Trip report – Iceland 2015

You have probably arrived here via the condensed “taster” in the journal and are in search of more stunning photographs.  This trip report is for hard-core followers of travel and bird/wildlflower pictures who “need” more than the synopsis post offered in the journal (blog). It is also our personal aide memoir. There are a lot of photographs, but only a small selection of all those we brought back with us (>1000)

How this works:  Under each day below is a gallery of thumbnail photographs. Hovering over the thumbnails will reveal a brief description for many of them. Clicking on any one of the thumbnails will open the gallery at full size for you to enjoy the pictures better – we suggest you do this because some of them, we modestly claim, are worth the trouble. The gallery can be closed again via the small X in the top left of the page.

All birds seen have been reported to eBird, so if you would like to know what was around on any particular day we have provided links to each day’s checklist for the more intense birders amongst our friends.

We spent the first couple of weeks of July 2015 in Iceland as part of a small (15 people approx) guided wildlife tour organised through Quest Nature Tours of Toronto. A company to be recommended; this is the third time we have travelled with them and they get the balance just about right. The suggestion that you have to have grey hair to travel with them is not exactly exact … never sure why younger birders etc don’t appear. Seems strange. Anyway … the focus of the trip was birds and wild flowers with a smattering of culture and history. We ate a lot of fish and discovered that beer is stunningly expensive. The tour leader (Jean Irons) kept us up to the mark and our Icelandic guide, Helgi, kept us permanently entertained with his commentaries about vulcanism, history, birds and his wonderful country in general … he also introduced us to a new and useful catchphrase when presenting information … “and why is this?

Where did we go? Here is a map of Iceland with our approximate route marked. We started in Reykjavik and travelled more or less clockwise through western Iceland (red), northern Iceland (blue) central Iceland (green) and ended in southern Iceland (also green). Each region has a dramatically different landscape and “feel” with huge differences in character between the more volcanic areas around the tectonic plate rift and those places where most landscape formation is due to glaciation.


What birds did you see?

The trip total for us was 58 excellent species … the full eBird checklist can be viewed via this link. A low number for our home patch but an excellent number for a country where the selection of species is much smaller. What Iceland loses in species count it more than makes up for in the quality of birds. The grooup total was somewhere in the seventies but we didn’t see everything, as is the way of these things.

A note on wild flowers

We saw many, many flowering plants and have around 300 photographs. A very few are in the galleries below but at the moment they have not been named. Later in the year a separate collection of “digitally collected” flowers from Iceland will be published. For now, just enjoy the pictures.

“It was miserable”.

Not for us, it wasn’t … but read on. This is a very ‘wired’ country, even in some very remote communities and so we were able to keep in touch with the world as we travelled. Several friends emailed me “positive” comments about Iceland and its society while we were there … and I have to say we have very positive thoughts about the place and its friendly people too, but were surprised to discover that all the good stuff, very modern society, renewable energy and green ethos, highest literacy rate on the planet, everyone and his dog has a university education etc, while all true, has really only come about in quite recent decades. What is striking is that being a small and isolated population with only one lasting resource (geothermal energy) they have been compelled by circumstance to develop a really community-minded approach to life with neighbours helping neighbours to a “lets do it” attitude to fixing problems rather than arguing over them until it is too late. All of this is recent – although there were always some well off families, for the most part the grandparental generation pretty well all grew up living in turf-walled houses, some of which we saw reconstructed in a museum. Today they have modern houses that are enjoy centrally distributed hot-water heating and modern everything. Geothermal energy powers the place wherever you turn (total fuel bills for the average house are in the region of $50 a year!). We noticed the absence of heating, even fireplaces, in some reconstructed turf houses we visited and asked about it … we were told there simply was no heating back then for most people because there was pretty well no fuel (this was before they tapped into geothermal resources – a pretty hihi-tech venture) and so people had to huddle together and brought the cows and sheep into a byre below the living quarters to add a little additional warmth – it was, the lady we asked at the museum said, a “miserable” existence for most people. All this within living memory. There’s something to ponder over when we complain about our lives.

It was nice to discover that while other countries have dead statesmen or generals or bridges on their banknotes, at least one of the Icelandic ones has a bird on it … The European Golden Plover. I could warm to this country …

And they have never felt the need for an army. What’s not to like?

And so, on to the trip report …

Monday 29 June

We arrived in Reykjavik at 6:20am on the overnight flight from Montreal via Toronto to endure a full security screen because “Canada is not a safe country”. Not a good start, but soon things brightened up and  we were amazed to arrive at our excellent hotel in Reykjavik (The Loftleider Natura) with …quite unheard of … a free room waiting for us at 8am. We had anticipated the usual custom of dropping our bags and then walking around jet-lagged for six hours before could get into our room. Other hotels please take note. A good breakfast was followed by a walk into Reykjavik, a bit of expensive woolly jumper tourist shopping – everything is expensive in this country – and some very nice birds on various patches of waste ground around the city including many Redwings and Common Snipe (supposedly a somewhat retiring bird) and multiple Redshanks working a patch of rough grass round a development site. Almost close enough to touch.

After dinner, this being the time of year for the midnight sun in northern latitudes, we wandered across the road into a wooded park that was heaving with Wagtails and Redwings with a few Meadow Pipits in the fields around the edge, all singing and trilling away. Striking how many individual birds there are, certainly denser populations than we are used to close to the city we live near.

Daily checklist at

Tuesday 30 June

We checked out of hotel and met up with the rest of the group from Quest who flew in this morning. The extra day we had given ourselves allowed us to be relatively bright eyed and bushy tailed while they propped their eyelids open.

Visited the National Museum in the morning to catch up on history and put the culture into context … very interesting and an informative and well presented historical display. After lunch an in depth tour of Reykjavik followed by an hour of gentle birding by the shore outside the city before heading over the hillside to another village where we stayed the night. The road took us over extensive nubby lava fields covered in colonizing moss, a most bizarre landscape.
Fascinated by a local plumber’s van by the side of the road hung with radiators, toilet bowls and a sink containing beautiful flower displays. Unique advertising for his business.

Good birds included Arctic Tern, Common Eider and Red necked Phalarope … The day’s eBird checklist is at this link:


Wednesday 1 July (Canada Day)

Overcast all day with rain starting mid afternoon and turning decidedly cold by the time we had driven north (red line on the map) to Grundafjordar where we stayed the next two nights. This was the sort of weather we had been warned to expect and had come prepared for, but it turned out that the gods were smiling and every day thereafter had at least some sunshine and stayed dry.

Several stops included close up views of colourful high alpine and sub-arctic flowers. (Note: there are something like 300+  photographs of wild plants in our collection after the trip but making sure the ID is correct is a lot trickier than it is with birds. A few pictures are posted here “for colour” but or those who are interested in botany we will be putting together a detailed report on digitally collected botanical specimens later in the year. If you would like to be notified when it is ready please email us).

Many birds were enjoyed along the way on high lava flow flatlands and around the coast and fjords. Highlights included a distant White-tailed Eagle, many, many Eider, Arctic Skua (= Parasitic Jaeger), Black-tailed Godwit, Glaucous Gulls and Fulmars. Wandering after dinner, in the heavy rain, behind the hotel we found a huge raft of a couple of hundred Fulmars on the sea beside the building – apparently they congregate there to profit from the fish guts from the nearby processing plant.

Two checklists today for different areas we pass through can be viewed at –


Thursday 2 July

A circumnavigation of the Snaefellsness peninsula … many birds seen on cliffs near a lighthouse at the western end – in a strong and cool wind.  Lava fields covered with grey moss and a small number of hardy flowers and grasses.

Confused on entering sightings into eBird later in the day as Thick-billed Murre is in Europe the Brunnich’s Guillemot … So no new lifer there. It would help if eBird accepted local common names as these tend to be used by local guides etc.

Later we had wonderful views of the Snaefellsness ice cap/glacier which inspired Jules Verne when he wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Checklist –

Friday 3 July

We travelled by ferry for 90 minutes to the small and beautiful Flatey Island – smooth crossing, glorious weather. Lovely, colourful houses on the island, probably summer cottages for the most part. Very picture-postcard with added birds.

Atlantic Puffins, Red-necked Phalaropes by the dozen literally under our feet, adult and juvenile Snow Buntings. We had hoped for Red Phalaropes here too but despite this being one of their few breeding colonies nobody could see any.

Checklist-1 (Flatey Island) at

Later after we retuned on the ferry we enjoyed a two hour drive on mostly unpaved roads to a hotel in North Iceland near Garksmyri. A small wetland belonging to the hotel was across road with Red -necked Phalaropes, many Snipe, assorted ducks and other birds. Some interesting plants were found there too.  This was investigated after dinner.

Checklist-2 at


Saturday 4 July

Glorious weather – driving west to Akureyri in Northern Iceland included a sighting of a group of Pink-footed Geese beside a wide glacial river.
Lunch was taken in a serendipitous stop up a high side valley – river – old turf farm buildings – glacial valleys and mountains, little volcanic structuring of the land. Meadows. Glacial salmon rivers. The old turf houses were fascinating … I really would not have wanted to live like that, yet people did within living memory. Small groups of Icelandic horses on the hills. This part of northern Iceland was formed more by glaciation than volcanic activity and looks quite different to the countryside we had been travelling through in earlier days.

Whimbrel called from the hillside and one landed just a few feet away to have his photo taken.

Stayed in a hotel south of the town in a wide glaciated valley with meadows running to the river and a friendly and mud-covered dog shepherding midnight walkers.

Checklist at


Sunday 5 July

Godafoss waterfall was visited and roundly impressed everyone … though falls seen later in the week were even more impressive.
Nearby and not far from the road was a Gyrfalcon nest with adult and three young


Lake Myrvatn … Barrows Goldeneye, Harlequin Ducks, Arctic Skua catching and eating Golden Plover. Masses of midges and black flies.

Checklist …

Lastly we viewed yet more volcanic landscapes and passed a  geothermal power station. Spent some time at an area replete with sulphur-smelling bubbling hot mud pools and wafting steam steam – a very Martian landscape.



Monday 6 July

A morning whale watching from a proper fishing boat, not one of those plastic cruise ships used in more visited ports … this  had to be accomplished by our dressing in Michelin Man suits which seemed silly and embarrassing on the dockside but soon proved their worth when we were out where the cold winds blew … Three, or was it four, humpback whales, two passing close to the boat side-by-side.

In the afternoon we took a short ferry crossing to Hrisey Island … Wonderful birds and wild plants. Rock Ptarmigan, Wheatears. Sunshine. Of all the places we visited, this island is the one that sticks in my memory. A wonderful place with just the right mixture of everything and glorious scenery.

Checklist …


Tuesday 7 July

This was a long and a busy day. Going south again we drove across the top of Iceland along a road only just opened after the winter. Barren landscape for the most part with biting winds. The road passed between two huge ice caps. Another Martian landscape appearance with a very few stunted plants hanging on for dear life. Amazing that there were any at all. A fantastic drive.

Half way across we stopped at an area of hot springs where it was possible to take a dip in the waters.

As we came down closer to sea level we visited Gullfoss, the iconic Iceland waterfall on a huge scale that came replete with a rainbow in the spray. Finally, we visited the famous Geyser (pronounced gay-zer) which land movement has made non-functioning in recent years – a smaller geyser close by did its thing for us though. Steamy escapes drifted across the surrounding meadows.

Minimal birding this day so no new list.


Wednesday 8 July

Guided tour of a Geothermal power station and then on to visit Thingvellir … site of the first parliament right on the line of the Tectonic plate rift between the North American and European plates. Fascinating, historically and geographically. The name of the site ought to be spelled Þingvellir  as Icelandic has two unique letters of its own to indicate which way to pronounce the th diphthong … you can read more here.

Red-throated Loons in small pond beside the road seemed quite unfazed by our close appearance. No apologies are made for the number of photographs of these splendid birds that follow.

Checklist …


Thursday 9 July

A tour along the South shore of Iceland as far as Vik with its black, volcanic sands and under the slopes of the Eyafjellajokel volcano … the same one that stranded so many people in Europe five years ago – and almost us (we were fortunate to have been booked on the first plane out of Heathrow but the preceding days were stressful).

We walked in to the end of a glacier. In the 1930’s, not very long ago, it was just under a kilometre longer than it is today – clearly the climate is changing. It was very interesting to walk back from the end of the glacier and see the gradual increase in plant life as we moved back in time – just occasional pioneer settlers found close to the ice and a gradually appearing richer flora with grasses etc as we got further away.

Lots of Atlantic Puffins seen amongst the waves along the black sand beach. Finally we went up to the top of the cliffs at the most southerly point of the country to look for Puffins – almost all of them were out at sea but one popped down at out feet for a photograph on the cliff edge.


Friday 10

Reykjavik airport tries to be the best but it has two problems that make it pretty low on the scale of acceptable. Both a surprise in a country seemingly full of rally nice and relaxed people.

Firstly on entering the country we were subjected to heavy security screening with the full works – when asked why we were told it was because “Canada is not a safe country”. Secondly on leaving there are no seats at the gate so you stand and stand in line or sit on the floor. It’s a gorgeous country but those are enough to make you wonder about returning – though I’d be back tomorrow given half the chance.

On the way to the airport we had spent almost a couple of hours at the famous Blue Lagoon … a triumph of marketing as it is just a pool of warm water from a geothermal power plant with attached upscale tourist shops and a restaurant all within a featureless lava field, but immensely popular. Very interesting anyway. Arrived home via Toronto fractionally before midnight.


… and to end the tale:

These two photographs were taken by the group leader, Jean Irons, who supplied copies to us:

Praying to the orchid gods, Iceland 2015
Praying to the orchid gods, Iceland 2015
Digitally collecting flowers, Hrisey Island, Iceland 2015
Digitally collecting flowers, Hrisey Island, Iceland 2015

5 thoughts on “Trip report – Iceland 2015

  1. Interesting story telling, short is appreciated. Looks like a very different country compared to European countries. Spectacular scenery it’s way past our tundra in northern Quebec. I gather you don’t go there for many lifers, but as you say interesting birds. Do you know if they have local tour operators?

    1. There are many, many local tour operators of which quite a few specialise in wildlife tours and guiding. Let us know if you want more information or contacts.
      The “not many lifers” comment applies to us as we grew up in Europe where most of these birds are endemic but a birder coming from North America would be able to add a huge number of birds to their lists.

  2. Great summary, stunning photographs . Look forward to the flowers yet to come.

    1. Thanks Gay … J is in charge of the detailed botanical stuff and will be posting on her own website in due course … Flowers take more subtle ID-ing than birds.

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