Falcon Population Dwindling

An Icelandic falcon

The falcon population in Iceland has never been smaller, at least not since research into it began in 1981. Bird flu is the likely cause, experts at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History told RÚV.

The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species and its Icelandic population is genetically unique compared to other populations in countries across Arctic coasts and tundra. Its image was featured on the crest of the Icelandic coat of arms until 1919 and Iceland’s highest honour, the medal of The Order of the Falcon, is named after it and bestowed upon citizens and foreigners by the president of Iceland.

Only one case of bird flu discovered

For over 40 years, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History has monitored falcons in an area of over 5,000 square kilometres in the northeast of Iceland. Since research began, the population has never been smaller and has dwindled significantly in the last three years. In only 38 of 88 known nests did experts discover nestlings. Never before have there been as many empty nests in the northeast area. Fluctuations in population size are not unusual, however, and are linked to the population of ptarmigan in Iceland, the gyrfalcon’s main prey.

Experts still say this drop is worrying. The likeliest explanation is that more birds succumbed to bird flu than originally estimated. Only one case of bird flu in falcons was discovered in Iceland in 2022, but many more falcons have been found dead with bird flu as the suspected cause.

Biologists Ask Icelanders to Return Little Auks to Sea

seabird iceland

The winter storms that have swept the nation in the past week have also had an effect on wildlife, reports the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The little auk, a common seabird in Iceland, has been found far inland. The seabird averages about 20 cm [7.8 in] in length and 150g [5.3oz] in weight, and is not accustomed to long-range flight. Biologists have received updates from travellers on the South Coast of Iceland who encounter stranded birds far out of place.

Now, with some individuals stranded far from the coast after the storms, biologists are asking residents who happen upon little auks to return them to the sea.

In a statement to RÚV,  Borgný Katrínardóttir, a biologist at the Institute of Natural History, said: “We actually just received another update about another bird that was found by Sólheimar, so they can fly quite far inland. We should also keep in mind that there was a recent bird fluJust be careful and wash well afterwards. If the bird seems unharmed, just get it down to the sea as soon as possible.”

Little auks, however, have historically been a rather resilient bird. A relative newcomer to Icelandic shores, they were unknown in Iceland until the 19th century. Their conservation status is considered to be “of least concern.”

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.

Wind Carries European Birch Pollen to Iceland

Pollen from birch trees in Europe and as far away as Russia reached Iceland last week. RÚV reports that the pollen was carried along with dust from the Sahara Desert on strong winds that originated in Eastern Europe. Much of the dust and pollen settled over the Mediterranean Sea, but a measurable quantity made the journey all the way to Iceland.

On April 25, the First Day of Summer in Iceland, a fair amount of the Saharan dust and a great deal of European pollen was caught in traps placed by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History in the municipality of Garðabær in the capital area and in Akureyri in North Iceland. According to an announcement on its website, the institute has only measured a higher pollen count twice since it began taking such measurements, that is in May 2006 and April 2014.

There was a veritable explosion of vegetation blooming over the last week in both North and South Iceland, although particularly around Akureyri. It’s expected then that there will be high levels of birch pollen circulating in the coming weeks, which may cause difficulties for people with pollen allergies.

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.