Friday, 13 June 2014

29th May - Dyrholaey Peninsula, Waterfalls and Glaciers, Iceland

I awoke in the night and looked outside to see if it was dark  It was 2.00 am, and while there was no sun, it was not dark outside, just that twilight you get in the UK when the sun goes down late in the evening.



We were up a little later and were heading out after breakfast at about 7.30.  It was a cloudy overcast morning, but the forecast for where we were heading was favourable and we were hoping for some sun like yesterday.  Our route would take us along the gravel road and then onto the main road in the direction first of Selfoss, and then along the main south road.

Our first stop was where the gravel road meets the lake, close in were a group of Red-breasted Mergansers, the grey of the water and the low light adding to the scene of this pair.



The group that were close to the bank decided they were not happy with our presence and slowly swam away from us.  The males stretching their heads and opening and shutting their bills.



the Arctic Tern though was not concerned with us and sat by the water edge, while his compatriots called and fished further out on the lake.



We passed the dam, and followed the river that comes from it to the 350 road, here we passed over it on a bridge, and it flows into a large plain.  The road sits on the side of the hill, and there is a special panoramic view across the plain called Ingolfsfajal.

The photograph shows the peaks of two volcanoes, Hekla and Eyjafjallajokull that can be seen from here, and two of the glaciers that cover the distant mountain range.



Our journey took us along a straight flat road with a distant ocean on our right, and to our left and in front the peaks and glaciers show on the picture.

Myrdalsjokull is the fourth largest glacier in Iceland, and later in our day we were to get much closer to this.  Tindfjoll is a ridge of highland in which a small glacier, Tindfjalljokull can be found.  Incidently the Icelandic word for glacier is Kull.

Hekla is a lively mountain with the classic volcano shape.  It has erupted over a dozen times since the settlement, the last stirrings being in the 1940s.



Further to the south of Hekla is Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano with the unpronounceable name that caused days of disruption to many travellers in 2010.  It started erupting in March 2010, and then fuelled by ice from the glacier the eruption sent a vast cloud of volcanic ash across large areas of Europe causing many countries to close air space and cancelling 100s of flights.

Today it was quite and rather nondescript, hard to believe this was a monstous volcano as it lay beneath the low grey clouds.



Ahead of us was a ridge of green, that was part of the mountain range extending up to the highlands.  Before that we went through a flat river plain with water fed from the glacial outflow, and formed by the combination of retreating ice and volcanic lava flows.  It made for a very unique landscape.  In the distance are the Vestmannaeyjar Islands.



As I stood photographing the view, a Great Skua came low over the water and gravel, and then up over my head.



Back in the car we saw a pale phase Arctic Skua washing in a pool by the side of the road, and as I slowed down in the hope that I could stop to photograph it I upset a local driver, so I missed the chance. 

We were approaching the ridge, and could see the waterfalls coming off the top.



the main waterfall is Seljalandsfoss, which is fed by the melting water of the Eyjafjallajokull ice cap, the flow is narrow and not too tall and flows down across the meadow.  It is possible to walk behind the waterfall, but we had no intention of getting soaked.  Further along from the main falls are two smaller falls.



turning away from the waterfall the meadow stretches away from us.  There were Curlew and Golden Plover calling in the distance, while on the cliffs around the falls there were many Fulmar nesting, and Raven patrolling on the look out for an easy meal/



back on the road and the scenery and views to our left were spectacular, high rolling hills and cliffs with waterfalls dotted along them leaking water from the melting ice caps away in the distance, the hills covered with lush green vegetation.

Where the water flowed onwards towards the sea and rivers you could see many Arctic Terns gracefully flitting and bobbing over the water.  Much of the tops of the mountains were shrouded in cloud, but as we drove further east the sun started to burn away the cloud and the view extended back.  We came across a distant glacier that it a finger of the Myrdalsjokull glacier, the ice looking particularly dirty away in the distance.



Finally we reached the turn for the Dyrholaey Pennisula, an out crop of Rock on the coast.  Along side the road were shallow pools of water and in some of them were Red-necked Phaleropes feeding  These phaleropes have a role reversal strategy, the male being responsible for the rearing of the young, as a result for once the female as the more brightly coloured plumage.  This one is a male.



We parked at the car park close to the edge of the rock, overlooking a bay to the east.  Although we were aware that the beach was going to be different it was still a strange sight to see black sand.



The whole beach and rock formations have been formed as the sea has eroded the porous and soft lava rocks created by the numerous volcanic eruptions.  In the above photograph you can see the stacks created as the sea erodes the cliff, and in the next there is an outlier rock stack, that was probably much harder and stronger than the surrounding lava.  In fact a closer look shows shafts of basalt supporting the stack.



On the black sand below that has been created from the volcanic lava there were groups of Eider sitting about.  The males contrasting completely with the dark sand.



We climbed to a view point that gave views to the west of the bay, with more substantial stacks creating islands with arches.



Below us Eider flew past.



And every so often a Great Skua would drift along the edge of the cliff attracting the attention of the Fulmars and Gulls.



We climbed down to the beach and made our way along the sand.  Rafts of Puffins could be seen off shore, attracting the attention of the photographers (!)




for some reason though a Puffin had chosen to settle on a rock ledge about two metres above the ground.  As always seems to be the way with these comical little birds they do not seemed to be concerned with human presence, which probably accounts for why they are eaten so much in the north west of Iceland.  The face reminds of the bitter sweet look a clown can have, yes it is a colourful beak but the expression with the markings around the eye give a sad expression, in the same way the make up of a clown does.



A little further along the cliff there were more Puffins but this time is a more traditional spot, on the grass at the top of the cliff.  The Fulmar did not seem to pleased with them there and kept buzzing them in an attempt to take away their place.



Fulmar were nesting all along the cliff face, some out in the open, and some with desirable penthouses complete with landscaping.



Birds were continually flying alongside the cliff using the sheer face for lift.  Groups of Kittiwakes could be seen following the cliffs with beaks full of mud and nest material heading away to the cliff faces of the stacks and islands.



Arctic Terns could be heard and seen flying over the beach, a delightful bird that looks wonderful in a flight, the silhouette emphasising their grace in the air, and the translucent nature of the primary feathers



I noticed on the sea a single bird, auk sized.  A closer inspection revealed it to be a Razorbill.



Eider were everywhere, either in groups or with single birds.  Close in the males were looking splendid, the sage green markings on the back of the neck looking quite impressive.



I mentioned earlier that the whole bay was created from the erosion of the lava, and within the cliffs you could see the layers of lava, through the basalt.  This made some of the parts of the cliff unstable and in places there were large rocks having fallen on the beach.  You can see the layer of lava on the right hand side of the boulder.



From the beach the bay takes on a completely different aspect.  The stacks in the distance appearing much closer.



With the sun coming out the colour of the sand took on a different hue, the footprints adding to this as they turned over the damp sand.



In the cliffs it was possible to see the hexagonal basalt columns that have been twisted by the activity in the area.



This opening is an interesting feature, the basalt has been worn away to form a whole and cave in the rock, the smoothness of the rock coming from the wear from the sea.



We left the beach and walked up the path towards the cliff top.  Arctic Terns were buzzing around calling and displaying as they start to claim territory amongst the rocks and thrift to nest.



We climbed the steep path, and finally reached the top, and then walked to a point where we could look down onto the cliffs.  Close in were the Kittiwakes, and you could now see where the nest material was going.



Further down were the Auks, mostly Guillemots, although I suspect that there were a few Razorbills in amongst them.



We spent some time watching the birds flying around the cliff face, and admiring how they manage to rest in such an assured way on such a steep face.  Looking across at the cliff I noticed a white patch, checking with binoculars I could also see a red leg, very faintly.  This photograph shows both, and I believe it to belong to a Black Guillemot.  The only possible confusing species would be Puffin, but they have orange legs.



At the top of the cliffs was a lighthouse, as we made our way along the path close to the cliff edge several of the Fulmar would raise their heads to watch us pass.  This Fulmar makes a nice portrait.



I saw a Puffin on a distant grassy bank, in typical Puffin pose.



As i took this picture Helen pointed out a much closer Puffin peering above the edge of the cliff.  I just wish they wouldn't look so sad.



The view from the top of the cliffs was very impressive, looking down, out across the sea, and towards the west.  Small groups of Guillemot were bobbing about on the turquoise green sea.



And where the sun was catching the water it produced a shimmering effect into which this drake Eider swam.



The arches created by the sea exploiting the weakness in the rocks at the base of the cliff were now more prominent.  Some of these arches are large enough for a ship to pass under.  As well as the arch, the clouds were now burning back, and blue sky was beginning to dominate.



looking to the west the view was spectacular, the blue sea, the white surf on the black sand, and the green plain leading up into the mountains, and stunning landscape, we were so lucky with the weather.



Looking down, Great Skua flew past patrolling the nesting colony, and upsetting the inhabitants.



Fulmars glided past on stiff wings using the lift from the cliffs to circle out over the sea and beach.



The sun was bringing out the best in the green vegetation that covered the ground, and over the rocks on the cliff sides.  The cliffs on the foreground, like all the high faces around us were occupied by more Fulmar.



it was time to head back down the path to the car park.  On the way we came across this male Wheatear.  Wheatear's in Iceland are normally of the sub species Leuchorhoa or Greenland Wheatear, typically larger, bulkier and longer winged, the chest can be more pinky than the nominate race, and due to the length of the wings the tail can appear short.  Because I am here in Iceland I can safely assume this is a Greenland, it looks bigger and is pinker and darker, but if this was in the UK I would not be that confident.



From the car park we made our way back along the entrance road we had come in on, and again passed the small pools, male and female Red-necked Phaleropes were feeding this time, and you can see the difference in plumage, the female being on the left.



Close in a Ringed Plover stood one legged.



On the way back we had decided to visit the glacier we had passed coming.  The sugn had said there was a cafe there so the plan was for a coffee there, and hopefully the chance to explore the glacier.

The road was four kilometres long, and all gravel.  it followed several streams, and the surrounding landscape was very barren, dominated by the grey of the gravels stones that had been washed down by the melt water from the glacier.

The cafe was a hut, and when we arrived we were the only ones there.  Pleased to see a proper coffee machine we ordered two cappuccinos, only to be given two espresso cups.  When questioned we were told there was milk in it!  Later he admitted to not being very good at making cappuccinos, his wife did those and she wasn't there.  He could only do espresso.

The coffee was good though, and we sat outside amongst the gravel in the sunshine.  As we sat there a dark phase Arctic Skua flew by, and an opportunistic Raven hung around the picnic tables.



Having finished the coffee and cake we took the path towards the glacier.  From a distance it looked dirty with the ice covered in black.



The ice was showing well at the melt water pool, that was a brown colour from the silt washed down.  The ice has streaks of black where it has scoured out the volcanic lava.



The attraction here beyond just walking and looking was ice climbing, and large groups were to be seen walking over the ice with ropes, sticks and spiked boots.  From a distance they give the size of the glacier some perspective.



Even though the wind was cool the sun felt quite warm, all around you could hear the sound of running water and small waterfalls pouring into holes in the ice were everywhere.



I referred to the ice looking dirty earlier, and this is caused by the ice melting, and depositing the volcanic lava that it has scoured out and picked up.  As the ice retreats and melts it leaves triangular piles of gravel on the ice, creating a scene like a Jackson Pollock painting.  The lines are mostly footprints where the climbers have walked.



We made our way onto the ice, and while we didn't venture that far we were able to get close to some of the features.  The ice would melt in certain places causing large and deep crevasses with a cool light blue hue.



Looking closer at the ice you can see the blue colour that is contained within the body of ice.  Amazing to think that we were standing on ice that was frozen thousands of years ago.



Looking back down the valley from the glacier you could also imagine how the valley was created, on both sides were steppe hills with a "U" shape valley.  As was to be expected on the cliff faces Fulmars wheeled away in front of more nests.



Our only other experience of a Glacier was in Alaska, where a cruise ship sailed up to the face and we watched the bergs calving of the glacier.  They were a lot larger than this, but here we could get up close and personal, we were able to see and feel this amazing geographical feature.  As we walked back, we found probably the one place it might be possible to see blocks calve off the ice.



We made our way back to the car, and then back off down the gravel road, the journey to the tarmac seemed much quicker than it took to get to the glacier, but then it always does.

Our next stop was to be Skogafoss, another waterfall, but this time quite a large waterfall.  We parked and walked along the flat gravel plain of the river.  While it is not as large as Gullfoss it is high, and the water thunders over the top, and the gravel plain is engulfed by the falling water and spray.



The sun and the spray were producing rainbows at the base of the falls.



Above were the customary Fulmar, nesting on the cliff ledges.  Those not involved in nesting duties were soaring around the cliffs, and across in front of the waterfall



They would actually fly into the water spray, and then come out and shake themselves in flight.



The fresh clean freshwater must feel wonderful after the salty sea water they would normally encounter.



18th June Update:  I have just been informed that the above photograph has won the "Photo of the Week" on the Bird Guides Website.  Steve Young the judge very kindly made these comments: 

"I see quite a few 'birds small in the frame' images which use plenty of background or landscape," writes Steve Young. "Some are successful and some less so, but Chris Rose's shot of a Fulmar with a dramatic waterfall backdrop is one that works wonderfully well."

Taken in Iceland at Skogafoss, Su├░urland, it would be spectacular enough without the Fulmar. With the bird small in the frame, however, the power and scale of the waterfall is further enhanced.

Monochromatic in tone, this is a beautifully exposed image with lots of detail in all areas; you can almost feel the spray surrounding the Fulmar as it glides effortlessly past. Congratulations, Chris - I can imagine this shot as a 30 x 20 canvas print hanging on a wall somewhere in your home."

Extremely pleased with this believe me.

After a break for ice cream (not unfortunately the correct ice cream) we set off back to the hotel.  It was a long journey, and to be honest quite monotonous on a flat straight road.  We stopped at a petrol station in Hvolsvollur, where they had a large cafe, and here we were able to get the right ice cream.

The sun disappeared, and the cloud rolled in.  We stopped firefly at Kerio, where there is a large volcanic crater.  This was also the only place on our trip where we had to pay an entrance fee to see the attraction, everywhere else had been free.



The water in the crater is blue, and contrasts with the red rock and green plants.  I am told on a sunny day it really brings out the colour.  At first the crater was thought to have been created by an explosion but is now considered to have come about because a small magma chamber beneath the crater emptied towards the end of an eruption, resulting in a collapse.  The water does not drain out but rises and falls according to changes in the water table.

We then took the road back to the hotel past the dam.  Just before the dam there is an open plain where the river winds.  A couple of Icelandic ponies were in the field.  They look wonderful with their thick manes and tails, and I stopped to photograph them.



To my surprise though behind the ponies was a Black-tailed Godwit, and a drake Wigeon.


As we had driven past this morning I had noticed a track down to the water, which if I had seen yesterday could have gotten me closer to the Harlequin Duck.

I walked down the path and looked across to the the rocks I had seen it on yesterday.   Today there was nothing there.  I scanned around the area, and where the rocks collected around the base of the dam.  There were a few Mallard on the rocks, and then I caught a flash of colour, and there on the rock was the drake Harlequin Duck.  Asleep again, but closer this time.  What a stunning duck.



Leaving the Harlequin we made our way back along the gravel road.  A young Whooper Swan was by the side of the road in a small pool.  It allowed me to get very close so I was able to get a good portrait that demonstrates the difference in bill pattern from the one I photographed yesterday.



Yet another Great Northern Diver was by the road a little further on, but this one was the closest yet, so I took my final shots.




As we approached the hotel, I took a picture of what is an unusual looking building, but a lovely place, and we were both glad we had stayed out here to enjoy the wildlife and scenery.



Back in the hotel it was time to put our feet up, have a drink and enjoy the last evening of what has been a wonderful trip.  Iceland is a land of extremes, we have had a taste of its beauty, and would really like to return to explore what we were not able to due to the time available to us.

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