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.