A Guide to Bird Watching Near Reykjavík Skip to content

A Guide to Bird Watching Near Reykjavík

By Erik Pomrenke

an arctic tern near lake þingvellir
Photo: Erik.

Whether you’re an experienced or hobbyist bird watcher, many of Iceland’s most beautiful and iconic birds can be seen near the capital area. While heading off to the isolated breeding grounds of Þjósárver might be a grand adventure (or even “just” a puffin tour in the Westman islands), you don’t need to head off to the wilderness to appreciate the diverse and fascinating bird life that Iceland has to offer.

swans in iceland
Swans are not an uncommon sight near Reykjavík.

Before you go

If you’re serious about birding, then you’ve likely already brought your binoculars and camera, if you’re into bird photography. While you can certainly have a fine time observing birds with nothing more than your naked eye, here’s a quick list of some gear you may want to pick up.

  • A good bird guide: One of the best guides available for Iceland is the aptly named Icelandic Bird Guide. It’s available in most bookstores, and many gift shops carry it as well. At the time of writing, it retails for around ISK 6,800 [$49, €45]. It’s slightly pricey for a book, but all of the information will make your time bird-watching in Iceland all the more rewarding.
  • A bird map of Iceland: If you’re looking for something lighter weight, a birding map is also great to bring along. This popular map is likewise available in most bookstores, outdoor stores, gift shops, and other places. It can be found in many other languages as well, including English, German, French, and Chinese. It retails for around 2,500 ISK [$18, €17] and is a great addition to your bird-watching trip!
  • Good clothing: While you likely won’t be heading off into the wilderness, it’s still good to have the proper outdoor clothes when bird-watching. The weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle, and you may want to get muddy to get a better look at that loon across the lake. It will of course depend on the season and your own common sense, but we recommend a good pair of boots, a wind- and waterproof shell, warm socks, some sort of insulating layer, a cap, and some sort of backpack for your guide book and some snacks. You may also want to read more about dressing for the shoulder seasons in Iceland.
  • Other resources: If you’re an avid bird-watcher, then you likely already know about eBird, a website for bird identification developed by Cornell University, and Merlin, an app for bird identification that is likewise developed by Cornell. These are invaluable resources for bird-watcher anywhere in the world, and Iceland is no exception. If you’re looking for more specific information about bird habitats and the most common species in Iceland, then you may want to refer to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.
greylag goose in iceland
The Greylag Goose is another common bird you'll see around Reykjavik.

Grótta Lighthouse in Reykjavík

Grótta, a small island and lighthouse, is located in Seltjarnarnes (the small community west of Reykjavík), so you can visit this little natural gem without even leaving town. It is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and provides beautiful views ideal for an afternoon walk or bird watching. The area is particularly rich in bird life, with approximately 106 bird species in this small area.

However, this rich diversity in bird life also means that Grótta is an important breeding ground. Access to Grótta is restricted during the breeding season from May 1 to July 15. In summer, the area is also home to around 140 species of plants, which is about 1/3 of all plant species that occur in Iceland!

This area is especially good for the urban bird watcher, as you don’t need a car. The area is served by bus route 11.

puffin near seyðisfjörður
It's not unheard of to see puffins in and around Reykjavík.

Laugarnes Peninsula

Another good option for the urban bird watcher, Laugarnes peninsula is situated in East Reykjavík and is close to the popular city pool Laugardalslaug. Laugarnes can also be accessed if you walk from the coastal path by Harpa concert hall and continue east. The walk will take about 45 minutes, but it’s a lovely way to see the shoreline of Reykjavík city.

Some of the most common species on the Laugarnes peninsula include Northern Fulmar, Arctic Tern, various gulls, Kittiwakes, Eider ducks, and even the Atlantic Puffin! The meadows near the shore here also tend to be filled with various songbirds and nesting waders. There are also several picnic benches nearby, so Laugarnes is a great place to take a walk on a sunny, have a little lunch, and just enjoy being in nature.

While visiting the Laugarnes peninsula, you may also want to visit the unique Sigurjón Ólafsson museum. This area is best accessed via bus routes 12 and 16.

shorebird iceland
A common ringed plover - one of the many waders you will see in Iceland.

Þingvallavatn Lake

The Þingvellir area is of course notable for being a part of the popular Golden Circle day tour, but this national park also has a lot to offer bird watchers. Lake Þingvellir (Þingvallavatn in Icelandic) also happens to be Iceland’s largest lake. Bird-watching here is a great way to experience more of the area than you might on a normal day tour, as many tours of the Golden Circle may only stop briefly at Þingvellir. This area is fascinating from a cultural, historical, and natural perspective, so spending a day bird watching by Þingvallavatn is a good way to slow down and really see this popular attraction.

Of course, you may be frustrated in you bird-watching if you try it from the most popular areas, as the coming and going of travellers may scare off many birds. There are, however, several popular fishing, camping, and picnicking sites on the north side of the lake that are great spots to bird-watch from.

In terms of what kind of bird life you can expect, it’s really a microcosm of all of Iceland. Many gulls and shorebirds make their way to Þingvallavatn, in addition to waders, ducks, loons, geese, and smaller songbirds. Expect to see species such as glaucous gulls, white wagtails, barnacle geese, harlequin ducks, murres, phalaropes, brants, whooper swans, and gadwalls.

black-headed gull by lake þingvellir
A black-headed gull.
red-necked phalarope
A red-necked phalarope.
mallard duck
A common mallard duck.
arctic tern by þingvallavatn
An Arctic tern.

When exploring Lake Þingvellir, do be sure to respect any closed areas. The area is a national park, and during the summer, it is also an important breeding ground for many of these bird species. The arctic tern is particularly known for aggressively defending its nesting grounds, so this advice is as much for your sake as the birds’!

Úlfljótsvatn Lake

Úlfljótsvatn is a 2.45 km² lake located just south of Þingvallavatn. Summer cottages have been built by the Scout Movement, which purchased land around the reservoir in 1940, and the Icelandic National Scout Jamboree has been held there. Scouts have cabins, boat rentals, and playground equipment in the area, alongside residential dwellings. The area is also of interest to birders, given its location near Þingvellir.

The area is less crowded and calmer, so it may be a better place if you’re looking for peace and quiet. It’s also a nice area to drive to. About an hour from the capital, you can simply drive as if going to Þingvellir, and then take a right onto Route 360. Alternately, there’s a nice drive through the Hengill area mountains by taking Route 435 from Reykjavík.

In terms of the species you can expect, it’s much the same as Þingvallavatn, though keep an eye out for merganser, the Greater Scaup, starlings, and Barrow’s Goldeneye as well!

Elliðavatn Lake

Elliðavatn is a reservoir on the border of Reykjavik and the suburb of Kópavogur. Originally, Elliðavatn consisted of two separate lakes: Vatnsendavatn in Kópavogur and Vatnsvatn in Reykjavik, butbetween 1924 and 1928, the surface area of the lake doubled due to the construction of a dam. Elliðavatn now covers about 2 km² but is shallow, with an average depth of around 1 meter and a maximum depth of 2.3 meters.

About a 20-minute drive from downtown Reykjavík, these days, the lake is a popular outdoor area. There is a trail around the lake area, in addition to the nearby forest of Heiðmörk, which is also a popular hiking and walking area for many Reykjavík residents.

a male eider duck
A male Eider Duck.

Some of the most common species at Elliðavatn include whooper swans, tufted ducks, less black-backed gulls, red-necked phalaropes, mergansers, and Eurasian wigeons.

Flói Nature Reserve

For travellers in the capital region looking for a day tip, northwest of the town of Eyrarbakki lies a wetland area teeming with birdlife. About an hour from Reykjavík, the Flói Bird Reserve, features walking paths and a bird hide, making it an ideal spot for bird watching. The reserve is distinguished by its flood meadows and numerous small ponds, with approximately 70 bird species recorded.

During spring and autumn migrations, visitors can see Greylag Geese, White-fronted Geese, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, and various waders such as Snipe. In winter, the estuary of the river Ölfusá attracts birds, primarily gulls, along with occasional sightings of Long-tailed Duck and Common Eider. Open waters also draw all sorts of geese, shorebirds, ducks, and more.


Nature on your doorstep

Bird watching is a great way to get outdoors and spend time in nature. Though the many waterfalls and sights in Icelandic nature are doubtless beautiful, it sometimes feels like a drive-through approach to tourism to park your car, see the sight, and move on. Bird watching in Iceland allows you to engage more with your surroundings and really have an experience of the landscape around you, no matter your level of experience. Whether you’re a pro, kitted out with all of the expensive gear, or just looking to take a walk and enjoy a nice day, bird watching is a great way to do it. And with this guide, you don’t need to be go off on a highland expedition either – there is so much wonderful nature just on our doorstep!

If you enjoy bird-watching, you may also be interested in learning about the unique features of the Icelandic Oystercatcher population.

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