Your Essential Icelandic Bird Guide
Several species of migrating bird pass through Iceland due to its location in the North Atlantic between North America and Europe, making it a great place to see birds from both continents, as well as some native ones that you shouldn’t miss on your Iceland bird-watching adventures. Find out more in our Icelandic bird guide below.
Which birds can be seen in Iceland?
Around 350 species of birds are sighted in Iceland, yet only 85 breed and nest on the island. No Icelandic bird guide is complete without mentioning the four most noteworthy ones. These are the great northern diver, harlequin duck, Barrow’s goldeneye , and Brünnich’s guillemot, and of course the puffin. The harlequin duck is a particular delight, with its bold pattern of white on black and blotches of red on either side of the breast.
Like many animals that have made Iceland their home, the first three are not of Icelandic origin. They came from Europe and America. In contrast, Brünnich’s guillemot (also known as the thick-billed murre) is an arctic bird, known for the striking white stripe on its black bill.
Iceland bird-watching expedition participants may be lucky enough to see an actual eagle, with around 40 pairs of white-tailed eagles breeding in the country. Breeding locations are kept secret, however, so some measure of investigation and good fortune are needed to spot one. Even rarer are snowy owl sightings, with an estimated 10–20 living on the island.
Puffins in Iceland
The puffin is arguably Iceland's most iconic bird - following the harlequin duck. Approximately 60% of the world's population (between 8 - 10 million) of Atlantic Puffins that call Iceland home. Many of them can be seen nesting on the Látrabjarg cliff, but can also be spotted on the Westman Islands, and Dyrhólaey. Their iconic walk and colorful feet and beaks make them a delightful sight for any traveler.
Where's the best place for Icelandic bird watching?
Most of Iceland’s bird species are concentrated in the north. Bird watchers can choose from three main areas here: the northeast, the northwest, and the region of Eyjafjörður.
The northwest offers a large area of wetlands; the vast majority of the birds that live in or pass through Iceland can be found here. It's also the site of an easily accessible seal sanctuary. Around 80 bird species are found in the northeast, and the cliffs at Langanes are fantastic for bird watching. Eyjafjörður offers a wide variety of terrains, making for a wide array of birds; it's also more urban than other areas, making it easier to access.
When’s the best time for bird watching in Iceland?
For general-interest or novice birdwatchers, it’s best to go in May and June. During these months, breeding birds arrive on the island, and their territorial squabbles make them easy to spot.
For more advanced twitchers, autumn is recommended, as September and November are the best months to see rare birds. However, during this time the ducks are molting, meaning they’re without their striking plumage. Getting around can also be difficult, with snow and other bad weather conditions affecting road travel.
This gets even worse in winter, when more snow and a lack of birds make it a bad time for Icelandic bird watching. If you decide to brave it and visit from November to February, a word of warning: the weather is unpredictable, so always keep an eye on the forecast to avoid getting trapped.
Whatever season you choose, Iceland has something to offer eager ornithologists. So, grab those binoculars, a map, and your best walking boots to discover the best migrating birds that North America and Europe have to offer, as well as some rare native Icelandic species.