Birds of Southern Iceland
A Birdwatcher’s Paradise
Birds of Southern Iceland is a programme offering excellent year-round services for birdwatchers. Southern Iceland has a great deal to offer visiting birdwatchers with its wide variety of habitats, including wetlands, seabird colonies, highland oases and unique coastlines. The largest colonies of Puffin, Pink-footed Goose and Great Skua in the world are located within this region, together with Europe’s largest Leach’s Storm-petrel colony.
Hornafjörður and Stakksfjörður are shallow fjords or coastal lagoons on either side of the village of Höfn. The area is home to large numbers of birds all year round. Not only is it an important staging area for migration, but breeding birds are well represented in spring and summer. It is also the region’s main wintering area for birds. A rich mosaic of wetlands stretches from Höfn all the way west to the glacial sands of Breiðamerkursandur.
The bird life of the great glacial sands of the south coast has a character all its own. It is the kingdom of the Great Skua and is home to the largest colony on Earth of this charismatic species. Wherever there is sufficient water, vegetation sprouts up and attracts a range of birds. The spectacular Skaftafell National Park contains woodlands and a variety of species.
The areas of Landbrot and Meðalland support a wide range of birds. The region’s wetlands are varied and include flood-meadows, lakes, springs, streams and lava fields. Breeding birds include Horned Grebe and various ducks. The freshwater springs attract numerous birds in the winter and form important wintering grounds for Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye and Goosander. White-fronted Geese are common visitors on spring and autumn passage.
The valley of Mýrdalur is a rich birding area, with Reynisfjall, Reynisdrangar and Dyrhólaey the chief birding sites. Puffins breed on the cliffs at Víkurhamrar above the village of Vík (the furthest colony from the sea in the world), on Mt Reynisfjall and the Dyrhólaey headland, while Common Guillemot and Razorbill breed at the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar and at Dyrhólaey. There is a huge Arctic Tern colony at Vík and a smaller one at Dyrhólaey.Þjórsárver, to the south of the Hofsjökull glacier, is the most expansive oasis in the central highlands. It is an area of spectacular scenery, with rich swathes of vegetation alternating with barren sands and glaciers. The area represents very important breeding and moulting grounds for Pink-footed Geese. Other breeders include Great Northern Diver, Whooper Swan, Long-tailed Duck, Purple Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern and Snow Bunting. Part of Þjórsárver is protected and a Ramsar site.
Another key birding location in the highlands is the chain of lakes called Veiðivötn. This beautiful and unusual landscape has been shaped by repeated volcanic activity and most of the lakes are located in craters. Great Northern Divers are particularly common, and other breeding birds include Whooper Swan, Pink-footed Goose, Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Harlequin Duck, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Arctic Tern and Snow Bunting. Barrow’s Goldeneye winters here and has recently bred.
Lakes, ponds and marshes can be found across the lowland areas of Landeyjar and Rangarárvellir. Some of the best birding sites are the Skúmsstaðavatn lake and surroundings, Oddaflóð (protected) and Lambhagavatn lake. Large numbers of wildfowl and waders breed in the area and pass through in the spring and autumn.
Two of the larger lakes in the area, Apavatn and Laugarvatn, along with adjoining wetlands and rivers, are among the best sites for ducks in southern Iceland. Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye and Goosander winter here. Harlequin Ducks breed locally and hundreds of Scaup, Tufted Duck and Red-breasted Merganser stop off on passage and are also common breeders.
Sogið, the river which flows out of lake Þingvallavatn, is one of Iceland’s best locations for winter ducks. It is home to the largest flock of Barrow’s Goldeneye outside Mývatn and is the main winter site for Common Goldeneye in Iceland. Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and Tufted Duck are common. White-tailed Eagles are often seen in winter and Harlequin Ducks move up the river in spring. Lake Þingvallavatn itself is known for its breeding Great Northern Divers.
The coastline between the mouths of the great glacial rivers Ölfusá and Þjórsá is the largest lava shoreline in Iceland and forms the southern end of the vast Þjórsárhraun lava field which flowed 8,000 years ago and is the largest post-ice age lava flow on Earth. Inland there are myriad lakes and ponds. The area hosts an array of birds all year and it is of particular importance for migrants such as Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone, Brent Goose, Eurasian Wigeon and various other ducks.
On either side of the estuary of the Ölfusá river there are two large wetlands: BirdLife Iceland’s reserve at Flói on the east bank and Ölfusforir on the west bank. Both are large expanses of pools and lakes which attract numerous birds in the breeding season and on passage alike. The Red-throated Diver is the characteristic bird of the Flói reserve and Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit are particularly common here. Ölfusforir is an excellent birding location in winter, attracting large flocks of Teal, Mallard and Goosander, as well as Iceland’s largest concentration of Grey Heron.
South Iceland has a wide range of accommodation from camp sites to 4 star hotels, some within a short driving distance from Reykjavik.