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!

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.

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.

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.

Golden Eagle valley – birds plus scenery!

We were on a quest to find a Golden Eagle (or two), so we drove west from our lodging in Tongue (pronounced like the mouth part) to a valley dominated by a 3000 foot peak called Ben Hope (“Ben” in Scotland refers to a peak). For once, we had a beautiful sunny day for a drive down a long narrow glacial valley with high peaks on both sides and mixed moorland and stunted birch forest on the valley floor.

Near Ben Hope, Northern Scotland

The road paralleled a river near Ben Hope.

Near Ben Hope, Northern Scotland

Groves of stunted birch trees were interspersed with the bracken and heather of the moorland.  Wind and prolonged periods of cold weather make this a challenging environment for trees.

Mixed forest and moorland dominate this landscape now, but as recently as 5000 years ago, northern Scotland was a vast forest of Scots pine, known as the Caledonian forest.  A wetter climate allowed deciduous trees to invade and a mixed forest of oak, birch, aspen, juniper developed, only to give way to the heather, bracken, and grass mixture as the land was cleared for human use.  Gradually the forest is now returning (with replanting) in this area.

Near Ben Hope, Northern Scotland

Near Ben Hope, Northern Scotland

Imagine seeing the huge long wings of an eagle gliding over the tops of the ridges…

And eventually after more than an hour of waiting, craning necks to the sky of both sides of the valley, we did spot a lone Golden Eagle gliding from the ridge top across from us, across the valley to the ridge top in back of us…where it landed.

Near Ben Hope, Northern Scotland

It landed somewhere high in the rocks above us.

We eventually found the bird perched high on the cliff face, and then a second eagle, most likely a mate, as well as a another intruder, with whom there was a short-lasting aerial scuffle, all taking place at great distance.  But the spotting scope view was exhilarating enough, along with the stunning scenery in Golden Eagle valley to satisfy everyone.

ARKive image ARK010281 - Golden eagle

Photo from ARKive of the Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) – http://www.arkive.org/golden-eagle/aquila-chrysaetos/image-A10281.html

Golden Eagles are at the very top of the food chain in northern Scotland, and may prey on a variety of birds and mammals as they roam over a huge home range of as much as 70 square miles.  With a wing length of 6 to 8 feet and a body weight of 8 to 11 pounds, they are an impressive sight.