Arctic Tern Chicks Fall Victim to Careless Drivers

Dozens of Arctic tern chicks have been killed in recent weeks by traffic around the village of Rif on the northern side the Snæfellsnes peninsula, RÚV reports. The speed limit in the area has been lowered and there’s plenty of signage clearly marking nesting grounds, but these measures seem not to have prevented a number of casualties among newly hatched chicks.

Guðjón H. Björnsson, foreman of the Icelandic Road and Costal Administration in nearby Ólafsvík, says that the area is being closely monitored and that an additional speed limit reduction is under consideration.

“We permanently lowered the speed limit to 70 km/hr [43 mi/hr] last year,” he explained, “but we’re considering lowering it even more, down to 50 km/hr [31 mi/hr] in certain sections.”

“It’s different from day to day—some days, we’re cleaning up 20 chicks [from the roadway] over there. Other days, none,” said Guðjón, reiterating that the area is well-marked, but drivers are clearly not being careful enough.

Fewer Puffins Nesting at Two Major Breeding Grounds

Icelandic puffins have laid noticeably fewer eggs in the Westman Islands and Breiðafjörður this year. This was among the findings in the annual Icelandic Atlantic Puffin Monitoring Program report produced by the Westman Islands’ South Iceland Nature Research Centre (NS). NS surveyed twelve puffin nesting sites around Iceland.

The bay of Breiðafjörður in West Iceland and the Westman Island archipelago off the south coast are extremely important breeding grounds for puffins in Iceland. Indeed, 60% of the country’s puffin population lay their eggs one of these two grounds.

There are about half a million puffin burrows in Breiðafjörður. Each puffin burrow can accommodate two puffins (one breeding pair), but the usage of these burrows varies from year to year. According to NS director Erpur Snær Hansen, last year—a particularly good year where puffin breeding is concerned—puffins laid eggs in 88% of the Breiðafjörður burrows. This year, by contrast, only half the burrows are in use. This is a nearly 34% decrease in burrow usage. The Westman Islands boasts more than double the number of puffin burrows, that is, over a million. Last year, 78% of the burrows in the Westmans had eggs in them; this year, only half do.

Erpur attributes the decline in breeding in both of these areas to localized changes in puffins’ food sources.

All but one of the other puffin breeding grounds surveyed had little to no variation in burrow usage since last year. And there is some good news: Lundey island in Skjálfandi Bay in North Iceland has seen a 13% increase in burrow usage this year.

Erpur says that puffins started laying eggs earlier than usual in the Westmans. In fact, he came across two pufflings during his survey of the islands’ nesting grounds. If they mature at the normal rate, these pufflings will leave the nest in early August. “That’s three weeks earlier than it has been for the last ten years or so,” said Erpur.

Iceland’s puffin stock has been declining in recent years and is having difficulty rebounding, despite good breeding seasons like last year. The puffin, along with the Eurasian curlew and the great skua, is currently listed as a “critically endangered” species on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red List for Birds.

NS will be surveying puffin breeding grounds again in July to find out how many pufflings have hatched and how they are faring.

Cameras to Protect Gyrfalcon Nests

Gyrfalcon chick

Nearly 20 cameras will be set up in falcon nesting areas in North Iceland to ward off would-be egg thieves, RÚV reports. Though gyrfalcons have been a protected species in Iceland since 1950, the Icelandic Gyrfalcon Centre reports that “nest predation” by humans, who steal eggs to sell them abroad, continues to be a problem.

The Icelandic Gyrfalcon Centre started limited camera surveillance of nests last year. The cameras went up later in the season, however, after egg-laying had already started. Now the centre aims to put up the cameras before egg-laying starts in mid-April to ward off even the earliest thieves. Ten of the cameras are on loan from an Austrian falcon enthusiast who wanted to help the centre due to his concern for Iceland’s falcon population. The other eight belong to the Gyrfalcon Centre.

Iceland Review Magazine: A day in the life of a gyrfalcon researcher

The surveillance is run in close collaboration with gyrfalcon specialist Ólafur K. Nielsen, who has been monitoring Iceland’s falcon population since 1981. Ólafur says last year was particularly productive for breeding among the birds, largely thanks to a rise in ptarmigan stocks, the falcon’s main source of food. Indications point to 2019 being good – and additional surveillance certainly won’t do any harm.

Southern Iceland Beset by Barnacle Geese

Barnacle geese

A dramatic influx of barnacle geese in South Iceland is raising concern among farmers whose crops are being compromised by these winged invaders, RÚV reports. A recent study shows that the geese are reducing hay harvests by as much as 24%, leading some to call for a longer hunting season to better control the birds’ population.

Last spring, the South East Iceland Nature Research Center investigated the effects of goose grazing on hay harvesting and found that on average, farmers whose fields are beset with barnacle geese are losing three hay bales per hectare (2.471 acres).

“…The fields are just completely stripped by those creatures when they leave at the start of May,” complained Björn Borgþór Þorbergsson, a farmer in Suðursveit. “For example, the thing that was worst about the spring was that there was double the amount of manure and half the harvest on part of the fields.”

GPS trackers show that barnacle geese typically stop over in South and Southeast Iceland in the early part of spring, before continuing on to Greenland where they lay their eggs. The geese have increasingly started nesting in Iceland, however. In 2014, 360 barnacle geese nests were found on Skúmey island in the Jökusárlón glacial lagoon. This went up to 970 in 2017 and last summer, there were over 1,100.

“There’s very little you can really do about it yourself,” said Björn. “Shooting them always returns the best results, but as you know, you’re not allowed to do that in the spring.” Currently, the hunting season for geese begins on September 25, which according to Björn, isn’t early enough.

“[The barnacle goose] is haunting us over the summers, too. He’s become a local here.”