The vast island country of Iceland -- with its rugged, ancient (and not so ancient) lava flows, its rich hay meadows, its gleaming ice caps, thundering waterfalls and shining fjords -- is a spectacular place in which to bird. With an unusually clear day on the Snaefellsnes peninsula (where we saw the entire, unclouded Snaefellsjokull volcano), a golden, windless evening at Latrabjarg, and a visit to the bubbling mud pots and steam vent of the Myvatn geothermal area, we enjoyed the spectacular Iceland scenery at least as much as the multitude of birds we saw! As we soon discovered, the openness of Iceland's habitats, and the big number of individual birds -- combined with the small avifauna found here -- allows birders an unparalleled opportunity to really study and come to know its common species.
Only a handful of passerines breed on the island, but their numbers can be truly impressive. Redwings abounded in just about every habitat, with the confiding birds at Holavallagardur (the Reykjavik cemetery) and a myriad youngsters bouncing around on trails at Kjarnavegur providing especially nice views -- and serenades. Meadow Pipits were equally common; our first good look, at a bird sitting atop a bush near Godafoss, made our soggy walk out to the waterfall a bit more satisfying. A busy pair of foraging Goldcrests, an Eurasian Wren belting out his territorial challenges, some scrapping Snow Buntings and Northern Wheatears hovering over the tundra also provided great chance for study.
A mix of "big gulls" on a Sandgerdi rooftop helped us come to grips with Iceland's regulars. Roadside Arctic Terns allowed close examination, Common Redshanks called from fence posts, rooftops and light poles, and brick-red Black-tailed Godwits posed in fields while ubiquitous Red-necked Phalaropes paddled across ponds and Common Snipe caromed in rollercoastering display flights overhead.
Iceland is justly famous for its waterfowl numbers. Though half of its duck population was apparently still sitting out of sight on nests somewhere (Common Eiders being an abundantly notable exception), we had big rafts of male Barrow's Goldeneyes on Lake Myvatn, where we also had a busy mix of Tufted and Long-tailed ducks, Common Scoter and Greater Scaup diving after prey. A cohort of snazzy male Harlequin Ducks snoozed on the edge of a roadside rivulet in the West Fjords and hundreds of bright Common Shelducks seined the newly-exposed mud of the Borgarfjordur. Pairs of Whooper Swans dotted fields and wet spots across the island, and a surprise Pink-footed Goose among the Graylags at Sandgerdi allowed nice comparisons between the two. Two close pairs of Horned Grebes battling among the snowflakes were entertaining, and a pair of Common Loons with fluffy black chicks in tow distracted us while we searched -- EVENTUALLY successfully -- for a long-staying vagrant Arctic Loon. And a stealth male White-winged Scoter among a huge diving flock of Common Eiders got everybody out of the bus on our last, very windy afternoon.
Then there were our two visits to the wonderful sea bird cliffs at Latrabjarg, where we found ourselves nearly nose to beak with endearing Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills, as they preened and snoozed and calmly went about their business mere yards away. Common and Thick-billed murres, Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes festooned the ledges and dotted the ocean below, and hundreds of alcids flapped past on madly-beating wings. An Arctic Fox nosed intently along the edge of a pond, and a huge pod of Orcas hunted just off the southern shore of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. And our 11th hour find of not one, but TWO White-tailed Eagles on a rocky islet in the middle of a picturesque fjord definitely put a nice cap on the trip.
All in all, it was a delightful trip, with generally good weather -- who would have believed all those blue-sky days -- comfortable hotels, good food, and some fine companionship. Thanks to Godfried for all his behind-the-scenes assistance with lunch and birding location suggestions and to Christine for making all the tour arrangements. And thanks especially to all of you for making my first trip back to Iceland in almost two decades such a pleasure to lead! I hope to see you all in the field again somewhere. Until then, good birding!
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
GRAYLAG GOOSE (EUROPEAN) (Anser anser anser)
Common and widespread across the island, including many families with fluffy goslings of various sizes.
PINK-FOOTED GOOSE (Anser brachyrhynchus)
Its distinctive high-pitched calls alerted us to one bird that flew right over our heads at Lake Myvatn, and we had much more satisfying looks at another on the pond at Sandgerdi -- in good comparison with the previous species. This one has a darker head than the Graylag, and a much smaller beak, with just a bit of pink at the tip.
WHOOPER SWAN (Cygnus cygnus)
Another common and widespread species, seen every day of the tour -- including a pair with four cygnets on the lake near our hotel at Breidavík.
COMMON SHELDUCK (Tadorna tadorna)
Nearly 400 birds pattered across the mudflats of Borgarfjordur, sieving through the newly-exposed mud for tidbits. The first pair of this species nested on Iceland in the 1990s. They've clearly done very well since!
GADWALL (Mareca strepera)
A few pairs floated on the Tjörnin, the big lake in the middle of Reykjavik on our first afternoon, and we spotted a female with a couple of half-grown ducklings there on our second morning. This is among the least common of Iceland's breeding waterfowl.
EURASIAN WIGEON (Mareca penelope)
A few scattered males on the Tjörnin, with many more floating on Lake Myvatn -- including a female that clambered through the lakeside grasses mere yards from us on our snowy pre-breakfast walk there.
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
Another abundant species, seen daily.
NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta)
A single female along the southern edge of Lake Myvatn. She first scuttled through the grass away from us as we approached along a gravel road, then flew over to the lake edge for a vigorous preen.
GREEN-WINGED TEAL (EURASIAN) (Anas crecca crecca)
A few floated on the back side of the pond at Sandgerði, and another pair flew past us on our pre-breakfast walk at Breidavik. This nominate subspecies (crecca) is split by some authorities as the Common (or Eurasian) Teal.
TUFTED DUCK (Aythya fuligula)
Regular on freshwater puddles, ponds and lakes throughout much of the tour, including scores on Lake Myvatn. The showy topknots of the males made them easy to identify -- particularly on our windy days!
GREATER SCAUP (Aythya marila)
A few among the Tufted Ducks on the Tjörnin and Lake Myvatn, with others seen by Eric and Mary on some of our drives. Their pale back quickly separates the males from male Tufted Ducks, which have black backs.
COMMON EIDER (NORTHERN) (Somateria mollissima borealis)
Easily the most common duck of the tour -- by a lot! We saw thousands of colorful males in big rafts along every bend of the coasts, and an equivalent number of females with fluffy ducklings of various sizes.
HARLEQUIN DUCK (Histrionicus histrionicus)
A loafing group of males along a river mouth on our drive into the Western Fjords stopped us short -- what beautiful birds! We saw a lone female on our drive to Lake Myvatn, a single male at Arnarstapi and a pair along the road on our way to Stykkisholmur.
WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (Melanitta deglandi)
This one was definitely a surprise! We spotted a male among a huge flock of diving Common Eider at Kolgrafafjordur. The pinkish-tipped bill separates him from the yellower-tipped Velvet Scoter -- a small but important detail!
COMMON SCOTER (Melanitta nigra)
A few, including a sprinkling of females and an immature male, among the multitude of Tufted Ducks on Lake Myvatn on our second morning there.
BARROW'S GOLDENEYE (Bucephala islandica)
Good numbers of males floated on Lake Myvatn, showing nicely the white crescent on their faces and the row of white "portholes" along their back. This is primarily a New World species, which reaches its eastern limit in Iceland.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
Seen daily, including a female with a group of surprisingly rusty chicks on the ponds at Sandgerdi.
ROCK PTARMIGAN (Lagopus muta islandorum)
Our first few were seen only in flight, as they rocketed across the road in front of our vehicle. Fortunately, we found a male perched up on some lichen-splashed rocks at the Hellnar viewpoint on the Snaefellsness peninsula. He even did a bit of a display flight for us, which let us hear his chortling call.
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus auritus)
Particularly lovely views of several interacting pairs right across from our hotel on Lake Myvatn on our snowy morning there. The aggressive display between what we thought were a pair -- which resulted in one spending a long time floating upside down with its white belly showing -- was certainly odd. I can't find any reference that tells me what that was all about!
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia)
Regular in Reykjavik, particularly around the fringes of the Tjörnin, where they appeared to be searching for vagrant breadcrumbs.
EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER (WESTERN) (Haematopus ostralegus ostralegus)
Common along the coasts, often patrolling the seaweed-covered rocks. We also saw some big groups of snoozing birds when the tides were in. This is the westernmost edge of the range of this Eurasian species.
EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis apricaria altifrons)
Common throughout, though typically in low numbers. Our first, standing on a low rise near the Laxa River at the south end of Lake Myvatn, gave us nice views. It whistled a few times too, almost like it wanted to draw our attention! This is a favorite of Icelandic poets, as it's typically one of the first migrants to return each year, thus heralding spring's arrival.
COMMON RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula hiaticula)
Our best views came in the little summer village between our hotel in Breidavik and the seabird cliffs at Latrabjarg. We spotted a couple of adults on our evening visit, and four newly-hatched chicks on our morning excursion -- cotton balls with legs!
WHIMBREL (EUROPEAN) (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus)
Very common throughout, seen every day but one -- and we undoubtedly just weren't paying enough attention that day! Unlike North America's Whimbrels, the European subspecies found on Iceland (phaeopus) shows a white streak up the back.
BLACK-TAILED GODWIT (ISLANDICA) (Limosa limosa islandica)
Regular in heath and wet pastures around the island, seen every day but the first. Their flashy black-and-white wings and brick-red body plumage made them easy to spot. The pair checking us out while we looked for the Arctic Loon gave us especially nice chance for close-up study. The subspecies islandica is an endemic breeder.
RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres)
Two along the rock shore at Gardur light on our last afternoon were a nice find. Birds that breed in Greenland and eastern Canada use Iceland as a staging area during spring and fall migrations. A few hundred typically overwinter on the island as well, and non-breeders occasionally stay through the summer. It's hard to know which category our pair fall into!
DUNLIN (SCHINZII) (Calidris alpina schinzii)
Eric spotted our first, across the road from our Arctic Loon lookout at Vestmannvatn, and we found others around our Breidavik hotel and en route to Latrabjarg. The subspecies "schinzii" is duller than birds we're used to seeing in North America, with less rufous on the back and a belly which isn't pure black.
COMMON SNIPE (Gallinago gallinago gallinago)
Daily, with dozens seen -- and heard! -- in rollercoaster display flights all over the island. We had some especially nice looks at an on-the-ground bird on our soggy walk back from Godafoss -- a reward for persevering through the rain!
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (Phalaropus lobatus)
Another very common species, seen every day but the first. Those along the edge of Lake Myvatn and on the little lake near our hotel in Breidavik gave us especially nice views.
COMMON REDSHANK (Tringa totanus robusta)
Abundant throughout, often shouting from fence posts, roof tops (like the one near the Sandgerdi ponds on the tour's first morning) or tundra tussocks. The broad white trailing edge of the wing of this species makes them easy to pick out in flight.
GREAT SKUA (Stercorarius skua)
Lovely views of a trio gliding effortlessly past while we battled the elements along the cliffs near Oxarfjordur, with others seen from the bus slightly further along the same road. We had a couple of others on our drive towards Gauksmyri the following day. Their huge size and the white patches at the base of their primaries (on the underwing) quickly separates them from dark-morph Parasitic Jaegers. This species is relatively rare on our tour route; most Great Skuas in Iceland breed along the southeastern coast.
PARASITIC JAEGER (Stercorarius parasiticus)
Seen almost daily (though missed on the first), nearly always in flight -- including some quite close birds looping over fields on several of our longer drives. We had a mix of light- and dark-morphed birds; the former are more common in the island's south, while the latter are more common in the north.
COMMON MURRE (Uria aalge)
Hundreds jostled for position on the cliff ledges at Latrabjarg, or paddled about in the sea just offshore there, and we saw others at several sites along the Snaefellsness peninsula. Many of the countless strings of alcids flying past the Gardur lighthouse were probably this species too -- though they were too far away to tell for sure.
THICK-BILLED MURRE (Uria lomvia)
Less common than the previous species on the cliffs at Latrabjarg, but still seen in good numbers there -- and in nice side-by-side comparison. The white cutting edge of their bills, and their darker mantle color help to quickly distinguish them.
RAZORBILL (Alca torda)
Also common at Latrabjarg. Unlike the previous two species, these didn't jostle for position along the ledges, instead confining themselves to little outcroppings with only their mates for company. A few birds near the cliff top gave us some lovely views of their details -- including their bright yellow mouth lining.
BLACK GUILLEMOT (GRYLLE GROUP) (Cepphus grylle islandicus)
Scattered individuals, including one having a snooze on the back deck of a boat in the Husavik harbor, a few on the water below the cliffs at Latrabjarg and a handful from the ferry. Unlike the other alcids, this species is not typically seen in groups.
ATLANTIC PUFFIN (Fratercula arctica naumanni)
Some great views of these endearing "little brothers" (as their scientific name labels them) along the clifftop at Latrabjarg, with hundreds of others from the ferry. This species is undergoing a pretty catastrophic decline in Iceland (and elsewhere); Ned's 1999 report talks about "many thousands" on the cliffs at Latrabjarg -- where we saw well under 100!
BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (TRIDACTYLA) (Rissa tridactyla tridactyla)
A big flock rested on the stony edge of the island near the Gardur lighthouse on our first visit there, and hundreds more flew past in a steady stream. We saw many others nesting on the cliffs at Latrabjarg (where a pair of banders were preparing to descend to the nests), from the Flokalundur-Stykkisholmur ferry and around the Snaefellsness peninsula. The neat triangular black patch on their wingtip is a good field mark for this species.
BLACK-HEADED GULL (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
This, the smallest of Iceland's gulls, was abundant throughout. As we repeatedly saw, they're poorly named, as their heads are really dark chocolate brown.
COMMON GULL (EUROPEAN) (Larus canus canus)
Despite its name, this gull isn't particularly common in Iceland. In fact, we saw it only around Akureyri, one of its local strongholds -- including a group bathing in a roadside pond as we started our drive from the botanical gardens towards Godafoss.
HERRING GULL (EUROPEAN) (Larus argentatus argenteus)
Seen throughout much of the tour, though largely absent from the Western Fjords and the Snaefellsness peninsula. This is another relatively recent arrival to Iceland, first colonizing in the 1920s.
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL (GRAELLSII) (Larus fuscus graellsii)
Especially nice comparisons between this and the Great Black-backed Gull (and Herring Gulls) on a rooftop near the ponds in Sandgerdi our first morning. This is another relatively recent arrival to Iceland, also first breeding in the 1920s. It's most common in the south and west.
GLAUCOUS GULL (Larus hyperboreus leuceretes)
And this one is mostly in the north and northwest -- though we did find a youngster among the other big gulls on that helpful roof in Sandgerdi. The all-white wingtips quickly distinguish this species.
GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus marinus)
Plenty of these powerful, big gulls (the largest species of gull in the world) all around Iceland.
ARCTIC TERN (Sterna paradisaea)
Abundant throughout, floating above virtually every stretch of water -- river, sea, lake, stream, roadside puddle -- we passed. We saw plenty standing on fence posts too, where their very short, bright red legs were clearly visible -- and even got a closeup view of some eggs when roadside birds flushed (mostly to attack our bus) as we drove to Latrabjarg. The colonies we drove through on the Snaefellsness peninsula were impressive in their size, though the number of adults squashed on the road was depressing.
RED-THROATED LOON (Gavia stellata)
Seen on most days, including several on Lake Myvatn one having a vigorous bath on the lake near our Breidavik hotel, and one sitting stretch-necked on its nest beside a pond on the Snaefellsness peninsula.
ARCTIC LOON (Gavia arctica)
This one was a surprise, though -- thanks to strong winds and distance -- we never got quite the look we were hoping for. A long-staying bird on the Vestermannvatn finally came into view about the time we decided we had to move on. Unfortunately, it was very actively hunting, so spent most of its time underwater!
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
Seen all but one day of the tour, including a trio of non-breeders in the sea near the Gardur lighthouse on our first morning and some strikingly handsome birds -- with fluffy black chicks -- on the wind-tossed Vestmannvatn.
NORTHERN FULMAR (Fulmarus glacialis)
Another every day bird, with scores coursing along the rocky shoreline at Gardur, multitudes snoozing on their nests at Latrabjarg and thousands upon thousands flapping, stiff-winged, along cliffs and ridges all around Iceland's coasts, headed for their rocky ledges. The ones floating in Sandgerdi harbor let us get particularly nice scope views of their distinctive "tube noses".
MANX SHEARWATER (Puffinus puffinus)
A handful of these dark-backed ocean goers flapped and glided their way along the surf line well out from the Gardur lighthouse, challenging us to pick them out among the myriad alcids, gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes.
NORTHERN GANNET (Morus bassanus)
Dozens and dozens of snowy-white adults passed the Gardur lighthouse in long strings on our first visit. One of the world's largest Northern Gannet colonies is on Eldey Island, just off the southeastern coast of Iceland. In Iceland, this species is known as "Queen of the Atlantic" -- a reference to its graceful flight.
GREAT CORMORANT (NORTH ATLANTIC) (Phalacrocorax carbo carbo)
One on a rock in the fjord near Akureyri, a couple of others on our drive to the West Fjords, and one on a rocky outcrop near the harbor at Arnarstapi. Their big yellow bill and white throat and cheeks help to separate them from the smaller shags. This species has declined precipitously as a breeding species in Iceland.
EUROPEAN SHAG (Gulosus aristotelis)
Common on the second half of the trip, once we'd reached the coast. Unlike the previous species, this one is virtually never seen inland. Those on nests at Arnarstapi -- the first stop on our perambulations around the Snaefellsness peninsula -- were particularly cooperative.
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE (Haliaeetus albicilla)
Talk about an 11th-hour save! Thanks to some good info from Godfried, we found a pair of these massive raptors on our journey back to the Keflavik airport. Phew! We got to watch one as it powered its way across the water to a distant cliff ledge; the other stayed largely out of sight (except for its head) among the vegetation atop the rocky islet. This species was almost extirpated from Iceland in the 1960s, getting down to about 20 pairs. Fortunately, it has since recovered -- though the empty nests we kept finding in the Western Fjords were a bit ominous.
SHORT-EARED OWL (NORTHERN) (Asio flammeus flammeus)
One in flight high over a rolling ridge along one side of the bus was a nice surprise. It flapped along -- looking vaguely like a gigantic moth -- for long minutes, attracting the attention of a few local gulls, who did their best to drive it away. This is the only owl that breeds in Iceland, and it only started to do so in the 20th century. It's still pretty rare, with an estimate of fewer than 200 pairs.
MERLIN (EURASIAN) (Falco columbarius subaesalon)
A big female streaked past as we started our afternoon walk at Flokalundur. Somehow, Merlins always seem to be in a hurry!
GYRFALCON (Falco rusticolus)
A trio of chicks shuffled around the rock ledge (and nearby vegetation) their nest was built on near Lake Myvatn. Unfortunately, they were a bit hazy with distance -- and scope shake from the wind! We had slightly closer looks at an adult that raked across the road in front of our bus; it powered off up the hill and out of sight.
COMMON RAVEN (Corvus corax varius)
Seen every day, including a newly-fledged youngster testing its vocal cords in Holavallagardur (the Reykjavik cemetery we visited on our first afternoon) and others flying over Latrabjarg on our lovely "golden evening" excursion there.
GOLDCREST (Regulus regulus)
Two of these tiny birds -- Europe's smallest avian species -- flitted through a couple of big evergreens in the Akureyri Botanical Garden. They were a bit of a challenge to get binoculars on initially, but eventually moved out to forage on more open branches. And that gave us some great looks at their namesake crown patches. We certainly attracted plenty of attention from fellow park visitors, who were intrigued by what we were all so excited about...
EURASIAN WREN (ICELAND) (Troglodytes troglodytes islandicus)
A hard winter or two has really thrashed the wren population on the island, and they were missing entirely from some places where they used to be common. Fortunately, we found a showy male singing from a stand of spruces in Kjarnavegur, the hilltop park south of Akureyri. The subspecies found in Iceland (islandicus) is endemic.
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
Regular around Keflavik and Reykjavik, with others around a few of the smaller towns on the Snaefellsness peninsula. This species first bred in Iceland in 1940 (in the southeast), and has been spreading slowly across the country ever since. They're certainly far more common than they were 17 years ago, when I was last in Iceland!
REDWING (ICELANDIC) (Turdus iliacus coburni)
Delightfully common, including confiding pairs hunting for tidbits in Holavallagardur, multiple families of just-fledged youngsters bouncing around on the trails at Kjarnavegur, and dozens singing from scattered bushes, fence posts, clifftops and hotel roofs every day of the tour. The subspecies on Iceland is an endemic breeder; it winters in western Europe.
EURASIAN BLACKBIRD (Turdus merula merula)
Common in Holavallagardur, with others singing from television antennae and utility wires around Reykjavik. We saw a few in the Akureyri Botanical Garden as well. Formerly an autumn/winter visitor, this species now breeds regularly around Reykjavik -- as we could tell by the number of speckly youngsters we spotted on the cemetery grounds!
NORTHERN WHEATEAR (GREENLAND) (Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa)
A few scattered birds seen, including a busy pair provisioning a nest along the road on our drive to Breidavik, a few flitting around the black church at Budir, and one fluttering above the grass at Longrangar -- distracting us briefly from the Orcas.
WHITE WAGTAIL (WHITE-FACED) (Motacilla alba alba)
Seen daily -- from the birds waggling their way around the harbor at Grindavik as we headed to lunch on our first day to the ones trundling through the grass at the Gardur lighthouse during our last picnic.
MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis whistleri)
Another of the handful of species seen daily on the tour, with especially nice studies of them along the edge of Lake Myvatn and around our Breidavik hotel. According to Johann Oli Himarsson's "Icelandic Bird Guide" (a locally produced field guide), this is Iceland's most common passerine.
COMMON REDPOLL (ROSTRATA/ISLANDICA) (Acanthis flammea islandica)
Small groups seen feeding on the birch catkins (and a few heard singing) at Holavallagardur on each of our visits.
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis insulae)
Several flicked along the stony ridges and slopes of Latrabjarg on each of our visits, a female foraged in grass along one of the paths and two bold black-and-white males shouted challenges at each other from boulders there.
ORCA (Orcinus orca)
A pod of at least 15 hunted just offshore of the Hellnar view point and Malarrif Light on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, regularly lifting those distinctively tall, skinny dorsal fins into view -- great spotting, Suzi!
ARCTIC FOX (Vulpes lagopus)
One snuffled through the grass around a lake on the road to Latrabjarg, causing much consternation among the local birdlife. It had molted through to its brown summer coat -- except for its very furry white tail.
HARBOR SEAL (Phoca vitulina)
A few loafed on seaside rocks, seen on our drives to Breidavik and Flokalundur -- including a mother with a still-fuzzy youngster. Their "banana" pose was particularly appealing.
RINGED SEAL (Phoca hispida)
A few among the seals hauled out below the cliffs at Latrabjarg, identified by Mary -- who's seen hundreds and hundreds in Alaska in her day! This species doesn't come to shore often (preferring to bask on ice floes) and is generally only seen from the northern third or so of Iceland's coasts.
GRAY SEAL (Halichoerus grypus)
Totals for the tour: 68 bird taxa and 5 mammal taxa