Monday, July 24, 2017

Discovering Iceland- An Overnight on Flatey Island

We'd seen Flatey Island three days before when the ferry Baldur, crossing Breiðafjörður Bay, stopped there.  It unloaded day-trip passengers and potable water. Today, we would leave our van on the boat, taking only an overnight bag and photo gear.  (Our van would be waiting for us at the ferry terminal in Stykkishólmur.) The island of Flatey is about 1-1/4 miles long.

We had an easy departure time at 09:15 from the Brjánslækur ferry wharf.  We were all eager to explore Flatey.  At the terminal, our overnight baggage for the island went in a freight box to be off-loaded.  Right on time, the Baldur approached and executed a 180° turn to back up to the vehicle ramp.  It wasted no time; it has both bow and stern loading, plus bow thrusters.

Once ashore on Flatey, you walk.  It is a modest 1/4 mile to the only hotel on the island. The hotel has a small utility vehicle to transfer our luggage.  The accommoda- tions were quite nice. The island may be remote, but the food was not spartan.  How about a cod tacos with pickled veggies? It spoils the traveler.

Of course, we did not come to Flatey for the luxury but rather for the scenery and the birds. I've been on other islands where there were no real roads, and it is liberating.  Life is simpler and the children play soccer with joy, or search the shore for polished stones.  Adults have time to sit on the porch and socialize over a bottle of wine. The pace of life on Flatey was noticeably easier.  All but two families are summer cottagers. In winter it is likely very quiet with no children because there is no school.

A walk around the island finds a lot of  interesting scenes.  A boatman is rowing out to one of the boats anchored in a partially submerged volcanic cone called Höfn on the map. It is a perfectly sheltered anchorage.

There is a rusted and long abandoned tricycle left on the side of the trail near the hotel.

Farther down the trail is a homemade wheel barrow.  I saw some modern ones with lightweight plastic tubs - more efficient - but not as creative.

The island's church stands on the highest part of the island.  With only two year-round families, it did not seem to have any activity.  We saw many small churches in the countryside, often speaking of an early time when substantial fishing communities supported them.  Such was the case on Flatey.

Exploring Flatey begins with a short walk from the hotel towards the bird cliffs.   A small wetland reveals the ubiquitous Mallard, in this case a duckling.  I had in mind something more exotic.

 It did get better.  This is a Red Phalarope. It was picking for food in the seaweed at low tide.

On the trail from the ferry wharf, there was a field of thick grass and several Red-necked Phalaropes were making a lot of noise with each passing person.  Close inspection located a nest some 30 feet from the trail, and very well hidden.  The little bit of dried grass stalks beneath the bird was the only tip that this was a nest.

There was another surprise, Snow Buntings.  Only these were not in winter plumage. They were frequent on the bluff above the cliffs, and seemed to be picking small insects from the many small pink flowers.

Flatey certainly had a rich array of birds. The sun rises on Flatey around 03:00 or a little before.  It is a pretty gradual event.  I still wanted more Atlantic Puffin images, including some with the beak full of fishes for their chicks in the burrows. I'd seen them that evening in poor light. 

Long before breakfast on the next morning, I arose to try once again for the puffin image I wanted.  In the early morning quiet, the sheep were bedded along the way, and not at all wary of people.  Arriving at the cliffs, I settled down low below the crest of the hill so the incoming puffins would not see me.  They were more wary than those at Latrabjarg.

I could pick up the incoming Atlantic Puffins far offshore and watch their flight pattern.  Usually they came in for a pass and then made a loop back out to sea before deciding to land.   The first several thwarted my effort as they either changed course abruptly, or disappeared behind the bluff just as the scene came together.  This was tough, but finally one bird came in nicely.

Even better, the Puffin landed on a rock outcropping before deciding to go to the burrow.  In its beak is a jumble of slender sand eels for the chicks.  It posed right and left. The bird was not actually posing, but looking around to decide if it was safe.  Oh, the joy!

I walked back to the hotel feeling so rewarded that I didn't care if breakfast was only dry toast, as long as there was coffee.  After a wonderful hot shower, the breakfast was (as I expected) much more than toast.  I pretty much chilled out until the Baldur arrived at 13:00 to continue our travels. 

I loved Flatey, and only wished I could have had another day.  Now it is off to huge waterfalls and other scenery.  There will still be birds, but also a tiny church and maybe a geysir, as they are called in Iceland.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Discovering Iceland- On to the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs

Our anticipation grew as we approached the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs.  They are in the rugged Westfjords where roads are largely unpaved and often hug steep hillsides. Guard rails? Berms? Not really.  But the views are terrific.


These roads are not kind to small vehicles. Our ten-passenger Mercedes van was ideal.  Also comforting was that Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson was an experienced local driver.  There can be long distances to traverse, so slow driving was not an option.   It can get rough; the van's high clearance made accessing many locations possible.

Arriving at the bird cliffs, we experienced the strong winds sweeping up from the ocean below and Atlantic Puffins along the edges of the tall cliff. 

Pam made this photo of an Atlantic Puffin peeking up over the edge of the cliff.  Unlike the Puffins we would see later, these were not afraid of people.


If one was ready to lie flat on the grass right up to the cliff's edge, really close photos were possible.  Our photo guide, Nikhil Bahl, did just that.  By the time I developed some comfort with the edge, the puffins had moved from the edge.

Still, some striking images were possible.

We had two days at Latrabjarg which was about an half hour from our hotel in Breiðavik.  A great number of other birds are nesting along the seacoast, so there were many "distractions" along the roads to the cliffs.  On the next day, we were offered a Ringed Plover with a nearly helpless chick on a beautiful white sand beach.

Although we kept our distance, one adult still offered the broken wing ploy.  We limited our time in the vicinity.  There were plenty of other birds in the area to keep us firing away with our cameras.

On the inland side of  the road, there was a  small stream where we found a Red-necked Phalarope feeding.  We would see more of them at another stop. It was an urgent feeder, rarely pausing.

The birds are so plentiful in summer here, likely because there is a dearth of predators.  In short order that morning we found an Oyster Catcher seen at right and a Dunlin seen below.

It is time to get back to the cliffs and another charming bird, the Razorbill.  This pair was obviously courting on a small outcrop, where I summoned the bravery to approach the edge.

On our final evening at the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs,  a most unusual event interrupted my pursuit of fresh Puffin photos.  As I walked toward the higher section of cliffs, a Common Murre chick dropped out of the sky onto the tall grasses.  Really! I believe one of the marauding Great Black-backed Gulls had snatched it from an unguarded nest, but lost hold of it as it flew overhead. The chick furtively scurried about seeking cover and finally decided my feet would be adequate.

The obvious question was what to do with the chick.  The location of its nest was somewhere down on the cliff, and no sane person would attempt to return it.

There was another complication due to the presence of an Arctic Fox actively working the cliffs.  There were numerous eggs shells lying around, suggesting it had been successful in robbing eggs from the nesting birds.  One side says the fox has young to feed and the other sympathizes with the helpless chick.  Interfere or let nature take its course?  In the end we took the chick back in our van to leave it with the hotel staff who would attempt to feed it.

To this day, I am not sure the outcome from our choice was any better than the alternative.

The next morning was an early departure to catch the Ferry Baldur for an overnight on Flatey Island.  It was a wonderful stop that I will save for the next installment.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Discovering Iceland- Reykjavik to Westfjords

Iceland has been on our bucket list for around five years.  Our route of discovery began on a Saturday at Dulles Airport, where Icelandair offers direct flights to Keflavik. As we gained altitude, we looked down at the Delaware Bay near Philly.

Arriving at midnight, one finds it is rush hour as a web of incoming flights arrive from both directions - Europe and North America.  A mass of passengers transfer to flights that continue their east or westbound travel.  Pam and I just transferred to a Greyline shuttle into Reykjavik for some sleep in a real comfy bed rather than an airplane seat. Nice.

Arriving a day early for our thirteen day Iceland Adventure from Naturescapes, we had some time to explore a little of modern Reykjavik before beginning our tour. The city is home to a majority of the country's 330,000 peoples.  The skyline is dominated by the soaring Hallgrimskirke.  In front is a statue of Leif Ericson.

Inside, the ceiling soars upward in a succession of graceful  arches that lead the eyes to a massive pipe organ.  (Note: Addition to bucket list, hearing this organ played.)

It seems that trolls are deep in the psyche of Icelandic culture.  So, it is not surprising that a stroll down Skölavördustígur Street from the kirke finds a troll for Pam to pose with.

Now, getting from our hotel on Þórunna Street to Hallgrimskirke requires navigating thru Hlemmur to find Berþórugata Street.  It is both a literal and a phonetic climb. That left us with the need for some simple nourishment.  So we found a sweet little bistro called C is for Cookies.  We found illy coffee and wonderful cookies.

Later that afternoon we met up with our tour leaders, Nikhil Bahl and Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson, and also our fellow travelers Steve, Rayner and Julie.  Our tour began with a drive around Reykjavik and ended up on a seaside golf course with a horde of nesting Arctic Terns that squabbled among themselves and protested at anyone passing nearby.  It was a great exercise in flight photography. We would see a lot more of these terns.

Our departure from Reykjavik northward to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula was at a sensible 9:30.  We found, at times, a harsh volcanic land with rough lava covered in places by little more than lichens and mosses.

Alternatively, there were lusher pockets where life was blooming.  Perhaps it was the presence of water?

We were to visit our first of many waterfalls before noon.  Kirkjufellsfoss is a nice beginning to the waterfalls of Iceland.  (Note:  ....foss is equal to ....falls in English)

The Icelandic Horse is another notable part of their history and culture, so we made the first of several stops to admire them.  One of the pluses of this Naturescapes tour was that our small size made it easy to make a quick roadside stop like this. A big bus could not do this. The cascade coming down the  mountain in the background is an indication of how frequently you find both falls and horses along the way.   This fellow was inquisitive, likely hoping for a piece of apple. He also showed a sense of humor, tho' we had no idea what he was laughing at.

Our drive skirted around the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull to a hotel in  Hellnar; we had time after dinner to visit a Kittiwake nesting cliff nearby. Pam got a beautiful photo of the nests on a sheer lava wall just above the sea.  There were birds sitting on eggs.

And, there were other birds with adorable chicks nestled beneath protected from the strong wind and cool temperatures.

The next morning called for an early breakfast and 7:25 departure for the drive to Stykkishólmur for the first ferry across Breiðafjörður Bay.  Lunch on the ferry, and we were in the Westfjords to expand our list of waterfalls with a really big one.

The Dynjandi River cascades from a high plateau. The distance from the top cascade to the foreground is deceptive.  The top cascade is reached by a steep trail climb of twenty minutes.  It is simply huge, throwing a cloud of heavy mist that defeated my attempts to keep the lens dry.

From Dynjandi, our travels took us on towards Breiðavíl and the greatly anticipated bird cliffs at Látrabjarg.  It will be Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and maybe an Arctic Fox.  That will be the next installment.