Iceland has long been famous for its volcanic activity and glaciers (having the biggest glacier in Europe); which is why it is called the land of ice and fire. To European birders it is also very famous for its three breeding bird species of American origin; Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrows Goldeneye and for one Arctic bird; Brunnichs Guillemot. Iceland is also famous for the occurrence of vagrants, but its situation in the North Atlantic makes it an excellent place to look for rarities coming from both North America and Europe.
Tundra ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
As Iceland is a relatively small island in the middle of the North Atlantic, it has only 73 breeding species. Of these, only 10 are passerines (including House Sparrow which breeds at only one site). On the other hand, most breeding species are very numerous and are easily seen everywhere around the country. For example, the most numerous bird in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin there being some three million pairs (one colony of 15,000 pairs is visible from the capital, Reykjavik)! However, it’s not because there are few breeding species, that the Icelandic bird list isn`t very long. To date (November 1999) no less than 351 bird species have been recorded in Iceland, an amazing total considering the small number of breeding species (21% of the total)!
Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
Birdwatching is easy from spring to autumn, as most roads are clear of snow. The ideal period for a foreign birdwatcher to visit the country is between 20th May and 15th June. During this time all breeding birds have reached the island and are very obvious as they are defending territories. Furthermore, all ducks are still in breeding plumage and are easy to see. In the autumn it is more difficult to see some specialities and the ducks are in eclipse (moulting); in addition many migrants have left the country. On the other hand its the best time to look for rarities, and 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; as many roads get closed because of bad weather and/or snow. Anyway, in winter there are only a few species around, most of these being based in the Southwest part. On a good winters’ 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 (the record is 71); most easily in the North-East (and as there is day-light all night long we can really bird for 24 hours!).
Gullfoss Waterfall ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
Birders coming here in spring time, when bird life is at its highest, will be amazed by 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 Reykjavik you can find breeding birds such as 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 except the following ones (unless you go further away than the South West of Iceland):
Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
European & Leach’s Storm-petrels: The biggest colonies 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. White-tailed Eagle: 35-40 pairs breed in the western part of Iceland and can be difficult to find. Breeding sites are kept secret. Grey/Red Phalarope: This beautiful shorebird 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. Little Auk: This alcid unfortunately no longer breeds in Iceland. Snowy Owl: Many birders coming to Iceland think they have a chance to see this owl in the highlands, but this is wrong as the Snowy Owl is only a very irregular breeder (when it breeds its only one pair). There are 10-20 records annually, both in summer and winter.
Geyser ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
Birdwatching in autumn is very different from the spring. Birds are mainly seen along the coast and by the middle of October most migrants have left the country. September-November is the period to look for rare birds, 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 10 Oct. American passerines have been noted annually in Iceland since 1968 with the exception of 1994.
Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
In November the winter starts to show its face and birding becomes both short and monotonous. As mentioned above the Southwest part of Iceland is the best area in winter with daily totals as high as 40 species. From the end of November until early February it is possible to bird for only 3-6 hours, depending on the weather. Days are a little bit shorter in the north of Iceland.
Harlequin Ducks Histrionicus histrionicus ©Vaughan Ashby Birdfinders
Beware! Birders coming to Iceland in winter must watch the weather forecast VERY closely if they are planning a trip outside the capital area as the weather can change very rapidly. During the morning the sky may be clear with no wind but a few hours later the wind could be very strong mixed with a snowstorm! Then in April the migrants start to appear again with the main wave coming between mid-April and mid-May. The last migrants to arrive are the two phalarope species.
Major Source: Fatbirder
Photo Source: Birdfinders
Map Source: Googlemaps