Wednesday, 11 June 2014

27th May - Keflavik to Nesjavelli, Iceland

A late choice, we decided on a short break during the late May holiday in Iceland.  We had always wanted to go, and having seen the Northern Lights in Tromso few years ago, we decided to see Iceland during the late spring and summer, when if the weather didn't behave then there would always be light.

We left a dreary wet Gatwick, and arrived to similar overcast weather in Iceland.  The international airport is a distance from Reykjavik itself, but we were staying close to the Pingvellir National Park in the Hotel ION at Nesjavelli, so the journey was even longer.  As we headed from the airport we passed through a monotonous area of black lave rock, it was drizzling with rain which added to the bleakness of the journey.  We drove around the outskirts of the capital Reykjavik, on a very good road system, and finally turned away from the coast and headed inland.  The speed limit was at the maximum 90 KPH, but in built up areas this reduced to 50, and a sign alerting me to the speed of the car was a little concerning until we realised it was just an alert and not a camera.

The road wound it's way through lichen covered rocks, and as we came over a hill we got our first view of Lake Pingvallavatn, the largest natural body of water in Iceland.


Looking down the road wound its way ever onwards, but we were going to turn right in a short distance and head around the southern side of the lake.


The journey continued on a good road, that at times went close to the shore of the lake.  At one stage we saw a Great Northern Diver close in, but I didn't stop to photograph it, hoping at that point we would find more, then immediately after leaving it thinking I hope we do find more!

In the distance we could see clouds of steam rising, and as we got closer could see it was a geothermal plant, used to pull hot water from the ground for heating and power generation.  As well as the steam there was also a distinct smell of sulphur and coming around the corner Helen commented that we hoped the hotel was not too close, but then we saw it next to the plant!

After checking in, we decided to head out and explore close by.  We left by car, and at the junction with the road we stopped to watch a pair of wild Whooper Swans by the side of a steaming pool.


The pool was obviously not too hot as it was proving an attraction to waders who were bathing in the water, that was clearly warmer than those of the nearby lake.  This Golden Plover was having a good wash and scrub.


While this one was waiting its turn, you can see the steam rising from the water.


We turned onto a gravel road, and continued off to the east.  In sheltered bays the water was quite calm and produced some lovely reflections of the hills alongside the lake.  The water here is well known for it's clearness, and is a popular scuba diving site.  The lake itself has a good stock of Arctic Char and Trout.


In the overcast conditions the distant scenery takes on an impressive scene.


The gravel track took us past farms and a bank of lush green grass, that was popular to a large flock of Golden Plover.  Back in Hampshire we rarely get the chance to see this beautiful wader in the summer plumage that gives it it's name.  Here they all looked very splendid as they feed in the field.


We left the lake behind but picked up a stream that entered another lake created by a dam attached to a small hydro power station at the junction with the 350 road that leads to Selfoss.  The faster water was an attraction to diving ducks, and as we drove past we could see several Tufted Ducks, but as we cross the dam I could see some of the ducks were the larger Scaup.  The males are similar to the Tufted, but larger and with a light grey back.  The eye is a sharp golden colour and stood out from the ink black head.


The female while being a lot duller than the male with a reddish brown body, looked quite striking with the white patch behind the bill, and again the golden eye.


Spring is much later here, and the ducks look splendid in their breeding plumage, which also leads to the males displaying to the females.  The male Scaup does so by extending its head and neck upwards.


Arctic Terns were everywhere, and their chatter could be heard when I stepped out of the car to get a better view of the ducks.  I realised why when Helen pointed out this individual perched on the armco by the side of the road.  They look splendid in flight with their long tail streamers and elegant effortless wings, on the ground though their short red legs are emphasised.


Hard to believe that this little bird has just completed a round trip between here and the Antarctic, a journey of on average 45,000 miles.  Obviously something to shout about!


Now spending any time out doors here you quickly become aware of a strange vibrating sound.  Small birds whizz across the sky, and you desperately try and look to see what it was.  They seem to be everywhere you go swooping up and down, with all the time the verve verve sound echoing around you.  Its like the sound you would get from a free give away cardboard toy from the Beano or Dandy in the sixties, something that would vibrate as you swish it through the air, the purpose then was to be annoying, and while this was not really annoying, it very quickly became the sound of Iceland for me.

What was causing it?  Well it was the breeding display of the Common Snipe, otherwise known as "drumming".  The Snipe extends two outer tail feathers and as it undergoes a stalling dive the feather vibrate producing the sound or "drumming".  In this picture although a little dark you can see the extended feathers.


As well as the Snipe there was another common bird that we have just said goodbye to in the UK, and they left us to come north to places such as Iceland to breed and sing, the Redwing.


Like the Blackbird and Song Thrush singing back home the Redwing uses the tops of the small trees to proclaim a territory and mate.  very quickly you get used to the song, and just comment oh, another Redwing.

We headed away from the power station and the road followed the river that led from the dam.  Where it came close to the road we noticed some Eider Ducks flying past so we stopped to watch them fly from us.


And then found some more close into the bank, the male looking splendid again in breeding plumage, while the females are in their drab brown plumage that provides the necessary camouflage while sitting on the nest.


As we watched the Eider we also found a pair of Goldeneye on the far bank abd several Arctic Terns flew along the river.  From the other side of the the road a light phase Arctic Skua flew past us and out chasing the terns.  I was in the car and getting a good position to photograph was impossible, so I had to be content with this view taken through the front windscreen as it flew away.  


Unfortunately this turned out to be the only photograph I managed to get of an Arctic Skua on the trip.  we saw several, but all the time as we were driving, and not once out while walking.

Despite the fact it was very light it was getting late so we turned back along the same route towards the hotel.  As the road came close to the lake once again we saw a Great Northern Diver, it was a little way off, but with the thoughts I had earlier about not seeing that many, I decided to get some shots, this was the best, i hope there are some more, because this doesn't really do it justice.


back at the hotel, we had a drink in the panoramic bar, and a very nice meal.  As we returned to the room at 23.00 it was still light outside, and we had the view of the Geothermal Plant.


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