About 85 different species nest year-round, however roughly 330 species total have been recorded in Iceland. This stunning country has several picturesque locations for anyone interested in bird watching. For example, the beautiful Lake Mývatn scenery in North Iceland and the dynamic Reykjanes Peninsula are both memorable places for bird sightings. Puffin birds in Iceland are especially popular. Let’s dive into the most common species of birds and more places to spot them.
Puffin Birds in Iceland
Iceland has the largest puffin population in the Atlantic and is rightfully considered the puffin capital of the world. There are about 10 million adorable puffins in Iceland and they are often seen casually walking around when in season. Bird enthusiasts and scientists alike, all travel to Iceland specifically to see this intriguing species in person. Puffin watching has also become a general tourist attraction because the birds are beautiful and friendly.
It’s easy to personify them with their expressive eyes, clumsy walk, and bright beaks. As a result of their funny demeanor, they have been often nicknamed “clowns of the sea.” They also mirror some human social bonds by raising their baby chicks as a couple and nesting as lifelong partners.
Most of the year, puffins live on the surface of the ocean. Puffins only come to shore when they need to reproduce and raise their chicks. You can easily spot the popular Atlantic puffins in very large groups during the summer season. Therefore, prime puffin watching season is from May to early September. In summer, they nest in the exact location they were born and only nest with other puffins nearby.
The female puffins produce a single egg and it takes up to 45 days for the chick to hatch. During this time the parents take turns nesting the egg. After six weeks the chick will mature quickly and can function on its own. Puffins have long lifespans for birds and average between 20 to 25 years of life.
How to Watch Puffins Responsibly
Puffin watching is a great opportunity to feel connected with nature and have a genuine Icelandic experience. Puffins are very eye-catching and fun to watch during their summer nesting season. Just imagine a sea of birds with brightly colored beaks, freely toddling around, and showing no fear of humans. They will even walk up to you if you are close and it can be tempting to reach out and touch them.
However, we must protect the Atlantic puffin population with responsible tourism. Here are a few rules to make sure you have a great time while simultaneously protecting the puffins. If you want to know how to watch puffins responsibly, please follow our guidelines. Under no circumstances, barring an emergency, should you touch a puffin or feed them. Their feathers have special properties to deflect water and touching them ruins this process. Puffins are also highly skilled at securing their own food.
When you are puffin watching, always approach them quietly and slowly to avoid disturbing their daily routine. If watching from a boat, keep a safe distance to limit noise from the engine. If you are coming from a cliff, avoid the edge because you could step on one of their nesting tunnels. Thus crushing eggs and causing them harm. This also poses a danger for tourists because you could fall if you step through a tunnel by the cliff edge.
The best way to see puffins is to pretend to be a nature photographer and silently watch them from a safe distance. Overall, be respectful of their habitat and personal space.
Where You Can Spot Puffins
Iceland boasts the best places to observe the fascinating Atlantic puffins up close. But where can you spot puffins? You can see large groups of many different species of nesting birds throughout the island. You can rent a car and drive to see them up close or take a boat tour.
For example, you can take a boat tour from the capital city of Reykjavík to visit two neighboring islands. The boat ride is short and when you arrive the two scenic islands are called Akurey and Lundey. However, they are more commonly called the Puffin Islands because large colonies of puffin birds nest there. The two islands also house other bird species such as Arctic terns, seagulls, and eider ducks. It’s a stunning sight to see.
In South Iceland along the coast, there are more spectacular sites such as the Westmann Islands. The Westmann Islands are unique because they contain the largest puffin colony in the whole world. One-fifth of total puffin population nests on this island year after year.
In the Northwestern part of Iceland, there are several places to see puffins as well. Go visit the stunning Hornbjarg Cliffs and the Nature Reserve Park of Hornstrandir for close viewings. The puffins are very trusting at the Hornstrandir Park because it is protected land and has no history of poaching. Puffins are considered a vulnerable species because they have been used as a food source for the local people. Therefore, be respectful as you take photos and observe these beautiful creatures.
Iceland’s National Bird
The popularity of the Atlantic puffins may have you believe they are the national bird of Iceland. However, Iceland's national bird is, in fact, the Gyrfalcon. The Gyrfalcons are the top predators in the sky known for their lethal precision hunting skills. They mainly eat seabirds, waterfowl, and sometimes rabbits. The Gyrfalcon skills made them a valuable falconry export from the medieval era. These are powerful birds that entice bird watchers from all over the world to come study in person.
Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons in the species. Male gyrfalcons have a wingspan of 48 to 61cm (19 to 24 inches. However, the female gyrfalcons are interestingly larger with a wingspan of 51 to 65cm (20 to 24 inches). They are found throughout the Arctic region but mainly in Iceland. Their plumage is different per location and can be brown, black, white, dark grey or silver. Gyrfalcons are unique because they lay their eggs inside cliff faces and rocky holes. Then they produce 3 to 5 eggs per breeding season.
Since Gyrfalcons nest inside cliffs, in Iceland they are mostly located in the Highlands, and the East Fjords and West Fjords. Gyrfalcons are also found in the North, like at the picturesque Vatnajökull National Park, which has the famous Dettifoss waterfall. Dettifoss waterfall is said to be the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. Visiting these gorgeous sites to witness the majestic Gyrfalcon take flight is a memory of a lifetime.
Bird Watching in Iceland
There are over 330 species of birds you can enjoy beyond the popular puffins and the national bird. Bird watchers should be excited to see the brightly colored Golden Plover because it signifies spring has arrived. They usually appear from mid-March until late September. The cheerful Golden Plover, loud Long Tailed Duck, colorful Harlequin Duck, and graceful Whooper Swan can all be found in one place. By the bird watching paradise called Lake Mývatn.
Red-Throated Diver is another common bird that is easily seen throughout spring and summer. They have a red throat during breeding season but then are grey in the winter. They can found throughout Iceland.
White-Tailed Eagles are the largest birds in Iceland with a 2.5m wingspan, which is just over 8 feet. These regal birds feast on fish, other birds, and even lamb. They faced extinction but then protective actions were taken to preserve the species. The preservation center is in the West Fjords. Unfortunately, the Great Auk wasn’t protected and is now extinct.
The steady Rock Ptarmigan lives in Iceland year-round and prefers walking instead of flying. Their protection comes from changing their plumage with the seasons, white in winter and brown in summer. They are a popular holiday dish for Icelanders and can only be hunted for a few days in the year. They can be found in the sprawling Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Hrísey Island.
Bird watching is a popular activity for a reason, you can witness nature in motion, and learn something new. Now take out your camera because your bird watching adventure is waiting.
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