Iceland: Arctic Bird Photography in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is well known as a spectacularly beautiful land of volcanic features, rugged coastlines, and Arctic tundra. Among photographers, it is a well established destination for landscape photography. What is less known is that Iceland is a wonderful destination for bird photography. Though species numbers are relatively low, (as is typical of near-Arctic regions), the quality is superb, and the birds are generally tame. Roadside pools teem with elegant Red-necked Phalaropes, rivers hold crisp Harlequin Ducks and amorous Barrow’s Goldeneye, and cliffs are covered in breeding alcids, including the astoundingly photogenic Atlantic Puffin. This is one of those special destinations where you can expect to go home with good images of the majority of the bird species.


On this weeklong tour, we’ll sample the best bird photography that this unique Nordic country has to offer. First we’ll fly to the northeast and spend three night near Lake Myvatn for highlights like Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck and lots of breeding shorebird. From there, we’ll head across this scenic island to the beautiful Westfjords area, at the island’s northwest corner. There we’ll visit impressive seabird cliffs, home to comical Atlantic Puffins, a range of other alcids, and thousands of gulls and Northern Fulmars. Once we’re done in the west of Iceland, we’ll head south toward the capital, Reykjavik. At the end of the tour we will undoubtedly have many memory cards full of a range of Arctic birds, with some scenery shots thrown in for good measure.

Black-tailed Godwit on the wing
Black-tailed Godwit on the wing (Ken Behrens)

Day 1: Arrival in Reyjavik (Keflavik International Airport). Flight to Akureyri and transfer to Myvatn. After meeting at Reykjavik airport this morning, we will take a short and scenic domestic flight over volcanoes and lava fields to the northern town of Akureyri, which sits just below the Arctic Circle. A short drive through a mountain range brings us to our picturesque guesthouse adjacent the Goðafoss Falls. There are abundant chances for photography within a short walk of our lodging. If you fancy landscape photography you can head to the thundering falls, one of the largest and most beautiful in this country that is incredibly rich in waterfalls. Birds also abound, with Eurasian Oystercatcher, European Golden-Plovers, Whimbrel, and Common Snipe on the lawn, and Rock Ptarmigans often calling from surrounding rock pinnacles or even from the roof of the guesthouse! The days are almost 24-hours long here, so there is abundant time for the tireless to explore the area!

Rock Ptarmigan on mossy tundra - a classic Arctic scene
Rock Ptarmigan on mossy tundra - a classic Arctic scene (Ken Behrens)

Days 2 – 3: Lake Myvatn area. We’ll spend two full days in the northeast corner of Iceland, exploring the area around Lake Myvatn. One of our main goals will be to search the many rivers for stunning Harlequin Ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneyes. Throughout the day we will be blown away by the numbers of waterfowl around this recently formed lake, and we hope to photograph stunning Horned Grebes, Red-necked Phalaropes, Common Mergansers, Common and Red-throated loons, and a bounty of shorebirds, all in their finest breeding refinery and often incredibly approachable. We will also see the amazing geological features of the Myvatyn area, the steaming fumeroles of Krafla, the boiling mudpots of the Hverir geothermal field, the Viti explosion crater and the Dimmuborgir ‘Dark Castles’ formations. These three nights will be in the Myvatn area.

Goðafoss Waterfall, within sight of our guesthouse
Goðafoss Waterfall, within sight of our guesthouse (Ken Behrens)

Day 4: Myvatn to Búðardalur. We will break up our journey to the Westfjords area with a night near Búðardalur. Along the way, we’ll make many stops to opportunistically photograph birds and landscapes along the way. One of the great things about Iceland is that you are never without avian subjects, from the moment that you land in Keflavik Airport. We’ll focus on getting good photo ops of any shorebird and waterfowl species that might have eluded us around Lake Myvatn. This might include Pink-footed Goose, a species that breeds in some of the high-elevation valleys that we drive through. The night will be spent in Búðardalur.

Iceland's often overcast conditions actually mean that the light is wonderful throughout the day, as on this Common Redshank
Iceland's often overcast conditions actually mean that the light is wonderful throughout the day, as on this Common Redshank (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Búðardalur to Westfjords. After a little morning photography around our hotel, we’ll continue west, and by mid-day, we will have arrived in the Westfjords, one of the most rugged, wild, and beautiful parts of this stunning island. We may have time to make our first excursion to a seabird breeding cliff, our main region for visiting this area.

Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, and Razorbill, in a typically dense breeding colony
Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, and Razorbill, in a typically dense breeding colony (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Westfjords. We’ll spend the entire day in the Westfjords. Our main photographic targets are the alcids, especially the ridiculously photogenic Atlantic Puffin. Its strong supporting cast includes Common and Thick-billed Murres, Razorbill, and Black Guillemnot. These stubby-winged “penguins” of the northern hemisphere are endlessly charismatic. If you tire of photographing them on the cliff, you can always turn to the challenge of capturing them as they rocket by in flight. Other birds on these cliffs include Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Fulmar, and several species of gulls. Our position on top of a cliff gives us a unique and wonderful photographic perspective as birds like fulmars fly by at eye level.

Day 7: Westfjords to Keflavik. Another half-day drive will bring us to our final hotel on the Keflavik peninsula southwest of Reykjavik, where we can make an evening trip to the peninsula in search of yet more birds, or for those that wish, to visit the famous Blue Lagoon thermal baths (optional). The night will be spent in Keflavik near the international airport, but if folks wish they can take the Skybus into Reykjavic, Iceland’s fascinating capital, located right at the top of the World, (it is the most northerly capital of an sovereign state), with its well-deserved reputation as the greenest, cleanest, and safest city in the world.

Day 8: Departure from Reyjavik (Keflavik International Airport). If flight times allow, there may be time to have one final search of the peninsula for alcids, shorebirds, gulls, before making our way to the airport to board our flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy – Moderate. Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle and so the sun barely sets throughout the summer. For this reason, some early starts (around 5 – 5:30am) may be desirable since the bird photography is good in the morning. Photography will be done both by foot and by vehicle. Driving between bases involves two moderate drives of four hours each, and one longer drive of about six hours, though these are broken with bird and landscape photography stops where appropriate. Once at our bases the driving distances between sites are much shorter, but a lot of time is spent in the car each day. Given the extra-long days of the Arctic summer, there will downtime on most days to relax.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the walking will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk less than 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. At no point in the tour do we do any birding at high altitude, with 1650 ft (500 m) likely being the highest point of the tour. Most of this tour is spent at or close to sea level and is suitable for anybody with a decent level of mobility.

CLIMATE: Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle, and so a sub-Arctic climate is to be expected, which means refreshingly cool temperatures during the day and cold in the morning and at night. Throughout the tour the temperature is likely to sit between 37°-55°F, 3°-13°C. The weather here is notoriously fickle and includes periods of warm sunshine, cold rain, and maybe even light snow.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, wifi, and 24h electricity. The airport hotel at Keflavik is spartan.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best run in the Arctic summer, from late May to early July.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: Most of this tour will be spent driving and walking around open, tundra and meadow environments. There are no formal blind setups, but you really don’t need them, as most birds are very accommodating. Bird photography is the focus, but the landscapes are also wonderful.

GEAR: Long lenses can be very useful, say for shy ducks or more distant alcids on cliffs. But make sure to have a smaller lens for close subjects and landscapes. Although most days are cloudy, there is still a lot of light, and most photographers won’t need a tripod. We do some photography from inside of the vehicle, for which bean bags and other such ways of stabilizing lenses inside of a vehicle are recommended.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of a large number of countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Australia and all EU European countries. Visas are currently required of a number of nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7; meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 8; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water between meals (Iceland’s tap water is considered some of the best in the world, so you will be expected to refill bottles when possible); Tropical Birding tour leader from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 7 in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; one way flight Reyjavik-Akureyri; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Arctic Tern with lupines in the background - a typical Iceland scene
Arctic Tern with lupines in the background - a typical Iceland scene (Ken Behrens)

Eurasian Oystercatcher. It's hard to get tired of photographing these
Eurasian Oystercatcher. It's hard to get tired of photographing these "carrot-bills" (Ken Behrens)

Northern Fulmar is one of the island's most abundant birds
Northern Fulmar is one of the island's most abundant birds (Ken Behrens)

Red-necked Phalarope can be incredibly accommodating
Red-necked Phalarope can be incredibly accommodating (Ken Behrens)

White Wagtail in a birch woodland
White Wagtail in a birch woodland (Ken Behrens)