Everywhere except Reykjavik, on both ends of our Icelandic trip, we had sightings of the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago). This species is not to be confused with the related Wilson’s snipe, which we have in Brooklyn, and which was considered the same species until recently, making the confusion understandable.
Above each of the farms we stayed at — Langaholt, Vogafjos, Smylabjorg, and Hofdabrekka — at least one snipe, and sometimes up to six, were to be seen. At Smylabjorg, I flushed one out from right in front of me while tramping through a meadow and on the lookout for both nests and sheep droppings. The one pictured was vocalizing on a rock near our rooms in Vogafjos. He hushed himself as I approached, then returned to calling when I retreated.
Small, furiously fast fliers, the snipe were usually seen above, going back and forth across the sky, then dropping suddenly in graceful free-fall curves. But they were generally heard overhead first. As part of their courtship and territorial rituals, the males extend specially adapted feathers on the side of their tail. These look a little like oddly placed legs through binoculars. As the birds descend, the air rushing through the feathers make a haunting sound. It’s known as winnowing, a sort of dry, drumming “huhuhuhu.” But transliteration of bird sounds rarely does justice to the original (I haven’t found a good clip on-line yet: the Wilson’s is rather different). It’s a very strange, stark, and beautiful sound. It’s like the land and the sky, indeed the world, is breathing. Frankly, it took my breath away, time after time.
For me, it has become the very sound of Iceland.