A Powerful Volcanic Eruption and a Heated Presidential Race

Reykjanes peninsula eruptions

In this episode of Iceland News Review, the still-ongoing volcanic eruption on Reykjanes peninsula, a hotly contested presidential race, a bird’s incredible return to East Iceland, and much more.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

University of Iceland Researcher Studies Chick Development, Food Resources

plover chick in iceland

Postdoctoral researcher, Camilo Carneiro, at University of Iceland has spent this summer on a research project studying the development of several Icelandic bird species with regard to food resources.

The project has monitored some 110 nests, including whimbrel and plover. Laying dates and hatching success were recorded as part of University of Iceland’s ongoing monitoring of these species.

Because eggs change in density during the embryonic development, researchers are able to estimate the day of hatching with a high degree of accuracy. Once the chicks hatched, the parents were marked and measured with coloured rings.

Chicks were monitored and measured every 3 days. However, researchers have to wait until the chicks develop before also tagging them with rings, as their legs must be long enough to not interfere with their mobility.

Stool samples were also collected from the hatchlings to monitor their diet to better understand the relationship between food resources and chick development.

A particular interest in the study was the role of crowberries in hatchling diets. The berries were measured every 3 days, and estimates for the total fruit biomass available to the developing chicks were calculated.

In addition to traditional monitoring techniques, the study also employed GPS tagging to monitor their migrations patterns.

As can be seen in the above Twitter thread, once the hatchlings become independent (which generally takes around 4 weeks), they migrate non-stop to North Africa. Notably, the juveniles tend to stick together during migration.

Camilo’s research is supported by Rannís, the Icelandic Centre for Research.

Jogger Has Run-In with Aggro Owl in Southeast Iceland

“Tempo running” took on a new meaning for Þórgunnur Torfadóttir when she went out for a jog in Hornafjörður, Southeast Iceland last week and was dive bombed—repeatedly—by a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). Fréttablaðið reports that the fearless flyer was most likely protecting its young, but a local ornithologist says that such behaviour is relatively uncommon among owls in Iceland.

“I was out for a jog and just starting a short tempo run—I wanted to push myself,” Þórgunnur recalled. “Then a bird flies toward me and I think: That gull is flying really low.”

‘I see a shadow coming up behind me’

As the bird got closer, it started hissing and spitting, Þórgunnur continued. “That’s when I see it’s not a gull, but an owl. And then she dived at me over and over with such horrible screeching.” In one terrifying instance, the owl’s razor-sharp talons were only about a metre [3 ft] from her face.

Þórgunnur steeled herself and did the only sensible thing: she hissed and screeched back at the owl while vigorously flapping her arms. The spectacle worked and the bird retreated.

Turning and running back in the other direction, Þórgunnur thought her ordeal was over. “But then I see a shadow coming up behind me and think: No, not you again! I ran as fast as I could and was finally able to shake her.”

Þórgunnur said she knew that skua, Arctic terns, sea gulls, and even redwings are known to take a flying peck at people who intrude on their territory, but the incident with the owl still surprised her. “I had my hair in a ponytail, and it occurred to me that maybe the owl thought it was a mouse or a fox’s tail or something.” But more likely, she said, is simply that it’s the owl’s nesting season.

Still loves birds

Ornithologist Björn Arnarson at the Southeast Iceland Bird Observatory confirms the latter speculation. He said this kind of behaviour isn’t common among owls in Iceland, but it does occasionally happen at this time of year. The owl was almost certainly protecting its young nearby. He explained that short-eared owls are very protective of their owlets, but agreed that this particular bird was unusually aggressive.

As harrowing as the experience was, Þórgunnur says she still wouldn’t rank it in the top ten worst of her life and moreover, wouldn’t even say that the short-eared owl is the worst of the dive-bombing birds she’s fended off. “The skua are the worst,” she said. “They crash into you like fighter jets, but they don’t make as much noise as owls.”

And none of her run-ins with feathered fighters change the affection she holds for southeast Iceland, which she said is a bird paradise, and its fauna.

“Adventures like this don’t change the fact that I still really enjoy birds.”

Bird Flu Confirmed in Iceland

Bird

Bird flu has been confirmed in three wild birds in Iceland in recent days: a pink-footed goose in Hornafjörður in Southeast Iceland, a raven in Skeiða in South Iceland, and a gannet in Selvogur, also in South Iceland. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) issued a statement about the presence of bird flu on Friday. But while poultry farmers are advised to take precautions to keep their chickens from becoming infected, the general public is not considered to be at risk for contracting the infection from consuming eggs or poultry.

MAST has activated its plan for responding to and preventing infectious diseases in birds.

Authorities have identified the bird flu variant in question to be H5N1. This variant is the most common one in neighbouring countries but has not been found to cause infections in humans. MAST emphasizes that eating eggs or poultry is not thought to pose any risk of infection for humans. People are, however, cautioned about interacting with or touching sick or dead birds. The public is asked to report dead birds whose cause of death is clearly not an accident of some kind on the MAST website so the agency can determine if samples and testing are needed.

Following MAST’s announcement, RÚV reported that hens at a farm in Skeiða (the town where the infected raven was found) showed symptoms of the bird flu and were slaughtered as a result. Samples were taken from the culled poultry and sent for testing; results were still pending at time of writing. Poultry farmers and bird owners are urged to keep their birds under a roof and fenced in, so as to prevent infection from wild birds.

Golden Plover Heralds Arrival of Springtime in Iceland

Golden Plover Iceland

The first golden plovers were spotted near the fishing village of Höfn in Southeast Iceland on Sunday, March 15, RÚV reports. The plover is traditionally thought to herald the arrival of spring in Iceland. A birder outside of Höfn reported hearing the golden plover’s melancholy and melodic high-pitched trill on Saturday, but couldn’t see the bird. He went back out on Sunday, however, and was able to spot the springtime fowl, making the season’s arrival official in Iceland.

“Lóan er komin að kveða burt snjóinn,” begins Páll Ólafsson‘s 19th-century ode to the bird: ‘The golden plover has arrived to sing away the snow.’ The poem became a popular folk song and its refrain has inspired numerous versions, from more traditional renditions to (much looser) punk adaptations.

The golden plover’s average arrival date in Iceland is March 23, so this year’s spotting is significantly ahead of the curve. It arrived late for the last three years running: in both 2019 and 2018, it arrived on March 28th; in 2017, on March 27th.

 

A Third of the World’s Golden Plover Nest in Iceland

Golden Plover Iceland

More than a third of the world’s golden plover and around 27% of the world’s whimbrel populations nest in Iceland, RÚV reports. These findings were among those included in a paper entitled “Icelandic meadow-breeding waders: status, threats and conservation challenges,” published in the most recent issue of the Wader Study journal of shorebird science. According to the paper, the main threats to both bird species are habitat loss and climate change.

The article was coauthored by Dr. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, a specialist at the South East Iceland Nature Research Center, and colleagues at the University of Iceland’s South Iceland Research Center, the University of East Anglia in the UK, and the University of Aveiro in Portugal.

Iceland has an incredibly large population of wading birds compared with those in neighbouring countries, where these birds’ habitats have been aggressively infringed upon, particularly due to agricultural expansion. However, in Iceland “…substantial expansion of agricultural land only began after the 1940s,” reads the paper abstract. “…Large areas of natural or semi-natural habitats are therefore still common and widespread in Iceland, and the current mosaic-like landscape created by areas of agricultural land within these habitats may help to provide the resources needed by the very large populations of waders that breed in the country.”

While wader species “have all been protected from hunting and egg-collecting by law since the 20th century,” however, these bird population still face threats in Iceland. “[L]owland landscapes in Iceland are changing quite rapidly, as a result of agricultural expansion, afforestation, shrub encroachment and widespread construction of summer cottages, and all of these developments pose potential threats to these species.” There are, explain the authors, no specific conservation efforts are currently aimed at meadow-breeding waders in Iceland.

In addition to the golden plover and whimbrel, roughly 12% of the world’s redshanks, 10% of the world’s dunlin, 7% of the world’s black-tailed godwits, and 3% of the world’s oystercatchers and snipes nest in Iceland as well.

In addition to habitat encroachment, climate change poses an incredible threat to Icelandic wildlife. A recent report projected that around 90% of animal species that call Iceland and the surrounding waters home will disappear in the next 50 years due to climate change.

Látrabjarg Bird Cliff to Be Protected

The Environment Agency of Iceland has presented a proposal for the protection of the Látrabjarg bird cliffs in the Westfjords. The agency has been working on the proposal since 2011 in collaboration with landowners, local authorities, and other stakeholders and is now seeking comments on it from the public.

One of Europe’s biggest bird cliffs, Látrabjarg is the westernmost point in Iceland. A staggering number of seabirds nest there every year, including the largest population of razorbills in the world, with 160,968 nesting pairs. Guillemots (225,912 pairs), thick-billed murres (118,034), fulmars (99,894 pairs), puffins (50,00 pairs), kittiwakes (32,028 pairs) also nest along Látrabjarg.

The proposed boundaries for the Látrabjarg preserve would enclose an area of 2,340 hectares (around 9 sq mi; 23.4 sq km). In addition to protecting the cliffs themselves, the preserve would extend one kilometre out to sea, with the intention of safeguarding the surrounding marine environment as well.

The proposed boundaries of the Látrabjarg Nature Reserve.

Per the written proposal, the primary goal of designating Látrabjarg a protected area is to “protect the unique and diverse ecosystem of the area and habitat for birds, especially the seabird nesting site. The protected status is simultaneously intended to protect and maintain the natural condition [of the site] as well as the magnificent landscape from sea level all the way up to the highest point of one of the North Atlantic’s largest bird cliffs.”

Granting the cliffs protected status is also intended to protect its cultural heritage, ensure that it continues to be monitored and studied by scientists, and redouble educational outreach related to its rich bird life.

The deadline for submitting comments on the proposal is June 18, 2019. They can be submitted by email at [email protected] or by post to the Environment Agency of Iceland, Suðurlandsbraut 24, 108 Reykjavík.

Goose Flew to Iceland from Scotland in Less Than a Day

A greylag goose named Arnór completed its migratory flight from the Firth of Tay in Scotland to the Fagurhólsmýri moor in Southeast Iceland in 20 hours, RÚV reports. This is an estimated distance of 1,115km (693mi). The gander was tagged with a GPS tracker in Blönduós, North Iceland in July 2018 before flying back to Scotland, and spending its winter just east of the city of Dundee.

According to ornithologist Arnór Þór Sigfússon, who posted his namesake’s journey on Facebook on Wednesday, the gander is the third greylag to have been tagged with a GPS tracker. The other two were geese named Linda and Linda Björk. Linda was shot by a hunter in Skagafjörður in the fall of 2016; Linda Björk’s transmitter was found in 2017. Its owner’s fate is unknown, although Linda Björk is presumed to be dead.

Meanwhile, Árnor the greylag gander has had a far happier story since being tagged last year. His tracking data shows that he spent some time in the fishing grounds along the southern coast of Iceland before heading to Scotland. He arrived in the Firth of Tay in November and has been wintering there since. Arnór set off on his journey back to Iceland on Monday around midnight and did not stop until he arrived in Fagurhólsmýri. He then rested there for a short time. As of 6 am on Wednesday morning, however, Arnór had already taken off again, and was reported to be flying over the Skeiðarársandur plain and northwest over the Vatnajökull glacier.

Árnor Þór said he expected that before long, the gander would arrive back in Blönduós, where an eager group of geese enthusiasts were looking forward to welcoming the international traveller.

Birds of a Different Feather Seen Flocking Together

Geese and swans were observed flying together in V-formation over Vík í Mýrdal in South Iceland on Thursday, RÚV reports. While it’s unusual to see two different species flocking together, according to a local ornithologist it is not unheard of.

Birna Viðarsdóttir posted the picture to a Facebook group dedicated to Icelandic bird life and it quickly garnered a great deal of attention, as well as a fair amount of skepticism – particularly since the photo was taken on April 1, April Fools’ Day. “A number of people have asked whether it’s been photoshopped,” she told RÚV, “but it wasn’t.”

Ornithologist Arnór Þórir Sigfússon says that it’s uncommon to see different kinds of birds flying together in V-formation, but it has been known to happen. Although swans and geese both migrate to Iceland from Great Britain around this time of year, Arnór Þór thinks it’s unlikely that this particular group of birds did so together the whole way, mostly because geese and swans fly at different speeds. He said he thought it more likely that the swans in Birna’s picture had joined a group of geese, rather than vice versa.

Arnór Þór also noted that different types of geese, such as graylags and pink-footed geese, are known to fly in formation together sometimes, but this is harder for an observer on the ground to see.

Record Number of Bird Species This Winter

Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson, animal ecologist for The Icelandic Institute of Natural History says that a record number of bird species have chosen to make Iceland their winter dwelling place, RÚV reports. Over 90 species have been reported by birdwatchers this winter, an increase Kristinn and colleagues relate to climate change. At the same time there is a noticeable decrease in numbers within known bird species, and some are on the endangered species list, including the Atlantic puffin.

The institute has been keeping a tally of winter birds in Iceland as a part of a special long-running project started in 1952. Recruiting amateur birdwatchers to help keep watch, the institute started the project as a bit of a hobby for Iceland’s bird watching community, but its success means it is now considered a valuable indicator of change in Iceland’s fauna.

Over 50 species of birds are considered winter regulars in Iceland, but according to Kristinn, new species have begun settling here, including some rare ones. “This years tally has revealed 90 species, which is a record high for Iceland,” Kristinn says.

Climate change can drastically change the behaviour of birds, for example there has been a noticeable increase in swans, Eurasian wigeons and greylag geese over the last few years. Furthermore, bird species that prefer colder climates have moved on. “The bird we relate to snow, the snow bunting, has been noticeably scarcer here in the past years,” Kristinn says. “They seem to be yielding to environmental changes that have happened over the last 10 to 20 years.”

Iceland’s increasingly mild winters affect many different species in myriad of ways. The rock ptarmigan, for example, whose plumage changes in winter from brown to white, becomes easy pray for gyrfalcons and human hunters alike when snow is sparse. In 2017, little to no snow fell, making the snow white rock ptarmigans stick out. “You could say it was like shooting fish in a barrel during the first few days of ptarmigan hunting season.”

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History has made a list of endangered species of birds, following guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many known bird species feature on the list, including the Atlantic puffin, Eurasian curlew, the great skua and many others.