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.

New Tracking Data Provides Insight into Behaviour of Juvenile Eagles

iceland eagle

The juvenile eagle, Lambi, has gone on quite the journey since he left home in November of 2022.

Since juvenile eagles have been tagged beginning in 2019, new data is allowing Icelandic researchers better insights into the behaviour of these birds, especially in the first year of their life.

 

The eagle in question, Lambi, was tagged in July of 2022. He stayed around his parental nest until November, when he began to range far and wide. Now, extensive data is giving Icelandic biologists new insight into the behaviour of these young birds.

Read more: Bad Year for Eagle Nesting

At the end of November, Lambi left his home near Breiðafjörður to cross the Snæfellsnes peninsula. From there, he explored much of West and North Iceland, including the Westfjords.

The above video shows his travels.

In the summer of 2022, a total of 14 young eagles were tagged with transmitters. Of these original 14, three were confirmed as dying when they were still at their home nest. Of these three dead juveniles, two are confirmed to have died from bird flu (HPAI H5N1).

A further seven juvenile eagles left the nest: three in November, two in December, and two in January. Notably, three eagles are still at their home nest as of March 13. This is considered to be unusually late for eagles to leave the nest. In previous years, most juveniles have left the nest by February.

Ask Iceland Review: Do Eagles Live in Iceland?

This is significant, as it leaves the parents relatively little breathing room for the next breeding season. Eagles in Iceland generally begin nesting in March and April, and if last year’s young are still in the nest, it can negatively impact the next generation.

 

 

Bad Year for Eagle Nesting

eagles in iceland

Compared with previous years, 2022 has been a bad year for the eagle population in Iceland.

In the summer, there were at least 58 known nesting pairs of eagles in Iceland, but of these, only 27 pairs produced some 38 chicks. Compared with 2021, some 45 nesting pairs produced 58 chicks.

Specialists blame bad spring weather this year, as nesting success can be shown to worsen the further north the pair nested.

Since 2019, GPS trackers have been used to trace the habitats and journeys of young eagles. In 2022, 14 fledgelings were outfitted with transmitters. Three of them died due to unknown causes, and others are still staying at their home nests through the winter when they will leave their nests.

The young birds carry their transmitters for life, so over time scientists hope to map their journeys and how their routes change over time. Using this information, specialists hope to be able to better anticipate where to establish conservation areas and where to limit infrastructure, such as potential wind turbines.

Nevertheless, Iceland’s eagle population has been doing well in recent years thanks to conservation efforts, with some 92 known eagles in just West Iceland, mostly nesting around Faxaflói.

The monitoring is being conducted in cooperation between the University of Iceland, the West Iceland Nature Research Centre, and local people.

Read more about Iceland’s Eagles here.

Do Eagles Live in Iceland?

eagle örn iceland

Yes, they do! White-tailed eagles, also called sea eagles, are the species of eagle that call Iceland home. They are a rather rare species here, with only 85 adult nesting pairs in all of Iceland. They were actually quite endangered in the middle of last century, with only around 20 breeding pairs, but they have since rebounded with conservation efforts and are protected.

As their name suggests, they like to be close to the sea, where they can fish. They are excellent fishers, but are also happy to scavenge.

They require either forests or cliffs for nesting, so given the lack of established forests in Iceland, they make their homes on sea cliffs and other inaccessible areas. Ornithologists actually think that they originally preferred to nest in the lowlands, but that they were pushed to nest in mountains and cliffs because of human hostility. They can also sometimes be seen on skerries and other islets.

One of their biggest habitats is in Breiðafjörður, where a majority of the nesting population lives.

Of course, we hope it goes without saying that you should not get too close to any sea cliffs when looking for eagles, and to treat them with respect and distance!

Read more about the preservation of these birds here.

Eagle Empire

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

All cultures have myths of large birds carrying children away. In Greek mythology, Zeus takes on the shape of an eagle to kidnap a young boy. The stories often have the same wording no matter their origin. There are not only legends but also historical records of child-stealing eagles. As a child, I’d heard stories of humongous eagles living on high cliffs. They could fly higher and farther than other birds, and in the stories they also stole and ate children. I never saw these magnificent birds with my own eyes as there were only a handful of them left in the country then and no eagle habitats in the region where I grew up. It wasn’t until I was grown that I caught glimpses of frightening creatures gliding high in the heavens over the islands and skerries of Breiðafjörður fjord, their nesting grounds in western Iceland. The sight filled me with awe and fear-tinged excitement but my wish to see such a bird up close was never fulfilled – until last spring.

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Successful Breeding Season for Icelandic Eagles in 2020

eagle örn náttúrustofa vesturlands

The year 2020 appears to have been a good one for white-tailed eagles. A total of 51 eaglets were born to eagle pairs in 60 nests, a number only exceeded by last year’s figure of 56 since monitoring of the birds began in 1959. Morgunblaðið reported first.

The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is Iceland’s largest bird of prey and the only eagle species that inhabits Iceland. Their average wingspan ranges from 1.78-2.45 metres, possibly the largest wingspan of any living eagle. There are around 85 white-tailed eagle pairs in Iceland, most of them around Breiðarfjörður, West Iceland. Their numbers have bounced back since reaching a low of around 20 pairs in the 1960s.

GPS Trackers Sheds Light on Eagle Behaviour

A recent report from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History outlines how researchers in Iceland put GPS loggers on white-tailed eaglets for the first time last year. Powered by solar batteries, the devices have been tracking the movements of eight young eagles since the summer of 2019. The devices, which are expected to function for at least 4-6 years, send researchers information on the eagles’ location several times per day and sometimes as often as every three minutes, allowing them to map their movements.

As of the spring of 2020, all but one of the eagles were still alive and well. The GPS loggers showed wide variation when it came to the eaglets fleeing the nest. Two of the eaglets left their parents’ nest in late October or early November, while some stayed until February. Once they had left the nest, the eagles stuck to fairly small areas, sometimes in small groups, even inside territories inhabited by adult eagles. The eagles behaved differently from each other as well. “One of them played the unofficial role of health inspector and regularly visited locations where dead livestock had been stored,” the report reads.

Record Summer for White-Tailed Eagle Nestlings

This summer was a record summer for eagle nestlings since measurements on the white-tailed eagle began. There are two nestlings in unusually many nests. This can most likely be traced to decent weather conditions according to an animal ecologist.

At one point in time, the white-tailed eagle was in danger of extinction, but the population has steadily grown over the last half-century. It is believed that the population will continue to grow in coming decades, spreading to all parts of the country.

Around 87 different areas are occupied by eagles this summer, with around 300 total birds in the population. The white-tailed eagle only lives in West Iceland and the Westfjords while they laid eggs all around the country in the past.

Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson from The Icelandic Institute of Natural History says that egg-laying has gone very well this summer and that a record number of eagle nestlings have managed to fly from their nests since measurements started. The prerequisites for a good egg-laying is that the weather conditions stay stable from the time the egg-laying starts in April until June and July.

“There were eggs in 65 nests this spring, but for some reason, there are always a few that are miscarried,” Kristinn said. Scientists know now of 59 nestlings in 39 nests. The eagle normally lays 2-3 eggs but only one nestling makes it most of the time. There can be a number of reasons for this. The eggs can be sterile, the nestlings can die young, or all of the nestlings might not make it if there is a dearth of food. According to Kristinn, the weather has played its part as the eagles seem to have an abundance of food.

From extinction to repopulation

At one point in time, the white-tailed eagle population was in danger of extinction as it numbered only 20 pairs. The bird was officially protected in 1913 and has grown slowly but steadily for the last half-century or so. Kristinn says that many ancient eagle nest areas are deserted but that the eagles will slowly start to repopulate areas which they lived in. Eventually, if the birds are let be, they will repopulate the whole of the country. However, Kristinn believes that nature sets a cap for around 200-300 pairs.