As we neared the Greenland shelf after crossing the Denmark Strait, a few seabirds started to appear again. Kittiwakes and Fulmars were suddenly joined by some darker birds, which as they approached were immediately identifiable as Great Shearwaters.
Small groups of them were sitting on the sea and flying past the ship occasionally. These magnificent birds had flown all the way up from the South Atlantic, along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and were now at the northernmost point of their journey, ready to head south, offshore from the British Isles, over the next few weeks.
The ship steered a course down Prins Christian Sund, along a series of fjords which cut through a corner of Greenland. Glaucous Gulls sat on some of the rocks as we passed the tongues of several glaciers – tips of the huge Greenland icecap. Large areas of pale rocks on either side of the glaciers show how just how much the ice has been receding.
A landing on a small beach, by an old Viking settlement was a chance to look for passerines, and the first Greenland Wheatear was soon seen, perching not just on rocks but also on small bushes of Arctic Willow, in their characteristic way. Small chattering groups of Mealy Redpolls were also there and a sparkling male Snow Bunting fluttered by. On a nearby ice floe, from an adjacent glacier, a greyish form was sitting which turned out to be a Bearded Seal, one of the few mammals we were to see.
Over the next few days we visited several ancient settlements, as well as some modern towns. The wild flowers were impressive, with orchids, gentians and saxifrages, but the only insects were mosquitoes, midges and flies, together with a couple of small moths and a bee or two.
The mammal list grew with sightings of the strange Musk Ox, as well as Arctic Fox (now all-dark) and Arctic Hare (still largely white). New birds included Lapland Bunting in fine bright summer plumage, White-tailed Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Iceland Gull and one final auk, Brunnich’s Guillemot, brought the final list for the trip to 60 species.
As we flew out from Kangerlussuaq airport it was possible to glimpse the huge Greenland icecap carpeting the land into the far distance. This seemingly vast landscape is actually shrinking at an alarming rate and contributing to sea-level rise as our climate changes. How this will affect Greenland’s wildlife is difficult to judge, but with so much of it already damaged by excessive hunting, the last thing it needs are more man-made threats.
This is the last of Chris's Scotland to Greenland blogs, but he's off his travels again at the end of this month - so do keep popping by to see what he's been up to!
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July 23rd: Haven't blogged for a while, simply because I've got nothing to blog about...Local patch hardly visited and my quest for butterflies ground to a halt when the weather returned to a normal summer.
The north-west hosepipe ban had the desired effect and it has rained constantly since it was introduced, with some good thunderstorms rolling in to watch. Today was sunny but more important things to do as daughter graduated from Uni - wow, someone in the family has a BA Hons now...
Saw some nice High Brown Fritillaries at Arnside Knott earier in the month, but apart from the commoner species at Seaforth such as Small Skipper and Gatekeeper I've seen little else.
Managed to photo Kittiwakes in flight at a private site within the docks complex, but otherwise a quiet spell with lots of deskwork...and a bit of golf...soon be autumn...
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Landfall on Iceland was at Hofn, where we boarded a coach to visit a nearby glacier and snow field. The drive along the coast took us past many shallow pools which were at first devoid of life, but then the first wader was seen – a Redshank. This was followed by several more perched atop posts.
One or two pairs of Mallard with ducklings were seen and many Whoopers, some with small cygnets, were also noted. Then a small bird was seen spinning around on one of the pools, then several more; these were Red-necked Phalaropes, those tiny waders which, unlike most others, swim. With lobed toes they can stir up food by spinning around in the shallow water. Amazingly they migrate down to areas like the Arabian Gulf in the winter, which they spend right out at sea.
The road twisted and turned up to the glacier and snow fields and in the tundra habitat by the road there were several breeding waders including Dunlin, Whimbrel and Iceland's national bird, the European Golden Plover. At the snow field we all boarded ski-doos for a riotous drive across the snow for a hour or so – not much good for birding but terrific fun.
A boat tour on a glacial lake filled with icebergs sadly produced few birds, but around the café by the lake was a family of Snow Buntings. The male actually came and perched on the table right next to us.
The next day was a visit to the Westmann Islands, mainly to see the volcano there, but also for a Zodiac cruise along a small seabird cliff. In the harbour were some large white gulls – the first Glaucous Gulls of the trip, which included one bright white second-summer bird, a plumage rarely seen in Britain.
Along the cliffs were Razorbills, Common Guillemots, Puffins and Kittiwakes, with a few Black Guillemots in the water. In the town of Heimaey I decided to have a coffee with our Icelandic guide, natural history film-maker Dui Landmark who had joined the trip in the Faroes. As we entered the café he greeted someone he knew, who was sitting at the back. As we went to join him, Dui introduced him as Yann Kolbeinsson who was doing field work at a Manx Shearwater colony nearby. How incredible to meet Iceland's top birder, and manager of the fabulous Birding Iceland website, on a casual 15-minute visit to a far-flung café; what are the chances?
We next sailed for Reykjavik, our last destination in Iceland. Here a short visit to a local nature reserve, which was almost birdless, was followed by a walk through the city, which produced singing Mealy Redpolls and Redwings.
The lake in the city centre looked promising, and on a small island in the centre were Arctic Terns and a couple of Tufted Ducks. By the lake edge were both Tufted Duck and Scaup with young, and also a delightful female Common Eider with several large fluffy ducklings.
We left Iceland for a day and a half's journey across the Denmark Strait, followed by the usual Fulmars and almost immediately spotted a distant Minke Whale, then by another and another. The area off shore is renowned for them and regular boat trips take tourists out there. We were treated to the sight of several, as well as a small party of White-beaked Dolphins. As we got further out the Fulmars were joined by one or two Manx Shearwaters and a few European Storm-petrels.
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We arrived at Torshavn in the Faroes and had a quick tour of the town, resulting in three 'urban' species in the form of House Sparrow, Starling and Collared Dove. Out in the countryside it was very different, with Northern Wheatears perched on rocks and Hooded Crows in some of the sheep fields, while posted on occasional rocks were vigilant Whimbrels, giving their high, tremulous whistling calls.
Other common waders were Common Snipe, drumming continuously over head, and noisy Oystercatchers (the national bird of the Faroes) in every other field. A couple of female Common Eider just offshore at one stop were looking after a group of small chicks who followed them in and out of the water. Two Whooper Swans nearby became very aggressive as a dog tried to follow a football into the water – it stayed well clear of them!
In the late afternoon there was some sudden activity in the harbour at Torshaven. Lots of small boats were arriving and a crowd was gathering at the quay side. It transpired that a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales had been rounded up and caught off shore and they were to be unloaded. This was the third catch at Torshavn this year and is clearly a cause for celebration, although quite a lot of people were in local bars watching the World Cup.
The whales, already dead, were hauled out of the water using a small crane and were laid out on the quayside. While their parents watched on, smiling, children climbed onto the dead whales and poked at their innards, which had spilled out from carefully cut openings in their sides. To see such beautiful creatures treated so unceremoniously was quite shocking at first, and despite the obvious cultural differences, I found it impossible to balance this against the loss of life.
Over night we sailed around to the island of Mykines on the west of the Faroes, in the hope of landing and walking to see a Puffin colony – one where Puffins are regularly caught for food (again hard to swallow!). However, the sea conditions were such that it was not possible and instead we cruised the ship around this and a nearby island before heading off toward Iceland.
A few Manx Shearwaters were seen and we were treated to great views of light- and dark-phase Arctic Skuas, as well as Great Skuas. The latter were even chasing the relatively huge Gannets trying to get them to disgorge some hard-won food.
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Over the next two weeks, Chris Harbard will be travelling from Oban to St Kilda, the Faroes and then on to Iceland and Greenland. When time and technology allow, he'll be sending blog posts updating us all on what he's seen. Here is his first instalment ...
We left Oban on the evening of 29 June 2010, aboard the Clipper Adventurer, and headed west along the coast of Mull. A single adult White-tailed Eagle was visible fishing along the shore. As we continued going west, we skirted Coll, and both Manx Shearwaters and European Storm-petrels were seen.
Suddenly a fin broke the surface, tall, narrow and rather floppy; it was a Sunfish. As we passed by, a second, larger fin broke the surface, triangular and with a smaller fin trailing it – a Basking Shark. Several were seen over the next mile or two, with one very close alongside giving a view of is massive gape as it lazily swam just at the surface, almost unmoved by our presence.
On the following morning, we woke up just as the ship arrived at that mythical group of islands known as St Kilda. The ship anchored in Village Bay and we took the Zodiacs to shore.
Home to virtually nothing but birds and sheep, the main island of Hirta is managed by the National Trust for Scotland, which has a warden there during the summer months. He greeted us and took the group on a tour along the 'high street'. This is what used to be the main housing area of the village when it was last inhabited. Some of the buildings have been renovated and are now used by research staff who work there in the summer.
All across the island are signs of ancient occupation, especially the small stone stores or 'cleits' used for keeping hay or even salted Puffins or Gannets! On the top of some of the stone buildings were Northern Wheatears, chacking their annoyance at our presence. A slightly sharper call came from the special bird of the islands, the St Kilda Wren. Larger and paler than its mainland congener, it is a distinct subspecies.
Walking through the ruins of the village and up the hillside brings you to a small plateau with steep slopes on either side. On these nesting skuas can be found, both Arctic and Great, and care has to be taken not to upset them otherwise they will dive relentlessly at your head. No rarities on the islands today, at least not in national terms, but two notable birds that I had not seen there before were a Whooper Swan which had arrived in May and decided to stay, and a Collared Dove; perhaps the most westerly in Britain!
As we sailed away we circumnavigated the island of Boreray with its huge Gannet colony. The island was carpeted with them, and they also covered the water nearby, with a mixture of adults and non-breeding birds. One of the stacks adjacent was the site of the last live British Great Auk, which was sadly killed there a few years before their total extinction.
What could be more remote than St Kilda? Well we found out the following day (30 June) when we stopped off at North Rona, the most remote National Nature Reserve in Britain. Sheep inhabit it, belonging to crofters on Lewis, and so do Puffins, Fulmars, Bonxies and many other seabirds. In somewhat typically wet conditions we walked to the ruins of the seventh-century chapel in which Fulmars nest and narrowly avoided being spat on by one of the angry petrels.
A small hut on the island is where the islanders from Lewis stay when they come over in August to catch Gannet chicks on nearby Sula Sgeir as part of their traditional (and legal) harvest of what they consider to be a delicacy.
As we left the islands, heading for the Faroes, a few Leach's Storm-petrels and a Manx Shearwater flew across in front of the ship, providing a fitting farewell.
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I haven’t seen a Kingfisher all year, and despite comments to the contrary, this isn’t because I’ve not been near any water; I have. Yesterday (4 July 2010) it was time to fill this hole in my year list, so armed with advice from Dominic Mitchell – he promised me Kingfishers at Rye Meads – I caught a train to Rye House, Hertfordshire.
I’ve never been to Rye Meads before, so the plan was to explore the reserve fully, taking advantage of all the hides, as well as hit the Kingfisher hide for the eponymous bird. Sunday was a gloriously sunny day, with a nice breeze making it more bearable than the previous week.
My first reward was a nesting Kestrel. The reserve wardens had put up a box on the pylon in the car park and the birds were duly using it. There’s a telescope set up that’s pointing straight at the box and I got a great view of Mum, but no chicks.
Then it was into the reserve to see what I could see. It being June it was pretty quiet, though there were plenty of Coot, Moorhen and duck chicks, as well as some scruffy-looking juvenile Northern Lapwings. Lots of Reed Warblers were flitting about in the reeds. A Black-necked Grebe had been reported the day before, but though I looked and looked and looked, I couldn’t see it. Maybe it’d moved on; maybe my inexperience was showing.
Next up was the Kingfisher hide. The place was stuffed with some 20 people. And I got a small taste of what it must be like on a twitch. Around three people were wielding bins, while a couple seemed to be non-birding partners dragged out to see the Kingfishers (the bored expressions and hefty paperbacks hinting that this was a regular thing). The others all had long lenses and very swish cameras, and every appearance by the bird was heralded by a suite of mechanical clicking. Is this noise even necessary on digital cameras?
The bird was very obliging, posing on branches and posts and even turning around so his audience could appreciate his full beauty. Then he’d disappear to find food for his newly hatched brood. I even managed to get some digibinned images that are clearly a Kingfisher.
With this success firmly under my belt it was time to head to the Rye House pub for lunch and a celebratory glass of wine.
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The Birdwatch team share their birding stories
Want to read my old blog entries? Browse through an achive of all my posts below:
- April 2013 (1 post)
- September 2012 (1 post)
- November 2011 (1 post)
- October 2011 (1 post)
- July 2011 (1 post)
- June 2011 (1 post)
- May 2011 (2 posts)
- April 2011 (2 posts)
- March 2011 (4 posts)
- February 2011 (2 posts)
- January 2011 (3 posts)
- October 2010 (2 posts)
- September 2010 (1 post)
- August 2010 (4 posts)
- July 2010 (6 posts)
- June 2010 (9 posts)
- May 2010 (8 posts)
- April 2010 (14 posts)
- March 2010 (13 posts)