Birdwatching Hut Opens in North Iceland

birdwatching hut skagaströnd

A new birdwatching hut in North Iceland’s Skagaströnd region is not for those afraid of heights. It is securely fastened to the edge of a cliff in the Spákonufellshöfði nature reserve, providing a unique and sheltered vantage point to observe the area’s plentiful birdlife.

The crystal of a prophetess

The hut was designed by the firm ESJA Architecture and built with the help of grant funding from the Icelandic Tourist Board. According to ESJA, the hut’s crystal-like shape was inspired by a legend from the Viking Age. Spákonufellshöfði, the name of the site, means “Prophetess Cape,” presumably referencing the area’s first resident who is known by name, Þórdís the Prophetess. Þórdís lived in Skagaströnd in the late 10th century and is referenced throughout the Icelandic Sagas.

Nesting bird species plentiful

Naturalist Einar Ólafur Þorleifsson told RÚV he expects the hut to attract both locals and foreign tourists. The location of the hut is not only ideal for birdwatching but also for observing the area’s volcanic rock formations and interesting plant life.

The bird species that nest within the hut’s sightlines include fulmars, ravens, ptarmigans, arctic terns, eider ducks, and black guillemots. Harlequin ducks are visible in the sea year-round and long-tailed ducks are also a common sight. Cormorants, falcons, merlins, and even eagles can also be spotted there, according to Einar. At this time of year, as migratory birds return to Iceland to nest, flocks of geese pass by the site as well as swans.

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Dozens of Dead Puffins in Dalvík

Puffins lundar látrabjarg

Nearly 50 dead puffins were found on the seashore in Dalvík, North Iceland, RÚV reports. Chief Veterinarian of MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, says their cause of death is unclear but it could be avian flu. The deaths are being investigated.

“Puffins are of course returning to their homesteads if we can say so, at least their summer grounds where they nest and lay eggs,” stated Þorvaldur H. Þórðarson, MAST’s chief veterinarian. “So whether that has something to do with it, one can’t say. But of course the first thing that comes to mind is the possibility of avian flu.”

Mass deaths reported last year

Last year similar incidents were reported in West Iceland, with locals spotting dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens. No bird flu was detected in samples taken from the birds. Some meteorologists suggested that extreme weather had caused the deaths.

Þorvaldur stated that MAST would look into the deaths and decide whether samples would be taken for further analysis.

Puffin populations on the decline

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. In total, the country boasts some 3 million nesting pairs. Although Iceland’s puffins have had some good breeding seasons in recent years, recent data shows their population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent data unveiled an unprecedented pattern and a more rapid decline than previously believed. Last year, experts proposed a ban on puffing hunting in Iceland. Experts say a ban would slow, though not stop, the birds’ decline.

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Goose Flies from UK to Iceland in 7 Hours

barnacle goose

It’s springtime in Iceland and geese are returning to the island’s shores in droves. GPS tracking has given researchers fascinating insight into their journeys, which are surprisingly quick though not always direct, RÚV reports. One barnacle goose had the best recorded time, crossing some 900 km [560 mi] from the UK to Iceland in just seven hours.

“It was in a strong northerly wind. It flew well over 100 km [62 mi] per hour,” says Arnór Þórir Sigfússon, a wildlife ecologist at Verkís, about the aforementioned record-holder. Arnór is monitoring some 20 geese equipped with a GPS tracker. Eight of them have already arrived in Iceland, while one is believed to be outside the service area or possibly dead.

The GPS trackers are lightweight and operate with the help of solar-powered batteries. The goose journeys they track are not always direct, with a few geese appearing to turn southward before reaching Iceland, then correcting course. One goose flew westward around Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to reach its nesting ground in North Iceland, rather than flying directly across the icy peaks.

In 2019, a greylag goose and namesake of Arnór’s completed the journey from Scotland to Iceland in 20 hours, a distance of 1,115 km [693 mi].

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

Don’t Feed Birds Bread in Summer, Says City of Reykjavík

Giving bread to ducklings on Reykjavík Pond could turn them into seagulls’ dinner, according to a notice from the City of Reykjavík. The pond (Tjörnin) is known for its vibrant birdlife, including ducks, swans, and geese, which both locals and tourists enjoy visiting. The city has asked visitors to stop bringing along bread for the birds, however, as it attracts seagulls to the pond, which are then more likely to feed on ducklings as well.

“With an increase in lesser black-backed gulls at Tjörnin comes an increase in the likelihood that newly hatched ducklings will become their prey,” the notice reads. “Ducks have enough food for themselves and their ducklings at Tjörnin throughout the summer and therefore it’s not necessary to feed them. A large quantity of bread can increase the organic pollution in the pond, especially because the number of birds increases dramatically when the gulls show up to the pond. The droppings from the birds, as well as the bread itself, increases organic pollution.”

While the city asks visitors to avoid feeding the ducks between May 15 and August 15, the same is not true for the rest of the year. “It’s safe to feed the birds in Tjörnin throughout the fall and winter months and such support is welcome, especially when the weather is at its coldest during midwinter, as food for ducks can be of short supply during that time of year.”

Widespread Bird Deaths in West and South Iceland

Puffin Iceland

Locals have reported dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens and even hundreds in recent weeks, RÚV reports. Such deaths are unusual at this time of year in Iceland and their cause is unknown. While bird flu is unlikely to be the cause, extreme weather may be a possible explanation.

Borgarnes resident Pavle Estrajher spotted five dead puffins on the shore in the town last month. When he made a post about them on Facebook, he received many comments from others who had found dead puffins in the region. Snæfellsnes peninsula resident Jón Helgason reported seeing hundreds of dead puffins and kittiwakes at Löngufjörur beach on the peninsula’s south coast, for example.

Bird flu not the cause

The widespread deaths of Kittiwakes cannot be attributed to bird flu, according to Brigitte Brugger of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). Samples from the birds analysed by MAST ruled out the illness. “In any case, no bird flu viruses were found in these samples that have been taken,” Brigitte stated.

Some have suggested that extreme weather may have caused the deaths, including meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson. The wave height in West Iceland’s Faxaflói bay was forecast at 8-9 metres during last month, unseasonably extreme weather for late May. Previous reports of widespread bird deaths in Iceland have usually occurred in wintertime and been attributed to extreme weather or scarcity of food.

Iceland’s puffin population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years, according to the latest figures. Residents of Grímsey island in North Iceland report, anecdotally at least, that the island’s puffin population is strong.

Swans Freeze to Ice During Cold Snap

Residents in Hafnarfjörður, a small town just outside the capital area, have rescued multiple swans that have frozen to the icy surface of Hamarkotslækur creek during a recent spate of desperately cold weather in the country, RÚV reports. Local bird lovers in the group Fuglavinur (‘Bird friends’) encourage people to help any birds they see in such a predicament.

Swans freezing to ice is unfortunately not a rare occurrence, and it’s not even the first year the birds have frozen to the creek, which runs through the centre of Hafnarfjörður, says Guðmundur Fylkisson. Guðmundur is a member of the Facebook group Project Henrý, which has had permission to look after the birds of Hamarkotslækur for over a decade.

“Last night, a few neighbors rescued a chick—it was a swan,” Guðmundur told reporters. “Around Christmas, there were two swans [frozen stuck] here. About a year ago, maybe two, there was one that had been stuck for probably close to 24 hours.”

Young swan rescued by Guðmundur Fylkisson recuperates in local prison cell. Photo provided by Guðmundur.

Guðmundur personally freed the latter three birds, one of which, he told Iceland Review, “was put up in a prison cell over New Year’s. He was cold and worse for wear—ravens had started nibbling at him. After a two-night stay in the cell, he was tagged and then released. He’s one of the birds that’s now on the creek.”

Only in Hafnarfjörður

For whatever reason, this doesn’t happen to other birds, says Guðmundur. “It’s just the swans. I’ve never seen this happen to geese or ducks.” Moreover, this pitiable phenomenon seems to be restricted to the creek in Hafnarfjörður; Guðmundur says he’s never heard of it happening anywhere else.

Guðmundur urged residents to help any birds they can, as the swans only injure themselves when they struggle to get free. “When they get loose, they tear their feathers and bleed and when the blood and snow mix, it looks pretty bad,” he remarked. “They’ve injure their breasts doing this.”

‘They don’t bite hard’

Swans have a reputation for being aggressive, so Guðmundur understands that people might be hesitant to try and free them from the ice. But they needn’t be, he says, if certain precautions are taken.

“You have to be careful about their wings and beaks, that they don’t poke you in the eye, but they don’t bite hard. I usually just use a blanket or a towel and spread it over their wings to keep them from thrashing too much. They haven’t hurt me so far.”

Feeding Habits of Westman Islands’ Mysterious Nocturnal Birds Tracked

Leach's petrel

GPS trackers weighing just 0.95 grammes will help scientists track the movements of three species of elusive nocturnal birds that stay in the Westman Islands, South Iceland, for a part of each year, RÚV reports. The three species are the manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus), Leach’s petrel (Oceanodroma leucorrhoa), and the storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus), all of which winter in the southern hemisphere – on both sides of the Atlantic.

“This has never been done in Iceland before, and we are in fact mapping the feeding areas of these species,” explained Erpur Snær Hansen, director of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre. Results from the miniscule trackers placed on Leach’s petrels and manx shearwaters have already begun to arrive, while data from the storm petrels are expected to arrive later this summer.

Travelled 600 kilometres to feed

The three species are related and are all nocturnal. “They only come ashore to the outlying Westman Islands at night, so they are rarely seen anywhere else,” Erpur stated. He compared the petrels’ flight to that of bats, saying they were “mysterious in many ways.”

The GPS trackers have revealed that the Leach’s petrels in the Westman Islands feed to the west of the archipelago, at the edge of the continental shelf. However, data shows that individuals sometimes travel much farther. “One of them decided to go all the way to Rockall, which is 600 kilometres [373 miles] to the south, and they go quite far,” Erpur remarked. “They go to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the big whales are, so they go south and across a very large area.”

Rockall Liam Mason
Liam Mason via Wikimedia Commons Images. Rockall, some 600 kilometres south of Iceland.

 

Numbers have decreased in the Atlantic

Placing the minuscule trackers on the birds is not easy. “It’s a bit of a hassle because they live underground, and we need to find them and get them out,” Erpur explained. “We play their call and they answer us and then we know where they live, but it’s another challenge altogether to get in there, grab them, and put the equipment on.” The GPS devices do not include transmitters, so the birds must be retrieved in order to read the data.

The Leach’s petrels that summer in Iceland winter in both Namibia and Brazil. Manx shearwaters winter in Argentina. Erpur says the species are not numerous and the number of Leach’s petrels in the Atlantic has decreased. The data is expected to help evaluate how the birds are doing, as well as compare the two petrel species.

Bird Flu Widespread in Wild Birds in Iceland

súlur súla gannets

Bird flu was confirmed in eight out of 15 samples that were taken from wild birds in Iceland last week, Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) announced. MAST has encouraged farmers of domestic fowl and other bird owners to take measures to prevent infection among their birds. The risk of infection to humans and other animals is, however, considered very low.

The eight positive samples processed last week were from three different regions of the country. Three were from gannets found in Njarðvík and Grindavík, Southwest Iceland; three from gannets found on Snæfellsnes peninsula, West Iceland; one from a greylag goose in Akureyri, North Iceland; and one from a great black-backed gull in Húsavík (also in North Iceland). The first positive samples among wild birds were confirmed earlier this month.

Risk of infection high for domestic fowl

“It is clear that at this time bird flu is widespread among wild birds and the risk of infection for domestic fowl is therefore great,” the notice from MAST reads. “Birds kept partially outdoors, or in buildings where infection prevention is inadequate, are most at risk of infection.”

To prevent infection, MAST encourages farmers to keep fowl indoors or under solid roofing, so that neither wild birds nor their droppings can come into contact with the domestic fowl. Farmworkers are recommended to switch shoes and put on protective clothing when attending to the birds and not use the same gear outside of where the birds are kept.

Risk of human and pet infection low

Despite the cases found among wild birds in Iceland, Brigitte Brugger, a MAST veterinarian who specialises in domestic fowl, told Vísir humans have no reason to worry about getting infected with bird flu – nor worry about their pets contracting it. “There are no indications that humans contract these viruses. There are very few known exceptions where people who have had a lot of contact with groups of infected birds have contracted [bird flu] and gotten mild symptoms, but the average person has nothing to fear at this time,” Brigitte stated.

Cat and dog owners need not worry either, according to Brigitte, though if pets bring home wild birds, owners should avoid touching them with bare hands, and should instead dispose of the birds using plastic bags or gloves.

Spring on the Wing – Golden Plover Arrives in Iceland

Golden Plover Iceland

Iceland’s herald of spring, the migratory golden plover, has arrived in the country. The first birds were spotted in the southeastern region yesterday, March 20, according to the Southeast Iceland Bird Observatory. Other migratory bird species, including white-fronted geese and pink-footed geese, have been spotted returning to their nesting grounds in small groups. Iceland is a key breeding area for many bird species: one-third of the world’s golden plovers, for example, breed on the island.

This winter has been a particularly snowy and stormy one across Iceland. A series of storms hit the country last month, bringing record snowfall to the Reykjavík area. As a result, local hardware stores sold out of snow shovels, blowers and scrapers in February. As most of the country is still a wintry wonderland, the golden plover is likely locals’ first true sign that spring is on its way.