The Pivot: Birding Iceland

Námafjall Hverir

We were supposed to be birding in France last year, but two weeks before we were to leave for Paris the world shut down as COVID-19 rapidly exploded around the world. It stung as I wheeled my pretty new rose-colored hard-sided suitcase I bought just for that trip out to our garage. It spent 2020 collecting dust while we sheltered in place, tried to flatten the curve, wore our masks, worked from home and picked up groceries curbside. I realize our trip to France was really just a minor loss compared to what others have been through, but it still hurt.

I was perhaps overly optimistic when I re-booked the trip to France for this past May, thinking all would be fine, but it wasn’t. When France went into its third lockdown late March, Steve and I knew we were going to have to pivot our plans. This time around it didn’t hurt as much as it did last year when we had to cancel. But still, eesh. Seemed as though we weren’t going to travel.

That’s when Iceland popped up as an option. At the same time I was scouring for other birding tours, Iceland had announced that they were welcoming vaccinated travelers. And by coincidence, Tropical Birding—a company we’ve traveled with multiple times—had a Birding with a Camera tour in Iceland.

Sold.

One of the many streams in the Myvatn area.

How does one travel in the midst of COVID?

It’s tough coming out of COVID. I don’t know that any of us know how to do it. Everyone’s in a different place in their heads about it. And every country is in a different situation. And coming out is a long process—you don’t push a button and then it ends. But Iceland made travel pretty doable.

Since we were vaccinated it meant we wouldn’t need to quarantine upon arrival. However, we still needed to have a negative result from a PCR COVID test that’s performed in Iceland right after you get through customs. Iceland had two safety measures in place: vaccination and the PCR test, which protected them and us. All of this effort by Iceland has enabled us to be in the Icelandic Bubble.

Once our noses were swabbed we waited for our results at our hotel, which would arrive by text. To return to the US, we will need a PCR COVID test with 72 hours of our departure. The place to get the test is just a few blocks from where our hotel is right now and as soon as I’m done posting this, I’ll be booking our appointment online.

Iceland’s mask mandate was lifted about two weeks ago and it was a little weird at first to walk into a store or restaurant and not see anyone wearing masks. Every restaurant has had hand sanitizing stations set up, reminders to wash your hands for 30 seconds on decals in nearly every bathroom and several restaurants had us leave our names and numbers for their contact tracing logs.

“It will be really weird going back to the US after being in this bubble,” I told Steve.

Birds

“For serious birders, Myvatn is a site of pilgrimage; the rest are converted upon arrival.”

Andrew Evans, author of Iceland Bradt Travel Guide

After flying from the US to Reykjavik (and getting our COVID test), we flew the next day north to Akureyri. We stayed three nights in the Myvatn area at the Hötel Laugar, which during the school year is a boarding school for children of farmers in northeast Iceland. During the summertime, it becomes a hotel for tourists. It was also a centrally located for our birding needs in the area.

White Wagtail
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Whimbrel
Common Snipe

“There aren’t a lot of species here in Iceland and your list won’t be long” our guide, Lisle (pronounced, Lyle), explained to us. “But you will get to spend a lot of time with the birds you do see.”

That was perfect for me. I like the pace of this type of birding trip. We can be slow and I don’t feel the pressure to keep up. I’m really lousy at keeping my own list of birds I’ve seen, as I’m just mostly interested in looking at them. And since this was a Birding with Camera tour, we weren’t rushed at all. But mostly, being able to spend time with new birds helped me sharpen my mind with ID’ing and also filled me with joy as I saw many of them for the first time.

Red-necked Phalarope
Golden Plover
European Wigeon

Before this trip I wasn’t much of a “duck” person when it came to birds. I suppose that’s because my exposure has been very limited—I hadn’t seen a variety. But there were so many here: Red-breasted Merganser, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Common Scoter and Long-tailed Duck. I think I’ll be looking for ducks more frequently now that they are on my radar. I’ve definitely been converted.

Common Loon
Harlequin Duck
Horned Grebe

I’ll write more about Iceland—there’s just too much to put into this one post. In the meantime, enjoy this waterfall.

Godafoss Waterfall
Steve and me at Godafoss Waterfall