Iceland

Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus ©Jens Eriksen Website
Birding Iceland

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.

Top Sites
  • Djupivogur

    Satellite View
    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.
Contributors
  • Yann Kolbeinsson

    | yannk@hi.is

  • Kristjan Ingimarsson

    Djupivogur | kristjan@djupivogur.is

    http://www.birds.is
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 370

    As at July 2018 (although only around 85 species nest)

    National Bird: Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus

Checklist

  • iGoTerra Checklist

    iGoTerra Checklist
    Fatbirder Associate iGoTerra offers the most comprehensive and up to date birds lists on the web
Useful Reading

  • Birdwatching in Iceland

    By Helgi Gudmundsson &, Jon Baldur Hlídberg | Iceland Nature Guides | 2001 | Hardback | 64 pages, b/w illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9979929618 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • 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: 9789979332206 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Museums & Universities
  • Sigurgeirs Bird Museum

    Website
    The bird museum is located on the farm Ytri-Nesl
Organisations
  • Fuglavernd BirdLife Iceland

    Website
    Birds rely on finding food, water and finding suitable places for roosting and nesting. Human activities often threaten these requirements and put bird areas and habitats in danger. Fuglavernd's mission is the protection of birds and their habitats.
  • Icelandic Institute of Natural History

    Website
    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 M

    Website
  • The Icelandic Nature Conservation Association

    Website
Reserves

Abbreviations Key

  • NR Heidmörk

    InformationSatellite View
    Situated on the south-east outskirts of Reykjavík city is Heiðmörk - a wonderful recreational area with many trails leading through a vast expanse of bushy vegetation and lava formations. More than four million trees have been planted there since 1950 and the already existing vegetation has thrived since the area was fenced off. The most prominent of the 26 species of trees planted is the Sitka spruce. Those fascinated by the more feathery residents of Reykjavík will be pleased to discover that 30 species of breeding birds are frequently spotted in the area.
  • NR Hornstrandir

    WebpageSatellite View
    Hornstrandir is a nature reserve located in the Westfjords, in the North West of Iceland. It is home to Iceland’s only native mammal, the cheeky, yet elusive, Arctic Fox, who preys upon the birds nesting along Hornstrandir’s towering cliff-faces. There is a hunting ban across Hornstrandir, meaning the fox populations are free to live without the threat of human intrusion. As for birdlife, enthusiasts can spot nesting Arctic Terns, Puffins and Black Guillemots. The region has the two of the largest bird cliffs in Europe, overshadowing the coastal paradise that is Hornvík Bay.
  • NR Hveravellir

    WebsiteSatellite View
    Nested by the highland route Kjalvegur connecting the north and the south,between the two big glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull, Hveravellir Nature Reserve is one of the last great wilderness areas of Europe.
  • National Parks Iceland

    WebsiteSatellite View
    Annotated list
  • Wetlands

    WebsiteSatellite View
    The convention entered into force in Iceland on 2 April 1978. Iceland currently has 6 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), with a surface area of 128,666 hectares.
Guides & Tour Operators


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  • Isafold

    Tour Operator
    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…
Trip Reports


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  • 2011 [08 August] - Oscar Campbell - Iceland Ringroad

    Report
    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

    Report PDF
    …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…
  • 2014 [02 February] - Joachim Bertrands

    PDF Report
    …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….
  • 2016 [03 March] - Kieran Nixon - Southwest Iceland

    PDF Report
    Annotated list
  • 2017 [06 June] - B Ullrich

    PDF Report
  • 2017 [06 June] - Mike Watson

    PDF Report
    There were many birding highlights in a stunning volcanic landscape including: three Gyrfalcons; a pair of White-tailed Eagles; 25 Harlequin Ducks; 344(!) Barrow’s Goldeneyes; four Red and countless Red-necked Phalaropes on the delightful islet of Flatey and elsewhere; three Long-tailed Jaegers (or Skuas) at their only breeding site in Iceland as well as another in the Northwest Fjords, hundreds of km away and Thick-billed Murres (or Brünnich’s Guillemots) on their breeding cliffs.
  • 2017 [07 July] - Per Stensland

    PDF Report
    A five-day trip, combining birdwatching and sightseeing. We drove about 1300 km and covered WestIceland.This was my first trip here, so the main goal was just to see the nature and landscape. Thisgoal was reached by far. Iceland is something different. As for birding, we mainly stopped at predefinedsites, and did not stop frequently to scan areas. Time did not permit that, as this was not apure birding trip.
  • 2018 [05 May} - Ed Stubbs - Southwest Iceland

    PDF Report
    Harlequin, Barrow’s Goldeneye and Brünnich’s Guillemot were the 3 available lifers and consequent targets, and I planned on locating them all in the south-west of the country
  • 2018 [12 December] - Wilton Farrelly

    PDF Report
    This was a four day break with my wife (a non birder) and was to include whatever birding I could get in between the ‘sightseeing’. There was however only to be one birding target for me – Gyr. I was hoping to lay the disappointment of Finland in 2001 to rest when I had spent 3 hours at a Gyr nest site to later find out that the reason we did not see one was that one of us misread the directions and the current nest was actually a further mile up the road...
  • 2019 [07 July] - Andreas Ranner

    PDF Report
    ... Among the many species seen Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, more Rock Ptarmigans, Slavonian Grebe and Gyrfalcon were the most noteworthy....
Places to Stay


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Other Links
  • Birdlife on Iceland

    Website
    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.
  • Birds of Iceland

    Website
    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.is

    Website
    The Icelandic bird and nature experience
  • Iceland Birding

    Website
    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 - yannk@hi.is
  • Lesser Black-backed Gulls Ringing

    Website
    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
  • Natural History of Iceland

    Website
    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 Artic bestiary

    Webpage
    ...an interactive guide to Iceland's Wildlife (including birds). The guide includes Great Skua, Icelandic Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl and Northern Ravel drew in oil painting style and a voiceover about each animal...
  • The Icelandic Birding Pages

    Website
    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
Photographers & Artists
  • Artist - Jon Baldur Hlidberg

    Gallery
    The illustrator of a number of books on the birds of Iceland - and he is brilliant!
  • Gallery - Some Icelandic Bird Pictures

    Gallery
    Gallery [French]
  • Photographer - Dick Vuijk

    Gallery
    Some excellent images with accompanying text
  • Photographer - Jakob Sigurdsson

    Gallery
    Excellent bird photographs from Iceland and around the world…

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