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Birdwatching Paradise: Avian Diversity in the Reykjanes Peninsula

Nature is an important aspect of many visits to Iceland, whether to immerse yourself in the country’s unique landscapes or spot some of the wildlife that makes its home in them. Iceland will appeal to casual birdwatchers as well as committed twitchers for whom this is a serious hobby. With relatively few natural predators, an often abundant source of food and plenty of places that are sparsely populated by humans, in many ways the country is the ideal location for birds to thrive.

One of the best and most easily accessible places in Iceland to indulge in a spot of birdwatching is of course the Reykjanes peninsula. Let’s delve a little deeper into this birdwatching paradise as we take a look at avian diversity in the area.

What types of birds are found on the Reykjanes peninsula?

Reykjanes is home to a large variety of birds. Some are seasonal visitors following regular migratory patterns while others are year-round residents. Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly sighted birds and where to find them.


An unusually broad spectrum of people who come to Iceland will get excited at the thought of sighting certain birds and that’s largely thanks to one easily recognised – not to mention cute – species: the puffin. With their rounded, multi-coloured beaks and squat bodies, they’re a comical sight. If you’ve ever seen them in flight, you’ll know that they flap their wings fast when airborne, and look exceptionally clumsy as they come in to land.

Yet in the water, they’re accomplished swimmers and can dive up to forty metres, holding their breath for up to a minute as they fish for food such as eels, herring or hake. Their wings help to propel them through the water and their orange feet – which incidentally get their characteristic colour from the puffin’s carotenoid-rich diet – act as a rudder.

The species you see here in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) – around 60% of the total population are found here. It’s also commonly seen, albeit in smaller numbers, in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, the UK and Ireland, Norway and Brittany in France. They’re actually classed as an endangered species in Europe. Though the population – thought to be in the region of seven or eight million – appears healthily large, it has decreased greatly over the past five decades, perhaps by more than 65%.

In Iceland, puffins are usually first seen in spring, when they return to shore after spending their winter out at sea. They mate on the water but nest in grassy sea cliffs, digging burrows into the soft, damp ground to raise their chicks. Each breeding pair usually incubates a single egg, and they both take care of their precious offspring. Come August, they head out into the ocean again, usually at around about the same time.

Arctic Terns

Arctic terns have become notorious for their behaviour, but at first glance they look a little like a gull. They have a similar white and grey colouring, with black plumage on their heads and sharp beaks that are bright orange like their feet. But this medium-sized bird punches well above its weight – almost literally.

You might have heard Arctic terns being described as the thugs of the avian world. Though that’s undoubtedly a little unkind, they can be aggressive and are certainly not averse to dive-bombing anything that they perceive as a threat to their young or their eggs, which includes unsuspecting tourists.

If you don’t want to get your head pecked, it’s advisable to stay away from their colonies, which usually can be found on flat sites such as gravel or low vegetation. Nevertheless, if you see them at other times – or keep a safe distance while they’re breeding – you won’t have a problem.

Like the puffin, the Arctic tern is a migratory bird, returning to Iceland in order to breed. Typically this takes place in April. It’s the culmination of an extraordinarily long journey. This bird flies further than any other species, spending the winter months in the Antarctic and returning to the Arctic and sub-Arctic for the northern hemisphere summer. The birds you see in Iceland have undertaken a remarkable 44,000 mile round trip.

The skua

In summer, look out for the great skua. They’re found all along the south coast, not just in Reykjanes, and are relatively easy to identify – in many respects, they resemble a large gull but with brown plumage instead of grey. Like gulls, they can be noisy creatures, making a hah-hah sound. These birds are relatively large, typically with a wingspan of between 125 and 140cm when fully extended and a prominent barrel chest.

As they prefer to breed by the sea, Reykjanes is an ideal place for them to build their grass-lined nests. They usually lay a couple of eggs and protect their young with a ferocity that is legendary. Pay particular attention to their whereabouts if they are breeding as, like Arctic terns, they aren’t adverse to attacking encroaching humans.

But it’s their feeding habits that are the most jaw-dropping aspect of their anti-social behaviour. You see, skuas are sometimes referred to as the pirates of the avian world on account of their tendency to bully other birds and steal their food. They aren’t fussy feeders and will consume not only fish but other birds and their eggs, rabbits and rodents. Nothing is off-limits to these hungry scavengers.

Other commonly sighted birds

Iceland is home to five types of geese and the largest of them is the greylag. As its name suggests, this large bird is grey in colour. The species nests in late spring, usually producing eggs in late April or May. In summer, it moults and for a short period is unable to fly. This makes it a good time to catch sight of them en masse as they gather on the sea, on ponds and lakes. They migrate from Reykjanes to places such as the UK, in autumn when the weather turns chilly.

Next up: the common snipe, a wading bird that’s often seen on the Reykjanes peninsula and other Icelandic lowlands. To track it down, it’s just as important to use your ears as it is your eyes. The bird’s Icelandic name is “hrossagaukur” which means “horse cuckoo”. It gets this unusual name as a result of a drumming sound it produces when the male’s tail feathers vibrate during courtship. To some, there’s a similarity to the neighing sound a horse makes.

The common snipe migrates to Iceland, arriving in early summer, along with other species such as the oystercatcher and the golden plover. Culturally, the arrival of the latter heralds the onset of spring. The first sighting of this bird, called the lóa in Icelandic, is usually reported in the Icelandic press as a sign the winter is drawing to a close.

In contrast, the purple sandpiper can be classed as a native. It gets its name from the purple tinge that’s seen on its feathers in some sorts of light. There’s a substantial population of this wader in Iceland, including in the Reykjanes peninsula. Although, scientists have learned that the residents are joined by migrating purple sandpipers on their way from Greenland to Britain.

Where are the best places on the Reykjanes peninsula to spot birds?

As we’ve seen, the Reykjanes peninsula is home to a wide variety of birds, but there are a number of locations that are especially good for birdwatching. Take a look at these suggestions and weave at least one of them into your Reykjanes itinerary.


Kleifarvatn, which is situated within the Krýsuvík geothermal area, is the largest of the lakes on the Reykjanes peninsula. As such, you’ll encounter numerous water fowl including greylag geese, whooper swans, and ducks such as the Eurasian teal and mallard. The surrounding meadows are also home to birds such as golden plovers, whimbrels, northern wheatear, common redshanks, common snipe and meadow pipits. Less commonly sighted are purple sandpipers, black-tailed godwits and skuas. Nevertheless, it’s the diversity that makes this a rewarding birdwatching location.

Krýsuvíkurbjarg Cliffs

You’ll find the Krýsuvíkurbjarg Cliffs on the southern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula. Impressively large, they measure about 40 metres high and extend ten miles or so along the coast. It’s one of the best places in the country for birdwatching; in summer you might easily find almost 60,000 birds in this picturesque spot. The place is particularly attractive to twitchers between April and July when seabirds such as guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and puffins come ashore to nest. Other avian species you might see here include cormorants, razorbills, shags and gulls; snow buntings and purple sandpipers also nest on the cliff top.


Reykjanesviti is Iceland’s oldest lighthouse site and if you stroll up the grassy hill to the current structure you’ll have a great view of the coast at the south western tip of the peninsula. Close in on the shore and you’ll see that the area’s characteristically rugged cliffs are home to a vast array of seabirds including guillemots and kittiwakes. There’s a large colony of Arctic terns here, centred on Valahnúkur, while a few miles out on Eldey Island is a huge northern gannet colony. Perhaps the most emotional bird encounter you’ll have here, however, involves a bronze sculpture. It was placed here to commemorate the great auk, which was sadly hunted to extinction in 1844.

Other good places to spot birds on the Reykjanes peninsula

Ósar Bay

Ósar Bay’s sandy mudflats attract a multitude of waders at low tide. In autumn and winter the area is a great place to find ducks. Look out for harlequin ducks – this is their only European breeding ground – as well as long-tailed ducks, mallards, greater scaup, red-breasted merganser and common eiders. Skuas, meanwhile, prefer the close-cropped grass and lava nearer to Hafnir.


Head over the north of the peninsula at Garður to mix things up a little. Here, you’re more likely to encounter rock ptarmigan, snow buntings, gyrfalcons and merlins. The area is also home to three bodies of water: Miðhúsasíki, Útskálasíki and Gerðasíki. They’re a magnet for transatlantic migrants. Among the species that make an appearance are American bitterns, gull-billed terns and purple gallinule. In warmer weather, Manx shearwater, European storm petrels, Atlantic puffins and skuas are found here.


Sandgerði's ponds and shoreline regularly attract a plethora of gull species, including lesser black-backed, herring, black-headed, glaucous and common gulls. Fulmars and ducks are other frequent sightings. In addition, it's not uncommon to see birds such as curlews, sanderlings, dunlins, ringed and golden plovers, turnstones, oystercatchers and other waders.Part of the reason for this is that there are a number of fish processing plants in the area and to such birds the leftovers are an easy meal.