A Guide to Bird Watching Near Reykjavík

an arctic tern near lake þingvellir

Whether you’re an experienced or hobbyist bird watcher, many of Iceland’s most beautiful and iconic birds can be seen near the capital area. While heading off to the isolated breeding grounds of Þjósárver might be a grand adventure (or even “just” a puffin tour in the Westman islands), you don’t need to head off to the wilderness to appreciate the diverse and fascinating bird life that Iceland has to offer.

swans in iceland
Swans are not an uncommon sight near Reykjavík.

Before you go

If you’re serious about birding, then you’ve likely already brought your binoculars and camera, if you’re into bird photography. While you can certainly have a fine time observing birds with nothing more than your naked eye, here’s a quick list of some gear you may want to pick up.

  • A good bird guide: One of the best guides available for Iceland is the aptly named Icelandic Bird Guide. It’s available in most bookstores, and many gift shops carry it as well. At the time of writing, it retails for around ISK 6,800 [$49, €45]. It’s slightly pricey for a book, but all of the information will make your time bird-watching in Iceland all the more rewarding.
  • A bird map of Iceland: If you’re looking for something lighter weight, a birding map is also great to bring along. This popular map is likewise available in most bookstores, outdoor stores, gift shops, and other places. It can be found in many other languages as well, including English, German, French, and Chinese. It retails for around 2,500 ISK [$18, €17] and is a great addition to your bird-watching trip!
  • Good clothing: While you likely won’t be heading off into the wilderness, it’s still good to have the proper outdoor clothes when bird-watching. The weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle, and you may want to get muddy to get a better look at that loon across the lake. It will of course depend on the season and your own common sense, but we recommend a good pair of boots, a wind- and waterproof shell, warm socks, some sort of insulating layer, a cap, and some sort of backpack for your guide book and some snacks. You may also want to read more about dressing for the shoulder seasons in Iceland.
  • Other resources: If you’re an avid bird-watcher, then you likely already know about eBird, a website for bird identification developed by Cornell University, and Merlin, an app for bird identification that is likewise developed by Cornell. These are invaluable resources for bird-watcher anywhere in the world, and Iceland is no exception. If you’re looking for more specific information about bird habitats and the most common species in Iceland, then you may want to refer to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.
greylag goose in iceland
The Greylag Goose is another common bird you'll see around Reykjavik.

Grótta Lighthouse in Reykjavík

Grótta, a small island and lighthouse, is located in Seltjarnarnes (the small community west of Reykjavík), so you can visit this little natural gem without even leaving town. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and provides beautiful views ideal for an afternoon walk or bird watching. The area is particularly rich in bird life, with approximately 106 bird species in this small area.

However, this rich diversity in bird life also means that Grótta is an important breeding ground. Access to Grótta is restricted during the breeding season from May 1 to July 15. In summer, the area is also home to around 140 species of plants, which is about 1/3 of all plant species that occur in Iceland!

This area is especially good for the urban bird watcher, as you don’t need a car. The area is served by bus route 11.

puffin near seyðisfjörður
It's not unheard of to see puffins in and around Reykjavík.

Laugarnes Peninsula

Another good option for the urban bird watcher, Laugarnes peninsula is situated in East Reykjavík and is close to the popular city pool Laugardalslaug. Laugarnes can also be accessed if you walk from the coastal path by Harpa concert hall and continue east. The walk will take about 45 minutes, but it’s a lovely way to see the shoreline of Reykjavík city.

Some of the most common species on the Laugarnes peninsula include Northern Fulmar, Arctic Tern, various gulls, Kittiwakes, Eider ducks, and even the Atlantic Puffin! The meadows near the shore here also tend to be filled with various songbirds and nesting waders. There are also several picnic benches nearby, so Laugarnes is a great place to take a walk on a sunny, have a little lunch, and just enjoy being in nature.

While visiting the Laugarnes peninsula, you may also want to visit the unique Sigurjón Ólafsson museum. This area is best accessed via bus routes 12 and 16.

shorebird iceland
A common ringed plover - one of the many waders you will see in Iceland.

Þingvallavatn Lake

The Þingvellir area is of course notable for being a part of the popular Golden Circle day tour, but this national park also has a lot to offer bird watchers. Lake Þingvellir (Þingvallavatn in Icelandic) also happens to be Iceland’s largest lake. Bird-watching here is a great way to experience more of the area than you might on a normal day tour, as many tours of the Golden Circle may only stop briefly at Þingvellir. This area is fascinating from a cultural, historical, and natural perspective, so spending a day bird watching by Þingvallavatn is a good way to slow down and really see this popular attraction.

Of course, you may be frustrated in you bird-watching if you try it from the most popular areas, as the coming and going of travellers may scare off many birds. There are, however, several popular fishing, camping, and picnicking sites on the north side of the lake that are great spots to bird-watch from.

In terms of what kind of bird life you can expect, it’s really a microcosm of all of Iceland. Many gulls and shorebirds make their way to Þingvallavatn, in addition to waders, ducks, loons, geese, and smaller songbirds. Expect to see species such as glaucous gulls, white wagtails, barnacle geese, harlequin ducks, murres, phalaropes, brants, whooper swans, and gadwalls.

black-headed gull by lake þingvellir
A black-headed gull.
red-necked phalarope
A red-necked phalarope.
mallard duck
A common mallard duck.
arctic tern by þingvallavatn
An Arctic tern.

When exploring Lake Þingvellir, do be sure to respect any closed areas. The area is a national park, and during the summer, it is also an important breeding ground for many of these bird species. The arctic tern is particularly known for aggressively defending its nesting grounds, so this advice is as much for your sake as the birds’!

Úlfljótsvatn Lake

Úlfljótsvatn is a 2.45 km² lake located just south of Þingvallavatn. Summer cottages have been built by the Scout Movement, which purchased land around the reservoir in 1940, and the Icelandic National Scout Jamboree has been held there. Scouts have cabins, boat rentals, and playground equipment in the area, alongside residential dwellings. The area is also of interest to birders, given its location near Þingvellir.

The area is less crowded and calmer, so it may be a better place if you’re looking for peace and quiet. It’s also a nice area to drive to. About an hour from the capital, you can simply drive as if going to Þingvellir, and then take a right onto Route 360. Alternately, there’s a nice drive through the Hengill area mountains by taking Route 435 from Reykjavík.

In terms of the species you can expect, it’s much the same as Þingvallavatn, though keep an eye out for merganser, the Greater Scaup, starlings, and Barrow’s Goldeneye as well!

Elliðavatn Lake

Elliðavatn is a reservoir on the border of Reykjavik and the suburb of Kópavogur. Originally, Elliðavatn consisted of two separate lakes: Vatnsendavatn in Kópavogur and Vatnsvatn in Reykjavik, butbetween 1924 and 1928, the surface area of the lake doubled due to the construction of a dam. Elliðavatn now covers about 2 km² but is shallow, with an average depth of around 1 meter and a maximum depth of 2.3 meters.

About a 20-minute drive from downtown Reykjavík, these days, the lake is a popular outdoor area. There is a trail around the lake area, in addition to the nearby forest of Heiðmörk, which is also a popular hiking and walking area for many Reykjavík residents.

a male eider duck
A male Eider Duck.

Some of the most common species at Elliðavatn include whooper swans, tufted ducks, less black-backed gulls, red-necked phalaropes, mergansers, and Eurasian wigeons.

Flói Nature Reserve

For travellers in the capital region looking for a day tip, northwest of the town of Eyrarbakki lies a wetland area teeming with birdlife. About an hour from Reykjavík, the Flói Bird Reserve, features walking paths and a bird hide, making it an ideal spot for bird watching. The reserve is distinguished by its flood meadows and numerous small ponds, with approximately 70 bird species recorded.

During spring and autumn migrations, visitors can see Greylag Geese, White-fronted Geese, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, and various waders such as Snipe. In winter, the estuary of the river Ölfusá attracts birds, primarily gulls, along with occasional sightings of Long-tailed Duck and Common Eider. Open waters also draw all sorts of geese, shorebirds, ducks, and more.

 

Nature on your doorstep

Bird watching is a great way to get outdoors and spend time in nature. Though the many waterfalls and sights in Icelandic nature are doubtless beautiful, it sometimes feels like a drive-through approach to tourism to park your car, see the sight, and move on. Bird watching in Iceland allows you to engage more with your surroundings and really have an experience of the landscape around you, no matter your level of experience. Whether you’re a pro, kitted out with all of the expensive gear, or just looking to take a walk and enjoy a nice day, bird watching is a great way to do it. And with this guide, you don’t need to be go off on a highland expedition either – there is so much wonderful nature just on our doorstep!

If you enjoy bird-watching, you may also be interested in learning about the unique features of the Icelandic Oystercatcher population.

Hafnarhólmi to Begin Charging for Access Next Summer

Puffin Iceland

The municipal government of Borgarfjörður eystri, East Iceland, has stated its intention to make the entrance fee to Hafnarhólmi mandatory.

Hafnarhólmi is an islet and home to a puffin colony. The islet is popular and accessible for bird-watchers who want to see the iconic animal up close. Currently, the entrance fee is voluntary. Austurfrétt reports.

Could generate millions of ISK

The fee is expected to generate significant income for the municipality, as Hafnarhólmi is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Borgarfjörður eystri, and indeed all of East Iceland. The area is estimated to receive around 50,000 visitors annually.

Revenue is expected to be in the tens of millions of ISK, and a majority of the fee would be put towards conserving the popular area and enhancing the visitor experience with improved facilities.

The fee was originally introduced in 2023 with the condition that it would be optional for visitors.

Still optional this summer

Eyþór Stefánsson, chairperson of the local council, stated that although the current arrangement has brought in some revenue, a mandatory fee would be much more beneficial to the area.

Based on last year’s total of 50,000 visitors and a fee of 500 ISK [$3.62; €3.33], he estimates that some 25 million ISK [$180,000; €167,000] in additional revenue could be generated. This would represent a significant increase over the revenue generated by the current optional model.

“In my opinion, this is a better approach than the current arrangement,” Eyþór stated to Austurfrétt. “It will still be optional for visitors to pay this summer, but we believe it is reasonable that from the summer of 2025 onwards, there will be a mandatory fee for each visitor. The matter has not yet reached the stage of planning how this would be implemented, but I would be excited to have it similar to the system in Danish trains where there isn’t a direct ticket sale or attendant, but rather an unannounced check among guests.”

 

 

The Oystercatcher Returns

icelandic oystercatcher

Just as the plover heralds spring for Iceland as a whole, the humble and distinct oystercatcher does so for South Iceland; at least according to South Iceland news service Sunnlenska, who report that the oystercatcher has been spotted.

The bird in question was seen in Sandvík, located on the western edge of the Reykjanes peninsula. Birdwatchers reportedly await the oystercatcher’s arrival at this area with great anticipation, and the first spotting of the bird to the location has been recorded since 2007.

The oystercatcher usually returns to this area on or around April 8th, so it is a bit late this year. This may be to make up for arriving considerably earlier last year, on April 3rd.

The specific species found in Iceland, the Eurasian oystercatcher, spends its winters along the coasts of Africa and southern Asia. Come spring, these birds will fly north, breeding and nesting in Iceland. Unlike the arctic tern, they are not aggressive towards people during this time, and can be safely observed up close, but one should avoid approaching their nesting areas and stressing them out.

Bohemian Waxwing Returns to East Iceland At Last

After an absence of at least a decade, the Bohemian waxwing has again been spotted in East Iceland, East Iceland news service Austurfrétt reports.

The news comes from data collected from the annual bird count. As reported, BirdLife Iceland (Fuglavernd) encourages Icelanders each year to go outside and mark how many and of which types of birds they spot in their own backyards, or in public parks.

The last time a Bohemian waxwing was seen in East Iceland was during the 2013 bird count, and even then, only eight were spotted. This year, 35 were spotted all over the country, in addition to 13 in the northeast.

Bohemian waxwings are northern birds, most commonly seen across Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. In the winter, they can get very bold in their search for food and enter human settlements. Austurfrétt advises that “there are few things Bohemian waxwings like better than apples”, for those who want to leave food out for these birds.

This article has been changed to reflect that these birds have returned to East Iceland in particular; not Iceland as a whole.

Icelanders Encouraged To Count Birds For An Hour Today

Bird

BirdLife Iceland (Fuglavernd) is asking the general public to participate in the Annual Bird Count, which runs from January 26th to 29th.

Iceland is home to numerous bird species, and keeping track of them all can be a daunting task. Fortunately, the part the general public plays is fairly straightforward. One need only observe their yard for an hour, and count how many birds of which species they see. Those who do not have a yard are encouraged to visit a public park for the count instead.

For those unfamiliar with Iceland’s different bird species, BirdLife Iceland has a helpful print-out (.pdf) that can be used for reference. Once the count is completed, one need only visit this Google form to submit the results.

BirdLife Iceland emphasises that one should only count birds that they see actually land in their yard, or in their area of a public park. Birds who are in flight are not to be counted, in order to avoid birds being counted twice.

In Pursuit of Ptarmigan

ptarmigan hunt iceland

It’s 6:00 AM and the obsidian darkness lingers outside my windshield. I arrive in the Kársnes neighbourhood of Kópavogur, park my car, and hop into Kristján Andri Einarsson’s black Jimny. The hunter greets me with a boyish smirk, ready for today’s adventure. He is wearing a camouflage cap on his greying auburn hair. Until this […]

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Expert Proposes Ban on Hunting Puffins

puffins iceland

The South Iceland Nature Research Centre proposes a full ban on puffing hunting in Iceland in a new report. Iceland’s puffin population has been below sustainable limits for a long time and its outlook is poor. The Centre’s Director and a Doctor of Biology Erpur Snær Hansen told RÚV that changing hunting regulations would take political will.

Around 20% of the global population of puffins nest in Iceland’s Westman Islands, with other, smaller colonies across the country. The average puffin population in Iceland has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The change is attributed to a scarcity of food for the birds caused by rising sea temperatures. Hunting, of course, causes the birds’ numbers to decline even further.

Population set to keep decreasing, even if hunting is banned

Erpur says The total puffin population in Iceland numbers around 3 million nesting pairs. If puffing hunting is banned, that population is expected to decrease by over 10% over the next decade. If hunting continues to be permitted, however, the population is expected to decrease by 30% or even as much as 50% within that same period.

“This is not sustainable hunting, and the Wildlife Act clearly states that it should be,” Erpur explains. He adds that the current regulations around puffing hunting mean that not all puffins hunted are reported, so the impact on the population could be greater than projected.

Political will needed to ban puffing hunting

Erpur goes on to explain that, unlike ptarmigan or reindeer hunting, for which quotas can be set and changed yearly by inserting a provision into the regulation, puffing hunting is subject to a different set of laws. In order to ban puffing hunting, the Minister of the Environment would need to change that law. “Maybe it can just be said that the political will to do something about it was not strong enough, or that the pressure from interested parties was therefore greater,” Erpur mused.

Minister of Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir received criticism for imposing a temporary ban on whale hunting this year, a decision that also caused tension within the governing coalition.

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.

Deep North Episode 43: To Catch an Oystercatcher

waders iceland oystercatcher

Under the regular ascent and descent of Keflavík jet traffic, out past the old American radar stations, at the northwestern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, sits the Suðurnes Science and Learning Centre. Much like the airport terminal a few kilometres from here, this spit of low-flung land is a place where many visitors to this island come and go. Along with an international team of ecologists, Sölvi Rúnar Vignisson has been working here for the past 10 years studying the oystercatcher (in Icelandic, tjaldur), a distinctive shorebird whose migratory patterns may serve as a good indicator of climate change.

Read the story here.

To Catch an Oystercatcher

oystercatcher reykjanes

Under the regular ascent and descent of Keflavík jet traffic, out past the old American radar stations, at the northwestern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, sits the Suðurnes Science and Learning Centre. Much like the airport terminal a few kilometres from here, this spit of low-flung land is a place where many visitors to this […]

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