of which are common redshank. These rambunctious creatures did not hesitate to swoop down on tourists who strayed from the beaten path. However, we were here for an initial marine impression of Iceland, so we boarded a boat from Viking Tours, under the command of Captain Sigurmundur Einarsson.
The cruise completed the tour of the island in 90 minutes. In this one lap there was sufficient time to comfortably observe a few of the 10 million Atlantic puffins which reside in the island’s cliffs. In addition, we sighted an innumerable amount of black guillemot, common murre, razorbills, northern fulmar, black-legged kittiwake, northern gannet, great cormorant, and common eider. The eider are the profitable sacred cows of the island, from which farmers collect precious down. The great auk unfortunately didn’t receive this protection, and the specie’s last remaining individual was killed in Iceland in 1844. The highlight of the spectacle, was when our captain guided the boat’s hull underneath the vaults of the Klettshellur cave. He then cut the boat’s engine and took advantage of the ideal acoustic atmosphere, by playing the saxophone. How enchanting!
For the brave and the night owls, Sigurmundur proposed a trip out to sea between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am. In these blasphemous hours of the night we could watch whales, but most importantly Leach’s and European storm petrel and Manx shearwater. On the third day of our journey we devoted our time to travelling towards the north-western Peninsula, land of the fjords. 60 kilometres north of Reykjavik we stopped on the banks of the Borgarfjördur where we watched the flight of a bald eagle who nested on a small island smack dab in the middle of rushing blue waves. We still had close to 300 kilometres to go, and we daren’t travel less since tonight we would be sleeping at the westernmost point of Europe. After following Route 1, which completes a circuit of the island, for about 100 km, we took a left turn onto Route 60. At this point, we left the “modern world” in the rearview in exchange for a universe where nature consults it’s roots. Pavement made way for gravel and potholes, and our velocity proceeded to slow down like a marble in molasses. Our binoculars remained slung around our necks, for quick convenience. We summited the first pass, still clad with the last remaining snow patches, then a second, and a third, until we stopped counting them in order to pay more attention to the road. In particular also, to the sheep blindly crossing the road, paying no respect to the vehicle whatsoever, cars being rather rare in this corner of Iceland. The road wound along the fjord containing peninsulas which thrust into the North Atlantic Ocean like a ship’s prow. The landscape, the winding road, and the sky’s personality never ceased to change.
It was 9 pm by the time we reached Hnjotur farm, where we meet Kristinn, the owner of the premises. Amazingly, the sun was still perched high in the sky. We were now only a few kilometres away from the cliffs of Latrabjarg, one of the world’s best places for birding. Spanning 14 km across, with an average height of over 400 metres, they shelter millions of marine birds, the majority being Atlantic puffins.
Dozens of individuals dandled nonchalantly over the grass bordering the lighthouse parking. They seemed to appreciate the rays of the midnight sun, which flirted with the horizon before taking up their intended course. In the end, the rays never did disappear completely though.
At one in the morning we decided to regain some energy and made our way to the rural holiday house. After a few hours of shuteye we conquered the morning by devouring an egg… a guillemot egg! The farmers who live in this Latrabjarg region have collected the eggs of marine birds for a long time, sometimes at the expense of their own lives. This tradition does not risk the survival of the avian colony, and continues on despite our modern-day intake of additional ‘easier-to-retrieve’ proteins. Before continuing our journey towards the North coast of Iceland, we spent the morning in the bay near Raudisandur (meaning Red Sand). The location’s name suits it’s appearance.
We happened to reach the area at low tide, which enabled us to admire the ochre hues of the sand which carpets the coast and forms large banks. Luckily enough, these embankments currently hosted a seal colony. Like all other regions of the island, this one was overflowing with avifauna. For example, there were red-necked phalarope, common snipe, and arctic tern, which habituate in the humid moor bordering the bay. Thanks to an Eurasian oystercatcher which song attracted our attention, we discovered the French coffee House. This ancient farm was transformed into a café by the Icelandic ex-ambassador in Paris. This retreat boasted a terrace with an incredible vista of the bay. An exquisite chocolate cake accompanied our likewise savoury coffee. It was then time to pick up our track and head north, where we crossed a flock of Ptarmigan, whose camouflaging feathers were only partially immaculate.
After a long stretch on the road, we arrived at the best of all places for birding in Iceland: Lake Myvatn. In English it’s fittingly named the “Lake of Flies”. This was the birth place of ornithological sagas as legendary as Jules Verne’s work and Noah’s Ark. Here even the most pressed for time (us included) have to set their bags down for at least three days, just to skim over, in the literal and figurative sense, all the riches this nature has to offer.
In the company of Mar Jonsson, a young wild child from Reykjahild, where his family manages numerous holiday homes, we headed out to discover the many secrets of the lake and it’s surrounding area. The lake’s rich nutritional value corresponds directly with the region’s exuberant insect population.
As a result, most Icelandic bird species can be found in this region. There are even a few highly symbolic species, whose density here is the highest in all of Europe. We noted 200 Barrow’s goldeneye couples nesting in the lava field’s crevices, horned grebe, icelandic gulls, American wigeon, whimbrel, snow bunting, parasitic jaeger, greater scaup, whooper swan and even a gyrfalcon and it’s spectacular performance. Also visible are harlequin ducks. We saw these in boisterous flocks on the Laxa river, who’s source is the lake’s mouth.
It was impossible to pass Myvatn without paying a visit to the Sigurgeir Stefansson museum. This building was named after a young and passionate Icelandic ornithologist and egg collector. He perished in the lake’s waters in 1999 at the age of 37. In this museum, one can behold over 300 species of Iceland’s naturalized birds, as well as a large number of eggs presented in an educational manner. For the second-last day of the adventure we drove another 80 km north from Myvatn, towards Husavik. The topography contouring the road consisted of old volcanoes. Their snow clad humps resembled a killer whale’s back.
This was certainly a fitting preview, as the program for the day was whale watching. Husavik was known a long time for it’s importance in the whale hunting culture. Nowadays however, the barges profit by presenting these cetaceans at a closer distance. The boats also navigate the long islets strewn about the bay which house hundreds of thousands of Atlantic puffins. At the sight of an old wooden sailing boat, we expected the worst. Were we ever wrong! Operated by North Sailing, this activity offers the enormous advantage of having no mechanical noise. This silence guarantees a natural and pristine setting, along with stealth.
We appreciated the opportunity to float side-by-side with a blue whale (it’s 30 metres and 190 tons making it the largest mammal in the world) and two humpback whales.
After four hours of sailing, we rediscovered solid ground. We set our course for the West, all the way to Blonduous, where we replenished our fuel tank to the brim. Continuing southwards, we crossed the island and discovered the central deserts (4×4 needed).
An unreal landscape in the centre of an unreal island. Could we have expected any less?
(Translation: Savanna Koebisch)
Accommodations, guides and car rental: Lax-à agency
Cruise, Westmann Islands: www.vikingtours.is
Volcano Museum, Westmann Islands: www.eldheimar.is
Bird Museum in Myvatn: www.fuglasafn.is
Whale watching: www.northsailing.is