Birdingpals Trip Report

Trip Report Reykjavik and South-West Iceland – 16th-22nd March 2005
by Birdingpal Steve Lister


This was planned as a trip to try and see three new birds for my Western Palearctic list, namely Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck and Gyr Falcon, the last of which would be a ‘lifer’. Going in March enabled me to hpefully see all three in the Reykjavik area. The trip was actually prompted by discovering that the holiday company Voyages Jules Vernes were offering affordable mini-breaks in Reykjavik: the base price was £345 for Icelandair flights from Heathrow, three nights B/B in a guesthouse and a full day tour of ‘The Golden Circle’ sites. I paid £100 more for an extra four nights, and a further £90 single supplement, making a total of £535 for a full week. Although the prices vary seasonally, these breaks are available all year.
I contacted Edward Rickson, an English birder now living in Reykjavik and very much part of the local scene, via BirdForum. Edward was extremely helpful and very kindly offered to take me birding for the Saturday and Sunday of my visit, and as it turned out for the Friday evening as well. Yann Kolbeinsson, one of the top Icelandic birders, came with us on the Sunday. Apart from my time with Edward I birded on foot in the immediate Reykjavik area, concentrating on the seafront and harbour.
The weather proved memorable. When I stepped out of Keflavik airport buildings at 01.30 on the 16th the temperature was -7C. Later that day, while on the Golden Circle coach tour, it was -3C but the near gale force wind made it feel bitterly cold. On the 17th gusts of wind up to an incredible 41 metres per second were recorded on the south coast; I had to abandon birding on the harbour by late morning as conditions were the worst I have ever encountered – at least force 12 wind and horizontal sleet. Subsequently it was not as cold but there was a lot of rain on 19th and 20th. The 22nd, when I did not do any proper birding, was sunny and warm. I had hoped to see the Aurora Borealis but all seven nights were cloudy.
Tips for birding in Reykjavik
In March at least the two main points of interest are the harbour and, to a lesser extent, the city-centre lake known as Tjornin. The seafront east of the harbour is relatively barren and lacks any shoreline until Laugarnes, about 2km distance. West of the harbour and all the way around the Seltjarnarnes peninsula there is a shoreline of rocks and pools, and also more birds on the sea. At the tip of the peninsula is a small concrete shelter ideal for seawatching but all I saw in 1.5 hours were lots of Fulmars and a couple of Red-throated Divers (exactly as Edward predicted!) as the area is too far from the open sea to get much passage. There are three pools at the end of the peninsula, two of them on the golf course; these held a selection of ducks and looked ideal for pulling in vagrants – Edward mentioned Bonaparte’s Gull here last April. The harbour is busy with fishing boats but remarkably easy as regards access – I was readily allowed on to the restricted area in the centre. A good watchpoint is the yellow beacon at the end of the short southern pier; it provides shelter from moderate winds and also from rain, and allows you to see most of the harbour and also the bay to the east. Numbers of ducks and gulls varied a bit but were usually very high, eg 2200 Eiders and 1100 Gulls. Many birds rest and preen on the sea-wall opposite the yellow beacon, and there is a constant flow of Eiders in and out below you. Tjornin lake was mainly frozen during my visit and I only visited it properly once, seeing 120 Whooper Swans (coming to bread), lots of Mallards and Tufted Ducks, and a few Red-breasted Mergansers and Eiders. Scarcer species of ducks do turn up, and both Eider and Scaup breed along with Arctic Terns.
The main area of woodland is around the Pearl restaurant east of the city airport. All I saw there were a few Redwings but there should have been Wrens and Redpolls there as well. Compared to the rest of Iceland there are a lot of trees in Reykjavik, sheltered between the buildings, but birds are very scarce, at least in March. Edward showed me six Waxwings, part of a larger flock, in nearby Kopavogur, otherwise it was just Starlings and the odd Redwing. Ravens are a town bird here, feeding on verges and perching on lamps and aerials!
Although not mentioned on their websites Icelandic car-hire companies were offering half-price rentals during both March and April.

March 16th Arrived in the early hours
Reykjavik east bay
Golden Circle coach tour – some birds around Thingvellir and en route.

Gulfoss waterfall, almost frozen

March 17th Reykjavik east bay and harbour
March 18th Reykjavik east bay and harbour
Peripheral sites (Hafnafjordur, Ellidavatn, etc) with Edward Rickson
March 19th Reykjavik to south coast with Edward: Thingvellir, Sog valley, Selfoss, Thorlakshofn, Stokkseyri, Eyrarbakki, etc.
March 20th Reykjavik to Reykjanes peninsula with Edward and Yann Kolbeinsson: Grindavik, Vogar, Gardur, Sandgerdi, Hafnir, etc
Hafnafjordur, Alftanes, Reykjavik harbour
March 21st Reykjavik east and west bays, Seltjarnarnes peninsula including seawatch, Fossvogur, woodland around the Pearl
March 22nd Casual observations between Reykjavik and Keflavik, including the Blue Lagoon.

I saw a total of 55 species, 40 of which were found during my foot-slogs around Reykjavik, a further three during the Golden Circle tour, and the rest, including several rarities, only while with Edward. I saw all of my three main target species, and the unexpected bonus of a second lifer, Brunnich’s Guillemot. Edward tells me that I made the front page of the national paper, or at least the online edition, by finding the first Golden Plovers of the year, the equivalent of the first Cuckoo in England

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus
Small numbers seen on unfrozen waters everywhere but 120 on Tjornin in the city on 17th at least.
Greylag Goose Anser anser
Feral birds common on grass around Reykjavik
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
33 around Seltjarnarnes on 21st, 20 at Hafnafjordur, and flocks of up to 50 along the south coast.
American Wigeon Anas americana
One male, usually at Hafnafjordur, at Alftanes on 20th.
Eurasian Teal Anas crecca
20 at Hafnafjordur 18th and 20th, 9 at Seltjarnanes on 21st.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Large numbers on Tjornin and pairs and small flocks on unfrozen waters everywhere.
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
One male on a pond at Gardur on 20th, present since 1993.
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
One male with Tufted Ducks on a lake at Ellidavatn, just SE of Reykjavik, on 18th had been present for a few days.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
90 on Tjornin on 17th, 40 at Ellidavatn on 18th, and 16 at Seltjarnanes on 21st.
Greater Scaup Aythya marila
Three on the sea at Hafnir on 20th.
Common Eider Somateria mollissima
Very common, with up to 3500 in and around Reykjavik harbour on 18th and 1000+ in Thorlakshofn harbour on 19th.
King Eider Somateria spectabilis
Two adult males in Thorlakshofn harbour on 19th, and a second-winter male in Grindavik harbour on 20th. The last bird was aged by YK on the basis of it having a faint dark central crown stripe.

A rather drab first-winter male in harbour on 18th – digiscoped rather poorly for the record.

Two adult males in Thorlakshofn harbour on 19th, and a second-winter male in Grindavik harbour on 20th. The last bird was aged by YK on the basis of it having a faint dark central crown stripe.

Harlequin Duck.

One first-winter male to the west of Reykjavik harbour on 18th (unusual there), 10 on the sea a few km east of Reykjavik on 19th, one on the River Sog a few km south of the power station on 19th, 30 on the sea at Hafnir on 20th, and 20 on the sea at Sandgerdi, also on 20th.
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis
Reykjavik harbour around the Seltjarnanes peninsula to Fossvogur on 21st and a total of 70 off the south and south-west coasts on 19th and 20th. Strangely never seen on the sea east of Reykjavik harbour but common to the west
Barrow’s GoldeneyeBucephala islandica
10 on the River Sog at the power station on 16th (up to 40 had been here earlier in the year); none were there on 19th but a total of 19 were found in the same general area.
Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
A pair on the River Sog near Selfoss on 19th.
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Common on the sea and unfrozen inland waters; a total of about 120.
Goosander Mergus merganser
A total of 30 on unfrozen inland waters.
Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus


One at Ellidavatn on 18th, two at Thingvellir and four in the Sog valley on 19th, 14 in a cemetery near Keflavik on 20th and 10 on a nearby field. All were completely white despite nearly all being in snow-free areas.
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata
Two around Reykjavik harbour on 18th, c30 off the south coast on 19th, and three flew west past Seltjarnarnes on 21st.
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer
One on the sea at Vogar on 20th.
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis
40 outside Reykjavik harbour on 18th, hundreds off the south coast, mainly passing east, on 19th, with smaller numbers off the south-west on 20th, and 260 west past Seltjarnarnes in 1.5 hours on 21st. Already nesting on crags well inland from the coast, with one seen flying over Thingvallavatn on 19th.
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus
Small numbers off the south coast on 19th and south-west on 20th, and one flew south past Seltjarnarnes on 21st.
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Very small numbers, up to five, in Reykjavik harbour but commoner along the south and south-west coasts.
Eurasian Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Up to five in Reykjavik harbour and odd ones in other harbours.
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla
One young bird, probably 3rd year, in the south on 19th.
Merlin Falco columbarius
A total of seven, all females; one caught a Purple Sandpiper at Alftanes on 20th.
Gyr Falcon Falco rusticollis
One flew over Reykjavik harbour on 17th (small numbers winter around the city) and one north of Thorlakshofn on 19th. Both were grey birds.
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Small numbers along the coasts including c60 in the Reykjavik area. A colour-ringed bird in the harbour on 20th had been ringed as a breeding male at Hafnafjordur in 2002. Five other colour-ringed birds were noted but have not yet been traced.
Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria
Three in transitional plumage arrived at Seltjarnarnes on 21st.
Red Knot Calidris canutus
One in Grindavik harbour on 20th and eight roosting at Skerjafjordur, Reykjavik on 21st.
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
At least 600 in the Reykjavik area and smaller numbers at other coastal sites.
Eurasian Curlew Numenius phaeopus
Five at Sandgerdi on 20th.
Common Redshank Tringa totanus
10 west of Reykjavik harbour on 18th and 21st, and a total of 30 in the south-west on 20th.
Turnstone Arenaria interpres
A total of 55 in the harbour/Seltjarnarnes area on 21st and small numbers at many coastal sites.
Little Gull Larus minutus
A first-winter over a pool at Sandgerdi on 20th.
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
Noticeably commoner towards the end of the week, with 350 in Reykjavik harbour on 20th.
Common Gull Larus canus
Small numbers at most coastal sites.
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
25 around Reykjavik harbour on 17th were some of the first spring arrivals. Smaller numbers were seen at most coastal sites from 18th onwards, with some birds showing the darker mantles typical of the southern-Scandinavian race rather than the regular L.f.graellsii, possibly a result of the extremely strong south-east wind on the 17th.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Small numbers of ‘pure’ birds around Reykjavik harbour and elsewhere but way outnumbered by Herring x Glaucous hybrids.
Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides

Iceland Gulls.

The peak count in Reykjavik harbour area was 1100 on 18th but hundreds were there everyday and in all other harbours visited; possibly 3000 in total. (Significant numbers of Kumlien’s Gulls were also seen but I must admit to being unsure as to the identity of a lot of immature birds as there was so much variation in the primaries; one adult had black on the primaries.)
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus
Up to 50 were in Reykjavik harbour on 17th and 18th but adults were very scarce. Many other large gulls showed hybrid characters of Herring x Glaucous. Smaller numbers in other harbours.
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
The largest numbers, 100+, were around the south-west on 20th. Up to 25 around Reykjavik harbour.
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Singles in Reykjavik harbour on 17th and 18th but hundreds off the south and south-west coasts on 19th and 20th. 20 west past Seltjarnarnes in 1.5 hours on 21st.
Brunnich’s Guillemot Uria lomvia
One in winter plumage on the sea east of Reykjavik harbour on 16th was unusual.
Razorbill Alca torda
One in winter plumage on the sea east of Reykjavik harbour on 16th and 50+ along the south coast on 19th.
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle
About ten on the sea in the Reykjavik area, and five off the south-west coast on 20th.
Feral Rock Dove Columba livia
15 feeding on bread at Tjornin on 17th were thankfully the only ones seen.
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
Six in Kopavogur, south of Reykjavik, on 20th were part of a flock of 20+ present in the area for several weeks.
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris
One feeding on apples put out in a Selfoss birder’s garden on 19th.
Redwing Turdus iliacus
A total of six around Reykjavik on 20th and 21st. Odd that I did not see more as plenty winter in the city area.
Raven Corvus corax
A common town and country bird, with 35 seen on the Golden Circle route on 16th, 40 in the south on 19th and 20 in the Reykjavik area on 21st.
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common around towns and villages.
Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea ‘islandica’
Heard at Thingvellir on 16th and eight in the Selfoss birder’s garden on 19th – earlier in the year he had far more.
Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis
One over Thingvellir on 16th and two singing males at the Blue Lagoon on 22nd. Amazing that I did not see more.

The only mammals seen were a few Common Seals, a single Grey Seal, and two Harbour Porpoises that swam past Seltjarnarnes on 21st.

Steve Lister
Loughborough, England
Email: stevelister(AT)

Last update 19/11/2012