Trip report - Iceland

12th June 2015
Dates: 1st to 11th June 2015

Destination: Iceland



Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to travel around as much of Iceland as possible during my 10 day visit to the country and to not restrict myself to Reykjavík and the “Golden Circle” which is the very limited experience of so many UK visitors.

Iceland’s northern location creates conditions that support relatively few wildlife species whilst its isolated position makes the country hard to reach for both migrants and colonisers. The nearest landmass is Greenland, another place where there is a low diversity of species.

Due to its isolated location and position, Iceland has a relatively small diversity of birds (about 79 breeders plus about 23 winter or passage visitors) but those which do occur often do so in enormous numbers.

Iceland is the only European country with no butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles or amphibians. It has only one native land mammal, the Arctic Fox, although other mammals have been introduced (Reindeer, House Mouse, Brown Rat, Wood Mouse and Rabbit). Marine mammals are represented by the 15 species of whales and dolphins found regularly in Iceland waters plus Common and Atlantic Grey Seals.

From a wildlife perspective, Iceland provides the opportunity to see a number of species not seen regularly in the rest of Europe such as Arctic Fox, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Grey Phalarope, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Great Northern Diver and the cetaceans and these and others were my target species.

From a landscape photography perspective, Iceland provides opportunities of varying difficulty in respect of coastal fjords, mountains, enormous waterfalls, volcanoes and lava fields, massive icecaps, geysers and other geothermal features.

Iceland:

Iceland is a Nordic island country situated between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean just below the Arctic Circle and about 120 miles off the east coast of Greenland. The surface area is about half the size of the UK.

Iceland has a population of 329,000 giving the island the lowest population density of any country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík. Reykjavík and the surrounding areas in the south west of the country are home to over two thirds of the population.

Iceland is a very rugged country. The coastline is indented by long, deep fjords and in many places the land rises steeply from the ocean’s depth. The interior is dominated by large, wild and uninhabited highlands characterised by polar deserts, volcanoes, lava fields, barren mountains and glaciers.

Iceland has an amazing geology. It is geologically an infant, a young country born out of countless volcanic eruptions. It is one of the best places in the world to see the creative forces of volcanism and erosion and the effects of glacial and post-glacial processes.

Iceland has several different habitats which provide for an interesting wildlife and photography experience: cliffs, headlands and skerries, sandy coasts and tidal flats, coastal fjords, glaciers, rivers and estuaries, lakes, heathlands and grasslands, hay meadows and polar desert (the most extensive but hardest to visit).

Despite disasters like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the 2008 financial collapse, Iceland is ranked among the most peaceful, happiest and healthiest countries in the world.

Primary target areas:



The primary target areas during my trip were:

Höfuðborgarsvæðið (Capital Region) .... www.visitreykjavik.is/

Höfuðborgarsvæðið is a name used collectively for Reykjavík and the 6 municipalities around it. The area is by far the largest urban area in Iceland.

With a population of 120,000, Reykjavík is the natural starting point and gateway for any visit to Iceland and deservedly so. The capital is world-renowned for its culture, history and natural beauty.

Norðurland vestra (North West Region) and Norðurland eystra (North East Region) .... www.northiceland.is/

Norðurland vestra is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located in the north of the island. The biggest town in the region is Sauðárkrókur with a population of 3000.

Norðurland eystra is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located in the north of the island. The biggest town in the region is Akureyri with a population of 17,300. Akureyri is Iceland's second largest urban area and is located in Iceland's longest fjord, the mild-weathered Eyjafjörður.

The north of Iceland truly is a land of contrasts. Its long valleys and peninsulas are interspersed with mountains, lava fields and smooth hills carved out by rivers. The deep and numerous indentations in the coast of the north are at times lush with vegetation and at other times barren. The Arctic Circle passes through the island of Grímsey in the far north of the region.

In the northern reaches of the Vatnajökull National Park is the impressive Ásbyrgi Canyon as well as Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The nearby Lake Mývatn and its surrounding wetlands has an exceptional variety and abundance of waterbirds and volcanic rock formations.

Vestfirðir (Westfjords Region) .... www.westfjords.is/

Vestfirðir is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located in the north west of the island. It is very sparsely populated and the biggest town in the region is Ísafjörður with a population of around 4000.

Vestfirðir is a large peninsula and it lies on the Denmark Strait facing the east coast of Greenland. It is connected to the rest of Iceland by a 4 mile wide isthmus between Gilsfjörður and Bitrufjörður.

Vestfirðir is very mountainous and the coastline is heavily indented by dozens of fjords surrounded by steep hills. These indentations make roads very circuitous and communications by land difficult. In addition many of the roads are closed by ice and snow for several months of the year. Isolation has preserved Vestfirðir in relatively unspoiled wilderness.

Látrabjarg, on the west side of Vestfirðir, comprises the longest bird cliff in the north Atlantic and hosts nearly half of the world's population of some bird species. The cliffs are approximately 8.5 miles long and up to 1450 feet high and they represent the westernmost point of Europe (excluding Greenland and the Azores).

Hornstrandir is located in the north west corner of Vestfirðir and is an uninhabited pensinsula and nature reserve that is a haven for the Arctic Fox as well as a variety of bird species.

Vesturland (West Region) .... www.west.is/

Vesturland is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located on the west coast of the island. The biggest town in the region is Akranes with a population of 6300.

Vesturland is one of Iceland's most geologically diverse regions. Its natural wonders are an almost exhaustive sampling of all that Iceland has to offer, ranging from fjords, valleys, craters, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls to a variety of wildlife.

Vesturland is the location of the magnificent landscape and wildlife of Snæfellsjökull National Park, Iceland's only national park that reaches into the sea. The mystical volcano and glacier Snæfellsjökull has inspired artists and poets through the centuries, being one of the greatest energy centres on Earth. Snæfellsjökull is one of the most famous sites of Iceland, primarily due to the novel "Journey to the Center of the Earth" written by Jules Verne, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the centre of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.

Suðurland (South Region) .... www.south.is/

Suðurland is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located in the south of the island. The biggest town in the region is Selfoss with a population of 6000.

Suðurland includes the “Golden Circle” route which connects the ancient site of the Icelandic Parliament at Þingvellir, the magnificent waterfall at Gulfoss and the geothermal features at Geysir. Further east can be found the waterfall at Skógafoss, the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón, the Vatnajökull glacier and several other natural wonders.

Suðurnes (Southern Peninsula – Reykjanes) .... www.visitreykjanes.is/

Suðurnes is one of the traditional regions of Iceland located in the south west of the island. It has a population of more than 22,000 making it one of the more densely populated parts of the island. The administrative centre is Keflavík which had 7,000 residents when it merged with the nearby town of Njarðvík several years ago to create Reykjanesbær with a population of 14500, the second largest settlement outside of the Greater Reykjavík area.

Suðurnes is the location of Keflavík International Airport, the major point of entry for Iceland.

Nowhere on earth is the junction in the earth's crust between the European and American tectonic plates as clearly visible as in Suðurnes. The dramatic and rugged landscape features volcanic craters, caves, lava fields, geothermal waters and hot springs. Suðurnes has several high-temperature geothermal areas, 3 of which have been harnessed to generate electricity.

Other regions

I did not visit Austurland (East Region) due to the limited time available and the fact that this region seemed to offer relatively less in terms of wildlife watching opportunities.

In addition, I did not visit the interior highlands. This wilderness area of rocky polar deserts, volcanoes, glacial ice caps and geothermal springs is largely inaccessible for most of the year due to snow and ice and when the mountain roads are open they can only be safely negotiated by 4 x 4 vehicles.

Getting there:

I flew from London Luton to Keflavik with Easyjet.

The cost of return flights including baggage and taxes was £121.30.

The schedule was as follows:

1st June: London Luton to Keflavik – depart 07:35 a.m. and arrive 09:35 a.m. (local time GMT-1)

16th May: Keflavik to London Luton – depart 10:15 a.m. and arrive 14:10 p.m. (local time UK)

Fortunately a threatened general strike in Iceland with potential serious disruptions to flights in and out of Keflavik did not eventually arise.

Getting around:

In order to provide as much flexibility as possible for my trip (and to avoid extremely expensive accommodation and restaurants!), I hired a campervan for 9 days from Go Campers which I booked in advance.



Go Campers - freedom on wheels-HD from Go Campers on Vimeo.

The cost of the campervan was €900 (£683 at the exchange rate at the time) which included the basic rental charge plus Keflavik airport pick up, a coolbox, a gas stove, a power inverter, a sleeping bag and CDW and gravel protection insurance.

The campervan allocated to me was a converted Dacia Dokker which was brand new with just 31 km recorded as my start mileage reading.

Here is my "home on wheels" ....





The campervan proved to be very reliable and relatively economical (bearing in mind the road conditions and stop-start driving) returning around 39 mpg with petrol at an equivalent £1.07 per litre compared with £1.18 per litre in the UK. It was very noticeable in Iceland that petrol prices were almost identical throughout the country from Reykjavík to the remote north and west, somewhat different from the large disparity between the urban and rural areas of the UK!

I would thoroughly recommend a campervan as a means to travel around Iceland and especially Go Campers as an excellent rental company. Benedikt Helgason, the General Manager, and his staff made a major contribution to an enjoyable and successful trip.

All my questions prior to leaving the UK were answered promptly and fully, the online booking and payment process was very easy, the meet and greet by a member of the Go Campers staff at Keflavik airport was straightforward and friendly and the collection of my campervan from Go Camper’s Hafnarfjörður offices was very efficient. Finally, I was able to return the campervan early at just after 9 a.m. on 10th June 2015 and I was then taken by a member of the Go Campers staff to central Reykjavík for my last day/night in Iceland. Takk fyrir Benedikt!

The campervan suited my needs very well and was very comfortable to sleep in, although the light night skies did wake me up early (around 4 a.m. or earlier) every day as did a temperature of -1°C and snow on one morning!

During my trip, I drove 4004 km (2487 miles) and driving in Iceland proved to be a generally enjoyable experience with empty and quiet roads other than around Reykjavík, Keflavik and Akureyri.

The Icelandic road system is extensive and easy to navigate. However, the roads vary greatly in terms of their condition and the degree of care required in driving them.

Route 1 or the Ring Road is the primary road in Iceland and it connects most of the inhabited parts of the country. It is therefore the most commonly travelled route in Iceland. It is open throughout the year but weather conditions can cause temporary closures during the winter. The total length of Route 1 is 828 miles. For almost all its length Route 1 is 2 lanes wide with a single lane going in each direction. Where it passes through larger towns, the number of lanes is often increased.

Many of the other roads are asphalt paved although some are single track. Some of the road network, especially in the more remote areas, is made up of gravel roads. Gravel roads vary in their condition with washboard surfaces and potholes and they require care and attention since loose gravel can be difficult to drive on, not least due to the skid risk. In addition, it is important to slow down when passing other vehicles since gravel, sand and small rocks can easily cause damage to vehicles.

This is a gravel road south of Þingeyri in the Westfjords region:



Finally, the mountain roads in the highlands are called F-roads and are indicated with an F in front of the number of the road on maps. They are usually narrow gravel roads with no bridges over rivers. The F-roads are only open during the summer months and some of them open as late as early July. F-roads are only safely travelled with a 4 x 4 vehicle.

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration, Vegagerdin, provides excellent information on driving in Iceland and up-to-date information in respect of the weather and road conditions.

www.safetravel.is is another very good resource, including details of the 112 app.

It is also very encouraging that almost without exception a mobile phone signal can be received throughout Iceland, including the very remote fringe areas. This can not be said of the remoter coastal and upland areas of the UK!

I travelled independently following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK.

1st June: outward flight > pick up at Keflavik airport > transfer to Go Campers office at Hafnarfjörður > pick up campervan > Reykjavík > Borgarnes > Hvammstangi > Blönduós > Sauðárkrókur > Skagafjörður > Siglufjörður > Ólafsfjörður >Dalvík

2nd June: Dalvík > Svarfaðardalur > Akureyri > Goðafoss waterfall > Mývatn lake and Laxá river > Reykjahlíð

3rd June: Reykjahlíð > Dettifoss waterfall > Reykjahlíð > Mývatn lake and Laxá river > Húsavík > Tjörnes > Kelduhverfi > Öxarfjörður > Ásbyrgi canyon > Kópasker > Melrakkaslétta peninsula > Raufarhöfn > Kópasker > Húsavík

4th June: Húsavík > Vestmannsvatn > Mývatn lake and Laxá river > Reykjahlíð > Dettifoss waterfall > Reykjahlíð > Goðafoss waterfall > Akureyri > Dalvík > Ólafsfjörður > Siglufjörður > Blönduós > Hólmavík

5th June: Hólmavík > Súðavík > Ísafjörður > Þingeyri > Dynjandifoss waterfall > Flókalundur > Brjánslækjar > Breiðafjörður > Breiðavík > Látrabjarg > Breiðafjörður > Brjánslækjar

6th June: Brjánslækjar > Breiðafjörður > Reykhólar > Búðardalur > Hvammsfjörður > Stykkishólmur > Grundarfjörður > Ólafsvík > Rif > Hellissandur > Hellnar > Búdir > Ólafsvík > Grundarfjörður

7th June: Grundarfjörður > Ólafsvík > Rif > Hellissandur > Malarrif > Hellnar > Búdir > Mýrar > Borgarnes > Þingvellir > Geysir > Gullfoss waterfall > Selfoss > Seljalandsfoss waterfall

8th June: Seljalandsfoss waterfall > Eyrarbakki > Skógafoss waterfall > Selfoss > Reykjavík > Garður and Faxaflói Bay > Reykjavík

9th June: Reykjavík and Seltjarnarnes

10th June: return campervan to Go Campers office at Hafnarfjörður > Reykjavík and Faxaflói Bay

11th June: Reykjavík > Keflavik airport > return flight

Accommodation:

Obviously I had the use of the campervan for the nights of 1st to 9th June inclusive and my overnight stops were a mix of official campsites and wild camping. Official campsites were relatively cheap and did not require advance booking whilst wild camping was free and came with my own chosen spectacular bedroom view.

On my final night of 10th June 2015, I stayed in Reykjavík at Hotel Fron at a cost of £94.46. Hotels and guest houses in Iceland and particularly Reykjavík are very expensive and Hotel Fron proved to be the cheapest option in a central location.



I had to return the campervan at 9 a.m. on 10th June 2015 so prior to leaving the UK I e-mailed Hotel Fron to see if they had a luggage storage facility since the check in time was 2 p.m. I received a very prompt reply to confirm that there was a luggage storage facility but also that I may be able to check in earlier if my room was available. I arrived at the Hotel Fron at around 10 a.m. and I was very pleased to hear that a room was indeed available for me immediately. This allowed me to check in and leave all my luggage in the room before going out to explore Reykjavík.

Furthermore, whilst I had booked the cheapest room (a single) to try and minimise the costs of an expensive trip, I was upgraded to an apartment that was probably bigger than my own flat! In addition to the bed, bathroom/shower, digital TV and free wi-fi, there was a lounge sofa, an office desk and chair and a kitchen area with a fridge, a minibar, an electric cooker hob, a microwave, a full range of crockery, glasses, cutlery, etc. Since I needed just a single night stay prior to my flight and intended to eat out, I did not use any of these additional facilities but I was very impressed with the room facilities. The room was clean, comfortable and quiet and met all my needs.

Hotel Fron is located on the main street of Laugavegur in central Reykjavík. Reykjavík is a very small and compact city and therefore everything in terms of sights, shops and eating out options was within easy walking distance.

On my final morning I took the pre-booked Flybus at a cost of £12 for the 45 minute journey to Keflavik airport via Reykjavík bus station.

Research and planning:

Prior to my trip, I had undertaken a significant amount of research and planning and therefore had a detailed itinerary which I largely kept to other than a few variations.

Iceland has been visited by birders for some years and as a result there are a number of Internet trip reports provided by others.

However, I found the following books to be invaluable in terms of both pre-planning my itinerary and as guides whilst travelling in Iceland:

“Crossbill guide: Iceland”: this book follows the usual Crossbill format and provides substantial information on landscapes and ecosystems, flora and fauna and walking and driving routes



“Lonely Planet: Iceland”: this book follows the usual Lonely Planet format and provides essential planning information, detailed information on a region by region basis plus a wide variety of other contextual information



In addition there are many excellent Internet resources, in particular the official tourism information site, Visit Iceland, and the various regional websites.

I also used the Insight Fleximap for Iceland for pre-planning my itinerary and whilst travelling in Iceland. This is a laminated and tear-resistant map (good idea!) which has 3 separate maps: a map of the whole of Iceland, a map of the Greater Reykjavík area and a street map of central Reykjavík. The main map of Iceland shows all roads from the main routes to the tracks with loose gravel surfaces. Intermediate distance indicators on even minor routes are given. Places of interest are clearly identified using easy to recognise pictorial symbols and the country's terrain is shown by the use of relief shading with some peak heights given.



Whilst my TomTom satnav seems to cover almost every country in north, south, east and west Europe, Iceland is not one of them! However, the Insight Fleximap proved to be more than sufficient to navigate round Iceland.

Impressions, experiences and memories:

Iceland is awesome!

Given that I live in the over-populated and traffic congested south east of England, Iceland overwhelms in its emptiness and provides an amazing experience both in terms of its thoroughly unique landscapes and its special wildlife .... geology and ecology overload!

Even the amount of background reading that I did failed to adequately prepare me for such a stunning country.

Iceland felt remote and isolated on arrival having flown over the north Atlantic and even more so when travelling in the Melrakkaslétta peninsula in the far north east and in the Westfjords in the far north west.

Having said that, the mobile phone signal is excellent almost everywhere, every small settlement how ever distant from the next has a fuel station and small supermarket and the English speaking people of Iceland are very friendly and helpful.



Weather:

I spoke to several people in Iceland during my trip and it seems like the standard weather advice goes something like this: “If you don’t like the weather you just have to wait 5 minutes and it will change”. I think this means that it is possible to experience all 4 seasons in one day.

In more scientific and meteorological terms what this means is that Iceland is sandwiched between cold Arctic air heading south and warm Gulf Stream air flowing north and therefore the weather is prone to rapid change according to the direction and strength of the wind.

The problem with the “5 minute theory” is that if the weather is good all you have to do is wait 5 minutes and then it isn’t!

One of the benefits of a visit to Iceland in June is that the daylight hours are very long so there is plenty of opportunity (in theory!) to pick up some good weather at some point during each day. On 1st June 2015, when I arrived in Iceland, the sun rose at 3:24 a.m. and set at 11:29 p.m. giving a day length of 20:05 hours. By 11th June 2015, when I left Iceland, the sun rose at 3:03 a.m. and set at 11:53 p.m. giving a day length of 20:50 hours. These are the times for Reykjavík. Dusk and dawn times are even earlier and later respectively so there is effectively 24 hours daylight in June. Day length hours are even longer further north and closer to the Arctic Circle and as the 21st June Summer Solstice approaches.

Given my regular trips to north and west Scotland and my past trips to north Finland and north Norway, I went well prepared for all 4 seasons in one day. Being prepared for potential winter weather in June was also particularly significant given that I had hired a campervan and would not have the benefit of centrally heated hotel or guest house accommodation to retreat to. As it turned out, I was very pleased that I took thermal base layers, a woollen jumper and warm, windproof and waterproof outer clothing plus a thermal fleece blanket.

The morning that I arrived in Reykjavík on 1st June 2015 it was 14°C and sunny (very promising!) but by the end of that first day it was only 2°C with rain and sleet.

The next day, 2nd June 2015, was characterised by temperatures of around 1°C with rain, sleet and snow showers amongst some drier and brighter weather.

When I woke up on the morning of 3rd June 2015 it was -1°C and it was evident that it had snowed quite heavily overnight. Light snow continued to fall during the morning which eventually forced me to abandon my trip to the Dettifoss waterfall since the road was disappearing (see photo below). The snow did eventually stop and the temperature increased to 7°C.



4th, 5th and 6th June 2015 saw temperatures mainly range from 3°C to 12°C with a typical mix of sun, cloud, drizzle and rain.

5th June 2015 was the best weather day during my trip. Whilst the temperature was -2°C over the Steingrimsfjardarheidi mountain pass west of Hólmavík (see first photo below), temperatures eventually peaked at 12°C and it was sunny and very calm all day in the beautiful Westfjords region (see second photo below).





7th, 8th and 9th June 2015 saw temperatures mainly range from 5°C to 12°C, again with a typical mix of sun, cloud, drizzle and rain although there was heavy rain for most of the day on 8th June 2015.

My final day in Reykjavík on 10th June 2015 started with light rain but a whale-watching boat trip out in to Faxaflói Bay in the afternoon saw sunny and calm conditions which were absolutely perfect for spotting and photographing cetaceans.

The Icelandic Met Office provides very comprehensive forecasting for the current day and for the next 5 days for all the regions of Iceland. However, nowhere does it state that you can expect 4 seasons in one day and forecasts are based on 6 hour time slots rather than 5 minute time slots! I soon came to realise that the forecast was not a guaranteed representation of what actually occurred!

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 71 species of birds.

Trip records - Iceland

Of these, I saw 2 species that I had not seen before.

The first “lifer” was the stunningly beautiful Harlequin Duck which I managed to see easily in the Lake Mývatn and Laxá river area with additional birds in the Westfjords region and at Skógafoss in the South region.



The second “lifer” was the Ptarmigan which shamefully I have never seen to date in Scotland despite many trips to the Highlands.



In addition, I saw 8 notable species i.e. birds seen before either as a single UK vagrant or on a few occasions in the UK plus birds seen before elsewhere in Europe:

Surf Scoter

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Gyrfalcon

Red-necked Phalarope

Iceland Gull

Glaucous Gull

Brunnich’s Guillemot

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

I was particularly pleased to find a male Surf Scoter amongst a small group of Common Scoters at Lake Mývatn. This is a large sea duck which breeds in Canada and Alaska. Very small numbers winter in western Europe as far south as the UK (where I saw my only UK record to date at Dornoch in northern Scotland in March 2008). Here is a poor quality photo (my only excuse is poor light and driving snow!) of the male Surf Scoter between a female and male Common Scoter:



A trip list of 71 bird species was substantially less than the 169 species that I recorded in north Greece just a few weeks before. I had expected this given the isolated northern location of Iceland.

However, I had also expected birding to be somewhat challenging with birds at low densities and often difficult to find i.e. a similar experience to that which I have had in north and west Scotland, north Finland and north Norway. This did not turn out to be the case and special birds were very easy to see, sometimes in great abundance, on most days.

Divers: Red-throated Divers were very common, not least at one site in north east Iceland where there were 5 breeding pairs on a small lake; Great Northern Divers were less common but it was excellent to see both diver species in their stunning breeding plumage

Slavonian Grebe: again, it was excellent to see these birds in their stunning breeding plumage

Seabirds: there were huge numbers of auks including Brunnich’s Guillemot at Látrabjarg in the Westfjords region and it was an amazing experience to watch and photograph the Puffins in particular there in brilliant sunshine at 11 p.m. at “night”

Swans: Whooper Swans were very common in groups of varying sizes .... I wonder how many of these birds I had previously seen at WWT Welney in Norfolk during the UK winter before their spring migration north to their breeding grounds?

Geese: Greylag Geese (proper wild ones!) were very abundant; small numbers of Pink-footed Geese on their way to their breeding grounds in the interior highlands and a small group of passage Pale-bellied Brent Geese presumably on their way to their breeding grounds in Greenland were noteworthy

Ducks: 15 species recorded, many in great abundance particularly at Lake Mývatn; excellent views of Iceland’s 2 specialities, namely Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye (both north American species where Iceland holds their only European breeding sites), plus a self-found vagrant from north America, namely Surf Scoter

Raptors: a single record of a magnificent Gyrfalcon emerging from the snow showers at Lake Mývatn made it on to the trip list plus a pair of White-tailed Eagles in the Westfjords region

Ptarmigan: I have finally seen one! .... several snow white individuals were easy to spot against snowless landscapes

Waders: 13 species recorded, many in great abundance; Black-tailed Godwit of the islandica sub-species, Whimbrel, Golden Plover, Snipe and Common Redshank were particularly common; beautiful Red-necked Phalaropes in their breeding plumage were also very common and there was a huge flock of several hundred at Lake Mývatn

Skuas: both Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas were recorded with the former far more common than the latter

Gulls: apart from the usual suspects, Glaucous Gulls were very common in the Westfjords region plus much smaller numbers of Iceland Gulls in the Westfjords region and the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the West region (this is primarily a winter visitor to Iceland); a small group of passage Little Gulls at Myrar in the Westfjords region was noteworthy

Terns: Arctic Tern was my first and last bird species recorded (at Keflavik airport!) with large numbers everywhere throughout my trip

Thrushes: Redwing were very common and it was a new experience to see these birds singing in their breeding territories; Blackbird was a noteworthy record due to this being a very uncommon species in Iceland!

During my trip, I was also able to record the following mammals:

Arctic Fox: 2 in the Kjálkafjörður area of the Westfjords region and 1 near Rif in the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the West region

Humpback Whale: 6 in Ísafjarðardjúp in the West Fjords region

Orca (Killer Whale): 1 off Malarrif at the western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the West region

Minke Whale: 3 or 4 from the whale-watching boat trip from Reykjavík out in to Faxaflói Bay

White-beaked Dolphin: at least 5 from the whale-watching boat trip from Reykjavík out in to Faxaflói Bay

Unidentified dolphin species (probably White-beaked Dolphin): c.10 in Ísafjarðardjúp in the Westfjords region

Harbour Porpoise: 2 in Ísafjarðardjúp in the Westfjords region

Common Seal: 22 in the Westfjords region

I was very pleased to see 3 Arctic Foxes during my trip, a mammal species that I had never seen before and which can be elusive even in its European stronghold of Iceland where it is the only native land mammal. The Arctic Fox Centre in Súðavík in the Westfjords region is the world's only research and exhibition centre dedicated to the Arctic Fox and this provided a very good opportunity to understand the ecology and conservation issues surrounding the species before actually seeing one.



In addition, amongst the cetaceans, Humpback Whale, Orca (Killer Whale) and White-beaked Dolphin were all exciting first records for me and the Minke Whale sightings were nothing less than spectacular compared to my previous distant sightings in north and west Scotland and in the Bay of Biscay.

Here are some photos of the Humpback Whales seen in the West Fjords region:









.... and here are some photos of the Minke Whales seen from the whale-watching boat trip from Reykjavík out in to Faxaflói Bay ....









Although Polar Bears are not native to Iceland, they do turn up on rare occasions, most drifting in on icebergs from the east coast of Greenland. I did not see a Polar Bear during my trip but there were a couple of suspicious close encounters in Reykjavík!!!





Disappointments:

Whilst my trip to Iceland was probably the best that I have ever undertaken for so many different reasons, there were a number of disappointments.

I managed to catch a cold on my outward flight to Iceland which was in full flow by 4th and 5th June 2015. This was the time in my itinerary that I had planned to take one of the whale-watching trips from Húsavík in north Iceland. My cold, and the very low temperatures and strong winds at the time, did not make a 3 hour trip out in to Skjálfandi Bay and the Greenland Sea a particularly inviting prospect!

At the time it was very disappointing not to undertake one of the whale-watching trips since Húsavík is generally recognised as the principal base in Iceland for such trips with regular records of several different species of cetacean including Humpback and Blue Whales. However, there was some compensation in that I managed to find my own Humpback Whales and Orca (Killer Whale) later in the week as noted above. In addition, the whale-watching trip from Reykjavík out in to Faxaflói Bay provided by Elding (highly recommended) added Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin to my trip list. Takk fyrir Katrín .... excellent guiding!





A further disappointment was not being able to visit the island of Flatey in Breiðafjörður, a stronghold for the Grey Phalarope and one of my target species. The reason for this was that the Ferry Baldur did not run on 7th June 2015. The first Sunday in June every year is Sjómannadagurinn (Seaman’s Day) dedicated to the sailors and seamen of Iceland. It is a public holiday and is one of the biggest non-religious holidays in Iceland. So much for careful pre-planning an itinerary!

Finally, I had to decide not to take the 3 hour ferry trip from Dalvik and visit the island of Grímsey (and cross the Arctic Circle) due to poor weather conditions at the time that I was in the Dalvik area.

I guess that all of these disappointments create an incentive to visit Iceland again at some point in the future.

Reykjavík

Reykjavík, whilst the capital of Iceland, is really like a small town and it is very easy to explore on foot.

The following were my highlights:

Tjörnin: a small lake in central Reykjavík .... Whooper Swans, Eiders, Arctic Terns and other birds in the city centre!



Solfar Sun Voyager: a stunning sculpture on the Sæbraut waterfront



Hallgrímskirkja: the largest church in Iceland offering extensive views across Reykjavík, Faxaflói Bay and beyond from its tower





Harpa: Reykjavík’s concert hall and conference centre .... amazing Nordic architecture both externally and internally and home to the Iceland Expo Pavillion - 360° cinematic experience



Whales of Iceland: the largest whale exhibition in Europe



Aurora Reykjavík: an audio-visual experience explaining the science, stories and legends behind the spectacular Northern Lights



Volcano House: the cinema presents 2 documentaries covering two of the most powerful eruptions of Iceland over the last 40 years: the 1973 eruption on Heimaey, the largest of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), and the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull and Fimmvörðulháls



Elding: the original whale watching operator in Reykjavík operating since 2000 and the first and only environmentally certified whale-watching company in Iceland



Tips

From my own experience, I have a few miscellaneous tips for anyone considering a trip to Iceland.

My main tip is visit Iceland! .... but ensure that you see as much of this amazing country as possible. There is so much to see beyond Reykjavík, the “Golden Circle” and the “Blue Lagoon”.

From a wildlife watching perspective, my own experience suggests that early June is an ideal time to visit Iceland.

If you are prepared to rough it a bit, I would also highly recommend renting a campervan. Apart from the fact that it is significantly cheaper than staying in expensive hotels and guest houses and eating out in expensive restaurants, it provides a very flexible means of travel around Iceland. You go where you want when you want.

Finally, and not so much a tip as a plea, watch the whales rather than eat them! Regrettably, and despite all the good things to say about Iceland, it is still one of a very small number of countries which is still undertaking totally unnecessary commercial whaling.



In addition, choose an IceWhale operator for memorable and responsible encounters with cetaceans in their natural habitats. The Icelandic Whale Watching Association is a non profit organisation formed by Icelandic whale-watching operators. Their co-operation dates back to 1999 but the association was formally formed in 2014. The aim of the association is to be a common platform for companies that offer whale-watching tours and education about whales in Iceland. United under the association, the companies set out to promote whale-watching as well as conservation of whales and to safeguard members interests locally and internationally.

Photos

During my trip, I took over 1100 photos of the wildlife and landscapes of Iceland.

The best photos from my trip can be found in the European trips gallery

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