Iceland is open for travel: check volcano updates here

Your Guide To Birding in Iceland

Find out about Iceland’s bird species

|January 26, 2023
We are lucky to have many talented, adventurous, and open-minded people within our community. Arctic Adventures community consists not only of staff members but also of numerous guest bloggers, fellow travelers, nature lovers and Iceland enthusiasts. Read their stories!

Did you know that the whooper swan is the only swan species in Iceland? Read our blog to discover more about the unique birds of Iceland.


Iceland is a country full of natural beauty and wonder. The vast dramatic landscapes and open grasslands make it the perfect space for wildlife to inhabit, particularly birds. Many visitors travel to Iceland seeking to explore the country’s dynamic birdlife. The abundant birdlife here means that you’ll never run out of opportunities to spot the fascinating birds of Iceland.

How many species of bird are in Iceland?

As of 2022, there are currently 418 confirmed species of bird in Iceland according to the Icelandic Birding Pages (IBMP). Of this figure, around 85 species can be spotted regularly. These include species such as the Arctic puffin, common snipe, whooper swan, golden plover, snowy owl and many more.

In our latest article, we’ll be taking a look at the different species of bird in Iceland, covering the most common bird-watching locations to get a glimpse (and hopefully a photo!) of them. Read on to discover everything you need to know about birding in Iceland.

Arctic Puffins

These adorable little birds account for 8-10 million of all birds in Iceland, with 60% of the entire world’s puffin population found here. Arctic puffins are characterized by their penguin-like color, with a bright red and orange beak which shimmers in the summer months. The puffin changes color depending on the time of year, with their beaks fading to gray during the winter.

Family of puffin birds on the cliffs in Iceland

Family of puffin birds on the cliffs in Iceland

There are several locations throughout the country to watch puffins. Here are some of the top spots to see puffins in Iceland.

Westman Islands - The Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, is a collective group of islands in southern Iceland. On these islands you will find the largest colony of puffins in the entire world, making it a very popular destination for birdwatchers and tourists alike. To get there, simply take a ferry, which will guide you past the best spots for viewing arctic puffins in their natural habitat. If you're looking for a guide, then our Westman Islands, Volcanoes & Puffins Tour is a perfect way to explore the island and its wildlife.

Látrabjarg - The remote Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords are another famous place to spot puffin colonies. This vast 8-mile (12 km) stretch of cliffs forms the westernmost point in Iceland and can stretch up to 1443 ft (440 m) in certain places. Here you will find millions of sea birds, particularly between May and late August. Take a look at our ultimate 13-day Westfjords tour which includes bird watching on day 10.

Dyrholaey - A few hours away from Reykjavík is Dyrholaey, a dramatic row of cliffs that curve out into the ocean. Up close, you will see plenty of puffin nests in the nooks and crannies of the rocks, shaped by years of fire and water. 

Take a look at our selection of Puffin Tours today.

Common Snipe

The Common Snipe, known as hrossagaukur, is a small, stocky wader that can be found in the lowland regions of the country. Most notably you will hear them on hiking tours, making what is described as a ‘drumming’ sound when in flight. Although the sound is loud, the snipe itself can be difficult to spot as its brown-coloured feathers blend seamlessly with the vegetation on the ground. Iceland's wetlands are a primary habitat for the common snipe, as they are filled with insects and worms for the birds to feast on.

The Common Snipe in Iceland

The Common Snipe in Iceland

Golden Plover

The Golden Plover plays a significant role in Icelandic folklore, as it is known to be able to foretell the everchanging weather. The general rule is that when the golden plover arrives, winter is over and springtime is here. This typically occurs towards the end of March. In Icelandic folklore, the golden plover was not created on the fifth day when God created birds but instead, was created much later by Jesus himself. This colorful species typically stays throughout the warmer months, tending to disappear around September time.

To see the Golden Plover you should head towards fresh bodies of water, such as Lake Myvatn in the northern part of the country. The extensive network of rivers in Iceland means that you may easily spot the golden plover near a body of freshwater.

Golden plover in its winter plumage in Iceland

Golden plover in its winter plumage in Iceland

Snowy Owls

Snowy owls are one of the most beautiful birds on the planet, with white fluffy feathers and horizontal dark patterns across their small bodies. It is rare to see them in Iceland, and they only appear about 5-10 times per year. They camouflage well with Iceland’s snow, and their silent hunting methods also make them difficult to hear. Due to a lack of rodents, the snowy owl does not breed in Iceland but instead will migrate from other arctic countries in the northern hemisphere.

To find snowy owls in Iceland, you should take a trip to the country’s most remote locations, such as the Eastfjords. You will also be much more likely to see them at nighttime.

A perched snowy owl in Iceland

A perched snowy owl in Iceland

Whooper Swans

Whooper swans are the only swan species you will find in Iceland. Larger than the common Bewick’s swan, the whooper swan has a yellow-tinted bill, with white plumage and a long neck. In the springtime the swan will fly from Scotland to Iceland, traveling at very high altitudes of up to 8,000 ft (2438 m). 

Whooper swans are most commonly found in large areas of water, as their delicate legs cannot support them for long periods of time. The bird breeds all over Iceland where there is ample vegetation and water, such as southern regions of Lake Myvatn.

Whooper Swan on a lake in Iceland

Whooper Swan on a lake in Iceland

GYRFALCONS

The gyrfalcon is the national bird of Iceland and even featured in the country’s coat of arms in the early twentieth century. A regal white bird with black spotting, it can be found in shades of white, black, and dark brown. Gyrfalcons are top-notch predators. Not only have they been used for falconry for centuries, but they can also reach a speed of 130 m/ph (210 km/h) when diving in on their prey!

Common throughout the Arctic zone, gyrfalcons are mainly spotted in the Icelandic Highlands, East Fjords, and Westfjords, as well as northern mountains due to their nesting in cliff faces. You are most likely to spot them at the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, home to one of the deepest canyons in Iceland.

A gyrfalcon in flight

ARCTIC TERNS

The arctic tern will leave you spellbound with its migration route. This species travels 50,000 miles (80,000 km) across the earth each year. Of all the birds in Iceland, the arctic tern is easy to identify because of their pointed wingtips and long, angular wings. The forked tail is a distinguishing feature of a breeding arctic tern.

During the summer, these birds are found on flat ground in coastal areas. The southwest region of Iceland, including Reykjavík, has a high population of arctic terns. Our 8-day Northern Lights tour ends at the Seltjarnarnes peninsula where these birds are abundant. Quite recently, they have also been spotted at Hljomskalagardur Park and Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland.

An arctic tern in flight.

WHIMBRELS

Also known as shorebirds, the whimbrel is a large wader. In addition to their long, downward-bent beaks, whimbrels can be identified by the white and brown bands running over their head. During the summer, large numbers of breeding pairs can be found in Iceland. When winter arrives in the Arctic, they migrate to the sunny coastlines of West Africa.

Whimbrels feed along wetlands and coastlines. Due to the extensive network of rivers and glaciers in Iceland, whimbrels are abundant. Their habitat is typically tundra with low-lying vegetation or moorlands. As such, the landscape of South Iceland provides an ideal ecosystem for these birds.

A whimbrel standing on a wooden pole.

ROCK PTARMIGANS

The rock ptarmigan is a common breeding bird in Iceland. They change colors with the seasons, making them some of the most fascinating birds in Iceland. From winter to mid-summer, the rock ptarmigan remains white with dark bills, eyes, and lores. Following that, they molt into a brown plumage with dark brown tail feathers.

In Icelandic culture, the rock ptarmigan is featured as a festive food and is sometimes a main dish at Christmas. Hunting season, which begins in November, is permitted for personal consumption only, as all trading of these Icelandic birds is banned.

Within Iceland, this species usually retains a small habitat, although there are extensive movements between their breeding and wintering grounds. Rock ptarmigans mostly feed on berries, buds, seeds, and insects. As such, they prefer vegetated scrublands at higher altitudes. The best locations to spot these birds of Iceland are Hrisey Island and Skaftafell National Park.

A rock ptarmigan parent and its young.

RAVENS

The Raven is the largest resident bird in Iceland. In the autumn season alone, there are around 12,000 to 15,000 ravens in Iceland. A pernicious omnivore, these black birds are known for robbing eggs and causing disturbance on nesting grounds.

Ravens are prominent in Icelandic history and culture. In the Old Norse beliefs, there were two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory), who traveled the world to gather information and whispered their secrets to the god of wisdom, Odin. From folk songs, poems, and stories, the raven is a common motif in Icelandic literature. It is also the emblem of the Icelandic Institute of  Natural History.

Highly adaptable as they are, ravens are found throughout Iceland. They are one of the few bird species in the country that do not migrate in the winter.

A raven sitting on a cliff near the sea in Northern Iceland

WHITE-TAILED EAGLE

White-tailed eagles are around 3 ft (1 m) in height with a wingspan of over 6.5 ft (2 m). However, this species, which happens to be the largest in Iceland, is endangered. The high bounty on their feathered heads saw their numbers decline since the 1900s. In the 1960s, there were only twenty mating pairs of these birds left in Iceland. Despite staggering odds, the white-tailed eagles of Iceland have undergone a remarkable revival.

In addition to rodents and smaller birds, the white-tailed eagle also feasts on fish, thanks to the fact that it is largely a coastal bird. Today, they are found in the bay that separates the Snæfellsnes Peninsula from the Westfjords. If you are in the Westfjords, you can even visit the White-Tailed Eagle Centre in the village of Reykholar to learn more about these majestic birds of Iceland.

A white-tailed eagle in flight.

GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL

A large and conspicuous gull, the great black-backed gull is the “King of Atlantic Waterfront.” These birds of Iceland can be distinguished by their black back and upper wings. It is often mistaken for the lesser black-backed gull. An easy way to differentiate one from the other is to focus on the lower body. The great black-backed gull has rosy legs and feet whereas the lesser black-backed gull has yellow feet and legs. Another distinguishing feature of the “great” is the prominent white-spotted wing tip.

The great gulls are found throughout Iceland, predominantly along the shores. These birds are quite resilient and feed on whatever food is available to them. Their breeding grounds are usually located between rocks and grass areas at the top of cliffs. Winter migrants and non-breeders are usually found along the south of Iceland.

A great black-backed gull in flight.

Birding Tours in Iceland

At Arctic Adventures, we have a unique range of wildlife tours that allow you to glimpse Iceland’s magnificent creatures, including the diverse birding life. Some of our tours combine wildlife watching with adventurous activities such as hiking, hot spring hunting, and much more! Take a look at our Wildlife Tours today to start your next Icelandic journey.

 

Recommended tours

Related blog posts