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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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.”

Illustrators Open a New Kind of Puffin Shop in East Iceland

Illustrators Rán Flygenring and Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir and their puffins

So-called ‘puffin shops’ in downtown Reykjavík have long been synonymous with cheesy tchotchke and concessions made to the tourism market, but two Icelandic illustrators are now giving the concept a makeover.  Rán Flygenring and Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir opened Nýlunda this week, a puffin-themed popup in the East Iceland village of Borgarfjörður eystri selling nothing but a good vantage point to watch the birds in real life.

Nýlunda—which means ‘novelty’ in Icelandic and is also a play on the words ‘nýr´(new) and ‘lundi’ (puffin)—is temporarily operating from Borgarfjörður eystri’s birdwatching house.

“The puffin, in its Viking hat, has become the face of tourism,” remarked Rán in a recent radio interview. “[The phrase] puffin shop has almost become an expletive. Which is why we thought there was an opportunity right now to have the space to investigate this phenomenon. To make a totally Icelandic puffin shop in the middle of a puffin nesting ground.”

While the more common puffin shops aim to sell souvenirs, Nýlunda is no slave to capitalism, as Elín Elísabet explained to Iceland Review. “We’re in the process of developing our products but the process is what’s important. During this process, we’re researching the puffin and trying to find ways to let the puffin be a puffin on its own terms, not swallowed whole by the market. We’re expanding the concept of a puffin store.”

The birdwatching house is only two meters wide—the distance, it might be emphasized, that people are supposed to keep from one another in this time of social distancing—which means that only a few people can visit in person at a time. Indeed, in-person visits aren’t actually encouraged: “Due to the virus,” reads the sign on the outside of the shop, “it is best visited on Instagram.”

 

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The puffins are staying in today. 🌧

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This will affect the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled later today. “It’s just going to be the two of us,” says Elín. “But everyone’s welcome to join us online.” The pair will be sharing their puffin research and adventures on Instagram until August 16th through photos, videos and live-streams from their bird-watching cabin in east Iceland.

Nýlunda will have its official opening at 5pm GMT, which can be watched on the Nýlundabúðin Instagram page.

Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir and Rán Flygenring in Borgarfjörður Eystri
Sebastian Ziegler

 

 

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.

 

First Horned Grebes Settle in Reykjavík Pond

horned grebe

Two horned grebes have settled in Reykjavík Pond in the city centre, RÚV reports. It is the first time the species is found nesting at the location. At the turn of the century, the horned grebe population was placed on a watchlist due to its decline, but it seems to have made a recovery since.

The horned grebe is a small waterbird named for the large patches of yellowish feathers located behind their eyes. The birds can raise and lower these patches, known as “horns,” at will. Though the species has been multiplying in Southwest Iceland in recent years, this is nevertheless the first time the birds have settled by the pond in the heart of Reykjavík. The horned grebe is the only bird in Iceland that builds a floating nest.

“Horned grebes have not laid eggs by Reykjavík Pond since people started observing the birdlife here,” says Snorri Sigurðsson, a biologist for the City of Reykjavík. “They haven’t yet laid eggs, we don’t know that for sure, but it’s not unlikely that they are a couple.” Snorri says it is very unusual for the species to settle in the middle of a city.

“For a long time [the species has nested] by Ástjörn pond in Hafnarfjörður but now they have multiplied so that one couple has clearly decided to come all the way here to [Reykjavík Pond].” Snorri says it’s surprising that the birds are attempting to settle at the location, as the area doesn’t fulfil the conditions horned grebes prefer for nesting. “It’s a bit lacking in the shoreline vegetation that the horned grebe wants in order to be able to fasten the floating nest it makes, but they’ve been sticking to the little islet here, maybe they see some opportunity there,” Snorri observes. “We haven’t seen any nest yet but we’ll be monitoring this.”

At some lakes in Iceland, man-made nesting sites have been outfitted to encourage horned grebes to breed. “This has been done at Vífilstaðavatn and Elliðavatn with very good results, the horned grebes showed up right away and took advantage of it.” Snorri says no such plan has been implemented for the new residents of Reykjavík Pond, though it could be considered if the need arises.

Kingfisher Spotted in Iceland

A belted kingfisher was spotted in Iceland yesterday morning. Ornithologist Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson says this is only the seventh time the species has been seen in the country. The bird is not native to Iceland. RÚV reported first.

The bird was spotted by Varmá river in Mosfellsbær, just 20 minutes outside Reykjavík. It is believed to be the same kingfisher which was seen (but not photographed) at the same location last November. Jóhann Óli says the bird may have been carried to Iceland by a hurricane.

Belted kingfishers are widespread in Canada and the United States. The birds usually migrate south to Mexico, Central America, or even northern South America during the winter. Some individuals, however, have been known to linger in the northern parts of their range throughout winter, provided there are open bodies of water nearby.

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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.

Rare Foreign Bird Sightings in Iceland

A number of foreign birds that are rarely seen in Iceland have been spotted in the country of late, RÚV reports. These unusual sightings include hawfinches in Húsavík in North Iceland, whinchats in Southeast Iceland and, along Iceland’s Southern coast, near Vík, little buntings that would have flown all the way from Northeast Europe or Asia.

Other foreign winged visitors of late include lesser whitethroats, six gray herons, white-winged scoters, and even gray-cheeked thrushes, which generally nest in the Arctic, namely, in Siberia and Canada. Lastly, the colourful American robin, which nests throughout North America, has caused a particular sensation among birdwatchers on the Suðurnes peninsula.