Learning to “catch and release,” the birder’s way*
I vividly remember the moment I met with friends after lockdown. Everyone was sharing their pandemic hobbies and, as you can imagine, there was a lot of sourdough and banana bread baked over those months. One friend, however, proclaimed her newfound passion for birdwatching. She mentioned an app where you can track the birds you see. It sounded like a perfect hobby — learning something new, experiencing a sense of achievement when spotting a new bird and spending time in nature (although, as I’d soon discover, that’s not entirely necessary).
Fuelled by curiosity to learn more about birds and how to spot them without travelling too far outside the city, I sought out avid birdwatcher and bird photographer Sigurjón Einarsson.
“In the beginning, I went out and just photographed birds. Today, I usually go out because I have a photo in my mind.”
After bouncing each other a few emails, Sigurjón and I agree to meet at a gas station outside Reykjavík. It’s not hard to spot Sigurjón — you immediately notice a pair of binoculars on his windshield. We follow his car for half an hour to the Flói Nature Reserve. A couple of times, the lead car would stop and we’d spy a giant lens poke out the window, eliciting a slight jealousy from the Grapevine’s lesser-equipped staff photographer — bird paparazzo Sigurjón snaps a few shots before I can blink. As we arrive at our destination he jokes: “I have to travel a lot all over Iceland for work and this one is always with me,” he points at his camera. “Sometimes my wife comes with me, so she has to sit in the back — this one has the front seat.”
“Do you need such a big camera to go birdwatching?” I ask, wondering if I could even lift that thing. Sigurjón reassures me that you don’t really need a camera or, in fact, leave the city.
His passion goes back to childhood, when he was spending time with his grandparents on a small island in Breiðafjörður. “I always liked birds and I was always interested in photography, even though I didn’t practise it before the digital technology came along,” he shares. “It somehow clicked together and I started doing more of both. Some people say I’m crazy,” he cracks up with laughter. “I think it’s one of the best types of craziness you can have.”
Sigurjón has a day job with the Soil Conservation Service that allows him to take time off whenever he needs to chase birds. He recalls a time when a bird he was long pining for was spotted in a village not far from where we are now. Sigurjón didn’t think long, jumped in his car and drove all the way from Hvanneyri, more than an hour and a half away. “I went there, saw the bird and drove back home again. In two hours, I was down here and back home and kept on working.”
How to small talk with a birdwatcher?
As we walk through a small forest, created and taken care of by the Forestry Association of Eyrarbakki, Sigurjón keeps asking me if I know this or that bird. Admittedly not knowing any, I try to ease awkwardness with a small talk.
“Do we have mandarin ducks in Iceland?” I ask, explaining they are my favourite bird. Expecting a response in the negative, I’m soon surprised. “Right now we do,” Sigurjón says. “You don’t see them all the time. They don’t breed here. There are two of them in Vík — two males, very colourful and beautiful.” In my mind, I’m already planning a visit to these beauties. “I remember in 2017 there were two of them in Húsavík, so I drove from Akranes all the way to Húsavík to see them,” Sigurjón continues. His dedication doesn’t cease to amaze me.
“It’s probably like going hunting for hunters,” he says. “But the reward for the hunter is to shoot the bird. I have nothing against hunters, but this makes me more happy — just to go see the bird and take photos of it. We can say ‘catch and release’ when we’re photographing — I can shoot the same bird again and again.”
We continue on our way and the vibrant sound of birdsong amplifies. I am surprised again, as I realise it’s not the birds moving nearer to us, but Sigurjón trying to lure them. “Sometimes I play their songs, I try to get them closer to me,” he says, showing me an app that plays select bird sounds. Nothing is flocking to our sound today. “It’s probably because of the weather, it was very cold yesterday and the day before,” Sigurjón explains.
As we stop at the wetlands, it becomes more and more clear Sigurjón is no amateur. “This is my floating hide,” he says, producing a piece of equipment I’ve never seen before from his trunk — it’s a portable camouflage tent that allows you to blend in with the surroundings and approach the birds without disturbing them. Naturally, I want to see it at work and Sigurjón obliges — with a woolen base layer hand knitted by his wife and waterproof overalls, he’s fully prepared, unlike me. “Do you have other shoes?” Sigurjón asks and, as I shake my head, he says he can just carry me closer to the shore. “Should we do it the viking wife way?”
On the water, the floating hide looks even more bizarre — one needs to submerge themself entirely, simultaneously trying not to disturb the water or cause any noise. There’s a bird nesting nearby, so Sigurjón only stays in the water for a few shots. On many occasions he has spent about six hours in his hide position. “In the beginning, I went out and just photographed birds. If I could get any photo, I was happy. Today, I usually go out because I have a photo in my mind. I spend more time waiting for that moment.”
How can an urban dweller, like myself, get started in birdwatching?
“Buy decent binoculars and go to some easy place, like the local pond or local forest. That’s a good beginning,” says Sigurjón.
After some time, you’ll learn how birds act around you and may be able to approach them. “If you see that the bird is stressed, move away a little bit,” the expert cautions. “This white bird here,” he loses his own train of thought as a bird flies past. “This is the Arctic tern — it has the longest migration of all animals on this planet, it goes from pole to pole twice every year. They’re only 125 grams.”
Sigurjón returns to the previous topic and adds: “If you scare a bird off the nest, predators around are quick to come and steal the eggs. If it is cold, like now, the eggs can easily cool down quickly and kill the babies inside. Always think of the benefit for the bird, not yourself.”
Starting my own bird count
There are 75 bird species that breed in Iceland and Sigurjón has seen around 265. While he might not be fully satisfied with today’s “catch,” I have had the pleasure of witnessing an array of species: a golden plover, Arctic tern, black-tailed godwit, red-necked phalarope, red-throated loon, raven, whooper swan, black-headed gull, meadow pipit, white wagtail, greylag goose, redwing and snipe. And even though you won’t see me in a floating hide anytime soon, I’m already looking for “kíkir” (binoculars). Nature is amazing!
Check out Sigurjón’s bird photography on Instagram: @sigurjoneinars
To learn more about birds in Iceland or find birdwatching companions, join Fuglar á Íslandi – Birds in Iceland on Facebook
*No birds were harmed in the making of this article
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!