First Stop - Puffins!
The poor gentleman who runs this trip - I emailed him several times trying to 'reserve' a spot on the trip and then trying to change the 'reservation' and he kept telling me that there is always room to join. He was right, but by the time we got there he also knew my name an I got the "Ah- Your'e Cori!". The trip runs two times a day in the summer and everyone piles in a hay wagon pulled behind a tractor. I was thinking hay wagon like a little one for a hay ride that fits 20 people, but this was a serious hay wagon. He said if it filled up he had a second one his son would drive. I felt a little silly having tried to make a 'reservation' but the last time we came to Iceland we did not see a single puffin and I wanted to turn that sad failure around on this visit.
The tour meets at the end of a gravel road at an A-frame bathroom and a hut that is the retail area. We bought our tickets and waited for the rest of the people to arrive. It ended up being just a small group from France and ourselves. The ride was bumpy as heck and most of my photos came out with horizons at around 30% off the center. And they all looked the same - black sand on every side. Once we crossed the sand, we had a black dune to hike up to get to the top of the cliffs. You want to be sure that you can do this if you do this trip. It was not that bad, and we stopped part way up where we were told some facts about the area. This area had been farms and a 'regular' beach until a volcano erupted and wiped all of that out.
The first birds we came across were the Brown Skua. We had to watch our step to avoid stepping on eggs or babies. Parents made it known if you were close to their offspring, but both babies and eggs can be shorter than the grass and hard to see. We saw them at several stages of 'infancy' starting with eggs, to new hatchlings who could not walk yet, to young babies that could run around in the grass.
Adult skua soared overhead and would land very close. The opportunity for photographs was abundant. I had just spent some cash on a new zoom lens for this trip and I was very pleased with both the opportunity and the quality of the photos. When it came to the infants who we should not get too close and I could zoom right in to the birds soaring overhead and off the cliffs. The photos look like I was right there and they also picked up details I could not see with my own eye.
We walked single file along the trail and stop where we could look down at birds on the cliffs. The guide brought a really nice scope that we could use to see the birds up close. He was especially helpful to use because he knew we were looking specifically for puffins and showed a few spots were I could aim my camera to get a better look. While I did that he spotted different types of Guillemot which I was told we call Murre in the United States, but I was not familiar with that second word and think they are Guillemot as well. I did google this when I got home and he is right - they are also called Murre. We also saw razorbills, which look a lot like the Guillemot but have a white stripe down their beak. These two birds come form the same family (Auks) as puffins. They all seemed to be happy living right next to their cousins on the ledges and it took a careful eye to distinguish some from the others.
On the walk back we watched several more skua fly overhead and saw some of their babies running around in the grass. With the ocean to our back we were now facing the snow capped mountains. In every direction, the scenery was beautiful. I could do this trip again and again. Maybe the next time puffins would be walking around on top of the cliff like they do on cooler days. The trip lasted for less than three hours, but it was a beautiful walk and we felt like it had lasted longer. It was incredibly relaxing to be up there and to look a the birds and see the babies running around. A very peaceful and very special place on Earth.
We found out about this trip when our hotel (the Fosshotel Vatnajokull) sent us an email a week before we checked in. It mentioned a few things to do in the area and one was this trip. It has a link to this website. Just a note that you do not need reservations - you just show up and all will be well. We had originally booked the hotel to hike at Vatanjokull National Park, and it was an added bonus to find out about these cliffs. I found that on the day we went to the bird cliffs we were able to fit in a visit to the floating icebergs at Jokulsarlon as well as check in to our hotel and head over to the park to gather information for hiking on the next day. Since it was summer and the sun did not set, we also did a hike that evening.