The Birds and Amazing Geology of Iceland

As I walked down the stairs of my Icelandair flight onto the tarmac at the Keflavik International Airport and looked around, the terrain reminded me of the tundra on the north coast of Alaska. Unfortunately, my seat mates kept their window shade down during the trip and only raised it as we were coming in for a landing, so I missed the aerial view.  I would quickly learn that the geography of Iceland is more than tundra.

Icelandair offers trans-Atlantic passengers the opportunity of having a stop-over in Iceland for up to seven days at no additional fare. Since the main point of my journey was to show my son and granddaughter Scotland and then visit relatives in England, I was only able to stop over for 2 nights.

After clearing customs and retrieving my suitcase, I made my way to the FlyBus location and was glad I had purchased my ticket from the flight attendant before landing. After loading luggage from other arriving passengers, the bus was soon on its way towards Reykjavik. Hafnarfjörður, the suburb where my hotel was located was the first stop and I retrieved my suitcase from under the bus and then made my way across the street to my home for the next two nights – The Viking Hotel.

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Viking Hotel

Even though I hadn’t slept much on my overnight flight from Denver, I was anxious to walk around and explore.

While Hafnarfjörður is Iceland’s third largest city, it only has a population of just under 30,000 and is very walkable and friendly.

“Where can I get some lunch?” I asked the front desk clerk.

“There’s a Subway just two blocks down the street,” she walked with me outside and pointed.

“I am NOT going to eat in Subway. I’m in Iceland, I want to eat in a local restaurant,” I laughed.

She then told me of other options a little further on.

Everything I had read about visiting Iceland touted the fact that everyone spoke English – which is true. What the information didn’t say was all of the written information was in Icelandic. I was grateful to find an order-at-the-counter restaurants with items on display and those universal symbols for such necessities as the restroom!

I saw a crowd gathered near the front door of what looked like a restaurant next to the Subway, but couldn’t read the signs. I decided it was a popular place and waited with them until it opened at noon. As I saw the others walk towards the counter, I realized that it was only an ice cream shop! I continued my search finding a sandwich shop and bakery in a small mall.

After lunch I decided to take the path that follows the edge of the harbor. I stopped at the edge of a crosswalk to wait for oncoming traffic to pass – and was astounded when cars stopped and waited for me to cross. This was not an exception – it happened every time!

The path led past apartment towers,

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unique pool between two apartment blocks

then turned and skirted the edge of the harbor.

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When I spotted a Common Eider drake, I set my backpack down and took out my camera.

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Common Eider

A little further on I spotted the female,

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Common Eider female

as well as a juvenile hovering near the shore.

There were lots of gulls – Black-headed, Greater Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed.

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I watched Arctic Terns as they hovered over the bay and then swooped down to catch a small fish.

Meadow Pipits chattered as they flew across the rocky shore. An Iceland poppy was a bright spot along the path.

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Iceland Poppy

I stopped to gaze at the view of Hafnarfjörðu before heading back.

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By mid-afternoon, the path had attracted lots of friendly, local walkers.

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Back at the hotel I learned that the hotel also owned the adjacent Viking Village and restaurant, Fjörukráin, where I had dinner. The restaurant is a favorite spot for tour groups – and menu was in English.

Both the hotel and restaurant are adorned with Viking-themed decorations

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and roof ornaments.

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When the waiter seated me for dinner, three women at an adjacent table asked if I wanted to join them. Since traveling is about meeting new people, I accepted their offer. Long-time friends who live on the east coast of the U.S, they have been visiting Iceland together for several years. They were fun dinner companions.

During dinner we were entertained by an Icelandic folk singer.

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Icelandic folk singer entertaining diners

It was a wonderful start to my short visit.

When deciding how to spend my one full day in Iceland, I thought about hiring a birding guide, but when I looked at the common summer species, e.g. Atlantic Puffins, Auks and Gannets, I realized they were all species I had seen in other locations. I really wanted to see and learn about Iceland’s varied geology. Most friends were amazed that I was not going to visit the famous Blue Lagoon, but exploring the out-of-doors is more important to me than soaking in a hot springs.

The next day I took a taxi to the Bus Terminal in Reykjavik to meet my all-day small group tour of the south part of Iceland referred to as the golden circle. All of the information I researched before my trip suggested that I would not need cash – that cards were used for everything. Nothing talked about what type of card.

There was a cost to use the restroom. Of course, I did not have any coins, but decided it would be prudent to use my credit card for the equivalent of a $1 access (approximately 125 Krona) to use the bathroom. The credit card didn’t work and the clerks working at the tour counter didn’t have any advice. Then I noticed the wireless symbol. Fortunately, my new ATM had wireless capabilities!

After heading out of Reykjavik, our tour leader turned off the highway and drove us through an area he called a ‘red zone’ where geothermal power is harnessed from the heat spewing from the ground.

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‘Red Zone’

It is captured and piped to towns for their heating. “Hot water is much cheaper than cold water,” our guide explained. It is also used to generate electricity.

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pipes used to transport hot water 

Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice.” The ice refers to the many glaciers and fire from the volcanic and geothermal energy caused by its location on the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

I remembered a sign in my hotel room explaining that water from the hot water faucet came from a natural hot springs and would have an aroma of Sulphur but was perfectly safe to drink.

Our first stop was at the Kerid Crater just pass Selfoss. The crater is the result of a collapsed magma chamber at the end of a volcanic eruption more than 6,000 years ago. The aquamarine water in the bottom of the crater providing a striking contrast with the red soil is from the water table, not rain water.

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Kerid Crater

There is a trail around the rim, but since I didn’t bring my trekking poles with me and it appeared to have loose volcanic gravel, I only viewed the crater and surrounding area from the car park side.

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hikers on rim trail

Our next stop was the Geysir Hot Spring area, which reminded me a lot of Yellowstone with its bubbling mud pots, small spouting geysers and Strokkur, a geyser that spouts about 100 feet into the air like “Old Faithful” – but every few minutes. While the others in the tour followed our guide into geyser field, I walked down the road to the Visitor Center to use the facilities. Walking back to find the group, I did not tarry to take photos, but did have the opportunity to view Strokkur several times.

Our lunch stop was at Gulfoss, which means Golden Falls. It is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions and the car park was lined with large tour buses.

Lunch could wait – I wanted to see the falls. I followed the crowd and headed out on a trail where I could see the top of the falls as the Hvítá River (White River) approaches the cliffs stair step fashion in three stages. It has been labeled one of the world’s top 10 waterfalls.  The view was breath-taking. It is a unique view since most waterfalls are viewed from the bottom.

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Gulfoss

Then I circled back and walked down a series of stairs to reach an area adjacent to the bottom of the falls rather than walking down the dirt path visible in the photo above. After trudging back up the stairs (the stair counter on my steps app that day registered the equivalent of 22 floors!), I grabbed a quick lunch before returning to the tour van.

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Our next stop was at the Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thingvellir means ‘assembly fields’ and is the location where Iceland’s democratic parliament, one of the first in the world, was formed in 930 AD after negotiating a way to reconcile Christian and pagan belief systems.

The tour guide drove through an area that had small lakes and is a popular snorkeling spot. “The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates actually meet at this location,” our guide told us. “The water is very clear and many people like to snorkel in a fissure where snorkelers can actually float between the two plates.”

“Those are Pink-footed Geese,” our guide pointed to a large group of geese, but unfortunately did not stop the van, moving on to a parking lot.

“I am going to let you out here,” he told the group. You can walk along the trail across the valley that leads between the tectonic plates and then up the hill to the Visitor Center. I will be waiting for you there. Everyone filed off the bus – except me.

“Jet lag has caught up with me,” I told him. “I am not up to walking up the hill.”

From the area near the Visitor Center I could view the spectacular valley below,

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and end of the trail leading to the top.

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As I was walking into the Visitor Center, a White Wagtail trotted nearby – and as its name suggests, constantly wagged its tail.

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White Wagtail

Our last stop before returning to Reykjavik was another geothermal area viewed from high in the tundra with an amazing view of the terrain from both directions.

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tundra view

Before dropping most of the passengers off near their hotels and taking me back to the bus terminal, our guide drove into a car park near the bay. “I wanted you to see Hofdi House,” he told us. “It is the location where the 1986 summit meeting of presidents Reagan and Gorbachev occurred, a historical event that marked the end of the Cold War.”

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Hofdi House, Reykjavik

While eating dinner back at the Fjörukráin, I pondered the diverse geology I had seen that day.

While my visit was brief and only touched the tip of the proverbial ‘iceberg’ of Iceland, I was able to experience some wonderful birds and amazing geologic sites in my day and a half.

 

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