The Land of Ice and Fire

I was planning where to go on my summer vacation and was leaning toward a domestic trip, but wasn’t sure I wanted to go on a lengthy South American birding tour. My pre-pandemic Peru trip was cancelled and I haven’t travelled with passport since.

I am limited by work for more of the desirable birding tours throughout the year, which limits my travel window to just two months during summer: June and July. (Yes I can hear the sound of the tiny violins).

There was a tour in the Northern Hemisphere that caught my eye: Iceland.

This was the land of puffins, razorbill, and murre. The white-tailed eagle, gyrfalcon, and snow bunting. Home to one of the largest seabird colonies on Earth.

Iceland: the land of fire and ice, home to the midnight sun and Nordic winds. Of the dancing Northern lights and Viking blood.

Sign me up!

And I did sign up with a ten day tour run by WINGS Birding Tours. Most of the tour will be focused on the western side of Iceland.

While this tour wouldn’t produce a treasure trove of lifers (I estimate between 20-25 lifers), I would have the opportunity to see many birds in breeding plumage because Iceland was their breeding grounds. I looked forward to seeing Harlequin and long-tailed duck, Barrow’s goldeneye, black-legged kittiwake, red-throated and common loons in their breeding finery. One bird I really looked forward to seeing on solid ground is the arctic tern. The only time I had seen this long distant migrant was on the deck of a pelagic tour boat. This tour really is about spending quality time with the amazing avian culture of Iceland!

My two Iceland journals. I decorated the covers with stickers in case anyone didn’t know these were Icelandic journals!

Before going on any great saga, I must first obtain a watercolor journal. For Iceland, I chose two Stillman & Birn Beta Series journals. One is hardbound 5.5″ by 8″ journal and a soft bound pocket journal. On the first page I sketched a symbol of Iceland: the Atlantic puffin (featured sketch). Seeing this bird would be a lifer for me. The alcid can be seen in the northeastern part of North America but when I was in Maine in October, all the pelagic puffins were far out at sea (they come ashore in the summer to nest in large breeding colonies).

I like to start my travel journals with a map and drawing the outline of Iceland seemed to be like tracing the undulating lines of a Rorschach test. This map was really not to scale!

A trip is always an excuse to add some new gear to my travel set up, and then do a spread about it. In this case I wanted a new stuff daypack that could stuff down to almost nothing and then be used as a daypack to carry my sketching kit and rain gear. I chose the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack. This stuffs down into a 4″ by 4″ bag yet has a capacity of 18 liters while weighing in at just 3 oz. The pack features zipper pulls, padded straps, a water bottle pocket, and an easy access top pocket with a key clip.

I just couldn’t resist drawing an Osprey on a puffin.


Gyr Afterglow

Having an amazing experience in nature while observing an animal can stay with you long after the encounter.

Coming across a mountain lion on the Coast Trail in Pt. Reyes is an experience that readily comes to mind. Or watching thousands of snow geese erupt into the air in the Central Valley is another. Swimming with a 36 foot whale shark (and her 16 foot baby) off the coast of Utila is yet another.

I can now add to those encounters the one I had with the Earth’s largest falcon. It was not just that a Gyrfalcon is such an amazing raptor, but the quality and length of the experience. I had read tales of birders getting far off scope views of a brown smudge on a power pole of previous wayward gyrs. And this was far from my encounter.

Here are some of the reasons why my encounter with a gyrfalcon will last for a long time to come.

The Build Up

A gyr is rare south of Canada and even rarer in California. There are about 15 accepted Gyrfalcon sightings in California. And most of those are from extreme Northern California.

This is a bird that will make most California birders leave work early, jump in their cars and drive all night, just to get a far off glimpse of this falcon.

Luckily for us, this Gyr has been hanging around the Arcata Bottoms for over a month and we hoped she would stick around just one more day until we could focus our bins on her magnificence.

But with a storm rolling in, there was no telling if the bird would be heading off in any direction or if steady rain would hamper the visibility. Draining colors out of distant birds to become brown specks, morphing into a vertical branch on the power pole.

Gyrfalcons are listed as “Sensitive” on eBird and their locations are not available to the public. This makes finding their exact location a little challenging. The reasons for such secrecy is the place of prestige this sought after falconry bird attains in the world market. These hunting falcons are highly prized in the Middle East and because of the rarity of the bird, it was reserved for royalty. Wild birds are therefore, targets for animal smugglers as these birds can fetch $275,000 on the market.

The Performance

A peregrine falcon first called our attention to the presence of the Arctic invader as a PEFA stooped on the female gyr perched on a pole on the south side of Jackson Ranch Road. And for the next two and a half hours we were in the 360 degree theatre of the Gyrfalcon.

The peregrine falcon, Jackson Ranch Road.

Watching a perched gyr is interesting enough but we got so much more as the bird took advantage of the window between storms to hunt. Flying low across the fields and making repeated passes over the slough, chasing up American coots and grabbing them along the way but then releasing them as if she was just practicing.

At one point the gyr walked around the ground and appearing to be hunting a small mammal, which she ate on the ground. This falcon was showing behavior that was very different from the arial specialist, the peregrine, or the stilling kestrel. This falcon was so much more!

And she rightly takes her place with the mountain lion, snow geese, and whale shark as very memorable animal sightings in the natural world.