Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Harlequin Ducks, River Laxa, Lake Myvatn, Iceland, April 2007

If a poll was compiled to find the most handsome
duck that breeds in the Western Palearctic,
Harlequin Duck would surely top the list. In April
2007, Hazel and me flew to Keflavik, Iceland, for a week’s
bird photography holiday, with Harlequin Ducks
as our main target. Iceland is, of course, the
only place in the Western Palearctic where
Harlequin Ducks breed.
Keflavik airport lies about 50km southwest of
Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. From there, we
drove north on Road 1 to Borgarnes, and then
took Road 54 over to the peninsula of the Snaefellsnes
mountains and down to Froda. We
obtained our first views of Harlequin Ducks
here, looking distantly from Road 574, north
and seaward to Breidafjorur.
We stayed overnight in the small north-western
town of Olasfsvik. The following morning, we
visited the cliffs at Onverdarnes, where BrĂ¼nnich’s
Guillemots could be seen, and then drove back
to Borgarnes on Road 1, and onwards across
towards Akureyri, eventually arriving at the
famous Lake Myvatn, far in the east.
Our base while staying in the Myvatn area was
the Sel Hotel, Myvatn, which is situated on Road 1,
only about a mile from the area where Harlequin
Ducks are most easily viewed.
In April, male Harlequins start to head
towards their breeding grounds, towards fresh
water, having spent the winter on the sea (where
they can be easily seen in the Reykjavik area).
The males then remain in the breeding areas
until about late June, whereas the females and
young stay there until August. Lake Myvatn
holds probably the densest population of
breeding Harlequin Ducks in the world, with
more than 10,000 birds. These birds can be
seen later in the year than April and early May,
but beware the dark clouds of midges that
congregate around the lake in late spring and
summer! According to local people, this is how
Myvatn gets its name: Myvatn means ‘The Lake
of Midges’!
The best viewpoint for Harlequin Ducks that
we found was by the bridge on Road 848. Head
west from the hotel to a right turn over a bridge
which spans the River Laxa. This is Road 848,
which heads north before meeting Road 1 in a
loop to the east of the lake. There is a layby by
the bridge in which to park.

In the early morning hours, Harlequin Ducks
were actually quite difficult to find here –
Barrow’s Goldeneyes were the predominant
birds – but, after spending a couple of days
visiting the area, we noticed that the Harlequins
were beginning to congregate around the bridge
area in the afternoons, after having travelled
west, downstream from Lake Myvatn.
During the subsequent mornings, we spent
our time nearby, watching Gyr Falcons divebombing
the resident ravens, and then we headed
back to the bridge area for the afternoons. Then
we were able to watch the Harlequins fighting
their way through the fast-flowing torrents of
the Laxa. They were approachable and quite
easy to photograph. Each evening, they went to
roost in the long grass on the banks of the river.
Apart from the Harlequins and the Barrow’s
Goldeneyes, other birds that we saw easily in
the Lake Myvatn area included other sea ducks,
Slavonian Grebes, Merlins and Snow Buntings,
as well as the Gyr Falcons.
We thoroughly recommend a trip to Iceland; it
is totally unspoilt and naturally beautiful. The
weather can be cold (on our April trip, daytime
temperatures at Myvatn were down to about
–7°C, with snow and wind at times), but this will
not spoil your visit.