Iceland is a birders' and bird-watchers' paradise
If your hobby is birding or bird watching, Iceland has a lot to offer. There are around 350 “Icelandic” bird species and about 75 of them breed in Iceland. A bird watching tour will typically yield 70-80 species in May and June, which is the best time to visit. Many species are abundant and easy to spot at this time of year. All the migrants will have arrived by this time and birds are very conspicuous, defending their territories. To European birders, Iceland is famous for its three breeding bird species of American origin: Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrows Goldeneye, and for one Arctic bird, Brünnichs Guillemot. Furthermore, all ducks are still in breeding plumage at that time and are easy to see. Bird cliffs especially attract many visitors, both general tourists and keen birders and birdwatchers.
Látrabjarg Cliffs and Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg) Cliffs is a great place to see and photograph seabirds. Latrabjarg is as far west in Europe as any man will stand on solid ground, the continent’s westernmost boundary. It is one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland, with 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. There are very few places in Iceland, if any, where the puffins are more trusting towards humans than in Latrabjarg. They seem quite unruffled by people´s presence, so much so that, if one silently approaches a perched bird and slowly reaches out, some of these wild puffins can be touched without them being startled or flushed. This trust towards humans has been developed over a long period and there is an obvious reason for it. The Latrabjarg Cliffs are not harvested – these puffins are never hunted.
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.
Other birdwatching areas in Iceland
Vestmannaeyar (the Westman Islands) – Atlantic Puffin colony
Lake Mývatn – Europe’s most diverse waterfowl habitat
Breiðafjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula
Hafnaberg on the Reykjanes peninsula
Hrísey island near Akureyri, north Iceland
Langaness peninsula in the northeast
Dyrhólaey and Ingólfshöfði in the southeast
Papey island in the east
Valahnúkur and Arnarstapi in the Highlands
Bird watching seasons
Autumn is the best time to see certain of the bird species. Birds are mainly seen along the coast and by the middle of October most migrants have left the country. The ducks are in eclipse (moulting). In addition, many migrants have left Iceland in the autumn. However, Iceland’s national bird, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) can be seen in autumn, and autumn is the best time to look for rarely seen birds. Sightings occur between September and November, with mid-September to mid-October being the best time. American waders are usually seen until early October, while the peak occurrence of American passerines is around October 10. American passerines have been noticed annually in Iceland since 1968 with the exception of 1994. After good South West winds, birders should keep their eyes open for American birds while birding in the Southwest or South of Iceland. Winter birding is more difficult and there are only a few species around, most of these being based in the Southwest part. On a good winter’s day the day list can reach 40 species (only in the South-West). On a good spring day birders can see up to 65-70 species in one day. Because there is daylight all night long, you can be bird watching for 24 hours a day.
Spring shows bird life at its highest. Birders coming to Iceland will be amazed at how common the birds are and how easy they are to find. As soon as you are out of the capital, the birds take over. Even in downtown Reykjavík you can find breeding birds such as the Arctic Tern, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Common Eider, Common Ringed Plover and many, many more. At this time of year you can count on seeing all Icelandic breeding birds, but for some species, such as the Rock Ptarmigan and the Gyrfalcon, you need to travel a bit.
The biggest colonies of European & Leach´s Storm-petrels are at the Westman Islands. These birds arrive in April and a special trip around the colonies at night (preferably after mid-June) is needed to see these species. The largest Icelandic bird and the rarest is the White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). After decades of hunting and prosecution it was protected in 1913, but by then there were only about 20 breeding pairs. Last number seen was 57 pairs which is not many, considering it has been protected for almost a century. Breeding sites of the White-tailed Eagle are kept secret and most of them breed in the western part of Iceland. The beautiful shorebird Grey/Red Phalarope has become quite rare and the Icelandic population is now only 20-40 pairs. Without knowledge of breeding sites (which are also kept secret), this bird can be almost impossible to see during this time of year. Many birders coming to Iceland think they have a chance to see Snowy Owl in the highlands, but this is wrong as the Snowy Owl is only a very irregular breeder. There are 10-20 records annually, both in summer and winter.
Flói Nature Reserve
The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has taken part in establishing and running the Floi nature reserve in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland. This is a wetland area rich in birdlife: wildfowl and waders are the most common birds in the reserve. A few pairs of Red-throated Divers and Whooper Swans also breed in the area. The Greylag Goose is a common breeder and also a passage migrant. Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Tufted Duck, Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser breed, and Gadwall and Shoveler have also been seen during the breeding season. Eider Duck (about 900 pairs) breed on the island Kaldaðarneseyjar in the Ölfusá River, a few hundred meters away from the reserve, and a few pairs also in the reserve itself. 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. Some other common waders are the Black-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe and Redshank. A few small Black-headed Gull colonies are scattered over the area. The Greater Black-backed Gull, Arctic Skua and Arctic Tern also breed. The Meadow Pipit is the only common breeding passerine. A few pairs of Redwings and White Wagtail also breed. Greenland White-fronted Goose, Greylag Goose, Snipe, Meadow Pipit, Snowy Owl, Wheatear and Redwing, among others, are common passage migrants. Few birds winter on the reserve because of the ice cover.