Monday 30 August 2010

Iceland - Day 7

Sunday 25th July

Well this was it, today we were starting our trip back south. Nine of us were to head for Akureyi and Ian and Elspeth were going to spend a few more days driving down the east side back to Reykjavik.

After breakfast, Sula and I took a last walk around the shoreline in front of the hotel. Another sunny morning and hardly a ripple on the water. Far out on the lake, a Great Northern Diver was calling and we could even hear the Whooper Swans calling on the other side of the lake which was miles away. The Slavonian Grebes were still around although again today they were a little further out. I don't think it was due to walkers as most days people walked the path and the birds weren't bothered by them.

 Slavonian Grebe

A little further along, we came across a pair of Whooper Swans with one cygnet. As we approached, they moved out to a distance where they felt safe and then continued to feed. The only estimate of breeding numbers in Iceland I have was for around 1986,  the number of pairs then were between 1500 and 2500. I wonder how many of these birds winter on Shetland ?

Whooper Swan and cygnet

Sula (my eldest) has already got the bug and loves taking pictures. Firstly with a very cheap digital camera and now with a better quality one. There are times when we go out that she uses my 40D - albeit under close supervision ! Today was one of those days and so she tried the 40D with the 500 - on the tripod of course! I'm glad to see that she's already developing 'an eye' for picture taking, when she puts her mind to it. When going through the images from Iceland, I was starting to think that the sensor was covered in dust spots, sometimes they were there sometimes not. I felt rather foolish when it dawned on me it was the dreaded Blackflies again.

A little further on, we came across a family of Red-breasted Mergansers. Again like the Whoopers, they moved out a little but came back in when we'd walked past. Time wasn't on our side today so we had to make the most of what was within distance as we walked along the path rather than being able to sit and wait.

Red-breasted Merganser

Returning back, it was time to pack the car and say goodbye to the hotel at Rekyahlid; it had been a fantastic place to stay and I'd love to go back there some day. On the journey back to Akureyri, we stopped once again at the waterfalls at Godafoss. This time we walked along the opposite side of the falls to get a different perspective.

 On the road again, we were nearing Akureyri. We decide to turn off and go and take a look at the 'turf farm' at Laufas. When I say 'turf farm', it is not a farm that produces turf, but rather farm buildings that are constructed out of turf. The large turf farm house was built between 1866 and 1870, but there are records of a church being there from 1047. The main frame work is of timber, with turf for the walls and roof. It was last occupied by a priest in 1936.

From the front

The back

Internal construction

The outside walls

Cutting the roof !

Time soon past and we had to head for the airport and drop off the car and check in etc. All of that went without a hitch and in what seemed like no time at all we were heading down the runway and leaving Akureyri behind. The first part of the flight was relatively clear of cloud and we had fine views down over the snow covered mountains as we headed south.

Arriving back in Reykjavik, it was a mad rush to get to the bus station for the journey over to Keflavik where we had a couple of rooms for the night. Thankfully Stuart had worked out the logistics of getting there from the bus station but as they were already at the station, we still had to find the station ! Fortunately for us, it wasn't that far to walk to but was still a bit frantic. As the flight the following day was early, we had to be up by four a.m. to allow us to leave at five. After a week of really nice weather, it had now turned cooler and was much cloudier with rain showers. Due to the early start, we turned in around 9.30pm.

Monday 26th July

Just minutes after 5am, the airport taxi took us too the airport for the first leg of our journey home. To say the flight back was uneventful would be a lie - as it was the day of Rona's birthday (my youngest). As we boarded, Catriona past one of the stewardesses a note - I didn't know what was on it, but had an idea. Around halfway through the flight the captain (whose name was Capt Bruce Dickinson) announced ' Good morning, I'd just like to say that we have a VIP on board today, her name is Rona Brookes and she is 8 today'. Rona crept under the seat with embarrassment ! Each time we travelled on a different mode of transport, we sang her happy birthday - taxi, plane, train, lift and bus ! Hopefully it was a birthday she won't forget in a hurry. For those who don't know (and we certainly didn't at the time) Capt Bruce Dickinson, is also the lead singer with the rock group Iron Maiden and in his 'spare' time, he is a commercial airline pilot - a man of many talents. On landing at Gatwick, Rona went and met him briefly in the cockpit.

Even though we were now back in the UK, it was going to a further two and half weeks before I'd be back up north again to Unst  - I was now looking forward to it ! We then had a week in Oxford and then I stayed on in the Cotswolds for a further ten days for a wedding.
Iceland was a fantastic trip and was everything I'd expected. As I said previously, it involved an awful lot of planning etc, so thanks again for Ian for organizing it and to Elspeth for wanting her birthday there in the first place.


Saturday 28 August 2010

Iceland - Day 6

Saturday 24th July

As I've mentioned previously, there is a huge 4X4 'culture in Iceland and given the terrain, quite rightly so. As well as the adventure tourism industry, just getting around in some parts of Iceland during the winter probably wouldn't be possible with out one. From small Suzuki jeeps right up to huge monster trucks there is a size and type to suit everyone. Just across the road from the hotel was a fuel station/supermarket where lots of the off roaders would call in. The picture below is of just one of average size which was there filling up as we going out for the day. I wouldn't want the bill for filling up the tank !

Today we were off to Husavik around one hour north of the hotel for a whale watching trip organized by Ian - it was a trip I'd been looking forward to ever since the trip was mentioned.

Once out of the village where we were staying, the road soon turned to a gravel road - but much better than the one we travelled on a few days previously. Even though the landscape was still pretty barren, there were now a few more hills.

Husavik was a nice mix of both being a working town and having attractions for tourists. Whale watching is obviously a big draw as there were quite a few companies offering trips out in seach of the 'gentle giants'. We were due to go out just before midday so there was time to have a wander around and also get a few pictures etc.

 - and this sort of 'graffiti' I don't mind !

I think that there was an eager anticipation by all on board as to whether we'd see and cetaceans today. Someone suggested that if none were seen, then you get an alternative date to go out - not much good for us as we would be driving back to Akureyi tomorrow and then flying on to Keflavik. Well the crew must be pretty confident when they offered this as, within minutes of leaving the harbour our first cetaceans were seen in the shape of 3 Harbour Porpoises (or Neesicks as they're called here in Shetland). My own experiences with them here in Shetland is that you have to be pretty quick with the camera as they only surface for a couple of seconds and then they can disappear for ages. Whether these animals were slower or on this particular day my reactions were quicker I don't know but I managed a number of shots while they were in the area.

Harbour Porpoise

Ever though there were quite a number of people on board, the boat we were on didn't feel too overcrowded - except when the animals were in front of the bow ! On these occasions, the skipper would position the boat side on to give more people a better view.

A boat similar to ours

Very shortly after this, we had our first sightings of two bigger whales - these were two Minkes  and were fairly close to the boat. Minkes are one of the commoner larger whales that are seen in the north Atlantic, certainly around Shetland anyway. These animals would surface for air 3 or 4 times and then dive for ages and it was anyones guess where, or how far away, they would surface again. I've seen a few off of Shetland but only once as close as these were.

Minke Whales
It wasn't just cetaceans we were seeing, there were also lots of birds around - if there is food for large mammals then you would presume that also there would be food for fish-eating sea birds. We numerous Fulmars, Gulls, Puffins and Skuas - mainly Arctic Skuas but also one or two Great.

Heading a little further out of the bay we past Puffin Island where there are normally tens of thousands of Puffins nesting and as we past, hundreds were wheeling around the island over our heads.

Moving off again, we had another sighting of fins breaking the surface, this time it was 3 White-beaked Dolphins. Despite being much larger than the porpoises we'd seen earlier, these animals were also very quick at surfacing and then diving again. It became a bit hit or miss as to where they would surface and also whether or not I'd got the camera pointing in the right direction. Our guide on the boat told us that more often than not, they would be quite inquisitive - even playful - when any boats were in the area, not much of a consolation for us as today they were not being 'co-operative'.

White-beaked Dolphins

After around three and a half hours we returned to the harbour, for me at least, it had been a great trip out. Back in Husavik, a festival had started and there were hundreds of folk around the harbour and on the streets.

As we left, there were still whale watching trips out on the bay, I then thought of those peoples anticipation and hopes for seeing the whales and dolphins just I had when we left the harbour earlier in the day.

Back at the hotel and after dinner, we took a walk in the pleasant evening sunshine; however, I forgot to put on the Avon stuff and was plagued by Blackflies for most of the walk. Despite this, it was a cracking evening with virtually no wind and the sun was still quite warm.

Cotton grass

 Looking back towards the hotel


Wednesday 25 August 2010

Iceland - Day 5

Friday 23rd July

Last night I had decided to try and have an early start and go back to the Laxa River and see the Harlequin ducks. Well, after only being in bed for around 5 hours, I got up at 4am to another sunny morning with the sun already well above the horizon.

It only took around 20 minutes to reach the parking place by the river and in the early morning light it looked rather moody but nice .

Shortly after leaving the car, a solitary Whimbrel stood on a small hillock and although it was totally aware of my presence, it didn't seem too bothered by me being there and just walked away casually.


As soon as I reached the river, I saw a Harlequin' , this one was then followed by several others feeding in the torrents. I could have spent all day just watching these lovely little ducks without even taking a picture, so I decide to look for something a little different. The first picture below is taken using a shutter speed of only 1/4 of a second to try and convey a feeling of movement in the water, the problem then is hoping the bird doesn't move during the exposure. It was a pity that the water wasn't moving a bit faster but sometimes you can't have it all.

Returning back towards the car just before 8am, I stopped by a fast flowing stretch of water to play around with the long lens and slow shutter speeds. A couple of pics are below ............

1/2000 second @f5.6 ISO400

1/8th second @ f45 ISO 100

After returning back to the hotel for breakfast, I headed out again around the shoreline by the hotel. It was now mid morning and was starting to feel rather warm - to be honest it was probably only about 20 degrees, but by Shetland (or Iceland) standards it was ! Again I saw at least a dozen or more Slavonian Grebes but most of them were a little further out today and many of them were just resting on the water. I did manage to get one closer but it was then disturbed by a walker coming past.

I had intended to walk much further around the lake but for some reason a Redshank had decided that it didn't like me being there. Despite walking quite a distance from where it had first started calling, the bird didn't let up, I gave up and walked back towards the hotel. All I can say is that the bird must have had one heck of a territory !

Back nearer the village, I came across a family of fledged Redwings and also a resting Blackheaded Gull that was quite approachable.

Later on in the afternoon, I returned to the Laxa river with Ian as he wanted to get some video of the Harlequin ducks. I also got some more shots of the ducks plus some closeups of a Rednecked Phalarope. It was one of those situations when a good zoom would have been ideal as the birds were more often than not, too close. The camera bag that I used to fly to Iceland with (Lowepro Flipside 300), only takes my 500 + 1.4ex and the 40D with battery pack (plus spare batteries etc) - no room for a spare lens etc but the plus side of this is that it a neat small bag to carry around on a day to day basis when all I need is the kit mentioned above.

Rednecked Phalarope

 Sunset 11.40pm


Monday 23 August 2010

Iceland - Day 4

Thursday 22nd July

I said in the last Iceland post, that we had a stunning view from the top floor of the hotel. The picture below was a panoramic taken on my camera phone -  unfortunately it doesn't do it justice really, but I hope it gives you some idea.

After breakfast, we headed off just east of the hotel to an area of hot mud springs and steam. As we drove up through the hills (a sort of mountain pass) I was totally taken by surprise as we came out of the other side. The landscape opened up again to reveal a very flat barren terrain, with individual hills dotted around the skyline. At the bottom of the hill, we turned on to a track which led us along to the mud 'springs'.

The temperature of this steam can reach between 80 and 100 degrees C and the smell was pretty ghastly too !

From here, we headed off to see a large waterfall called Dettifoss and the road to take us there was a gravel road which, I think, probably came under the 'C' category. Again the road and the landscape reminded me very much of Namibia. Driving along it felt like driving over a continuous piece of corrugated sheet metal or perhaps a cattle grid. If I remember correctly (please correct me if I'm wrong) the 'ripples' are caused by the action of the vehicles suspension - how it causes this I'm unable to describe but I can see the thoughts behind why it may be this.

The road seemed to go on forever and I was thinking how on earth could there be a large waterfall in such a flat landscape as the hills in the distance were a long way away. My biggest worry regarding our little hire car was when large 4X4s came the other way at what seemed like a very fast speed, was getting a stone through the window thrown up by the passing vehicle. Finally, after around 3/4 on an hour (or there abouts) on this road and going around a couple of small hills, we turned off and there it was. Smoking like a huge cauldron  was Dettifoss waterfall. It was now obvious why we didn't get a warning that we were approaching a large waterfall and that was because it was below the level of the surrounding landscape!

Being lazy and to save typing out the facts and figures for the waterfall, I've included this picture below -

.................. and the view downstream

It was quite a spectacle and real reminder of the power and force of nature. The journey back seemed quicker but maybe that was because we now knew how far it was etc. Returning back to the hotel, Sula and I took a walk for an hour around the shoreline just along from the hotel. Apart from the obvious numbers of ducks, another 'common' species was Slavonian Grebe. Around this part of the lake were numerous birds, many with young and were fairly approachable. The main problem was actually getting a clear view of the birds as there was quite a lot of vegetation along the shoreline.

Slavonian Grebe