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.”

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.