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; Brünnichs 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.
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, Reykjavík)! However, its 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)!
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!).
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 Reykjavík 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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
Djúpivogur might be an interesting choice for birdwatchers because visitors can experience unspoiled nature and see most species of Icelandic birds in their natural environment. The birdlife around Djúpivogur is of great variety, as is the landscape of this area with its three fjords, Berufjordur, Hamarsfjordur and Alftafjordur. Valleys are separated by mountains, which rise steeply from the fjords. There is a wide variety of natural features around Djupivogur which play their part in supporting the the variety of diverse array of local birds and wildlife. Alftafjordur and Hamarsfjordur are important stop-overs for birds like the common eider, the common scoter and many species of ducks and waders. Up to 3.600 black-tailed godwits have been seen there at the same time. The black-tailed godwits have been studied and ringed for many years and the area is therefore, very important. It is also listed as an IBA by Birdlife International. Marsh, ponds and beaches near Djupivogur are ideal for breeding and many species can be found there. Ducks like the common shelduck, northern shoveler breed there and also birds like the slavonian grebe. Mammals such as seals and reindeer can also be seen there frequently. Some areas around Djúpivogur are internationally recognized and must be protected.
Number of Species
Number of bird species: 351
National Bird: Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus
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Icelandic Bird Guide
by Johann Oli Hilmarsson | Mal og menning | Paperback | Waterproof PVC cover | Dec 2011 | Edition: 2 | 341 pages, 700+ colour photos, colour illustrations, colour distribution maps
ISBN: 9789979332206Buy this book from NHBS.com
Guides & Tour Operators
Local birders willing to show visiting birders around their area…
Naturetrek offer an annual 9 day trip…
Isafold Travel offers tailor made bird watching tours with expert guides. We recommend May - June, as then Iceland has an immense migrant bird population during those months, and furthermore many sedentary birds are more colourful in spring and summer. However, our expert guides can help you find interesting resident birds all year long. We can either arrange round trips covering some of Iceland's most interesting areas for bird watching, or focus the trips around the species you are most interested in…
Runs annual trips to iceland…
CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.
2007 [07 July] - Hans Schick
From June 30 – July 18, 2007 I spent 18 days with my wife in the south-western part of Island. Hiking tours at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, in sanders, lava fields and mountainous areas offered good opportunities for watching the interesting Icelandic birdlife…
2006 [05 May] - Edward Rickson
This was the second organised tour to Iceland following 2005’s successful trip. Again it went very well with 74 species recorded, including excellent views of Iceland’s big four, Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Gyr Falcon and Brünnich’s Guillemot…
2009 [12 December] - Andy Jones
…We also note long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser, lots of cormorants and the ubiquitous eider ducks…
2009 [07 July] - Andy Jones
…At one point two groups of terns took flight as an Arctic Skua flew low over their nesting colony and further on we saw waders including Common Snipe, Common Redshank and Oystercatchers. As we came in sight of the sea we noted a large group of Greylag Geese, a lone Mallard and a couple of Common Eiders…
2011 [08 August] - Oscar Campbell - Iceland Ringroad
This short trip report outlines a visit to Iceland, made in early August 2011. With a birder to civilian ratio of 1 to 2, this trip was far from hardcore birding and, in fact, we spent most of our time moving from place to place and doing tourist things such as visiting glaciers and waterfalls (loads of these!), taking photographs, sitting in hot springs (including one formed from power station run-off; makes a change from creeping round the edges scoping such pools for waders!), whale-watching, botanising, horse-riding (not me…), stopping for a look or a walk anywhere that took our fancy and generally going ‘wow’ at the amazing, perpetual eye candy that Iceland is….
2013 [06 June] - Mark Hows
…Here we quickly found several Barrow’s goldeneye and lots of scaup. The famous Laxa river bridge had several harlequin ducks as well as long tailed ducks and a cracking drake barrow’s goldeneye and a plague of flies which were only bearable when the odd gust of wind dispersed them…
2013 [06 June] - Mike Watson
…We had a fantastic time, back after an eight year gap, and many birding highlights in a stunning volcanic landscape included: seven Gyrfalcons; a pair of White-tailed Eagles tending their chick; more than 120 Harlequin Ducks; 130 Barrow’s Goldeneyes; two Red and countless Red-necked Phalaropes on the delightful islet of Flatey and elsewhere; seven Long-tailed Jaegers (or Skuas) at their only breeding site in Iceland as well as Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) on their breeding cliffs…
2013 [06 June] - Andy Jones & Paul Rogers
…Other auks, Common Guillemots and Razorbills are in smaller numbers. Arctic Terns from the large colony on the outskirts of the settlement dive for fish and then try to avoid the piratical activities of several Great Skuas…
2013 [02 February] - Andy Jones
…We have great views of this special bird of Iceland. As we watch the Goldeneyes, a White-tailed Eagle flies along the river — wonderful. Heading north we see a small flock of Common Teal and a Grey Heron, a vagrant in Iceland. On a larger pool there are at least 50 Barrow’s Goldeneyes…
2013 [12 December] - Andy Jones
…We see our first Barrow’s Goldeneye, a female on the river, and then further upstream have good views of a dozen or so more. There are Red-Breasted Merganser here as well….
2014 [02 February] - Andy Jones
…On the river Sogið we see some ducks in the far distance. They’re Barrow’s Goldeneyes but are too far away to have good views. The landscape is magnificent and we can see Hekla, perhaps Iceland’s best known volcano…
2014 [02 February] - Joachim Bertrands
…Mathias quickly located two males Rock Ptarmigans in winter plumage. These snow-white beauties were very tame and could be approached to within 10 meters. Some Snow Buntings of the Icelandic subspecies ‘insulae’, were seen too. The sunset was totally different and much slower than in Belgium, but around 17h30, we couldn’t see or find anymore birds so we decided to put up our tents and spend our first night in this magical land….
2014 [12 December] - Andy Jones
...We travel to the rivers and pools of Sogið. Almost the first birds we see are some Barrow’s Goldeneyes. There are around a dozen of them in two groups. They are mostly males and we have some good, if distant, views of this special bird of Iceland. We also note Whooper Swan, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Tufted Duck and Greater Scaup. There’s a single Great Northern Diver and, as we watch the bird, a Merlin flies past us...
2015 [06 June] - Malcolm Stott
...Exquisite light greeted us this morning, illuminating the glacier where Hvanndalshnúkur stood majestic above all the other jagged peaks. Short-eared Owl, Ptarmigan, Golden Plover and drumming Snipe all added to the atmosphere on a pre-breakfast walk.
2016 [03 March] - Kieran Nixon - Southwest Iceland
Places to Stay
…we have put together three packages for birdwatching in our area. One with accomodation for 3 nights and two with accommodation for 5 nights. These tours are operating in May/June on weekly basis…
Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds
P0 Box 5069, IS-125 Reykjavik. + 354 562 0477 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds was founded in 1963. For almost 30 years the work was nearly entirely focused on saving the Icelandic White-tailed Eagle population from extinction. The key person in this endeavour was Björn Guðbrandsson, a medical doctor that devoted most of his spare time working toward this goal. Thanks to him and his co-workers the Icelandic White-tailed Eagle population was not extirpated in Iceland…
Icelandic Institute of Natural History
The Institute conducts basic and applied research on the nature of Iceland in the fields of botany, geology and zoology with emphasis in biology on taxonomy and ecology; maintains scientific specimen collections; holds data banks on Icelandic nature; assembles literature on the natural history of Iceland; operates the Icelandic Bird-Ringing Scheme, prepares distribution, vegetation and geological maps; assists in environmental impact assessments; advises on sustainable use of natural resources and landuse; and assesses the conservation value of species, habitats and ecosystems.
Lake Mývatns Research Stations
…information concerning the Lake Mývatn area.
Sigurgeirs Bird Museum
The bird museum is located on the farm Ytri-Neslönd beside Lake Myvatn. It was established following the pioneering work of Sigurgeir Stefansson who lived at the farm. Sigurgeir’s bird museum is considered the largest known private bird collection in Iceland…
The Icelandic Birding Pages
Welcome to the Icelandic Birding Page! This Icelandic site features nearly daily bird news from Iceland, and soon a variety of bird photos, including of vagrants in Iceland…
Birdlife on Iceland
For the bird - watcher Iceland has many attractions. Though, despite popular opinion, not truly Arctic, it has a fair sprinkling of birds, which come into this category. Another interesting feature is that Iceland is the westernmost outpost of a number of Old World bird species and easternmost of some New World ones. In all some 300 bird species have been seen in Iceland at one time to another, but of these only 73 have, up to recently, been nesting regularly in the country.
All counted, 241 kinds of birds are known to have visited Iceland at one time or another. Of these 72 nest regularly, 6 are common passage migrants, about 30 are regular drift migrants or winter visitors, and the rest end up here accidentally. Sea birds, waterfowl, and waders are the most common indigenous birds.
Welcome to Samkoma, meaning The Meeting Place for Icelandic & Western-Icelandic connections.
Birds of Iceland
Iceland lies in the North Atlantic just under the arctic circle. It also lies between Europe and the American continent, Greenland being relatively nearby. This has implications on the composition of birds species on Iceland…
Birds in Iceland
All counted, 241 kinds of birds are known to have visited Iceland at one time or another. Of these 72 nest regularly, 6 are common passage migrants, about 30 are regular drift migrants or winter visitors, and the rest end up here accidentally. Sea birds, waterfowl, and waders are the most common indigenous birds…
Preparing a trip to Iceland? Or have already been here? To date, 367 species of birds have been recorded in Iceland which is a remarkable feat when one considers that just 74 (or 20% of them) are regular breeders. Vagrants therefore make up the majority of the Icelandic List. You can view the list of Iceland's Birds (updated 29.03.2005) with details about their occurence here. There you can also see which species are considered by the Icelandic Rarities Committee (marked with "F"). If you have made observations of these "rare birds", and not yet reported them to the IRC (or will see some in the future) then here is a recording form for the IRC (pdf file) which you can then send to Yann Kolbeinsson - email@example.com
Natural History of Iceland
This site deals with the birds of Iceland, the plants of Iceland and the landscape of Iceland. It offers photographic guides to characteristic floral elements of Iceland, the birdlife of Iceland as well as landscape images of this remarkable island…
The Icelandic bird and nature experience… in Icelandic or English. The aim of this website is to provide information about the unique birdlife around Djúpvogur. In the region of south – east Iceland, including Djúpivogur, you can find a great variety of birds, making the district ideal for birdwatchers…
Lesser Black-backed Gulls Ringing
This project on Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus graellsii is now ongoing in Iceland. Over 1000 birds have been colour-ringed and a 1000 more will be ringed during next two summers. These birds have been seen in Europe, Africa and one recovery has been made from Puerto Rico! We encourage birdwatchers to look for these birds and report them…
Photographers & Artists
Artist - Jon Baldur Hlidberg
The illustrator of a number of books on the birds of Iceland - and he is brilliant!
Photographer - Dick Vuijk
Some excellent images with accompanying text
Gallery - Some Icelandic Bird Pictures
Photographer - Jakob Sigurdsson
Excellent bird photographs from Iceland and around the world…