Lying far out into the North Atlantic Ocean, the volcanic island of Iceland is the land between two continents; a land of fire and ice with its Viking heritage. While Iceland doesn’t have a long list of breeding birds, those that do occur are in many cases abundant, with globally important populations of waders, wildfowl and seabirds. In fact, its towering cliffs are among the largest seabird colonies on the planet, with five species of breeding auk, including Thick-billed Murre (Brünnich’s Guillemot), while the numerous lakes and wetlands are teeming with an array of divers, ducks and waders, such as Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red‐necked Phalarope and Purple Sandpiper. Top of many people’s wish list is the world’s mightiest falcon, Gyr Falcon, and Iceland has a healthy population of this supreme predator. As a backdrop to all this there is also the country itself, with its volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers, spouting geysers, mud pools, dramatic coasts and black sand beaches making for spectacular and other-worldly scenery at every turn!
Thick-billed Murre (Brünnich’s Guillemot), Harlequin & Long-tailed Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red‐necked & Grey Phalarope, Purple Sandpiper, Gyr Falcon, Great Norther Diver, Whooper Swan, Snow Bunting, Razorbill, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous & Iceland Gull, Rock Ptarmigan, Pink-footed Goose, European Golden Plover, Red-breasted Merganser, Horned (Slavonian) Grebe and Short-eared Owl.
White‐beaked Dolphin, Minke, Killer, Humpback or even Blue Whale, Arctic Fox
tundra, coast, pelagic, lagoons, wetlands, lakes, volcanic landscapes, rivers
day time temperatures average between 16 – 20ºC, while coastal wind and evenings are cooler
relaxed, with some long days (due to Iceland’s latitude and the time of year, daylight is almost 24hrs a day)
Lake Myvatn, Godafoss Waterfall, Hvitá River, Gullfoss – the ‘Golden Waterfall’, Great Geysir and Strokkur Geysir, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Reykjanes Peninsula
Day 1: Arrival in Keflavík and transfer to Stykkisholmur
Our Iceland birding tour starts at Keflavík International Airport in southwest Iceland, where arriving birders are sometimes welcomed by Snow Buntings singing from the terminal building.
We leave Keflavik behind and start driving north, perhaps finding one of the local Harlequin Ducks, before reaching Stykkishólmur in the mid-afternoon. Using the remaining day light hours, we shall make our first foray to the spectacular Snæfellsnes peninsula with its rich diversity of habitats. The lakes on the flat plains by the sea hold very dense numbers of breeding Red‐throated Diver and Arctic Skua, while on the rivers tumbling down from the mountains we may encounter Harlequin Ducks. While driving along the coast, we are certain to encounter molting flocks of Whooper Swan.
Day 2: Flatey Island and Snaefellsnes Peninsula
This morning on our Iceland birding tour, we embark on a boat trip from Stykkishólmur to the island of Flatey in Breidafjördur Bay. Flatey is a small island that is home to more than 30 species of breeding birds, including abundant Arctic Tern, Atlantic Puffin and Red-necked Phalarope, while on the way over we will also use the opportunity to look for cetaceans, which may include White‐beaked Dolphin, Minke, Humpback or even Blue Whale. While on the island, we can expect a welcoming committee that is liable to include large numbers of Common Redshank, the ubiquitous Arctic Tern, Meadow Pipit and White Wagtail, while both Snow Bunting and Redwing sing from the surrounding roof tops.
After our boat trip to Flatey Island, we head shall spend the remainder of the day on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Here the roadside lakes along the southern edge of the peninsula hold a typical mosaic of wetland species including Great Northern Diver and Horned Grebe, and scarcer ducks such as Northern Shoveler. At the end of the peninsula is the Snæfellsnes National Park, crowned by the glacier-filled volcano Snæfellsjökull. The lava fields here are home to Rock Ptarmigan and the leucorhoa race of Northern Wheatear.
The attractive basalt cliffs at the end of the peninsula hold colonies of all five breeding Icelandic auks, including Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill and large numbers of Black-legged Kittiwake, while Arctic Tern is abundant along the coast. Killer Whales are also frequently seen along this section of the coastline. The northern side of the peninsula is quite different in character to the southern shore and has huge numbers of breeding Glaucous Gull and will give gull enthusiasts the chance to study large gulls in every possible plumage!
Day 3: Stykkisholmur to Myvatn
After an early breakfast, we start the long drive east towards one of our Iceland birding tour highlights, Lake Myvatn. Along the way, we will make strategic stops for Whooper Swan, while keeping a close eye on the deeply indented coast line that dovetails our route for Great Northern Diver. The surrounding tundra hosts Rock Ptarmigan, and good eyes will be needed to find individuals sporting well camouflaged plumage at this time of year.
Family flocks of Pink-footed Goose form ‘skeins’ overhead, while scanning rivers may reveal more Harlequin Duck. Wooded areas in the surrounds hold good numbers of Common Redpoll, Eurasian Wren and the abundant Redwing, while we should see our first Common Gulls by the roadside. As we get close to Lake Myvatn, we shall make a quick stop Godafoss, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland.
The profusion of midges and other insect life mean that the wetlands surrounding the main lake are often teeming with wildfowl, including Common Redshank, Dunlin, European Golden Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, Whooper Swan, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and Long-tailed Duck. Should we have remaining daylight, an initial foray to the main lake could reveal out first Horned (Slavonian) Grebe and Gyr Falcon on the nearby cliffs. Checking into our well-appointed lodgings, we can expect a serenade from vociferous Common Snipe, Redwing and Common Redpoll.
Day 4: Lake Myvatn and nearby geothermal sites
Lake Mývatn (Midge Lake) is quite simply one of Europe’s great birding destinations. The midges, actually harmless chironomids, are the mainstay of life at this bird-rich lake, home to thousands of breeding wildfowl. Barrow’s Goldeneye, at its only European breeding site, is common here and shares the lake with other ducks such as Long-tailed and Tufted Duck, Common Scoter, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon and Greater Scaup, while American vagrants including Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon are recorded regularly at this superb spot. Harlequin Duck are common on the river Laxá, which flows out of the lake, while Horned Grebes are confiding and highly photogenic on the lake itself. Great Northern and Red-throated Divers provide the background noise, while arguably the main attraction at the lake, Gyr Falcon, can occur anywhere in the area. This, the world’s largest and most powerful falcon, takes advantage of the great numbers of Rock Ptarmigan, wildfowl and waders here, and several pairs breed in the vicinity. Its smaller cousin, the Merlin, also breeds in the area, and if we are lucky we might see Short-eared Owl hunting in the 24-hour daylight. With fascinating geology and geothermal sites around the lake, a day at Mývatn is an unforgettable experience and will no doubt be yet another highlight on this fascinating tour. If time allows, may also visit Europe’s largest waterfall, the thundering Dettifoss.
Day 5: Lake Myvatn to Geysir
Today we have another long drive on our Iceland birding tour, moving from the north east of Iceland back to the geothermal hotspot of Geysir. Most of our day will be spent on a rough gravel road, traversing the desolate tundra through the centre of the island.
En route, we shall make a short stop at Hveravellir to view the hot springs and gloopy fumaroles. As we travel further through this harsh environment, the halcyon blue Hvitá River sparkles us into life, possibly hosting a few more Harlequin Duck. We end the day at Gullfoss, the ‘Golden Waterfall’. An iconic waterfall that presents an amazing view of the falls and surrounding landscape. Fed by Iceland´s Langjökull Glacier down the Hvitá River, the water plunges 32 meters over a two stage drop into the canyon below. We spend the night perfectly located in the town of Geysir, a few minutes from the eponymous Great Geysir and Strokkur Geysir
Day 6: Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir
No visit to Iceland would be complete without visiting the world-famous geothermal field at Geysir. We will spend the morning admiring and photographing these amazing spectacles, whilst also keeping an eye out for Merlin that sometimes breed nearby. We move onwards to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Situated on the rift valley that marks the crest of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, this is the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that are slowly tearing Iceland apart. The park is also the historical seat of the Icelandic parliament, and was declared a National Park precisely 1000 years after the first parliamentary proceedings took place in 930.
In the early evening, we shall head to our lodgings in Reykjavik for a little sight-seeing and a fabulous, celebratory dinner.
Day 7: Final departures
This morning we head out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, a barren, lunar like landscape visiting the small village of Sandgerði and the Gardskagi point. Offshore we should find good numbers of Northern Gannet, Great Northern Diver and Razorbill, while other pelagic species could include Manx Shearwater or perhaps European Storm Petrel, and even the odd Humpback Whale if we are very lucky. Our last stop of the morning is the Reykjanestá headland, which is plastered with hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwake and their nests. About ten miles off the coast is the island of Eldey, site of the last known breeding pair of Great Auk which were killed in 1844. We then continue through the mossy lava fields of the Reykjanes peninsula, reaching Keflavík International Airport, where the tour will conclude.