Wildlife in Iceland
Iceland has almost become synonymous with puffins and the northern lights. One attraction for the summer visitors, and one for the winter tourists.
The puffin is a cute little bird. It looks a bit like a small penguin, with it’s black back and white belly. It even walks like a penguin, a bit of a waddle. But what makes the bird so appealing to the masses (we think), is its colourful beak and the fact that it is so trusting that you can literally get to within less than a metre distance and they will look at you with their inquisitive little beady eyes, but just get on with their business.
As any other tourist traveling to Iceland, we were of course hoping to see a puffin, but we didn’t realise there would be so many, and that you can get that close. It was a wonderful experience which (for us) started at Dyrhólaey Arch. By the time we reached the cliffs near the arch, we had already spent a few days on Iceland, checking out a popular birdspot at Garður, exploring Þingvellir NP, admiring some of the famous geysers (in the rain), and heading out on the Sólheimajökull glacier for a little walk.
At the arch a couple of puffins landed right beneath us as we stood at the top of the cliff, giving us our first glimpses. We then saw them flying overhead at the organ pipes and managed to take a few photos, but these little birds fly at speeds up to 88km an hour!
Our next (puffin) stop was at Látrabjargin in the Westfjords. There we really saw them up close and personal. They were less than a metre away and really couldn’t care less if you were there or not. There was a strong wind and we saw quite a few doing some tricky backward landing manoeuvres. And as we were there in breeding season, we even got to witness them courting by rubbing their beaks together, the male bobbing his head, and we even saw some mating.
In Húsavík, whilst whale watching, we got close to Puffin Island, Iceland’s second biggest puffin colony, with around 100,000 birds living in close quarters on the grassy cliffs. As puffins don’t make a nest to lay their eggs, but dig a burrow, up to 2m deep with 2 chambers, they are rather restricted in Iceland to find suitable locations as the entire island is rather rocky. Which means a small island off the mainland coast (so no land predators can get to it) with suitable digging ground means this is puffin paradise.
And if you think this must be one noisy island, you are very much mistaken. Although the puffins do make a sort of low pitched, kind of whiney sound, they don’t make it very often. Sometimes they will have some noisy neighbours or passersby (like arctic terns or herring gulls), but it is generally pretty quiet in their colonies. It is also very clean. No guano deposits beneath their nests as the second chamber in their burrow is their toilet. Although we did see a couple of puffins squirt some around outside their burrow….
It’s pretty incredible how they manage to find their mate again in between all these holes in the ground. They recently discovered that their beaks are fluorescent and the stripes on their beaks are used for identification. Pretty handy when it is crowded. Their beaks are only colourful during the mating season, probably to aid identification during this crowded time. The rest of the year puffins spend at sea. They can drink salt water and rest on the waves. Pretty incredible if you consider how rough the ocean can get.
In Iceland the adult puffins arrive around mid-April, they mate, raise their chicks and leave again in September. So if you want to see these little guys and girls, you’ve got to be here in summer. They are monogamous and return to the same burrow year after year to raise another chick. We spent hours watching them at the Hafnarhólmi marina in the east of Iceland.
We absolutely loved hanging out with these little birds. And although you don’t hear much about Iceland’s other wildlife in their promotion to the masses, there is plenty of other wildlife to be seen. We were very lucky to see some random wild reindeer, added quite a few new birds to our list (including the common eider), spotted a blue whale, saw plenty of Icelandic horses, and had several incredible encounters with the arctic fox. We were also surrounded by a pod of beautiful and inquisitive white-nosed dolphins, and we saw many seals, including some pups, whilst having our lunches and enjoying the views.
There were also some undesirable wildlife encounters. We spotted a mink crossing the road, an introduced species (for their fur) that is now thriving in the wild. And we ate some of Lake Myvatn’s many flies. We were lucky they weren’t out in force yet, but in another week or so we reckon it must be full of them there.
We tried a few of the thermal baths, and whilst we enjoyed the famous (hugely overpriced) Blue Lagoon, we much preferred the few small hot pots that you can still find out there without another soul, or just a few locals who visit them every day. And our favourite waterfall? Hard to pick from the hundreds we saw, but the one we spotted in the eastfjords, where we were alone with the waterfall, probably is our pick.
And whilst Iceland might not be well-known for its culinary endavours, we enjoyed some pretty good food. We enjoyed the rye breads, the fish balls, skyr (a bit like yoghurt, in Holland we would call it kwark), the bread made underground using geothermal heat, and the mashed fish. But our absolute favourite food experience was our meal in Tjoruhusid in Isafjordur. It’s a family restaurant, serving a communal dinner in an old tar house and it starts at 7pm sharp. Our host had character and was very entertaining, but the food was sensational. It starts with an absolutely amazing langoustine and halibut soup, you can have as much as you like. And then the main course is served. We had lots of different types of fish (salmon, halibut, cod’s tongue, cod, Atlantic wolffish) and several vegetable dishes and salads. And again, you can go back as many times as you like for more. Our favourite was the wolffish, but we also enjoyed sitting next to Marlen and Elisa (who had been in Isafjordur already for 10 months for her studies).
We were unlucky with the weather. Not so much the weather when we were in the country (although we had several days of freezing cold, wet and windy conditions in the beginning), but more the long winter that prevented the highland roads to be opened. This meant we could not really escape the ‘in-your-face mass tourism’ which we very much dislike. We also very much disliked the fact that you have to stay in campsites, which are expensive and totally inadequate for the number of people that have to stay there. A polite way of describing them are carparks with 1-3 toilets available and if you are lucky a shower. It already felt really busy now, we hate to think what they will look like in high season.
On our last day we finally made it into the highlands, one of the roads we had wanted to take was finally open. We popped in and managed to do a short hike. The campsite was much nicer and the scenery amazing. This is where we would have wanted to spend the bulk of our time…. Next time we will go later in the season and just go hiking in the highlands, who wants to join us?!
Remarkable little birds. Here are some fun facts about puffins:
Can dive up to 60m deep, can stay for about 2 minutes under water, they swim under water with their wings, that’s why they wings are small (and they look clumsy especially when landing), their wings beat 400 times per minute when flying, they can fly at speeds of 88km per hour.
When they have chicks and need to feed they can fly up to 40-50km away from the nest, they might do that up to 10 times a day, they share the feeding of the chicks, they are monogamous, they mainly eat sandeels (which don’t live in the sand, they’re more like bait fish, like sardines), their numbers are declining because their main food source is heading further north (due to warmer seas)
They come back to the same burrow year after year, burrows can be 2m deep, they have 2 chambers in their burrow, one for the chick, the other as a toilet, the best puffins get the best burrows, new adults ready for mating will have to make a new burrow (dig one, pretty tough in Iceland) or find an empty one, in Iceland they arrive around mid-April for their mating season and leave in September, in winter they float on the sea when they are not diving, so they only spend the mating season on land, the second biggest breeding colony of around 100,000 birds is on puffin island in the bay near Husavik.
Puffns are mature around 5 years old, the oldest known puffin is 41 years old (but most live around 20 years), they are about 25cm tall, their beaks are only colourful when they are in breeding season, the beaks are fluorescent (like scorpions), they can recognize each other by the yellow stripes in their beaks – this was discovered fairly recently.
Where did you see your first puffin?
For those of you interested to see where we went in Iceland we’ve created a rough map of where we went. Click on the top right corner if you want to be able to zoom in on a bigger map (opens in a new tab).