We are now taking a brief deviation from the usually scheduled chronological post order to talk about what I am doing today (and I promise I will get back to Israel eventually). Today, sadly, marks the last day of my gap year. I have moved out of my cozy apartment in Sarajevo, submitted my last few eBird checklists for Bosnia, and embarked back to the United States after 9 months of living abroad. However, it was impossible to resist one last hooray of freedom and travel and so, when I got booked with a 19 hour layover in Reykjavik, Iceland, I decided to make the absolute most of it. As my layover was overnight, I came up with the slight insane idea of pulling an allnighter, making full use of the Icelandic summer’s 24 hours of daylight to pack as much birding into my time in the country as possible. It was an ambitious plan, and at some point in the 19 hours I figured one of three things would give: my mind, my legs (much of the travel between birding sites would be done on foot), or my bank account (Iceland is one of the most expensive countries on earth). It would be the ultimate test of endurance– and sounded like a lot of fun.
When I landed at Keflavik Airport, the adrenaline was rushing, I was finally in Iceland! A country I had dreamed of birding for years! However, I first, of course, had to make a good luck offering to the Viking gods and so settled down to enjoy some lovely Icelandic ale.
Thirst quenched, I flagged a taxi and headed to the northeastern tip of the Keflavik Peninsula and to the Garður Lighthouse. The salty tang of the sea welcomed my nostrils when I stepped out of the car as fulmars wheeled around me on stiff wingbeats and rafts of eiders, many with fuzzy ducklings, paddled about amongst the seaweed-coated rocks. The first two Western Palearctic lifers came quickly: some whimbrels by the roadside and the kittiwakes which occasionally jetted by, often coasting within feet of my head. It was only my second time laying eyes on these unusual gulls and I was pleased to have the opportunity to study their habits in more detail (hearing them vocalizing was particularly exciting).
The visibility was pretty close to nonexistent due to a massive fog bank which had settled in with my plane, however, I could just make out the shapes of gannets and a couple of Manx shearwaters at the outer limit of my vision. Disappointingly, the fog precluded any chance of my picking up any alcids offshore.
Beginning to walk inland, the seabirds were promptly replaced by shorebirds, breeding amongst the moss, boulders, and grasses of the tundra. Common redshanks, European oystercatchers, and whimbrels screamed and hordes of Arctic terns busily ferried fish back and forth to their nests.
One of the fascinating things about Iceland is how the abundance and density of many species of birds is completely different than on the mainland. Rock pigeons are rather scarce for instance (and house sparrows completely nonexistent). What wowed me the most, was the huge number of Arctic terns. They were absolutely everywhere I went, even wheeling around downtown Reykjavik(!), and were by far the most common species of bird on the island. I’m used to encountering this species in low numbers in the US, and seeing such a huge number of this elegant species was jaw-dropping.
It was around this point that the cold started to get to me. In my rush to pack up my apartment (in classic fashion I only started packing the night before leaving), I had placed most of my cold weather clothing in inaccessible places and so was stuck in the Icelandic cold and wind armed only with 2 long-sleeved t-shirts and an Albanian national team track jacket. Despite this handicap, I was determined to persevere, and the excitement of being in Iceland turned out to be an effective tool in making me forget my discomfort.
Incredibly, as I was walking, I realized it was already 11 PM and still completely light outside! While the sky had darkened a bit, it had settled into a permanent shade of “dim;” essentially twilight had replaced night. The highlight of my walk came as a rock ptarmigan flushed up off the roadside and launched its chubby body across the tundra. It was only a couple minutes later that it clicked that it was my final world ptarmigan species! A less pleasant experience was when a territorial lesser black-backed gull projected vomited a pellet in my direction before repeatedly diving at my head.
Not long after midnight, the bird activity dropped substantially, with even the most hubristic of oystercatchers quieting down a bit, and I decided to move on and make the long, two hour walk away from Garður and back towards Keflavik where I hoped to make contact with a continuing white-winged scoter (an American vagrant).
Weird is an understatement for how it feels to walk down a road through the Icelandic tundra at 1 am while it’s completelt light outside. And yet that’s what I did as the mist turned to a light drizzle and my exhaustion from two days of travel began to kick in.
While two parasitic jaegers cheered me a bit, I was still relieved when the lights and loud club music of Keflavik appeared before me.
While I was able to pick up a glaucous gull in the harbour (another WP lifer), the water was mostly still and quiet, save for the omnipresent fulmars which tacked back and forth across the bay. In other words: no scoter.
I was getting really tired at this point, and was feeling a bit down having dipped on a major vagrant, so I decided to cut my losses and return to the airport for a quick nap.
Refreshed and warmed, I picked up the 5 am bus headed for Reykjavik itself and began Stage 2 of my birding.
My first point of call was a city park built around a sizable pond. There I began to encounter redwings in large number, which seem here to fill the niche of “garden turdus” filled elsewhere in Europe by blackbirds. Over the course of the day, their almost haunting song would become a frequent background soundtrack. The main target at the park however was a continuing pink-footed goose mixed in with the resident greylags. It was easy enough to find and provided good looks– nice to finally connect with this overdue world lifer.
A flagged taxi (using up the rest of my money) then took me to my final destination of the day: a small pond at a place known as Bakkatjörn. Two more WP life birds were ticked off in quick succession almost immediately on arrival in the form of a flyby common loon and an Iceland gull along the shore of the pond– sadly grounded by a broken wing.
The ponds were coated in ducks, mostly the omnipresent eiders, but gadwall, Eurasian wigeon, and tufted duck were all present as well. Offshore Manx shearwaters and more gannets were muddling about, and a couple of very distant unidentified alcids raced past. Most excitingly however was a beautiful alternate plumage red-throated loon– pressed right up against the shoreline. Shorebirds were another big highlight at this spot as a ruddy turnstone and four purple sandpipers worked the shoreline, snipe winnowed in the grasses, and two red-necked phalaropes spun frenetically in the water. Breeding was clearly in full force as fledgling mallard, gadwall, white wagtail, oystercatcher, and eiders were all present. Put together it was a really idyllic scene– and some excellent birding.
On my walk back to the bus station (using up the rest of my leg strength), I ran into a number of common redpolls which reminded me of just how few passerines I had seen in my time in Iceland– yet another fascinating quirk of this incredible country.
In the end, I managed in 19 hours to see 49 species, 13 of which were WP life birds. I flattered myself that this was really quite good, especially considering I lacked a car.
And that brings me to now; sitting at my gate in the airport, staring sleep deprivation in the face, and at the end of the incredible, Icelandic finale of an incredible gap year.