When my wife announced she wanted to go to Iceland this summer, I have to confess that I was a little nonplussed. But here I am four days into our vacation, and I’ve fallen in love with the country and its birds. The trip didn’t have the most auspicious start. We missed our connecting flight in Newark and had to spend the night there. Luckily, we got on another flight the following day and arrived at Keflavik airport early in the morning to brilliant sunshine.
It was a long drive to our accommodation on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, but the scenery was outstanding: waterfalls, fiords, lava fields and the greenest of mountains were our companions. We passed lots of birds, too, many of which I recognized but didn’t stop for.
We arrived at our destination of Hellnar, a tiny village on the coast. Hellnar, once an important fishing hub, now consists of a few houses, hotel and cafÄ. After finding our cabin and getting the bags sorted, I left on foot to explore and soon I was in seventh heaven. Just a few hundred yards away were sea cliffs that are home to a vibrant seabird colony.
You can stand at the cliff top and look down at the birds on their breeding ledges. They made quite a racket as they jostled over positions on the narrow ledges or welcomed their mates back to the nest. Loudest and most numerous were the black-legged kittiwakes, a dainty species of gull that spends most of its life at sea. They are named after their cry; “kitt-i-wake” calls echoed off the cliffs in a constant din.
Next most numerous were the razorbills, sleek black-and-white alcids with large puffin-like bills, though lacking that species’ colors. There were also guillemots (known as the common murre in the United States). They are closely related to the razorbills, and some even shared the same ledge. Higher up on the cliffs were many pairs of northern fulmars, tubenoses that are truly terrific fliers. They are known for spitting out a foul-smelling substance at intruders who venture too close to the nest.
The only birds to have chicks were a few pairs of shags, birds that are closely related to the cormorants. Their chicks were large, dark gray and very fluffy-looking. In more southerly latitudes, seabirds would be well into the breeding season, but summer comes late to Iceland. The highest temperature we’ve experienced so far is about 55 degrees.
I began to notice empty eggshells on the knolls along the clifftops and was puzzled. There were large all-white shells the size of chicken eggs — fulmar’s — and smaller grayish eggs with brown splotches—the razorbill’s and guillemot’s. I didn’t have to wonder for too long. A raven flew by with an egg in its bill, followed by three others looking for a share of the spoils. I wondered what percentage of the colony’s ledge was lost to the ravens. Many seabirds lay just a single egg. After doing a little research, I discovered that a razorbill will re-lay its egg but only within 13 days of the egg being taken.
After having my fill of the colony, I looked offshore and soon saw a fin break the surface. I took the animal to be a dolphin, but then a huge triangular fin appeared close by. Orcas! I watched them — there must have been at least six in the pod, including what appeared to be a baby — for 15 minutes as they slowly made their way across the bay. I was awestruck, and all these sighting were within an hour of our arrival. Over the next several days, I was to be treated to many wildlife spectacles in what is a largely pristine landscape.