The fact that Iceland lies in the North Atlantic just under the arctic circle. and between Europe and the American continent as well as having Greenland relatively nearby has implications on the composition of birds species in Iceland. Iceland is therefore 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.
Two other characteristic element also play a big role in bird life on Iceland. First, the Iceland lowlands have exceptionally mild winters given its northern latitude. This leads to hosting very unlikely winter visitors like the common European Grey Heron from Norway. Second, fact is that there are hardly any (real) trees on Iceland and summers are cool. These are unfavorable elements for many passerines. Iceland, being an island, has a long coastline and therefore both breeders of low coastal regions as well as cliff breeding birds have ample space for breeding.
Although Iceland is Europe´s second largest island it has only 73 breeding species. Most breeding species are very numerous and are easily seen everywhere around Iceland. For example, the most numerous bird in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin there being some three million pairs and in a colony just outside Reykjavik there are about 15,000 pairs. The Icelandic bird list isn`t very long but over 35o bird species have been recorded in Iceland, an amazing total considering the small number of breeding species.
A group of related birds which are common on the cliffs of Iceland are the auks. The steep perpendicular cliffs are used mostly by the common guillemot's (Uria aalge) and the closely related Brünnich's guillemot (Uria lomvia) which is a more northern close relative of the common guillemot. On higher parts of the cliffs the razorbill (Alca torda) is more common. The popular puffin (Fratercula arctica) breeds in self dug hollows on the edge of the rocks and grass turfs. Because the latter can be found so close to the edge and because it will stay near their holes tourists can approach them easily. The black guillemot (Cepphus grylle), also common on Iceland, especially in the Breidafjordur. It breeds in rock hollows of lower coast lines.
Other birds are also typical for the cliffs. These are the kittiwakes (Rissa tridactylla) and the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Kittywakes breed only on cliffs at the sea shore while fulmars can also be found much further inland and also on high mountain slopes along the coast. Fulmars resemble gulls but are in fact member of the Petrel family. Shags (Phalocrocorax aristotelis) and Gannets (Morus bassanus) are also cliff breeding birds. Shags are more common in the western region (Snaefellssnes and Breidafjordur) while gannets frequent the south-western coasts of Iceland.
There are many places where one can visit these cliffs. Well known are the Vestmannaeyar, Arnarstapi on the Snaefellssnes peninsula, the Breidafjordur area. The Breidafjordur is also famous for the sea eagle also known as the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). By far the most famous place to visit cliff breeding birds is the Latrabjarg, located on the westernmost tip of the Vestfjord district. – which makes it the most western part of Europe. Other places of interest are the Grimsey island on the arctic circle north of mainland Iceland and in the south Ingolfshofdi and Dyrholaey. A special feature is lake Mývatn in northern Iceland where an exceptional amount of duck species and other waterfowl breed.
If your hobby is birdwatching, 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/June which is the best time to visit. Many species are abundant and unmissable at this time of year. The best time for a birding trip is definitely from late May and through June when all migrants have arrived 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 and are easy to see. Especially the bird cliffs attract many visitors, both general tourists as well as keen bird watchers.
You will all have a tale to tell from your visit to Látrabjarg.It is a great place to see and photograph seabirds as the arctic sun bounces on the horizon at midnight. Látrabjarg is as far west in Europe as any man will stand on solid ground, the continents westernmost boundary. It is one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland, with the other two being Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Látrabjarg is by far the easiest of the three to visit as a road leads practically to the cliff’s 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. In few places in Iceland, if any, are the puffins more trusting towards humans. They are so fearless that if one crawls on the belly towards a perched bird, and slowly reaches out, some of these wild puffins can be touched without being flushed. This trust towards humans has been developed over a long period and there is an obvious reason for it. The Látrabjarg cliff is not harvested – these puffins are not caught.
For a few months every year this massive 440 meter high and 14 kilometer long cliff becomes alive with the nesting activity of millions of seabirds. The seabird colonies at Látrabjarg are enormous, and they include the world’s largest known Razorbill colony at Stórurð, scree beneath the cliff. The puffins, which dig their burrows in topsoil at the cliff’s edge, are not the most numerous species, but arguably the most noticeable. Other auks that breed at Látrabjarg are Razorbills, Common Guillemot and the Brünnich Guillemot, a high arctic species that is at its southern breeding limit in Iceland, and is one of the target birds for any serious birdwatcher visiting the country.
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. The ducks are in eclipse (moulting). In addition many migrants have left Iceland in the fall. However, the fall is the best time to look for rarities. 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. 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 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. Because there is daylight all night long you can be birdwatching for 24 hours a day.
Birders coming to Iceland 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 but for some species 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 we saw was 57 pairs which is not much 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.
The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has recently taken part in establishing and running a 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 breed in the area. The Greylag Goose is common breeder and also a passage migrant. Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Tufted Duck, Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser breed, Gadwall and Shoveler have been seen during the breeding season. Eider Duck (ca. 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 Black-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe and Redshank. A few small Black-headed Gull colonies are scattered over the area. Greater Black-backed Gull, Arctic Skua and Arctic Tern also breed. 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, Wheatear and Redwing, among others, are common passage migrants. Few birds winter on the reserve because of ice cover.