I’ve recently returned from leading the first workshop of the summer. It was a dedicated bird photography workshop with six fellow nature photographers. We started in Reykjavik on May 26th and drove straight to Lake Mývatn, which took us about seven hours. The conditions at Mývatn were very different from how it’s been in past years. It was much colder than usually at the start of summer. The lake was still partially ice covered and the ponds, where I had planned to put up hides to photograph waterfowl, also had a lot of ice. The birds, which should have been very active as it was the start of the breeding season, were inactive and relaxed and more dispersed than I would have cared for. It didn’t look good but the weather forecast promised warmer weather, which would hopefully quickly melt the ice.
As Mývatn and indeed the whole of Iceland can be unpredictable in terms of weather I had planned five days in the area, which was a good idea given the conditions. During our first evening I introduced the group to some of the locations we would be concentrating on. We photographed Harlequin Ducks on the Laxá River and Horned Grebe that were building a nest in the reeds by Stakhólstjörn pond, close to our hotel. This pond also has a pair of Great Northern Divers (Common Loons to some) but they tend to stay far away from shore, close to a small island in the middle of the fairly large pond, where they breed. But their eerie call is unlike any other sound in nature and it brought me great joy to hear them for the first time this summer. Iceland is the only place in Europe where this North American loon species breeds regularly.
In spite of the cold weather and ice conditions I put up the three hides that I had brought with me by the holy pond (as it’s on land owned by the church), which is also within walking distance from the hotel. The plan was that half of the group would photograph from the hides while the rest of us would find something else to do. As the night had given way to the eternal brightness of high summer it meant that we had to be out of the hotel at 4 a.m. A refreshing idea, especially after having been out photographing until midnight.
Our first morning at Mývatn was quite slow but as the weather improved the action level went up. The Long-tailed Ducks at the pond started their annual territorial dispute, the Horned Grebe’s at the bigger pond very busy defending their nest and kicking out other grebe’s along with any other bird that dared to intrude. Among them an innocent female Eurasian Teal that was just minding it’s own business but got attacked from below by the hormone crazy male grebe. The Barrow’s Goldeneye, another of our target species, also became much more active – especially on the Laxá river – where we photographed males chasing after females on the water and in flight. After a few days of photographing water and moorland birds we were ready to shift gears and left Mývatn for the far west. We were headed for the westernmost point of Europe.
It was a long journey to the Látrabjarg bird cliff in the West Fjords. After hours of driving we boarded the Baldur ferry for the two and a half hour journey across Breiðafjörður bay. We arrived at our hotel in Breiðavík in time for dinner and then headed out to the bird cliff. The star of the cliff is without doubt the incredibly tame Atlantic Puffins. It’s a massive cliff, some 14 km long and 440 m high at its highest point. But it’s still a fairly easy place to work at, as the Puffins are kind enough to breed at the lowest part of the cliff, right by the car park. And when we arrived they were waiting for us. The breeding had obviously not begun as we saw birds collect nest material (straws and grass) and disappear into their burrows. Unusually late this year and another indication of the delayed breeding season was that Arctic Terns in the cove leading to the cliff were few and not on the nesting ground yet.
The three days in Breiðavík, with repeated visits to Látrabjarg and excursions around the hotel (for Red-throated Divers, Eiders and common breeders) were as magical as any of my previous visits. This remains one of my favorite places in Iceland and one that I look forward to visiting every summer. As a bonus it’s worth mentioning that the owners of Breiðavík, Birna and Keran, are some of the nicest hosts to be found anywhere and Atli the chef is a magician. His cod-cooking skills are legendary and his whiskey-chocolate mousse is to die for.
After our stay in Breiðavík we crossed the Breiðafjörður again but this time we stayed overnight at Flatey Island. It’s a small island but full of charm and accommodating birds. I found a Red-necked Phalarope nest so obviously that latecomer had started breeding. Unlike other birds the male phalaropes incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. The female just lays the eggs and then says adios. So it was a shocked male that I flushed of its nest by accident and I counted four eggs before quickly retreating so he could get back to business.
Staying at the hotel in Flatey is another unique experience. It’s an old building that’s been restored with great care and every detail has been attended to make the stay as enjoyable and unforgettable as possible. The food plays a big role there, as does the atmosphere of not only the hotel but also the island itself. And then there are the birds. Snow Buntings singing outside the hotel and Black Guillemots nesting in rock crevasses nearby. There are also countless Arctic Terns on the island and a number of common birds that are in few places as unafraid of people as on Flatey. There is nothing to fear there as the timelessness of the island erases all evil human intentions and the birds must sense this, or so I would like to imagine.
Before heading back to Reykjavik City we spent a grey and wet night at Hellnar on the southern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. As good as the area can be it’s no good when you can barely see more than a few meters ahead. But we were a happy bunch of bird photographers after an extraordinary trip in some unique conditions. The participants managed to photograph all of our target species. I did not photograph all that much myself, as it’s not my primary objective when leading workshops. But I did give my Canon 1D-X, which I’ve had for half a year, the first proper run at bird photography and I’m impressed with its capabilities, especially at capturing birds in flight.