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.


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.

Birds, birds, everywhere

so many birds, so many photos…

Springtime in Iceland is a mecca for bird photographers, as arctic breeding species return to find a mate, build a nest, and perpetuate their species. The road next to our river hotel in Hella is particularly rich with Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Oystercatchers, and Golden Plover.  The bird fauna here is dominated by shorebirds, with few representatives of other orders, like the songbirds (passerines).

Snipe, Iceland

Snipe stand on hummocks of grass or even on fence posts, chirping their monotonous two tone beeps, then take off flying overhead in a display flight, complete with tail feather whirring noises.  They are so common here, we see one about every 50 feet.

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwit are another commonly seen species. They are really handsome birds in their breeding plumage, with their chestnut heads and speckled bodies. A male showing off for his lady, hoping for her acceptance of his advances…

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwits use that long slender bill to probe for insects and worms in the soil in these fields, but can also be found on inland marshes and estuaries in the U.K., on migration.

Whimbrel, Iceland

Whimbrels are common in the fields, too, sometimes in small flocks, sometimes alone, hunting for the same worms and soil insects.

Redshank, Iceland

We’ve only seen Redshank along sandbanks and coastal shores in the U.K., but here they are commonly found in grassy fields.

Redwing, Iceland

Redwings are the dominant thrush in Iceland. We see them everywhere, in the fields, in the brush near water, in small trees, lustily singing their warbling thrush melody.

Golden Plover, Iceland

Golden Plovers are solitary in these fields, but are seen fairly often.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Meadow Pipits seem to be the one of the few small passerine birds around. There are no small finches or small insectivores, like warblers or titmice, probably because there is limited food for those types of feeders.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Fence posts are popular perches in this flat, monotonous grass landscape. Pipits seem to get by in this sparse landscape by eating tiny insects as well as seeds of a variety of plants.

White Wagtail

The friendly little White Wagtail is another common passerine that breeds in far northern latitudes. It is a widespread species in the summer throughout Europe and Asia but migrates to warmer overwintering sites as far south as Northern Africa.  They feed on a variety of small aquatic and grassland insects, flitting and darting around as they track their prey.

Seabirds on Scottish sea cliffs

Handa Island off the northwestern coast of Scotland has some of the most beautiful sea cliffs.  Their base is 3 billion year old gneiss rock, on top of which are layers of sandstone, and finally quartz.  They have weathered and eroded just enough for seabirds to find niches for their nest sites.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

These cliffs get enough rainfall to support some vegetation (mosses, grasses, and a few flowering herbs), a surface very different from the bare rock of the breeding colonies at Bass Rock on the east coast of Scotland.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

The needle rock, magnified from the photo above.  The ranger at Handa Island told us that more people have visited the moon than have successfully climbed this needle.  Sea birds seem to find it easy enough to colonize though.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Layers of Seabirds stack themselves on the ledges of the seacliffs: shags and cormorants at the bottom, guillemots and razorbill auks above them, fulmars above them just below the top, and puffins in the grassy areas on top.

Rows of Guillemots at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

No one seems to know why Guillemots line up like this with their backs to the sea.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Fulmars seem to be less tolerant of others near their nest site, unlike the Guillemots.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

And three is definitely a crowd for Fulmars.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

As usual, Puffins are the birds everyone wants photos of. There weren’t many of them here yet, it’s still early in the breeding season.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

This little Puffin had been busily excavating a burrow and had a dirty face to show for it. So far it was single, waiting for a mate to approve the nest construction.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

A beautiful area for exploration of both seacliffs and seabirds. Some of the visitors got off the marked path and way too close to the edge!


Handa Island’s great nemesis

Just off the coast from Scourie, on the northwest corner of Scotland, Handa Island presents some prodigious cliff faces that are very attractive to breeding sea birds.  A small boat dropped us off on the island, volunteers from the Scottish Wildlife Trust met us to explain the rules for navigating the island trails, and we set off on a 4 mile loop hike.

Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Most of the reserve has well marked trails and boardwalks to protect nesting birds from human feet!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Because it’s quite easy to literally stumble upon a Great Skua just sitting on a mound of vegetation just a few feet from the trail.

The Great Skuas were not at all shy, and one sat completely still while at least 6 of us passed by at close range.

Photographing Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Could we get any closer?

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

It’s not a particular pretty bird, and it has a hooked beak, and some wicked looking talons at the ends of its webbed feet.

Skuas are about the size of a large Herring Gull, but with a larger breast, long tapered wings, and powerful and speedy forward flight.  This bird is an intimidator, using its size and aggressive behavior to harass other sea birds into dropping their catch of fish.  They are the breeding sea birds’ nemesis!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

We watched a Great Skua chase a flock of Kittiwakes and suddenly turn and ram full speed into a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull flying above it, (a bird it’s own size!) pulling it down into the ocean. The Skua proceeded to bite and thrash the Gull to death, plucked it, and then pecked off bits of Gull flesh for its dinner.

Great Skuas will probably not make anyone’s top 10 favorite list because they have some rather unpleasant habits:  robbing other birds of their prey, grabbing the wings of sea birds and pulling them out of the air, harassing penguins into deserting their carefully protected egg or chick and then killing and eating them, even invading sea bird colonies at night to prey on roosting adults.

Birdwatching 101 — spot the Snipe

First rule of a good bird watcher — be able to spot the bird.  What follows, of course, is being able to ID it!  Our fearless leaders on our trip through Scotland, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, are aces at both.  Here we are trucking down a narrow road through forest on one side and lake and boggy marsh on the other, and Ruth yells out, “Snipe!”  We come to a quick halt, back up about 50 feet, and she says “there”, pointing at something in the birch forest.  I stare.  I don’t see it.

Do you see it?

Stunted Birch forest in Northern Scotland

People use various landmarks to help others fix the position of a sighted bird. It still doesn’t help me much because I have the wrong search image of what I’m looking for.

Snipe, Scottish Wildlife Trust

Snipe are medium sized waders, usually found in grasslands and marshes in Scotland, where they use that long bill to probe for earthworms and crustaceans in the mud. Photo from the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

I finally see it, and get a photo of this bird, uncharacteristically resting in a birch woodland.  Does this help you find the bird in the photo above?

Snipe, Scottish moors

Hint: look on the left side of the top image, near the biggest birch tree.

Pretty impressive to be able to spot this little bird while traveling at some speed down the road!!

The end of the road

John O’Groats is the end of the road north in Scotland, and faces the Orkney Islands across a wild piece of the North Sea where the current is so strong it can move 1.5 ton boulders across the sea floor.

John O’Groats Hotel, Scotland

John O’Groats Hotel, Scotland and sculpture portraying the power of the sea at this location. I’m not sure if those are 1.5 ton boulders, but they are quite big.

We visited Duncansby Head, a group of steep sea cliffs with the usual complement of breeding sea birds: shags and cormorants, guillemots, fulmars, and puffins (well, there might have been a few of those).

Duncansby Head, John O’Groats, Scotland

Duncansby Head sea stacks, the triangular rocks are iconic structures of this place.

The most abundant birds in view were the fulmars, a medium-sized white bird that resembles a sea gull, but in fact is related to albatross and petrels rather than shorebirds like Gulls and terns.

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head, Scotland

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head are steep cliffs, with niches carved out by erosion, just perfect for nesting sites.

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head, Scotland

Fulmars on ledges at Duncansby Head

Northern Fulmar, Duncansby Head, Scotland

Fulmars come to land only to breed.  The rest of the year they are on the wing or in the water at sea, completely pelagic in habit, feeding on small crustaceans, marine worms, fish, etc.  They hold food in a fore-chamber of the stomach where digestion of fat is very slow, and might regurgitate the oily contents when disturbed (by humans or a predator).  The stomach contents are quite noxious.

Northern Fulmar, Duncansby Head, Scotland

Like their albatross relatives, Fulmars fly with a stiff (straight) wing, which makes gliding effortless, since they can lock the upper and forearm together at the elbow joint to make one continuous gliding surface.  The structure above the bill is an enlarged nasal passage, used for breathing as well as salt excretion.  They don’t drink water, but can obtain all the water they need from their diet and drinking  sea water, excreting excess salt through the “tube nose”.

The birding crew at Duncansby Head, with leaders Ruth Miller and Alan Davies of Birdwatching Trips ( on the left, and the four intrepid bird watchers on the right. (I’m in the middle next to Alan)

Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, Birdwatching Trips

A walk in the forest

Rothiemurchas forest in the Cairngorm National Park of Scotland was once the center of the great 12th century Caledonian pine forest, and some of its patriarchal trees may still stand.

Old Scotch pine, Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland

Rothiemurchas forest near Aviemore has some of the oldest and largest Scotch pine in the U.K.  

We found some new (to us) birds here, as well as some familiar ones, but one of the surprises was all the red squirrels in this part of the forest. They are about the size of the North American gray squirrel, but with much bushier tails, and ear tufts. In many places these native squirrels have been displaced by the introduced gray squirrels.

Red squirrel, ScotlandRed squirrel, Scotland

Rothiemurchas forest near Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland

The forest here is a mixture of very young and very old pine, along with dense stands of birch, and remarkably little undergrowth.

Although most of the birds were found high in the tree tops, a few cooperated by flying in close.

Coal tit

Coal tits are close to the same size as Black-capped Chickadees, and resemble them in looks and behavior.

Siskin, Scotland

European Siskin look like a combination of American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin. The males are bright yellow, with paler females that look very much like the American Siskin.

Ewe and lambs, Scotland

This is lambing season in Scotland. Twins scamper over to their dams for reassurance and a drink when we get near to take their photos.

Up on the Scottish moors

We visited the moorland near the Cairngorm mountains in southern Scotland when we were here two years ago, but it was much warmer on that trip.

Cairngorm mountain hike

Our hike in 2016 was sunny and warm, but the ptarmigan we came to see were far up the snowy slopes from us.

This time with wind chill temps below freezing, we rode the funicular to the mountain top to hunt for the ptarmigan,

Funicular on the Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

The view from the funicular platform on the Cairngorm mountains.

and were rewarded with a ptarmigan posing nicely right outside the landing platform.

Ptarmigan, Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

This male ptarmigan is in breeding plumage, gray speckled above and white below, and blends in well with the rocky ground  and patches of melting snow he traverses each day.

Ptarmigan wear a camouflage coat of white feathers in the winter, but molt to a brown plumage in the summer.  Breeding plumage is the in-between color phase.  In addition to their excellent camouflage, ptarmigan have heavily feathered legs and feet as protection against winter cold.

Ptarmigan, Cairngorm mountains, Scotland

He is much more noticeable against a background of dry grass, and of course his red eyebrow makes him a little easier to spot.  Later in the season, his brown plumage will blend in nicely with this dry grass background.

The star attraction of the high moorland is the Red Grouse, a bird for which the moorland is actively managed, including mowing and burning the Heather to encourage new growth that Red Geouse prefer, and elimination of their potential predators and competitors (which is unfortunate for the conservation of wildlife diversity in this area).  They are handsome birds, good flyers when flushed, and apparently fun to shoot, but not to eat.  All of which sounds rather contrary to the idea of wildlife management

Red Grouse

Male Red Grouse showing his gorgeous feathers and red eyebrows

Red Grouse

Sometimes the red eyebrow is all you catch sight of when the grouse peers out of the vegetation.

Another inhabitant of the high moorland we missed on our last visit is the Ring Ouzel, which is actually a thrush, a relative of the European Blackbird and the American Robin.  They frequent the rocky scree slopes of the moorland mountains, eating a variety of invertebrates, especially earthworms.

Ring Ouzel, Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland

Also known as the vicar bird for his white collar and black “cassock”, its name really comes from the old English term for black bird (osle).

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”.