The Rift Valley of Iceland

Mid-ocean ridges on the ocean floor encircle the globe like the seams of a baseball.  Along their more than 40,000 mile length, magma seeps upward, building chains of underwater mountains and pushing continental land masses riding on massive tectonic plates further apart.

Mid-ocean Ridges, Wikipedia

The mid-ocean ridge system, Wikipedia.

Iceland is one of the few places on earth at which one can see the evidence of this activity, as the entire island sits right on the mid-Atlantic ridge and was formed from the volcanic activity at that site over the past 24 million years.

Mid-Atlantic ridge in Iceland

The best example of activity of the Mid-Atlantic ridge is at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, just 25 miles northeast of Reykjavík. Iceland Magazine.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

Separation of the North American and Eurasian plates can be seen in the fissures and cracks that develop along the mid-Atlantic ridge in Iceland.

What an unusual sight this area is, as land mass is added to Iceland at a rate of about 2.5 cm (one inch) per year.  The land here forms crumpled and jagged cliffs of rock surrounding flatter rift valleys.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

In Þingvellir National Park, a path takes visitors right down the rift between the North American (background) and Eurasian (foreground) plates.

The grounds at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park were a sacred spot for the Norse and Celtic people that settled the island in ninth century AD.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

A parliamentary assembly occurred for two weeks here each year from 930 to 1798 AD. An elected law giver would recite all the laws, new laws were debated, and merchants traded their goods.

Thousands of people attended these annual gatherings, to participate in the parliament as well as the trade of various goods.  Temporary homes were constructed, but no permanent buildings were erected on the site.

Lava flow, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

Recent lava flow is gradually broken down, allowing plants to colonize, but this Rift Valley is really relatively sterile and devoid of life.

There are a few birds, but most of them rely on lake or lakeshore habitat instead of barren lava fields for food and nest sites.

Tufted Duck pair

A pair of Tufted ducks can find enough aquatic invertebrates and vegetation to sustain them in the lake.

Graylag geese

Graylag geese seem to be found everywhere in Iceland, so cold water and barren lava fields are no barriers for them.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Iceland

However, interesting biological changes have been going on in the lake formed at the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago), when it was cut off from the sea.

Icy cold water that trickles into the lake seems to be the perfect habitat for growing king-sized brown trout that weigh up to 30 pounds, and Arctic char found open niches in the lake’s varied aquatic habitat, allowing them to split into six different species during the past 10,000 years.  Great news for fishermen everywhere that come to fish here and in the many fresh-water streams throughout the island that attract salmon on migration.


Waterfall extravaganza

There are lots of spectacular single waterfalls in Iceland, but Hraunfossar is a real waterfall extravaganza of 900 meters of water falling over rocks.  I’m standing in one spot, trying to capture the entire length of the waterfalls over the next three images.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Hraunfossar waterfalls form along a stretch of lava bordering the Hvítá River. 

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Water from the melting Langjökull glacier streams over a lava field formed when a volcano beneath the glacier erupted about 800 A.D., before Iceland was settled The lava field above the shrubby birches is quite visible in this shot.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Clear, filtered water from the glacier flows between lava layers and turns the river a lovely turquoise blue color. The glacier is just barely visible below the clouds in the distance.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

You can find close-up views of these waterfalls in most travel ads for Iceland, yet there were hardly any tourists here.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Another photo favorite of Iceland ads…

Redwing thrush, Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

The only birds we saw here were the Redwing thrushes, which had to sing really loudly to be heard over the roar of the waterfalls.

Lava field at Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

The lava flow is still bare rock in some places. In others, mosses and shrubby birches have covered the top of the lava field.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Further upstream, the lava gorge narrows, and the water thunders through in a giant roar, creating the waterfall known as Barnafosar, the children’s waterfall.

Barnafossar waterfalls, Iceland

The waterfall is named for two children who may have perished when they fell from an arch that used to span the Barnafossar waterfall. The story goes that the children’s mother had the arch destroyed so that no other children would suffer the same fate.

Barnafossar waterfalls, Iceland

The water here flows at an average of 80 cubic meters per second, but can reach 500 cubic meters per second when the river is in flood state. In comparison, the average flow of the upper Mississippi River out of its origin at Lake Itasca (a comparable sized stream) is 6 cubic feet per second (=0.17 cubic meters per second).

Birds, and more birds, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland

Iceland may have an impoverished bird fauna, compared to what one can see in the U.K. or Europe, but it more than makes up for it with great numbers of the species that are present.  For the bird photographer, this makes it easier to get some good photos.

A really good place to see seabirds is at the cliffs at Arnarstapi on the southern side of the Snaefellsness peninsula.

Shag on a nest, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Shags weren’t very common here, but a couple of them had carved out some space low on the cliffs.

Kittiwake gull, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Kittiwakes are the only gull that nest on cliffs. They were typically found in great numbers lower on the cliff than the fulmars, which are bigger birds and are more aggressive toward everything that approaches their space.

Down on the shoreline below the cliffs were several species of shorebirds, foraging in the sand and rocks right at the edge of the water.

Iceland Gulls, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Iceland Gulls are rather small, with pink feet, and bright yellow bills. They actually don’t breed in Iceland, but instead in Greenland and arctic parts of Canada.  Apparently they are still fattening up for spring breeding before migrating.

Knots, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

A lot of Knots. These small birds look like every other shorebird in the winter, but have bright chestnut back and breast in their breeding plumage, which is why some call them “red knots”.  It’s another arctic breeder in Canada, Europe, and Russia.

Also foraging along the shoreline at other points along the Iceland coast were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers, and Red Shanks.  These species were exploring the seaweed that had washed up on shore, and the crevices between rocks along the shore, turning things over or probing into sand to find small invertebrates there.  They will all fly on from here to their arctic breeding sites in Europe and Russia.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Red Shank, Budir, Iceland

Red Shanks are well named, as their red legs make them easy to spot.

Arctic Tern with fish

Arctic terms were flying overhead at Arnarstapi above the grassy meadows, some carrying fish.  This species is the longest distance migrator among all animals, flying from its Antarctic home in our winter to breed in the Arctic in our summer, and then back again, a round trip of about 44,000 miles.

Harlequin duck pair, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Harlequin ducks are at home in the open ocean, but they breed in cold, fast moving streams in northern North America, Iceland, and Greenland.  The outlandish color pattern of the breeding male gives the duck its name.

Harlequin duck pair, Iceland

Unfortunately, numbers of these handsome ducks are declining rapidly in North America, due to loss of habitat on cold, northern rivers and oil spills. I hope they fare better in Iceland.

The highlights of our bird sightings was finding a breeding pair of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebe on some of the small lakes that dot the Iceland landscape.  Brilliant colors of these birds light up the infamously gray, cloudy, rainy landscape here.

Red-throated Diver (Loon), Iceland

A pair of Red-throated Divers (Loon) at rest on a small pond

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, Iceland

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, photo by Debbie Reynolds.

The amazing Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland

The Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland is known for its dramatic landscapes, but nothing can prepare you for just how dramatic and all within a few miles of each other.

Our first stop at Budir to see the Black Church surprised us with some stunning mountain scenery as well.

Near Budir, Iceland

Mossy lava covers much of the ground on this peninsula.

Mossy lava, Snaefellsness peninsula

Mossy-covered lava is really a composite of over 130 species, including several species of ferns.

Black Church, Budir, Iceland

This iconic church sits by itself on the edge of the coast, which is probably why it is so well photographed.  It’s not unusual to see black-painted houses in Iceland; perhaps they draw and maintain more of the heat in this frozen landscape.

Sea cliffs at Arnastapi, Iceland

Sea cliffs at Arnarstapi just west of Budir were particularly interesting because of the exposed columns of basalt at their base.  New and interesting-looking lava formations are scattered along the coast, as you hike on a cliff side trail from Arnarstapi to Hellnar.

Natural arch, Arnastapi, Iceland

A picnic table overlooking a natural arch lava formation at Arnarstapi — the perfect stop for lunch.

Route 54 to Olafsvik, Iceland

Route 54 took us over a mountain pass from the south coast of the peninsula to the north side. There was stunning mountain scenery all along the way, making me think I was at 12000 feet in the Rockies.

Route 54 to Olafsvik, Iceland

Waterfalls and mountain peaks, what more could you want?

North coast, Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland

Finally along the north coast of the peninsula, we spied a long stretch of black sand beach, and the coastal peaks that dot the landscape here.

Kirkjufell, Iceland

Another iconic spot, beloved by photographers, is the Kirkjufell peak that rises steeply from the ocean to form a peak from one view, and a long exposed ridge resembling a cathedral from a side view.  Nearby is the waterfall named for the peak and often photographed with it, if you have the time for a bit of a hike.

Grundarfjördur, Iceland

Turning around from the view of Kirkjufell, you see the lovely harbor area of Grundarfjördur, a fishing village on this north coast.

Grundarfjördur, Iceland

And of course there are lots of birds to find and identify along this coast, but that’s the subject of another post.


This scenery is stunning!

Iceland continues to amaze.  The vistas are panoramic and huge, the mountains spring up out of absolutely flat lava fields or grasslands, there are steep sea cliffs with nesting sea birds for the bird lover to enjoy, and there seems to be a waterfall around every corner.  We haven’t had many sunny days (maybe one), but the weather is constantly changing, so if you wait a while at one spot, you can get a decent photo.

Iceland, south coast

Mountains spring up from flat grassland valleys…

Sea cliffs near Krysuvikurberg, Iceland

Sea cliffs on the south coast jam-packed with nesting Fulmars and Kittiwakes…


A pair of Fulmars grab a prime and sheltered nesting spot.

Waterfall, Snaefellsness peninsula, Iceland

Waterfalls around every corner…

And it doesn’t get much more scenic than our rental house in Borgarnes where we can seee steep mountain peaks on one side of the house,

Borgarnes harbor, Iceland

The harbor in Borgarnes, where we are staying for a few days, on the west central coast of Iceland.

and a fjord on the other.  The backyard here is perfect for photographing the sunset.

Yours truly photographing a sunset.

Icelandic sunset

Waterfalls and glaciers in Iceland

Some of the most spectacular sights in Iceland are of course its glaciers and their waterfall outflows.  Even on cloudy, foggy, rainy days like the one we drove the southern coast, the sightseeing is pretty spectacular.

Myrdalsjokull glacier, Iceland south coast

Myrdalsjökull glacier is the fourth largest glacier in Iceland, covering an area of 600 square kilometers.

Myrdalsjokull glacier, Iceland south coast

The tip of the glacier used to be well beyond these ice floes to the left.  Like other glaciers around the world, this one is melting at a rapid rate, sending torrents of water over impermeable lava cliffs to the sea.

Glacial outwash, Myrdalsjokull, Iceland

Beneath the Myrdalsjökull glacier is an active volcano, Mt. Hekla, which every now and then sends a charge of hot magma upward, melting tons of ice, and sending a flood of water at 100-300,000 cubic feet per second! down this glacial outwash plain.

Skogafoss waterfall, Iceland

Skogafoss waterfall is one of the outlets of glacial melting. Measuring 50 feet wide and 200 feet in height, it is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland.  On sunny days, its spray creates rainbows, but not on the rainy day we visited.

Waterfalls on southern Ring road, Iceland

Waterfalls, like Seljalandsfoss, are a common sight on the southern part of the Ring road in Iceland.  The view from behind the waterfall is a must, but we missed it unfortunately.

But these beautiful waterfalls are small potatoes compared to the powerful volume of water that has shaped the terraces of Gullfoss, formed from the melting of Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull.

Gullfoss, Iceland

The Hvita river that drains the Langjökull glacier pours 4900 cubic feet per second down the waterfall and canyon below it in the summer.  Standing next to this roaring torrent is deafening, and can be a little wet as well.  Those stick figures on the distant plateau may be wet tourists.

Gullfoss waterfall uppermost falls

The view from the uppermost terrace of 4900 cubic feet per second of water coming straight at you!

A new vista

Farewell, Scotland.  Hello, Iceland — a new vista for us.  And what a unique and interesting place it is.  Here are a few of the vistas we’ve seen in the last two days.

River Hotel, Hella, Iceland

The view from our lodgings at the River Hotel in Hella, about 50 miles east of Reykjavík on the Ring road.

With 18 hours of daylight, who can sleep at 5 a.m.? The birds are up and active on the river at this hour, so I am too.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Iceland’s volcanic origin is evident wherever you go, especially at Thingvellir National Park, Iceland’s equivalent of Yellowstone.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

River runoff from the glaciers that cap the central portion of the island are numerous. Excellent fishing here, judging from the 3-foot mounted specimens on the walls of our lodge at the River Hotel.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Neat houses are tucked into hillsides and along waterways, usually far from each other. It’s a mostly deserted landscape, free of human influence…

Icelandic ponies

With lots of Icelandic ponies in open fields.

And of course, the birds — it’s nesting time in the arctic, and the birds are unusually active in these long daylight hours.  There are limited numbers of species breeding on this small island, but lots of individuals of those species present.

Whooper swans, Iceland

Not just one, but a whole herd of Whooper Swans, in the middle of a grassy field, lined up, pairing off? We’ve found big flocks of these huge birds in several areas on our drive around the south coast.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Holy Island is a very small landmass about 1 mile from the mainland coast of northeastern-most England, and separated from the mainland during high tides twice a day.  Warnings with tidal information are posted on the causeway to the island as well as on roads in the village, but still some cars (and passengers) get stranded by the sudden, incoming tides.

View of the Northumberland coast from Holy Island

This view of the Northumberland coast from Holy Island shows the extensive tidal mudflats exposed during low tides.

Holy Island was the center of Celtic Christianity in 6th-7th century England, and the base of Christian evangelism in north England. Ruins of the monastery and priory still standing would make great background for movies set in the Middle Ages.

Priory on Holy Island

Priory on Holy Island

First established in the 700s AD, the priory was rebuilt in 1093, and in constant use until Henry VIII outlawed it.

While looking at this great view of the priory ruins, we were entertained by a couple of voracious fruit-eating birds.

Song thrush eating ivy berries

A Song Thrush was very delicately and slowly eating ivy berries one at a time.

Blackbird eating ivy berries

Meanwhile a Blackbird (cousin of the American Robin) loads up several berries at a time in its beak.

Wood Pigeon eating ivy berries

And the Wood Pigeon didn’t seem to know what to do with this largesse.

The Snook on Holy Island, Northumberland

Elsewhere on Holy Island, which is 3 miles wide by 1 1/2 miles long, it’s possible to get a sea-less view of the countryside on Holy Island at this quaint vacation rental called “the Snook”.

Scenes from the Norfolk coast

The Norfolk coast features picturesque scenery, numerous hiking paths, and of course, loads of birds.  Our hike yesterday took us alongside coastal marshes and wide expanses of beach sand untouched by anything except one set of car tracks.  The coastal dunes are protected areas for breeding avocets and ringed plovers, of which we just barely caught a glimpse.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast

Marshes along the Norfolk coast; mustard blooming in the background.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast, UK

Small ponds are breeding habitat for the variety of ducks and geese that live here.

Graylag geese

Graylag geese flying over the marsh

Coastal dunes

Coastal dunes

Beach at Holkham gap, Norfolk, UK

Beach at Holkham gap in Norfolk. From here it’s a 3.5 mile walk back to our house. Dunes off to the left are protected breeding habitat for Ringed Plovers.

Ringed Plovers

Ringed Plovers facing off


Favorite scenes from Peru

Everywhere we went in Peru, there was another beautiful landscape.  It’s a rich country for archaeologists as well as outdoor enthusiasts, and certainly for photographers.  Here are my favorite scenes: (best viewed by clicking on an image to view full screen in your browser)

Indiana village, Amazon

Market day at Indiana village, on the Amazon, at sunrise

Crossing the Amazon river

Crossing the Amazon river

Waiting for the boat taxi on the Amazon river

Waiting for the boat taxi on the Amazon river

Machu Picchu

Exploring the ruins of the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, right before the rainstorm descended.

Terraces of Pisac, Peru

Terraces of Pisac overlooking the Urubamba river in the Sacred Valley


View of Cusco from Sacsayhuamán ruins

La Raya pass, road to Puno, Peru

View from La Raya pass, on the road to Puno, Peru, at 14,300 feet

Llamas grazing in the Altiplano, Andean plateau

Llamas grazing in the Altiplano, Andean plateau

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca

Island in Umayo lake, near Puno, Peru

Island in the clouds: an island vicuña reserve in Umayo lake, near Puno, Peru

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca