Europe and Central Asia
13 Jul 2016

Iceland: Volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs and seabirds

Iceland is renowned for its biodiversity. Photo: Marguerite Tarzia
By Marguerite Tarzia and Holmfridur Arnardottir

Close to the Arctic Circle, the mid-Atlantic ridge emerges from the ocean depths onto land, creating a country full of geological wonder and amazing wildlife. If you want adventure combined with beautiful scenery and 24-hour daylight, Iceland should be your destination this summer! 

Iceland is revered by marine biologists around the world for its biodiversity, including the largest animal to have ever existed on the planet – the Blue Whale. During spring and summer, Iceland boasts huge colonies of seabirds and if you stick to the coast during your trip you are very likely to see them as they return from their foraging trips to feed their chicks.

Currently there are 85 marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) identified by Fuglavernd (BirdLife in Iceland). These are mostly land based colonies and the seas immediately surrounding them, where birds feed and sit on the water.

This is the place for puffins

From April-August it is easy to catch a glimpse of the charismatic Atlantic Puffin as they travel to and from their nesting burrows. The local Icelandic name for the puffin is lundi. The best places to see puffins include látrabjarg in the Westfjords Ísafjarðardjúp and Borgarfjörður eystri. The European population of the Atlantic Puffin is estimated between 9.5 to 11.6 million individuals, however due to continued declines and dramatic lack of breeding success, the species is now considered Endangered in Europe.

Another cliff-nesting species that can be seen in large numbers is the Northern Fulmar, a beautiful seabird (it is part of the same group as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters) that appears to effortless soar on the wind. Be warned though about getting too close to this bird, as its nifty defence is to spit an oily substance at anything posing a threat. Like the puffin, this species has also recently been up-listed to Endangered across Europe.

You will also be able to see the Black-legged Kittiwake, Razorbill, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre and Black Guillemot. Away from the cliffs you are also likely to see seaduck species such as the Common Eider.

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Seabirds struggling in a changing climate

Iceland remains an amazing place to see seabirds, whales and dolphins. However the changes occurring in the marine environment due to direct and indirect human activities, are impacting food availability, timing of breeding and migration, and ultimately breeding success and survival.

Climate change is not limited to Iceland of course, however it is one of the places in the world where catastrophic breeding failure is being witnessed. The distribution of prey species such as the sandeel, herring and krill is changing as ocean temperatures rise and circulation patterns change. This is making it harder for birds to find and access food for their hungry chicks. In some locations there has been almost no Puffin breeding success since 2005, and if this trend continues, the puffin and other Icelandic seabirds are truly in trouble.

Tips from locals: The BirdLife team

The BirdLife team recently headed to Iceland to hold a workshop with Fuglavernd and scientists to identify important areas in the mid-Atlantic (high seas, beyond national boundaries). We took advantage of being in Iceland to explore one the country’s marine IBAs – Vestmannaeyjar – or the Westman Islands. This small island to the south of the mainland boasts the country’s largest puffin colony, estimated at eight million pairs. Imagine those many puffins in the one place! You can get to the Westmans easily by ferry or plane (although you are most likely to see puffins in the surrounding seas), and there are also caves and volcanoes to explore. If you don’t want to travel too far but are still keen on peeking at a puffin, you can even take a boat trip from Reykjavik’s old harbor to see the species up close in Engey or Lundey (‘Lundi’+’ey’, or Puffin Island).

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.