For the first time, a making-of shot. Fellow tour member Bao snapped a pic of me with her phone while I was documenting my footgear. Our leader “S,” unconcerned, is scanning the scene.
I hadn’t planned on spending any time botanizing… and yet, these interesting plants kept appearing and reappearing. Our guide Elis had a folding brochure with some of the very most common and conspicuous plants of Iceland, but midway through the trip I felt the need to pick up Hörður Kristinsson’s Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland (2017, 3/e), with entries for 465 species (including 17 for genus Saxifraga—go figure). With the brochure, I quickly learned to recognize Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Vallhumall), the non-native invasive Nootka Lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) (Lúpína), and Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica) (Ætihvönn), a truly preposterous-looking plant.
But, provisioned with Hörður, I went looking for more. Some of the following IDs are rather provisional.
This bushy prostrate plant, with flowers gone by, was very common, and the first to catch my eye: possibly Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpina).
The next day, on the grounds of our hotel in Hövn, Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a mystery plant with purple tepals, Mother of Thyme (Thymus praecox), and unmistakeable Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) (Bláklukka).
Equipped with a search image from Elis’s brochure, I spotted something interesting and hopped off the bus in Djúpivogur to get a quick snap of the lovely daisy-like Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum).
So, Heather (Calluna vulgraris) is actually a thing.
In the north, at the Ásbyrgi nature reserve, peely-barked Downy Birch (Betula pubescens).
Nevertheless, there are lava fields that are in the very slow process of being overrun by lichens, mosses, grasses, creeping flowers, and taller things. I took a morning walk around our hotel at Mývatn. All sorts of green things happening. Shrubs sheltering in the potholes.
Pro tip: As you are preparing your luggage for a flight to Keflavík (KEF), do not pack your windbreaker in your checked baggage. You’re going to need it for the short scrambles to and from the shuttle bus that will take you to the terminal. Sited on a peninsula jutting out into the North Atlantic, the air field is well positioned for the defense of sea lanes (as it so served in WW II). But the nasty cross winds make it an adventure to traverse on foot, at any time of the day.
This is the quite pleasant view from my shared balcony at the elegant Hotel Holt. Several of my guides emphasized that Iceland is somewhat allergic to city planning—hence the lack of other commercial amenities around this hotel. (On the other hand, my second hotel, the Hotel Reykjavík Centrum, was surrounded by eateries and night life.) The University of Iceland campus is visible in the distance.
Þingvellir National Park is one of the places where the rift between the North Atlantic and Eurasian Plates is visible on land. I’m standing in the rift, with the North American Plate looming above and on the left. Þingvellir was the meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament, which first met there in 930. As dramatic as the scenery might be, this place was more or less centrally located for the delegates traveling to it across the country, and the rift valley afforded relatively flat terrain.
In the East Fjords, this “golly” prospect is on highway #1 between Höfn and Djúpivogur. At left, looking north, and at right, looking south. We didn’t stop for the lighthouse at Hvalnes. Iceland needs to up its lighthouse game.
Iceland has a few waterfalls.
And we stopped for many more gorgeous cascades than I could photograph. I was chasing cliff-nesting seabirds at Seljalandsfoss, for instance. But I did get my camera out for a few of them.
Gullfoss (the gull means “golden,” like the local beer, but I never got an explanation of why the name applies to these falls) is the mystery waterfall, as the water appears to disappear into a crack in the earth. Once you look back, you can see where it’s gone to.
Fossá (“waterfall-river”) in the East Fjords region might be my favorite. It’s small, not spectacular, but it does what a waterfall needs to do. According to an interpretive sign at the site, the average flow is 8 m3/sec, but in spate the flow can exceed 150 m3/sec, and a peak in 1980 was measured at 395 m3/sec. A 30 kW power plant takes off some of the river’s energy.
At right is Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the outflow from Dettifoss. The river continuum model of stream ecology doesn’t really fit Icelandic rivers. There is very little vegetation along the banks to fall into the water, and thereby to feed shredders and other organisms. These cold-clean-rocky, often braided, streams are strange and quite beautiful.
On our first day of the bus tour, we stopped at Sólhestur farm for a short ride on the local breed of Icelandic horse. My ride, whose name I didn’t quite catch, patiently endured my clumsy mount and dismount. (I haven’t been on any kind of horse since summer camp as a kid, and I am sure that all equines compare notes on what I klutz I am in the saddle.) Only 3 of our busload of 14 opted for the ride, while almost all of us did the glacier. Hunh.
Our guide turned up a small handful of Megaptera novaeangliae (Humpback Whale) in the fjord. It turns out that humpbacks can be individually identified by patterns on their backs and flukes. So, for instance, this whale has the nickname “speckled” (maybe “deckled”? audio quality on the boat was sub-optimal).
Sólheimajökull is a rather grungy glacier, as it scrapes off bits of the surrounding mountains on its way to the sea. Our guides impressed upon us how much this outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull had receded in the past century, in the past decade, in the past year, as a result of global heating. That thought followed us up and down the glacier, as the sounds of rushing meltwater on this sunny summer day were all around us.
Equipped with crampons and ice picks, we set off to climb a bit of it.
At left, looking farther up the glacier. At right, looking back down the valley. Time was, the ridge in the left part of the photo was an island in glacial ice, with another tongue of the glacier flowing around behind it. No more.
Gravelly snow and disappearing ice aside, this hike was the high point of my trip!
Birds Report: A Correction
A sharp-eyed iNaturalist community member correctly identified the birds on the wing in my photos as Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). A closer reading of Sibley’s guide tells me that fulmars occur in light and dark forms, which accounts for the rather dark birds I saw at Reynisfjara. I’m still fairly certain that I also saw kittiwakes on this trip, but I don’t have the photos to go with.
Breakfast Items Rated
- Gravlax: A good condiment.
- Baked beans: Enh.
- Chocolate biscuits: Why not?
- Marinated herring: Hmm. Strangely buttery.
- Skyr: Yes, please!
- Slice-your-own bread: Oh, yeah!
Bonus rating: The plokkfiskur from Messinn on Lækjargata is AMAZING.
I’m back from a week traveling in Iceland, most of my time spent on a 19-seater minibus making a three-quarter turn around the island from Reykjavík to Akureyri.
I’m pleased with the results from my birding, considering that our guide Elis made only a couple brief stops specifically to look at birds. Fourteen lifers and 28 species altogether. Just a few photographic records: Greylag Goose (Anser anser) and Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) in Tjörnin hard by Reykjavík’s city hall, and
Black-legged Kittiwake Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialus), photographed at Skogafoss.
The photo opportunities for the kittiwakes were better later in the day at Reynisfjara, but I was looking at other things at the time, like my first Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) nesting on the cliffs.
White Wagtails (Motacilla alba) seemed to be ubiquitous; I heard them in some quite inhospitable places.
Easiest life bird was a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) outside my hotel room window in downtown Reykjavík. I worked hardest keying out Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritimus) on the beach along Eiðsgrandi.