Bird Watching in Iceland - Where to go? Skip to content

Bird Watching in Iceland – Where to go?

By Þórunn Arnaldsdóttir

Photo: Golli. A Merlin perched on a fence post in North-Iceland.

Birds are everywhere in Iceland and when you know where to look, there’s a chance to spot some really interesting species. In downtown Reykjavík, on Tjörnin pond, there are numerous waterfowl year round like geese, swans and ducks that stake it out through cold winters with the help of locals and visitors who bring them bread and other nibbles. Ravens also make their presence known in Reykjavík with their deep, gurgling croaks and mythical disposition. In total there are about 75 species of birds that nest in Iceland and most of them only stop over during nesting and live their lives elsewhere the rest of the year. Spring is a lively time to see birds in Iceland, when most of the migrating species come over to nest and Icelanders are especially excited to see when lóan, or the Golden plover arrives since it has long been a sign that spring has finally come after the long winter.

Photo Golli. Swans, ducks and geese during winter on the Tjörnin pond

The Top Bird Watching Spots in Iceland

The best places to go bird watching within Reykjavík are down by the shoreline where, along with gulls and various duck species, there’s a chance to spot the Great cormorant. In gardens and trees all over the city there are little Redwings and Starlings and tiny little White wagtails in the summer. Also during summer, it’s possible to go on special Puffin tours that sail around Reykjavík to find Puffins in cliffs just outside the city. Simply going on a hike right outside Reykjavík or stopping on the side of the road anywhere in the country will reveal countless birds just waiting to be discovered. But for a real bird watching mission, some places are better than others so here are the top five locations to go to for bird watching in Iceland: 

Reykjanes peninsula

The Reykjanes peninsula is a rugged stretch of land with wide fields of mossy lava covering most of the surface. But Vatnsleysuströnd beach in Reykjanesbær is a rich vegetative area where many species of waterfowl come to nest and rear their young. Interestingly, Iceland is one of the few places where Harlequin ducks come to breed and they can sometimes be spotted in the town of Vogar on Vatnsleysuströnd or at Ósar bay in the village of Hafnir. Also along the Reykjanes peninsula, it’s possible to spot Gyrfalcons, Razorbills, Merlins and American purple gallinule to name a few. Despite the harsh landscape, Reykjanes is brimming with bird life and is sure to deliver a great experience for bird lovers. 

Lake Mývatn

In Mývatnssveit in the north of Iceland is Lake Mývatn, the fourth largest lake in Iceland and a must visit for bird watching. The lake is packed with waterfowl and waders and it’s home to more duck species than any other place in the world. While there it’s also good to keep an eye out for Gyrfalcons flying about. A special bird to look out for in Mývatn is the Horned grebe or Slavonian grebe, the only species of grebes that nests in Iceland. Its numbers are declining worldwide so it’s worth a trip to see it in the peaceful environment of Lake Mývatn.

Photo: Erik. A Red-necked phalarope is a common wading bird in Iceland

The Westfjords

The Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords are the largest sea cliffs in Iceland and the largest bird cliffs in Europe, where millions of birds come to nest every year. It’s a dizzying area of birdlife, with puffins, gulls, razorbills and northern gannet flying in and out of the cliffs. For birdwatchers, it’s a magnificent place to visit since it’s possible to get really close to the cliffs to see the birds going about their busy lives. Also in the Westfjords is Breiðafjörður, a large fjord that is home to 60% of eagles in Iceland, and while visitors are advised not to go searching for eagle nests in order to disturb them as little as possible, there’s still a chance to see these graceful birds soaring above in the sky.

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A perfect day trip to take from Reykjavík is visiting the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It’s only about a two hour trip from the city and offers some great bird watching spots along with stunning views of the surrounding nature and beyond. On Svörtuloft cliffs, above the golden beach of Skarðsvík, is a lighthouse that has been fitted with a viewing panel that gives visitors the chance to watch birds in the cliffs from a safe distance. Aside from sea birds like Brünnich’s guillemot, the Common guillemont, Razoerbills and the European shag, the area is also the home of Rock ptarmigans, Kittiwakes, gulls, Arctic terns and Snow buntings.

Photo: Golli. A Glaucous gull with its hatchling in Snæfellsnes, Iceland

The Westman Islands

In the Westman Islands, birdlife is intertwined with the local culture, as the largest population of puffins in Iceland nest in the cliffs surrounding Heimaey, the biggest of the islands. Puffins are the main attraction of visitors but there are multiple other species that make the Westman Islands their home, including the Northerm fulmar, the European storm petrel, Leach’s storm petrel, the Northern gannet and the Common murre. The environment of the Westman Islands is awe inspiring, with its dramatic cliffs that seem to come alive with the movement of millions of birds, and it perfectly displays the perseverance of life in the rough terrain of Iceland.

Photo: Golli. Puffins are the most common bird in Iceland during summer

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