The abundance and accessibility of birdlife in Iceland makes Iceland a birder's paradise
The fact that Iceland lies in the North Atlantic just under the Arctic Circle, between Europe and the American continent, as well as its vicinity to Greenland, has implications for the diversity of bird species in Iceland. Due to its geographical position, Iceland is famous for the occurrence of vagrants, and its location in the North Atlantic makes it an excellent place to look for rarely seen birds coming from both North America and Europe.
Two other characteristic elements also play a big role with regard to bird life in Iceland. Firstly, the Iceland lowlands have exceptionally mild winters given their northern latitude. This leads to hosting very unlikely winter visitors, such as the common European Grey Heron from Norway. Secondly, there are hardly any (real) trees in Iceland and summers are cool. These are unfavourable elements for many passerines. However, Iceland has a long coastline, providing both breeders of low coastal regions and cliff breeding birds with ample space for breeding.
The most sought after species by birders and birdwatchers visiting Iceland are the Icelandic Gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world, the Red-necked Phalarope and the Puffin. All can easily be found with some experience or local guiding. Bird watching in Iceland is a richly rewarding experience for everyone who enjoys nature.
Bird species seen in Iceland
Although Iceland is Europe´s second largest island it has only 75 breeding species. Most breeding species are very numerous, though, and are easily seen everywhere around Iceland. For example, the most numerous bird in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin, there being some three to four million pairs. In a colony just outside Reykjavik there are more than 20,000 pairs. The Icelandic bird list isn´t very long, but over 350 bird species have been recorded in Iceland, an amazing total considering the small number of breeding species.
Common on the cliffs of Iceland are the auks, species belonging to the same Alcidae family of seabirds as the puffins. The steep perpendicular cliffs are used mostly by the common guillemots (Uria aalge) and the closely related Brünnich's guillemot (Uria lomvia) which is a more northern close relative of the common guillemot. On higher parts of the cliffs the Razorbill (Alca torda) is more common. The popular Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed in self dug hollows on the edge of the rocks and grass turfs. Since they stay close to the edge and near their burrows, tourists can approach them easily. The Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle), is also common in Iceland, especially in the Breiðafjörður (Breidafjordur) area. It breeds in rock hollows of lower coast lines.
Other birds are also typical for the cliffs. These are the kittiwakes (Rissa tridactylla) and the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Kittywakes breed only on cliffs at the sea shore while fulmars can also be found much further inland and also on high mountain slopes along the coast. Fulmars resemble gulls but are in fact member of the Petrel family. Shags (Phalocrocorax aristotelis) and Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) are also cliff breeding birds. Shags are more common in the western region (Snaefellsnes and Breidafjordur) while gannets frequent the south-western coasts of Iceland. Iceland’s national bird, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) habitually nests on cliff faces. This magnificent bird breeds in all parts of Iceland but is commonest in the north. The Falcon is most noticeable in autumn and is a great favourite with bird watchers.
Bird watching locations in Iceland
There are many places where one can visit these cliffs. Well known are the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the Breidafjordur area. The Breidafjordur is also famous for the sea eagle, also known as the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). By far the most famous place to visit cliff breeding birds is the Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg) Cliffs, located on the westernmost tip of the Vestfirðir (Westfjords) district. Other places of interest are the Grímsey (Grimsey) Island on the Arctic Circle north of mainland Iceland and, in the south, Ingólfshöfði (Ingolfshofdi) Cape and Dyrholaey. A special feature is Lake Mývatn (Myvatn) in northern Iceland where an exceptional number of duck species and other waterfowl breed.
The sheer abundance and accessibility of birdlife in Iceland makes it an ideal destination for birding and bird watching. A detailed description, specifying the types of birds you can see in and around Iceland through different seasons is provided on our Bird Watching page.
You will all have a tale to tell from your visit to Latrabjarg Cliffs. It's a great place to see and photograph seabirds as the Arctic sun bounces on the horizon at midnight. Latrabjarg is as far west in Europe as any man will stand on solid ground, the continent’s westernmost boundary. It's one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland, the other two being Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg (Haelavikurbjarg) in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Latrabjarg is by far the easiest of the three to visit as a road leads practically to the cliffs’ edge and from the parking lot a walking path traverses the edge. In summer it is a popular tourist destination and the main attraction is the Puffin. In few places in Iceland, if any, are the puffins more trusting towards humans. For a few months every year, this massive 440 metre high and 14 kilometre long cliff becomes alive with the nesting activity of millions of seabirds. The seabird colonies at Latrabjarg are enormous, and they include the world’s largest known Razorbill colony at Stórurð (Storurd), ‘The Giant Boulders’, scree beneath the cliff. The puffins seen by their burrows at the cliff’s edge are not the most numerous species, but they are arguably the most noticeable. Other auks that breed at Latrabjarg are Razorbills, Common Guillemot and the Brünnich Guillemot, a high Arctic species that is at its southern breeding limit in Iceland, and one of the target birds for any serious birder and birdwatcher visiting the country.
The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has taken part in establishing and running a nature reserve in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland, the Flói Nature Reserve. This is a wetland area rich in birdlife, Wildfowl and Waders being the most common birds in the reserve. The most common wader is the Dunlin, over 80 pairs/km. This is the highest breeding density ever to be reported for this species in Iceland.