Avian Flu Diagnosed, Risk of Poultry Infection “Considerable”

A case of the avian flu has been diagnosed in a mallard discovered in Garðabær. The risk of infection from wild birds to poultry is now deemed “considerable,” according to the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). The public is asked to notify MAST of any sightings of sick or dead birds.

The first case of avian flu

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) recently downgraded its preparedness level for avian flu, from level three to two, after there were no reported infections during the winter, RÚV reports; MAST had received significantly fewer reports from the public regarding sick or dead wild birds since last October, and the few samples that had been taken, did not yield any positive results.

Strict quarantine measures have, however, been in place to prevent the virus from being brought into the country by migratory birds. Poultry and other captive birds must, for example, be kept indoors or in covered enclosures.

Preparedness levels may need to be reconsidered, however, as a mallard discovered in a yard in Garðabær (in the capital region of Iceland) on March 31 was diagnosed with a severe case of avian flu. According to MAST, this is the first confirmed case of avian flu in Iceland this year, with the institution emphasising that the risk of infection from wild birds to poultry is now deemed “considerable.” It is, therefore, essential for all poultry owners to take “the utmost precautions.”

Numerous reports of sick and dead Kittiwakes

Over the weekend, MAST also received multiple reports of sick and dead geese, including one dead greylag goose in the western part of Seltjarnarnes, Reykjavík. Additionally, the institution also received reports of several sick and dead Kittiwakes (a common seabird in Iceland) in Keflavík, in the Reykjanes area. Since then, daily reports have been coming in about dead Kittiwakes in Bakkatjörn, Seltjarnarnes, and within a larger area on the western side of Reykjanes.

Samples were taken from both locations, but none of the samples yielded positive results for the avian flu. MAST states that it is unclear what is causing the sudden mass deaths. The case is currently under investigation and further samples will be taken. Meanwhile, MAST encourages the public to provide any information on the discovery of sick or dead birds and to report the presence of any other species in areas where there has been noticeable bird mortality.

Greylag Geese Hunting Banned in Iceland

grey goose hunting

Since the start of this year, it has been illegal to hunt greylag geese in Iceland, RÚV reports. The change is due to amendments to an international agreement on the protection of migrating wetland birds, to which Iceland is a party. The Icelandic Farmers’ Association (Bændasamtökin) has requested for the Icelandic government to lift the ban during the autumn season so farmers can protect their pastureland and grain fields from the geese.

Hunting of greylag geese has generally been permitted in Iceland between August 20 and March 15, and many farmers have used hunting quota to protect their cultivated land from geese. Most hunting is done in the fall, so the ban has not had much of an impact as of yet.

Counts show a decrease in greylag geese

In October 2021, Icelandic hunting association Skotvís reported a drop in greylag goose numbers in the country over the preceding decade. The Icelandic population of the bird had reached a high point in 2011, numbering some 112,000 birds, but figures from 2020 indicated that there were just around 60,000 individuals of the species remaining. The cause of the decrease is not known. At the time, hunters were encouraged to aim their barrels at pink-footed geese instead, whose population was thriving.

Geese impact grain harvest

Both greylag geese and pink-footed geese love a fresh, green snack, and thus they negatively impact grain harvests in Iceland as well as the cultivation of pastureland for livestock. Björn Halldórsson, a farmer in Vopnafjörður, Northeast Iceland, says the geese chomp on fields both in spring and fall. The Farmers’ Association has called on the government to introduce countermeasures to the hunting ban to protect grain harvests and pastureland, especially as the government has a stated aim of increasing grain production in Iceland.

Representatives of the Ministry for the Environment, Energy, and Climate told RÚV a hunting policy is in the works that will likely be ready before this autumn.

Goose Flew to Iceland from Scotland in Less Than a Day

A greylag goose named Arnór completed its migratory flight from the Firth of Tay in Scotland to the Fagurhólsmýri moor in Southeast Iceland in 20 hours, RÚV reports. This is an estimated distance of 1,115km (693mi). The gander was tagged with a GPS tracker in Blönduós, North Iceland in July 2018 before flying back to Scotland, and spending its winter just east of the city of Dundee.

According to ornithologist Arnór Þórir Sigfússon, who posted his namesake’s journey on Facebook on Wednesday, the gander is the third greylag to have been tagged with a GPS tracker. The other two were geese named Linda and Linda Björk. Linda was shot by a hunter in Skagafjörður in the fall of 2016; Linda Björk’s transmitter was found in 2017. Its owner’s fate is unknown, although Linda Björk is presumed to be dead.

Meanwhile, Árnor the greylag gander has had a far happier story since being tagged last year. His tracking data shows that he spent some time in the fishing grounds along the southern coast of Iceland before heading to Scotland. He arrived in the Firth of Tay in November and has been wintering there since. Arnór set off on his journey back to Iceland on Monday around midnight and did not stop until he arrived in Fagurhólsmýri. He then rested there for a short time. As of 6 am on Wednesday morning, however, Arnór had already taken off again, and was reported to be flying over the Skeiðarársandur plain and northwest over the Vatnajökull glacier.

Árnor Þórir said he expected that before long, the gander would arrive back in Blönduós, where an eager group of geese enthusiasts were looking forward to welcoming the international traveller.

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.