"The Northern Lights are in my eyes ..."

Trip Start Mar 25, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of Iceland  , West,
Thursday, March 29, 2012

Or so sang 1970s folk band (folk/rock) Renaissance. I saw them at a festival in 1976 or 1977. The band, that it, not the Northern Lights. Those I saw in 2002 or thereabouts on Cannock Chase, believe it or not, but they were mostly Obscured by Clouds (1972 album by Prog Rock supergroup Pink Floyd).

That's enough musical references and capital letters. I'll get on with writing the blog. 

The day, or that bit of it when it's daylight seems strangely uneven at this time of year in Iceland - more noticeably so then anywhere else I can remember visiting. It was only a week or so after the equinox, when there would have been 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark and there were almost three months to go to the solstice when there would be hardly any dark at all but already the daylight hours had lengthened dramatically. The thing was there was a lot more day time after lunch than before it.

I woke at around 6 a.m. and it was beginning to get light, although the sun was yet to rise. It was a bit grey but seemed rather calmer than the day before. It would not get properly dark again until well after 9 p.m. meaning that there is was about 50% more daylight after midday than before it. This is probably quite a good thing for people who work outside and tourists alike, because few of us really enjoy being up at 4 a.m. but still being active at 8 p.m. doesn't seem so bad.

My eyes always take a bit longer than the rest of me to wake up and when they were functioning properly I had a look across the fjord. There's some kind of fish processing activity going on in Grundafjordur (no significant upsetting aromas, which is more than we could have said for Akranes the day before which was beset by what Julie described as "fish stench"!) but it attracts a lot of sea birds, many of which end up by the hotel. Yesterday there had been hundreds of birds, mainly Eiders, Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls feeding in dense flocks (rabbles might be more accurate) very close to the shore. There weren't so many this morning but as I watched the flock was growing bigger. They're probably a regular feature and there's no need for binoculars to get a good look at the attractive male Eiders in their breeding plumage and the Glaucous Gulls, some of which are almost pure white. However if you are planning to visit Iceland and hope to see wildlife, especiallly whales and dolphins I urge you to take binoculars. A reasonable pair can be had quite cheaply and you will almost certainly get better views with than without and perhaps more importantly you can search for them wherever there are views of the sea and might be surprised at what you find.

Before long I was starting to see black fins across the fjord and through the binoculars I could tell that there were at least four Orcas on view, closer to the head of the fjord than they'd been the day before. Views were even better through the 'scope although there wasn't much room for it next to the bed :)

Julie was up "soon" after me and it was time for breakfast (breakfast at the Framnes starts at 7 a.m.). It was similar fare to that at the Gulfoss Hotel but with no shrimp cheese and with pancakes and maple syrup as a welcome addition. Certainly good enough for a start to the day.

With the car loaded, we got into the car but didn't get very far. We drove down to the end of the road on which Hotel Framnes stands, which is as far as it's possible to go because there is only sea beyond and stopped to have a look over the defensive wall formed by piles of boulders in case one or more of the Grey Seals we'd noticed in the area last night was about but instead found a group of four Harlequin Ducks just offshore, much the closest that we'd seen so far so it was out with the binoculars and camera.

Our observations of the Orcas suggested that they were mainly keeping to the eastern side of the fjord and we had checked the map to confirm that there was a driveable, unsurfaced road there and set off, pausing for another photo (there will be more to come) of mighty Kirkjufell and noting the spectacular double waterfall not far of the road at the very head of the fjord, called Grundarfoss which looked like a possible place for a visit later. The weather was ok and felt like it could go either way but the wind, whilst still present, was much reduced from the previous day which gave us cause for optimism.

The road on the east side of the fjord passes through several small settlements and farmsteads but, frustratingly for us at least, maintains its distance from the shoreline, usually keeping at least one and more often a couple of pastures between itself and the coast. We stopped and scanned a few times for Orcas but we didn't see much. The changing scenery on both sides of the sea inlet were plenty of compensation with some towering crags and the everpresent Kirkjufell keeping the views interesting.

A side track looked as though it would get close to the water so we followed it until it became clear that it would end up in a farmyard when we turned back. This was also our first chance to get a close look at an Icelandic Sheepdog, a large species related to the Spitz and more surprisingly the Welsh Corgi. Like the horses, these are now protected by a ban on dog imports. In one farm a dog had the freedom to roam, at least withing the property's confines, and came running over to greet us with barks and a wagging tail. It was certainly an impressive specimen.

We continued a little further but the road started to deteriorate somewhat as hinted at by the map and we weren't driving a four-wheel drive vehicle so we retreated not wanting to end up with a big bill for repairs or worse than that, stuck. The weather gradually improved and by now there was a lot more sunshine around and we were ready for a bit of a walk with the wind having dropped off a lot.

The walk to Grundarfoss waterfall from the road looked straighforward, mostbeing across flat pastures to the base of the crags. We found somewhere to park (there was space for a few cars so the place probably ever gets crowded, put our boots on and set off. The walking map at the start of the track that goes over a stile and then crosses a couple of fields where numerous Icelandic Horses were grazing says 1.5 kilometres and there are other longer options. I think the distances must be for the return journey because although we did not get right up to the falls because the river crossing looked just deep enough for us to get our feet soaked it didn't feel anything like a mile. This is definitely something you should consider doing though, if you're staying in the area because the falls are very pretty indeed and with the flow being quite high because of melt-water run-off, the second, smaller fall parallel to the main drop was easily noticeable, though this might not be the case in drier period according to some photos of the falls that I have seen.

We'd wrapped up against most meteorological eventualities before setting off because there was cleary no shelter on the walk to the falls but the weather continued to improve so we were quite releived to shed our waterproofs when we got back. Our thoughts were focused on heading west to the end of the peninsular but first we set off back east to the Hargrafar Fjord in case the whales had swum around the corner.

There were no whales to be seen from the bridges or viewpoints on the fjord but again there were lots of birds with the main bridge over the fjord being the location for the largest number of Shags that we saw anywhere in Iceland as well as an inquisitive Grey (Atlantic) Seal.

Having found no whales we turned around and stopped briefly to look at the mix of large gulls, mostly Glaucous and Great Black-backed that hand about on a beach near the head of Grundafjord before moving on. We were near the pull in for Grundarfoss when Julie exclaimed "Whales! Whales! Whales!". I knew she could be talking about the principality in the United Kingdom so I stopped the car to let her get out with the camera an found somewhere safer to pull in and join her.

There were several not far off shore, perhaps seven altogether including the same large males we'd seen the afternoon before, although he was harder to see than the others, spending more time under the surface. As with the sightings before, the Orcas seemed very relaxed, spending long periods on the surface and slowly swimming back and forth providing plenty of opportunties for photographs.

We'd seen plenty of pure or near pure-white Glaucous Gulls but hadn't had many chances to get a really nice photo until I noticed a couple close to the shoreline. Julie snapped off a few shots - they were almost too white with the images being rather on the saturated side but when we looked at them we worked out what was catching their attention. One of them had caught a rather large fish. Gulls tend to be opportunist feeders and scavenger, but they will make the effort to catch their own if necessary. The bird that got this one managed to more or less swallow it whole in one gulp - you can just see the tip of its tail in the 2nd photo. It must have slowed it down a bit for the rest of the day, though. If you're wondering what's the big deal about white gulls, then go and look at some near you. If you live in a part of the world where gulls are numerous and it's not in the far north (I can't think of any all-white gulls in the far south but there might be some) then you'll see plenty of birds with lots of white on but they'll all have varying amounts of black, grey or brown as well. If you see an all white one, tell a birdwatcher :)

"Isn't it about time you had something to eat?" I hear you ask as you ponder what a busy morning we had had and it's difficult to disagree. The map showed a few villages to the west of Grundafjordur and we decide to have a look at Olafsvik because it was en route to the end of the peninsular and we liked the name. It seems obvious to us that with the incredible scenery and coastline there would be cafes in Iceland that exploit this fact and we would have liked nothing more than a cosy place with big windows from where we could admire the views over a bowl of hot soup or something more substantial. It might be because we were early in the season and nowhere much wqas open, though there were quite a few tourists about, but we didn't really see anywhere like this. After a couple of circuits around and a bit west of Olafsvik we ended up in another petrol station. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing awful about these places - in fact the fish and chips I had in this one were excellent - we would simply have been grateful for something that wasn't fast food. It's still easier to get fed in Iceland in March than it is in much of Estonia in June, though.

One other positive point arose - Julie was able to get a few photos of a lovely lenticular cloud that formed over the mountains and snowfields leading up to the glacier of Snaefellsjokull. We had a look at the road leading up to the glacier but there was a sign saying 'Impassable" that we decided to heed.

So we turned west, past another coastal village at Rif and then past Helissandur. It was somewhere around here that the weather started to worsen, with the sunshine and clouds being replaced by dense fog and winds. We decided to keep going though - who knew - it might clear up a bit.

There was a beach at Skardsdvik that looked like it might have been very pretty but was almost invisible through the fog so we kept on going, switching from paved road to dirt track. The track continued through wild and rocky terrain with a few passing places that we didn't need because no-one else was daft enough to be driving here on a day like this. At the end of the track is the western end of Snaefellsnes with two lighthouses. We took the right-hand fork and ended up at the Ondverdarnes light. There was a sign here pointing to something called "Falki". Falki is the Icelandic name for Gyr Falcon. We guessed that there wouldn't be one wating for us but the wind had dropped somewhat (it certainly wasn't sheltered here!) so we got out for a bit of a walk. 

Falki turned out to be a hole in the ground with some steps leading down to it and no explanation or interpretation? Was this some Viking burial site or a smugglers' hideaway? Subsequent research has shown that it is actually an old well, from when the site was occupied by a far, but how old, other than a vague "very old" I haven't been able to establish.  

There are very few song-birds (passerines) in Iceland as I have already noted. Moving on from Falki we walked towards the sea. The coast here is rocky but the lighthouse is only perhaps 10 metres above sea-level. We'd been told that there had been some kind of surge that had washed in all kinds of debris, including a Sperm Whale, along this part of the coast and there was evidence for this here in the form of thousands of small fish covering an extensive area. There were also some song-birds - Snow Buntings - a species that I had expected to see far more of in Iceland. There were at least three here and they were coming into their smart breeding plumage. Plenty of birds over the sea, at least for the short distance we could see, including more Harlequins.

Working back south towards the second lighthouse involves a bit of a climb and there are cliffs here that the road goes quite close to. Just before we reached the lighthouse I noticed a large raft of dark birds on the sea below and stopped to have a look. These were clearly auks. Iceland has five breeding species. Non-birders from al over the world hope to see Puffins but these entertaining and corourful little birds were not yet back on their breeding grounds. Birders, at least those from much of Europe, want to see Brunnich's Guillemots.

Thw wind was back and Julie and I chose to stay in the car to look at these auks. It was immediately apparent that most were Guillemots with a few Razorbills included. The differences between Common and Brunnich's Guillemots are mainly quite subtle, especially in poor light. There were definitely plenty of Commons there but what about the one we wanted to see? The sea was mobile with a strong swell meaning that getting a look at any single bird for more than a second or two was near enough impossible. Catching sight of the white strip on the bill and confirming that the bird was definitely not a Razorbill was really tricky so after 20 minutes or so we accepted the inevitable and agreed to get out of the car and set the 'scope up. Hopefully the car would provide enough protection from the wind for us to hold it steady and avoid being blown over the cliff-edge.

As I stood up having got out of the car I spotted a rock stack that had been invisible from a seated position. This stack had nesting birds on it and the first one I looked at through binoculars was a Brunnich's Guillemot! At least we didn't need to bother with the 'scope.

There was not much to see at the lighthouse itself, literally because it had begun to rain again and the fog had closed in so we retraced our route as far as Skardsdvik where the weather and visibility had improved sufficiently to make a stop worthwhile. There was an expanse of spotless sand below so we picked our way between the volcanic boulders to the beach.

This is often described as a "black sand" beach but I have to say that I've seen blacker. That's not a criticism. It's a very pretty beach and we had no expectations of black sand anyway. We weren't the only visitors that day. There was at least one set of human footprints and more interestingly evidence of a clawed mammal. There are virtually no wild mammals on Iceland so this was possibly an Arctic Fox. These are regular beach scavengers and one had been reported from further west on the peninsular a couple of days earlier.

We wondered if the weather we were getting had moved east along the peninsular so headed back towards Grundafjordur but more or less where the fog and rain had started when we originally came west, it ended.

As we progressed eastwards the weather got better and better and before long we were in bright sunshine with virtually no breeze. It was hard not to stop every few minutes for photographs (and we probably did). Kirkjufell got into a few more frames. The peninsular (and the country as a whole) has a lot of waterfalls and you can't get a photo of every single one in a short visit.

Hrauns are lava fields and we's noticed that there was a side road that crossed the marvellously named Berserkjahraun just east of Grundafjordur. Berserks or Beserkers where Norse warriors who worked themselves into a frenzy or rage, possibly aided by narcotic-laced foods and drinks who where fearless in battle and feared by their enemies. Presumably this extensive lave-field bears their name because of the many strange and contorted columns and spikes of rock it contains although Berserks are reputed to have lived in the area over 1000 years ago.

On a day like this it's a pleasant drive that our little hire car was easily up to but in a short distance there is little in view except the track to remind you of the modern world. It's probably very atmospheric on a gloomy day with mist drifting over the rocks and moss and many areas are still unblemished by even the faintest traces of vegetation, although the eruptions that created the hraun happened 3500-4000 years ago.

The sunshine remained glorious so we thought we'd spend some more time with the Orcas and after exiting the Berserkjahraun road we turned west for Grundafjordur and the hotel, where we set up the 'scope in more or less the same spot as the evening before, but without having to hide in the shelter of the wall. Looking over the sea defences we noticed a number of small birds in amongst the rocks at the water's edge - Purple Sandpipers, quite a sought after species around British coasts in the winter - 24 of them. The whales again performed to requirements.

We were quite late down to dinner following a fairly long and interest-filled day and we both had mushroom soup again, prepared differently from the day before but equally delicious followed by pan-fried chicken on a bed of risotto which was also jolly good. We lingered in the restaurant, chatting to two groups of North American tourists who had arrived at the hotel a couple of days before us and who were also enjoying their trips. We speculated a little bit about whether there might be any Aurora activity tonight, given that the sky had been completely clear when we had come in just before 8 p.m. but decided against tempting fate and actually going outside before it was properly dark. I had the feeling that if it didn't cloud over it had the potential to be a long night.

At almost the same time as last night the hotelier popped his head round the door to say that there was a small amount of activity starting up so we all filed out of the back door and sure enough there was a greenish smudge in a more or less north-westerly direction. As we watched it grew a little brighter and covered a larger area and then seemed to subside a little. Two of the Americans said that they had scoped out a spot down the road that should have little light pollution so we got into the cars and off we went, westwards to a rather good location overlooking the see to the west of Kirkjufell mountain.

I couldn’t risk looking at the Aurorae whilst driving but Julie kept an eye on them and confirmed that they were still visible and when we stopped the car and got out the difference was noticeable. Much more of the sky was affected and the display was much brighter here. Julie set up the camera on the tripod and started to take photos which looked like they might be quite promising on the camera screen. A long exposure (10 seconds or more) was required and we were a little concerned that the light breeze that was blowing might cause camera and blurring of the image.

I think we stood and watched from this spot for about an hour, during which time the display just kept on improving. I was surprised by how much visible activity there was. You could see movement in the lights, changes in shades and even with my poor colour vision, occasional bursts of orange. Curtains and sheets of light where seen along with spotlight beams and comet shapes. It was quite entrancing.

It was also quite cold and after a while the breeze began to be more than just an inconvenience. We all agreed that the car park at the Framnes would provide some shelter and a better place for continued viewing.

By the time we got back to the hotel the sky was so black that the small amount of light pollution form the village was not making too much difference and the aurorae where showing extremely well. Our trusty wall provided shelter from the breeze as hoped and made for a much more comfortable experience. The display went from good to better, much of the time filling half of the visible sky. We continued to watch until after 1 a.m. when we decided that if we didn’t go to be soon we might end up being up all night.

At about 1:40 I was just putting an update on Tripadvisor letting people know that the Orcas were still showing well at Grundafjordur (seeing Orcas is high on many visitor’s 'to do’ lists when they visit Iceland at this time of year) when Julie glanced out of the window and said "Come and look at this". I switched the light up and looked out. High above there was a huge circle of glowing green light and as we watched a wave of darker green swept slowly around it as if someone was stirring cream into a very dark cup of coffee. I think we both stood watching with our mouths open. We couldn’t see how it was going to get better than that so we called it a night (but left the curtains open).  

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