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Birds and birdwatching in Southern Iceland

Southern Iceland has a great deal to offer birdwatchers throughout the year. It has a wide variety of habitats including extensive wetlands, seabird colonies, highland oases, and unusual coastlines. Southern Iceland is home to the largest colonies of Pink-footed Goose, Great Skua, and Atlantic Puffin in the world. Europe’s largest Leach’s Storm Petrel colony is located in the region and there is probably nowhere else on Earth where Black-tailed Godwit breed in such numbers as here. Some of these sites are within easy reach of Iceland’s main urban areas. Birdwatching is popular among tourists, both locals, and visitors from overseas. The Atlantic Puffin is Iceland’s most cherished bird, attracting thousands of people wanting to see it. There are even trips to Iceland designed around seeing and photographing this charismatic bird.

The Flói Bird Reserve and Ölfusforir
Two large wetlands occur on either side of the estuary of the river Ölfus, the Flói Bird Reserve on the east bank, and Ölfusforir to the west. Here there are extensive flood plains dotted with ponds and lakes. The meadows are equally important for migration and during the breeding season. The characteristic bird of the Bird Reserve is the Red-throated Diver and there are few places where Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit are as common as they are here. The wetlands at Ölfusforir are packed with birds in the winter, with large numbers of Eurasian Teals, Mallards, and Goosander as well as the largest concentration of Grey Herons in Iceland.

The shoreline at Eyrir
The shoreline at Eyrir, between the river Ölfusá and Loftsstaðir, is the largest lava shoreline in Iceland and is the end of the great Þjórsárhraun lava field which flowed to the sea 8,000 years ago, the largest lava flow on Earth since the last ice age. Inland there are myriad ponds and lakes, mainly concentrated around the village of Stokkseyri. The area is home to a large number of birds all year and it is particularly important for migrants such as Red Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Brent Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, and various other ducks. The area is home to a large Arctic Tern colony and several hundred Whooper Swans moult in the area in late summer.

Þingvallavatn and Sog
Þingvallavatn is Iceland’s largest lake. It is a deep lake and differs significantly from shallow bird-rich lakes such as Mývatn and Apavatn. Various fish-eating species such as Great Northern Diver and Red-breasted Merganser breed around the lake, while Great Cormorant is a frequent visitor but has yet to start breeding.

The river Sog, which flows out of Þingvallavatn, has the greatest concentration of wintering ducks in Iceland. It is home to the largest number of Barrow’s Goldeneye outside the Mývatn area and is the main wintering site in Iceland for Common Goldeneye. It is also home to the largest concentration of Tufted Duck and the biggest number of Red-breasted Merganser found on freshwater. Goosander is also common in winter in this area. White-tailed Eagle can be seen in winter and Harlequin Duck occurs on the river in spring.

Apavatn and Laugarvatn
The two lakes Apavatn and Laugarvatn, and adjacent wetlands and rivers, represent one of the best sites for wildfowl in Southern Iceland. At Laugarvatn there are geothermal wetlands, a rare natural feature in Iceland. Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye, and Goosander all overwinter. Harlequin Duck breeds here and hundreds of Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser occur on passage and are also common breeders.

Birdwatching sites along the rivers Hvítá and Brúará
The sites Pollengi, Tunguey, and Hrosshagavík are important staging grounds for geese, ducks, and waders during migration and are also important breeding sites in spring and summer. Further along the river Hvítá are sites such as Brúará, Mosar, Selflóð, Skálholtstunga, and Höfðaflatir, all of which are important for wetland birds. Höfðaflatir is one of the largest undisturbed bogs in Southern Iceland.

Landeyjar and Rangárvellir
The Landeyjar and Rangárvellir areas are home to numerous wetlands, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Key sites include Skúmsstaðavatn and surrounding area, Oddaflóð (protected area), and Lambhagavatn. These sites are breeding grounds for a vast number of wildfowl and waders and are equally important on spring and autumn migration. Key species include Whooper Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Tufted Duck, and Black-tailed Godwit.

Þjórsárver
The tundra meadows of Þjórsárver to the south of the glacier Hofsjökull are the most extensive highland oasis in the central highlands. The landscape is dramatic, with verdant marshes containing a great diversity of plants surrounded by barren sandy plains and glaciers. The area is also home to mounds called palsas formed in the permafrost and they can reach up to a meter in height. The area is hugely important to Pink-footed Geese. Until recently it was the largest breeding colony in the world and many birds moult in the area in late summer. Other breeding birds include Great Northern Diver, Whooper Swan, Long-tailed Duck, Purple Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern, and Snow Bunting. Part of Þjórsárver is protected and a Ramsar Site.

Veiðivötn
Another important highland site is Veiðivötn. This beautiful and eerie landscape is located at 600 meters above sea level and is shaped by volcanic activity and the lakes in the area are mostly located in craters. The lava is overgrown with moss and the ground is relatively well-vegetated in the vicinity of the lakes but elsewhere plants are scarce and desolate sands dominate. The area holds good numbers of birds, including the Great Northern Diver, which is unusually numerous here. Other common birds include Whooper Swan, Pink-footed Goose, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Harlequin Duck, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Arctic Tern, and Snow Bunting. Barrow’s Goldeneye winters here and has started to breed regularly.

Vestmannaeyjar
The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago lies off the south coast of Iceland and birds breed on 15 of the islands. About one-third of the Atlantic Puffin population, approximately 1 million pairs, breed there and it is the largest colony on Earth. The islands are also home to Europe’s biggest Leach’s Storm Petrel colony, Iceland’s only breeding site for Manx Shearwater, and almost the entire population of Iceland’s European Storm Petrels. Northern Gannet breeds on four of the islands and other common birds are Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, and Black Guillemot. Heimaey is the only inhabited island and is the easiest place to go birdwatching. Of the other islands, Elliðaey is the most diverse. The second-largest island in the archipelago is Surtsey, which was created in a volcanic eruption in the 1960s. Birds began colonizing the island soon after the eruption ended in 1967. It is protected and access to the island is strictly controlled.

Mýrdalur
The Mýrdalur valley is home to a diverse range of birds and the main sites are Reynisfjall, Reynisdrangar, and Dyrhólaey. Atlantic Puffin breeds in the cliffs at Víkurhamrar, Reynisfjall, and Dyrhólaey; Common Guillemot and Razorbill breed at Reynisdrangar and Dyrhólaey. There is a huge Arctic Tern colony at Vík and a smaller one at Dyrhólaey, which is protected. Northern Fulmar is a common breeder in cliffs and canyons throughout the area.

Landbrot and Meðalland
The Landbrot and Meðalland areas to the east of Vík are home to a wide range of birds that inhabit the mosaic of wetlands to be found there. There are flood plains, lakes, ponds, springs, streams, and lava fields. Breeding birds include Horned Grebe and a range of ducks. The areas around the springs are particularly attractive to birds in winter, with Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye, and Goosander all being found there. In spring and autumn, Greater White-fronted Goose is common here. Great Skua is a common breeder in sandy areas.

Öræfi
The birdlife on the great coastal sands of Southern Iceland has a character all of its own. This is the kingdom of the Great Skua, and the area is home to the largest population of species on Earth. Wherever there is water, plants grow and these areas are typically home to a range of birds. Common breeding birds include Red-throated Diver, Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Mallard, Dunlin, Whimbrel, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Skua, and Great Black-backed Gull. Skaftafell has wooded areas which provide habitat for Rock Ptarmigan, Eurasian Wren, and Common Redpoll. The main Icelandic breeding grounds of Barnacle Goose are located from the Öræfi area east to Hornafjörður, and in late summer large flocks can be seen in some areas. Barnacle Geese also breed further west at Skaftártunga.

Jökulsárlón
Good numbers of birds can generally be found at the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón. Fish swim into the lagoon, which attracts seabirds such as Arctic Terns, auks, and Common Eider to feed in the lagoon. There used to be a large Arctic Tern colony just east of the river but it disappeared a few years ago due to disturbance from tourists. The birds moved to the nearby farm of Hali. Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas predated heavily on the colony, with Arctic Skuas stealing food from the terns and Great Skuas taking the young. Barnacle Geese frequently graze around the lagoon or swim there. Various species of gull, such as Black-legged Kittiwake and, in recent years Sabine’s Gull, sit on the icebergs to rest. Harbour Seals are common here.

Hornafjörður and Stakksfjörður
Hornafjörður and Stakksfjörður are shallow fjords or coastal lagoons located on either side of the town of Höfn. The area is home to a large number of birds throughout the year. It is a critical migration site, hosts many breeding birds in the summer, and is the most important site for wintering birds in southeast Iceland. It is also a hotspot for vagrant birds. Eurasian Curlew regularly winters here, Red Knot and Dunlin occur on passage, and Common Shelduck breeds here. There is a bird observatory at Höfn which is responsible for ringing and monitoring birds. An extensive series of wetlands extends from Höfn through the Nes, Mýrar, and Suðursveit areas all the way west to the glacial sands at Breiðamerkursandur.

Hvalsnesskriður and Þvottárskriður
South of Álftafjörður is two extensive scree slopes which fall to the sea, known as Þvottárskriður and Hvalsnesskriður. Common Scoters are present here all year and occasionally Velvet Scoters and Surf Scoters can be found in the flocks. Further east is the shallow lagoon Lónsfjörður which has the highest density of Whooper Swans in the world. Whooper Swans are present here all year and at some times of the year, more than half of the Icelandic population congregates here. Greylag Goose and Eurasian Wigeon are also common.