Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Iceland May 2016 Part 9 If at first you don't succeed....

We were already down to our final three days, one of which would be largely spent travelling south, so today we agreed we would travel northwards for the day and continue the route originally planned for the previous day. The Tjornes peninsula and beyond!
We had both agreed we wouldn't be diverted from the plan if there happened to be a pair of Great Northern Divers on "the" lake, we had other targets we still needed to try and get images of. The Great and Arctic Skuas supposedly breed locally to where we were heading and we both had them on our list and we would both be grateful for another crack at the Red-throated Divers should we find some on nice calm water.
As we approached the Diver lake we did of course stop. 
Nothing there. 
We did of course wait just in case they were submerged. 
Probably a good thing really as we wouldn't have been able to resist I don't suppose. We had the affliction. Great Northern Diver fever is only curable by a total over exposure to these magnificent birds. I guess in the back of your mind you know that the chances of seeing them in their full breeding plumage is unlikely anywhere else in Europe although ironically one appeared in Surrey whilst we were away.
Anyway, we travelled onwards until we were almost in Husavik. There are two lakes just south of Husavik. Could the first one be the one Richard Steel had pointed us towards when we had mentioned G.N.D's?
 We decided we had to investigate ( the fever is always lurking once contracted) and drove down a lane which had the appearance that it might be private as it went past a sign indicating Kaldbakur holiday cottages then another pointing to the office. We stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the lakes and yes, there it was. A single G.N.D. sat motionless in the very far distance, perhaps 800m away. There was a rough track leading down the hill which our 4x4 was more than capable of driving but we daren't go without first seeking permission.  Kaldbakur had been mentioned on a web site but we would first enquire at the office to see if it was OK to venture down to the lake.
This particular vantage spot had several Golden Plovers searching the ground for food. The sun was out and they looked good.
Golden Plover     Iceland
Despite their numbers we hadn't given them much attention really, I suppose you always think you can fill an empty minute later. However, we wisely spent a bit of time with them here.
Golden Plover     Iceland
Make hay while the sun shines is such a wise bit of advice.
Overhead there were several Snipe flying around doing their "drumming" sound. A fascinating sight that is seen regularly in Iceland, Snipe being very,very common.
Snipe     Iceland
I'd never seen or heard it before this trip and it is quite special, Sometimes you can hear them but can't see them as they fly so high and the sound of their tail feathers carries a considerable distance.
Snipe    Iceland
Trying to capture an image is very difficult. My 600mm lens is a bit too heavy to be easily hand held by myself, a 500mm would have been ideal, particularly with a 7D2 crop camera body attached. 
Anyway, having had our fill we headed back to the office but it was deserted. We decided to carry on our journey north with the intention of calling back later. By late after noon the sun would be in the right spot for the Diver!
Onwards we went collecting another new species for our "bird on a post" collection.
Redwing      Iceland
but being equally frustrated by tantalisingly close Artic Skuas flying past the car. Our second sighting of a Great Skua was sufficiently distant to not having the same effect.
Eventually we came to the Kelduhveri flatlands. A huge area with some pools and much marsh lands. We went off the main road down a rough track but found little to grab our attention.
A pair of Dunlin in the rough grass seemed a strange sight as I'm used to seeing them on sand. No doubt looking for a safe nesting spot here.
Dunlin    Iceland
There were a few Long-tailed and Tufted Ducks on a stretch of slow moving water but there was nowhere that grabbed our attention and persuaded to get out and walk. 
Long Tailed Duck      Iceland
We drove on, passing roadside ponds and lakes full of Slavonian Grebes and Phalaropes, none being particularly approachable. We eventually reached the visitor centre for the Vatnajokull National Park and after a quick look around we headed up to the nearby gorge where there is the off chance of seeing a Gyr Falcon.
Not today though ! We decided enough was enough, there were photo opportunities on the lakes and ponds nearer to our lodge so we returned to Husavik stopping there to re-fuel and treat ourselves to a Magnum ice cream which took us back a bit when the cost for 2 worked out at 1000 krona or £2.80 each. I haven't bought an ice cream in such a long time perhaps I'm out of touch. Still, it was extremely enjoyable and there was no need to be totally cost conscious! The petrol incidentally was about 10% cheaper than the UK at around £1 a litre.
Continuing southwards and heading back towards the Kaldbakur holiday cottages we spotted an unpaved road leading down to the beach so we decided to check it out. Unbelievably two Great Northern Divers were cruising along the shoreline only about 5 metres from the edge. 
Stop! Park up! Dash down the steep bank on to the beach and hopefully get in to position while they are submerged.
Once again more frustration as they emerge much further down than expected.
Back in the car, drive way beyond them and get down on the beach again.
This time they emerge about 50 metres off shore. Agh!!!!
Still as we find ourselves on the beach we'll check out the outflow over in the corner.
   Husavik Beach      Iceland
You can just about make out a small gathering of birds below the parked van feeding off the discharge from a nearby fish processing plant.
There were quite a few Iceland Gulls amongst the gathered flock.
Iceland Gull      Iceland
The sun was no longer shining so the light was a bit flat.
Iceland Gull      Iceland
Not a bad looking bird though.
Iceland Gull      Iceland
Also in the mix were a couple of Turnstone
Turnstone      Iceland
A Sanderling
Sanderling      Iceland
and a couple of stunning Red Knot.
Knot      Iceland
I was particularly interested in the Knot as you don't see them looking like that in the UK, rather a dull grey colour.
Where was Mike though? I'd seen him head up on to the makeshift harbour wall so I went to take a look.
He'd relocated the Divers! They proceeded to do a similar circuit several times, heading some distance out, returning to the shore, out again , a circuit of the harbour wall. The only question was where would they pop up to get reasonably close. We both spent/wasted a lot of time trying to pre-empt them only to be left pretty frustrated ! This is a classic symptom of Diver fever I'm sure.
I did get some shots though
Great Northern Diver      Iceland
And even a bit of action
Great Northern Diver      Iceland
Which despite the distance
Great Northern Diver      Iceland
and the flat light
Great Northern Diver      Iceland
Gave me something at least.
Why couldn't they just pop up right in front of me just like this Red-breasted Merganser?
Red-breasted Merganser      Iceland
We decided the Divers were very smart and were deliberately playing games with us!
In the end and out of frustration we headed off to see if there was one still sitting on the lake at Kaldbakur.
First call was the office where we were told by all means, the grounds were open to anyone who wished, we could take the car down too should we wish. First though we checked out some calling Redpolls which we managed to see but not to photograph.
Down at the lakeside the Diver was still very distant. We tried our luck with some Slavonian Grebes  but most of my shots were once again very soft.
Slavonian Grebe     Iceland
Birds on water seem to be particularly prone in Iceland it seems.
Anyway, as Mike and I were discussing what next he suddenly spotted an Arctic Skua swooping in.
With little time to even think it was simply a case of point and shoot.
Arctic Skua     Iceland
and hope for the best.
Arctic Skua     Iceland
The images are a bit soft but they are also by far the best I have taken of this species.
Arctic Skua     Iceland
A Pale phase bird with a bit of oil on it's belly it appears.
That was a result as far as I was concerned.
We drove back to the top of the hill to see if we could re-locate the Redpolls but had no luck there. Instead I took a few snaps of the Redwings feeding in the paddock.
Redwing     Iceland
At this point we decided we would take one more look down at the lake and then call it a day.
There's a track that goes around part of the lake and it's a bit of a steep bank to drive up and on to it. As we approached I jokingly told Mike who was sat in the back to get ready as the Diver would be sat waiting for us just off the track.
I'm not sure who was the most surprised, us or the Diver!
The bird allowed me to position the car so we both had a view and could fire off a couple of shots .
Great Northern Diver       Iceland
before it turned to face us and slowly submerged below the surface in the most laid back of fashions.
Great Northern Diver       Iceland
That was an incredibly close encounter but were we happy ? Well, yes and no. The light was flat ! 
Do I have reason to whinge? Well no, I don't really but hey,ho we do strive for perfection or at least as good as we can get.
We were reasonably satisfied though and headed off for an early dinner as it wasn't worth driving back to our lodge first.
After dinner another cruise around to see what was about which was usually a search for a bird on a post but on this occasion none were to be found. This Ptarmigan shot I took does demonstrate why Lake Myvatn translates to Lake of Flies though.
Ptarmigan       Iceland
The flies didn't bother us at all but perhaps later in the summer it gets worse.
For us though we just had one last full day before the long drive south again.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Iceland May 2016 Part 8 After the high.

I wasn't sure if I was on a high or a low after our session with the Great Northern Divers. I had some shots which was something to be grateful for but would they be good enough? Still we had two more days to try again if time allowed but in the meantime we had to decide what to do with our afternoon. We headed back to the River Laxa bridge in the knowledge that there would be some action there and besides, I knew I had to improve on my over exposed shots from the previous day.
What a change when we got back ! Not nearly as many Goldeneyes about, they must have been busy pairing off! Fortunately there were one or two.
Barrow's Goldeneye   Iceland
but I still over exposed the whites! The sun doesn't have to be that strong shining on the males and they simply glare in their brilliance.
Barrow's Goldeneye     Iceland
Best when they are out of the direct sunlight.
A pair of Goosanders were not nearly as confiding as the ducks, both were off like a shot when they saw me.
Red-Breasted Merganser     Iceland
I went and found a spot at the top of the rapids and sat and waited to see what if anything might happen. The flow of water going under the bridge is incredible what with the melting snows constantly feeding the river. I didn't fancy my chances of survival if I fell in that's for sure.
The Harlequin Ducks are something else though, they were diving in and surfacing in the very strongest current. I couldn't believe that they didn't get battered as they disappeared down the rapids.
Up they pop right in the middle.
Harlequin Duck      Iceland
and with supreme skill drag themselves out when they want to head to a calmer spot for a rest.
Harlequin Duck      Iceland
Mike had headed further down stream to a spot where I could see him a few hundred metres away. Another car had arrived and the two occupants had walked over to ours and were stood there. In all innocence as it happened but we both had the same idea to get over there a.s.a.p. just in case.
Bad luck for Mike though, no sooner had he left a Red-throated Diver arrived at the very spot he had vacated. Anyway, after yesterday's duck fest today was bit flat. We moved on finding a small lake near the main road that held a pair of Scaup. My attempts to get near were hopeless, they flew off immediately, as did the Tufted ones they were with too. They definitely must have experienced something untoward to be so flighty.
I sat down in the hope they might return but they didn't. Virtually the only photo I took was one of the car.
Wonder if Renault might be interested!!
Anyway, moving on we located some Gadwall but little else.
Gadwall     Iceland
We were feeling a bit deflated, Myvatn isn't the best for photography as far as we are concerned but maybe at another time it might be different.
Anyway, we decided we didn't want to complete the whole lake circuit again instead opting to take a new route back to our lodge. 
Road 87 takes you over the hills which were still fairly thick with snow at their highest point.
Scenically it was excellent but there wasn't too much wildlife until we got to the lower slopes.
Road No 87 to Husavik    Iceland
We did score a pair of Snow Bunting here though, the only sighting, albeit brief, we had of that species all week. This particular road was unpaved in part too but the surface was very sound.
Coming off the 87 we crossed over to the Laxa Valley where our lodge was and had yet another close view of a fly by Artic Skua. They were starting to frustrate us, such splendid views but no sooner in view and gone again.
River Laxa valley        Iceland
I suggested to Mike that it might be the perfect evening to take a whale watching trip. It looked sunny on the coast. We had a quick cuppa and dumped our excess gear at the lodge before heading to Husavik and walking in to the "Gentle Giants" ticket office. 
"How many on the last sailing ?"  I asked.
"Six" was the reply.
"How much?"
"10,300 per person" 
" I'll give you 20,000 for the two of us" was my tongue in cheek bid.
To my surprise it was accepted and we were told to hurry as we had 10 minutes to park the car and get on the boat.
It turned out to be a fabulous choice. Our boat, the Faldur , had plenty of room to spare with only eight on board, it appears the evening sailing is the least popular, earlier boats had gone out with the maximum 45 on board. 
Gentle Giants whale watching boat. Iceland.

Our guide was excellent in telling us where to look out when the whale was likely to surface and our captain was brilliant in getting in to the best position for both viewing and photography.
Only once or twice was the boat on the wrong side of the whale with the sun in front of the camera. 
Humpback Whale     Iceland

And what views we had of these magnificent beasts. Quite simply awesome, and I don't use the word lightly.
The Humpback whale grows to around 45-50 feet. That's as big as the boat we were in! Not the biggest whale species but certainly very impressive particularly at very close quarters.
First signs to watch for are the "blow".
Humpback Whale     Iceland
Then the back appears
Humpback Whale     Iceland
Then after completing that operation it's ready to dive down again.
Humpback Whale     Iceland
The back arches in to a hump.
Humpback Whale     Iceland
and with the tail trailing
Humpback Whale     Iceland
down it goes.
Humpback Whale     Iceland
The individual whales are recorded and identified as they have different tail markings.
Humpback Whale     Iceland
The only thing which would be even more jaw droppingly stunning would be the occasions when the whale pushes right out of the water and the whole head, maybe even more, becomes visible.
What I would give to witness that! Still, I felt privileged to experience what I did, it has to go down as one of the wildlife highlights of my life to date.
On one occasion I was up top with our guide and captain when the whale blew right in front of our boat.
Whale watching   Iceland
Those five at the front actually got a soaking and even where I was we felt a fine spray of water pass over us. Quite incredible.
All this just a short distance from the shore and Husavik harbour.
Humpback Whale     Iceland
In fact so close you can watch from the shore if you prefer !
After two hours we returned to dry land. To be honest we had had such a good many sightings it didn't matter that we returned well before the three hours advertised. The longest we had to wait between whale viewing was only a matter of minutes. There were three Humpbacks present and to avoid stressing them we went from one whale to another.
Mike and I both agreed that this was the boat of choice. There are faster rib boats but they have to slow down to approach the whales anyway and you are sat in rows of 4 so your views will be obscured half the time. There are bigger boats where, like ours, you can move around but they appeared less manouverable so couldn't match the changes of direction with the whale the way we did.
Absolutely, choose this outfit if you get the chance.
Back on shore we decided to try a new restaurant too and that turned out to be a good choice too, a much bigger menu to try although I did pass on the starter of Smoked Guillemot ! It was pretty pricey and I did ask and it was confirmed, you don't get the whole bird either!
Our day had turned out to be a huge success after all. 
Mike told me he was just nipping across the road to the supermarket as I sorted the bill. I followed and found him perusing the beers. 
A good call, a celebration was in order however the beers sold in supermarkets have such a very low strength the idea was abandoned.
Never mind, we tried a bit more photography instead.
Artic Tern     Iceland
Another for the bird on the post series!
Finally back in the lodge we made plans for the following day.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Iceland May 2016 Part 7 A case of the bends.

Wednesday, Day 4.
We had planned to take the journey north, past Husavik, around the Tjornes peninsula, past the flatlands and marshes of the river delta at Kelduhverfi, maybe as far as Kopasker and beyond.
We didn't even get as far as Husavik, a mere 15 minute drive north!
We were struck down with a case of the diver's bends.
Only we weren't in the water.
Still in contact with Richard Steel via messaging, we had told him our intention of travelling north in the hope of finding a lake hosting a Great Northern Diver. He told us to check out the smaller lake south of Husavik so when we drove roadside along side one we stopped to look.
Nothing at first, but I asked Mike who was driving to just hang on a second just to make sure that there wasn't anything under the water.
There was.
A pair of G.N.D's.
Hearts beating faster ( yes, I know , bit sad isn't it but if that what rocks our boat so be it) we had no option but to abandon the car right there on the road. Not the done thing it seems judging by disapproving passing vehicles who honk their horns but we were not parked in a dangerous spot, we were acting as a traffic calmer!
Talking of calm we tried to remain so as best we could be under the circumstances as we got our gear together.
"Let's grab a record shot before they disappear" said Mike
"Good idea!" I replied.
We had to drop down the raised bank the road was built on and cross the scrub to a wire fence.
Not sure if we were entering private property we took a chance we weren't trespassing.
"Take a left" I said to Mike. The fence was very low there and there wasn't any barbed wire.
He went right and risked emasculation.
I went left and just stepped over the fence.
Take another shot.
They had changed direction and were heading back my way.
Don't mess up. Wait until they are both under water then make a dash for the shore line.
I was there before the birds surfaced.
When they did they were perhaps 30 metres away.
Mike had made it in to position too.
He was closer, not only that he's chosen to take a route that left him with the sun directly behind him.
Nice one Mike!
A little envious... OK, a lot envious, I had to make do with my position.
Fingers crossed they might come my way but in the meantime....
I at least had some superb calm water and to be honest, to get two in the shot when you have a big lens, well they need to stay a little way off!
Come on you little beauties, get closer.
Great Northern Diver    Iceland
Love is!
I didn't know how it would turn out until I got home. In fact it's only as I have written this blog that I have realised it's a passable effort.
Unfortunately at the time I felt as if I'd failed, maybe Mike did too.
But one thing was certain, were both hooked. Suffering from an obsession. Divers! The bends.
We spent another couple of hours waiting, hoping that the birds would get closer than previous but unfortunately they sailed off to a distant part of this rather large lake.
I decided to move to the narrowest part of the water. If they did come back it would offer me the perfect spot.
They didn't but at least I was treated to a close up of a Ringed Plover who landed right in front of me.
Ringed Plover   Iceland
20 feet away at most. I was dead chuffed, mu camouflage gear must have worked a treat!
However, we see Ringed Plovers locally!
Ringed Plover   Iceland
Maybe not that close, but there again, maybe we do.
Great Northern Divers are not a common sight. Certainly not in full breeding plumage.
You have to agree, they do look stunning.
In the end we decided to give up when one of the birds suddenly decided to fly off. Mike returned to the car to check out his shots, I stuck a 2.0x teleconverter on my lens and gave it another 20 minutes with the remaining bird from a new position nearer to where the birds seem to favour. Why not use the 2.0x in the first place I asked myself? 
Great Northern Diver    Iceland
The reason why not is that although optically it might be very sharp, the greater the distance the subject is, the more the likely hood of "bad air", or in other words, distorted light. Better than nothing though!
By now it was mid morning and we decided it was too late to head north so instead we would head back to the River Laxa. The sun had vanished but it was still dry and reasonably bright so perhaps better to photograph white birds. I had a feeling I needed to have another go at the Barrow's Goldeneyes.
Off we went then.