What are the most common birds in Iceland, and how are birds connected to Icelandic culture? What season is best for birdwatching in Iceland, and where are the prime locations for such an activity? Continue reading for all you need to know about Iceland's wealth of avian life.
A lot of travellers come to Iceland seeking its thriving birdlife. For the most part, people are excited about seeing the Atlantic Puffins that nest on the cliffs and islands, but there are many other fascinating species to be found all across the country.
About 85 species of birds nest or are at least regularly seen in Iceland, although there are about 330 species that have been recorded visiting here since Settlement. While this number of different types of bird is relatively low compared to other European countries, the number of individuals more than compensates for this.
Take, for example, the birdwatching cliffs at Látrabjarg in the Westfjords. While, in summer, only around a dozen different species nest here, there are literally millions of puffins and razorbills, meaning the sky is often thick with avian life.
It is not just coastal locations that boast such great birdwatching opportunities. Many different species can be seen in urban areas including Reykjavík, especially around the downtown pond of Tjörnin and the nature reserve at Seltjarnarnes. These include the Arctic Tern, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Common Eider, Common Ringed Plover, Whooper Swan and many, many more.
This is to say nothing of the birds found around the country's many great lakes. The northern Lake Mývatn region, in particular, is a birdwatching paradise, with over fourteen species of resident duck amongst many other species. In the highlands, moors and mountains, there is even more diversity.
This article will discuss in depth some of the most unique and popular species of bird in Iceland, and where you can find them on your travels.
No article on the birds of Iceland can really begin without a mention of the Atlantic Puffin. These adorable animals are elusive across the vast majority of their range, but not in Iceland; sixty percent of the twelve million or so individuals nest here, and from May to September, there are a wealth of places where they can be found with ease.
As mentioned above, millions nest in the Látrabjarg birdwatching cliffs in the Westfjords, yet even more can be found in the Westman Islands. They have, in fact, become the signature symbol of the archipelago, and are so common that it is a summer tradition for children to seek out and help along lost pufflings trying to reach the ocean.
While unmatched in terms of numbers here, Látrabjarg and the Westman Islands represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of different puffin-watching locations.
On the South Coast, thousands nest on the Dyrhólaey cliffs, meaning those coming to see the dramatic arch in summer are in for a pleasant surprise. Travellers to North Iceland, meanwhile, will find them in excess on the Tjörnes Peninsula, which is otherwise known for its fossil-hunting opportunities.
Puffins are also regularly seen on whale-watching tours from the three major whale-watching destinations in the country: Reykjavík, Húsavík and Akureyri. Throughout summer, it is possible to add puffin-watching components onto these activities, or even to take short trips out exclusively to find the nesting birds.
Why puffins are so popular is little wonder to any who see them. Their colourful, charming features, clumsy gait when waddling on land, and the fact that they nest in lifelong pairs make them the dictionary-definition of cuteness. The fact they have little fear of people and will let visitors approach them within mere metres only adds to their appeal.
Photo by Brian Gatwicke, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
There is a saying in Iceland that the Golden Plover brings with it the springtime. Every year a picture appears in the national newspapers of the first sighting of this colourful species, which normally happens between the 20th and 30th of March.
Considering the challenges of Iceland's winters, its arrival is always a signal of better times ahead.
This charming species of wading bird usually stays until late September, but individuals have been known to linger as long as the beginning of November. They can be found all around Iceland's freshwater bodies, such as in Lake Þingvallavatn in the south and Lake Mývatn in the north. Considering Iceland's extensive network of river systems, however, they are by no means bound to these locations.
Golden Plovers are heard as often as they are seen, and can be identified by a single chirp that they repeat. The reason they only reside in Iceland throughout the summer months is that their diet is largely worms, which they cannot reach when the ground is frozen in winter.
Perhaps the bird that is most beloved by Icelanders is the raven. There are countless poems and stories in Iceland about this species, and folk songs such as ‘Krummavísur (Krummi svaf í klettagjá)’ and ‘Krummi krunkar úti’ are known by every Icelander.
While ravens are one of the most widely spread animals on earth, in Iceland, they have a special connection with the nation's folklore. This dates back to the pagan beliefs of the Old Norse; the god Óðinn had two, Huginn and Muninn ('Thought' and 'Memory'), who would travel the world and whisper news of it to his ears.
Since then, they have been deeply associated with mysticism and knowledge.
It is still said that if a raven allows you to stroke its feathers, that it will whisper to you a secret of your future. A raven behaving noisily on a rooftop is supposed to be a warning of someone drowning, and one flying directly overhead warns of death or promises prosperity, depending on its direction.
Being such an adaptable animal, ravens can be found all around Iceland. While the arrival of the Golden Plover to the wetlands and moors signals the arrival of spring, however, the movement of the ravens to towns and cities signals the beginning of winter.
Photo by Alpsdake, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
The most known thing about the Common Snipe in Iceland is not its looks, but the sounds it makes. During courtship, the male performs a 'winnowing' display by flying high in circles and taking shallow dives. This produces a drumming sound through the vibrating of the bird’s tail feathers, which many Icelanders have come to identify with summer.
This drumming sound is quite unique and has been compared to the bleating of a farm animal; in many languages, therefore, the Snipe is known by names such as the ‘Flying Goat’. In Icelandic, the sound has been compared more to neighing, and thus its Icelandic name - Hrossagaukur - translates to ‘Horse Cuckoo’.
Like other waders, the snipe prefers wetlands where insects and worms are plentiful. While the draining and agricultural development of these areas in places such as England have depleted their numbers, Iceland's amount of untouched nature means they are still numerous here, throughout its lowland regions.
Arctic Terns are fascinating birds. The individuals that nest here have the second-longest migration route of any animal in the world, travelling up to 80,000 kilometres every year on a round trip from Iceland to Antarctica. They are beaten only by their counterparts that nest in the Netherlands, whose route covers around 90,000 kilometres.
The average Arctic Tern will, in its lifetime, travel a distance that could take it to the moon and back three times, and as a species, it sees more sunlight than any other animal.
Throughout summer, they are thus abundant in coastal areas. Unlike birds such as puffins, they will not necessarily nest in cliffs, but often in simple burrows on flat ground. The reason for this is that their eggs do not need natural defences considering the fierceness with which both parents protect them.
The dive-bombing tactics of Arctic Terns are well-known in Iceland. Stray too close to a colony, and a scene that would seem fit for Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' tends to play out. As one, all the nesting birds will rise into the air, and unless you make a sharp exit from their eggs and young, they will proceed to swoop upon your head, talons open.
While they can do little more than give you a good scratch, the tactic works well as a deterrent for any getting too close. In places such as Greenland, it has been seen working even on polar bears.
Arctic terns nest all around the coast of Iceland, and have high populations in the southwest, including by Reykjavík city, particularly around Grótta lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula. There is also a notorious nesting ground at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, which many visitors inadvertently overlook, to their own peril.
The Rock Ptarmigan, unlike most others on this list, is a bird that lives in Iceland throughout the year. A rather sedentary species, it prefers walking to flying and thus relies on its seasonal camouflage for protection; in the summertime its feathers are brown but they turn white come winter.
The Ptarmigan is most relevant to Icelandic culture as very popular festive food, often served as the main dish on Christmas Eve. Hunting was banned in 2003-2004 but has been allowed since 2005 for only a few days each year and only for personal consumption; all trade in the ptarmigan is banned.
With their main foods being berries, seeds, buds and insects, they are most often found in vegetated scrubland, and prefer higher elevations to many other Icelandic birds. They are most commonly found in areas where they are protected, as they have little fear of people here and often will approach travellers. Particular areas of note are the Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Hrísey Island in the North.
Photo by Christels
Rock ptarmigans are not just a festive meal for Icelanders; they also are the main food for Snowy Owls. These beautiful birds of prey are one of the nation’s most elusive animals, only being seen five to ten times a year, but one of the most rewarding for birdwatchers to catch sight of.
The reasons for their rarity are manyfold; they do not breed here, and due to the lack of rodents, it is hardly a prime feeding ground for them. Furthermore, their excellent camouflage against the snow, their silent method of flight, and the fact that they are most numerous in the dark months of the winter simply makes them difficult to spot.
When they are found, it tends to be in cold, remote reaches, such as in the East Fjords and the Highlands. This contrasts with the only other owl found in Iceland; their Short-Eared cousins prefer low-lying regions and valleys, such as the fjords of the North.
Photo by Ómar Runólfsson, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
Tourism may imply that the national bird of Iceland is the puffin, folklore may imply that it is the raven, yet in truth, it is the Gyrfalcon.
Gyrfalcons are apex predators of the sky, having been used in falconry for centuries. Found across the Arctic region, Icelandic gyrfalcons are the most unique of the world’s populations, with a light, uniform plumage and a reputation for precision hunting. For this reason, they were an important part of Icelandic trade with wealthy Europeans as far back as the medieval era, being one of the country’s most prized exports.
Like the Snowy Owl, they feed largely on ptarmigans, but are not beneath taking other birds; they're able to take prey from the sky as easily as they can pluck it off the ground. They have been much more successful in Iceland than the owls, with a larger wild population, although still are not numerous; there are thought to be only about 400 breeding pairs.
Due to the fact they nest in cliff faces, they are found most often in the Highlands, East Fjords, Westfjords, and mountainous parts of the North. In particular, they nest around Jökulsárgljúfur in the northern Vatnajökull National Park, a canyon that holds the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss.
Photo by Andreas Weith, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
With a wingspan that can reach two and a half metres, White-Tailed Eagles are the largest bird in Iceland, and no doubt one of the nation’s most impressive. Also called Sea Eagles, they are a coastal species that prey on fish, other birds, Iceland’s rodents and even, to the annoyance of farmers, lambs.
White-Tailed Eagles are a great example of successful conservation efforts. Across Europe, they faced extinction in the late 19th Century, but protective measures on their lives and habitats slowed and finally reversed this decline in the following decades. In Iceland, they went from just a few breeding pairs before 1980 to over seventy today.
While this work needs to be maintained for a full recovery to occur, Icelanders are active in promoting this animals’ interests. There is a White-Tailed Eagle Centre in the Westfjords, for example, that discusses the conservation of the species with visitors.
Those seeking White-Tailed Eagles should look to the coastal regions of the West (including the Westfjords). It is not uncommon to see them even on boat tours from Reykjavík, particularly around Hvalfjörður.
Photo by Avenue, from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.
The Northern Fulmar are amongst the most numerous birds in Iceland. Though they greatly resemble seagulls, they can be differentiated by their thicker necks, shorter bills and rigid wings when in flight. They have two morphs, with one being largely white with grey accents on the wings and tail and the other being more uniformly grey.
In summer, there are up to two million breeding pairs of Northern Fulmar, although in winter, unlike most of the other birds found in Iceland, this number actually increases to up to five million. They nest here in higher numbers than anywhere else in the world. However, the number of breeding pairs in Iceland is declining, defying trends across the rest of their range.
Photo by Ashafi
Northern Fulmar can still be found around the country, numerous in popular birdwatching locations such as Látrabjarg in the Westfjords and Krýsuvíkurbjarg on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Like seagulls, they have also adjusted well to urban areas, and can be found in towns and cities, often even nesting on rooftops; although renowned for their dramatic dives when hunting for ocean-based prey, many of them have noted that an easier ‘catch’ can be found in human garbage.
Like a few other notable seabirds, such as the albatross and storm petrel, the Northern Fulmar produces a high energy stomach oil that can be used to refuel during a long flight, feed chicks, and to spray from the beak at predators. The smell of this oil is pungent and incredibly difficult to remove, and so thick that it can clog the feathers of larger birds, leading to their deaths.
Photo by Marek Ślusarczyk, from WIki Creative Commons. No edits made.
Whimbrels are classic waders, or ‘shorebirds’ in North American terminology, with their long, thin legs and beaks. Forty percent of breeding pairs nest in Iceland throughout summer, with around half-a-million individuals, though they largely winter on the sunny coastlines of West Africa.
Iceland’s landscapes, particularly in the south, perfectly suit the lifestyle and habits of Whimbrels. They tend to nest in flat moorland or tundra with low-lying vegetation away from human settlements (which is the landscape across much of the country), and feed along coastlines and wetlands (considering Iceland is an island with many glaciers and river systems, feeding grounds are also abundant).
The biggest problem for Whimbrels in Iceland are its volcanic eruptions, the ash from which kills en masse the invertebrates on which they largely feed. Although their eggs, laid in relatively open land, are also vulnerable to predation by Artic Foxes, Whimbrels will defend them with the ferocity of Arctic Terns; they have also been known to divebomb people who get too close, in spite of their reclusive nature.
What is your favourite bird in Iceland? How was your puffin watching experience? Are there any birds we missed? Let us know in the comment section below!