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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That … Icelandic Bird?

What Is That … Icelandic Bird?


It may be hard to believe but this is our 50thWhat Is That’ article in the Millstone News.  As is often said, how time flies when you are having fun.  We hope our readers enjoy these explorations of local wildlife.  Mostly local wildlife, but …

In December we travelled with friends to southern Iceland.  On finding out about our travel plans, many of our other friends questioned our sanity for heading to such a northern destination in the dead of winter.  Our practised response came to be “what better time to see the land of fire and ice and search for the elusive northern lights?”  Few were convinced.

In addition to seeing many amazing volcanic and glacial features we also got close up to the iconic Icelandic horse, and developed an appreciation of the history, cuisine and culture of Iceland.  We were pleasantly surprised by the variety of birds we saw.  Some we have at White Lake.  Others are first-timers for us.

Our cottage on White Lake is located between 45 and 46 degrees north; the south shore of Iceland placed us in the vicinity of 64 degrees north.  While Iceland is located far north, the Gulf Stream moderates its climate so that in December the weather is a bit milder than it was here. It is a windy place though, so beware the wind chill.  One of our biggest challenges was spotting wildlife when there was sufficient light for photography.  This time of year there is a narrow four hour window of wildlife photographic opportunity between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm.

The first birds we encountered were in Reykjavik, the capital city.  Bordered by the Icelandic parliament building, Reykjavik City Hall and the Canadian embassy is a parkland surrounding a large pond whose English name is The Pond.  While mostly frozen over, one corner of The Pond just behind the parliament building was ice free.  A large concentration of water birds swam there, many of which seemed to be waiting for locals to feed them.  The first species we saw was very familiar to us.  At the cottage most often we see common and hooded mergansers, but in Reykjavik we saw this beautiful pair of red-breasted mergansers diving in the open water searching for small fish.

There was also a large contingent of the familiar mallard ducks swimming amongst a dozen large whooper swans (pronounced hooper).  Two of our North American field guides mention whooper swans as accidentals from Eurasia.  They occasionally stray to North America but this was the first time for us to observe them.  These large white birds grow to a length of 150 centimeters which is a similar size to the trumpeter swans we have seen at the cottage but the base of the whooper swan’s bill is always yellow.  These birds spend most of their time in the water as it is difficult for their legs to support their weight.  As with other swans, they are herbivores.

The next largest bird we photographed resting on The Pond ice was the greylag goose.  These large grey birds grow to a length of 90 centimeters.  They are also noted in our field guides as accidentals from Eurasia so it is not surprising that we have not seen them at our cottage.  Sibley describes these herbivorous geese as barnyard geese, domestic waterfowl.

Another bird, which our North American field guides describe as an accidental from Eurasia, was the tufted duck.  We have not seen them at our cottage but in Iceland they were energetically diving beneath the unfrozen portion of The Pond in search of molluscs, aquatic insects and plants.  This male is distinctive with its black back and head and a long dangling tuft on the back of its head and white sides.

As we travelled throughout the country side we frequently saw the common raven.   This pair had just landed on one of many icebergs floating in the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon which was the most easterly extent of our travels.

On the shores of the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon we also photographed snow buntings.  While our North American field guides identify this songbird as having its breeding range in the Canadian Arctic and its winter range includes southern Ontario, this trip to Iceland was our first time to see snow buntings.  This pair is sporting their winter plumage.

The final bird in this article is the Icelandic redwing which we saw on several occasions.  It was only on our last day in Reykjavik that our friends managed this capture of a bird which was always on the move.  A thrush, native to Eurasia, the pretty Icelandic redwing is similar in size to our American robin.

We also saw one good display of the truly elusive aurora borealis.  We went looking a few nights after supper but only found them one cold, clear and windy evening.  With all these sights and the friendly, welcoming nature of its residents, Iceland proved to be a great destination, although the next time we may try a summer adventure.

Should you be interested in further information, we referred to Birds of Iceland (, David Allen Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies in preparing this article.




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