Iceland: Birding and Whale Watching in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is ancient, both in terms of its people and its very nature. Sitting just below the Arctic Circle, it is a spectacularly beautiful land of rugged cliffs, serene fjords, cascading waterfalls, apocalyptic-looking lava fields, and magma-spilling volcanoes. And, it is a land with a tremendous wealth of wildlife. Though species numbers are relatively low, (as is typical of near-Arctic regions), the quality is superb. Roadside pools teem with elegant Red-necked Phalaropes, rivers hold crisp Harlequin Ducks and amorous Barrow’s Goldeneye, and fearsome Gyrfalcons roam the land in search of any of the abundant breeding shorebirds to feast on. Plus the island is surrounded by hemmed in by the cetacean rich Greenland Sea and Atlantic Ocean that boast a myriad of awe-inspiring whales and dolphins.


On this weeklong tour, we’ll sample the best that this unique Nordic country has to offer. First we’ll fly to the northeast and bird Lake Myvatn for highlights like Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck and Gyrfalcon. We’ll also take two whale-watching boat trips out of two different ports with two different targets: Humpback Whale in Akureyri, and in Husavik for Northern Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise and if we are very lucky perhaps the largest being on Earth, the colossal Blue Whale. From there, we’ll head all the way across this scenic island to the beautiful Snæfellsnes Peninsula. There we’ll visit impressive seabird cliffs, home to Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot) and comical Atlantic Puffins, and join another boat trip to look for one of the area’s resident Orca pods, and perhaps too the unique Sperm Whale. Once we’re done in the west of Iceland, we’ll head south toward the capital, Reykjavik, where we’ll be “normal” tourists for the day as we complete the ‘Golden Circle’, a route filled with thermal baths, geysers, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an extinct volcano crater, enormous waterfalls and Earth’s first parliament which the Viking-like ancestors established to govern this icy world. We may encounter Rock Ptarmigan or an Arctic Fox to compliment these other activities. At the end of the tour we will have enjoyed a truly varied tour, with extraordinary scenery, super birds as well as whales and dolphins, and seen some remarkable sights in this unique and volcanic Land of Fire and Ice.

Barrow's Goldeneye is a stunning duck, and in Europe only possible to see in Iceland
Barrow's Goldeneye is a stunning duck, and in Europe only possible to see in Iceland (Keith Barnes)

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. Iceland has some of the best whale-watching anywhere in the world, and Akureyri is one of the main hubs for this activity. We’ll take a boat trip to the outer fjord where we hope to have breath-taking encounters with Humpback and Minke Whales, as well as the charismatic White-beaked Dolphin and our first encounters with alcids from the nearby breeding colonies.

Immense whales like this iconic Humpback are a big feature of Iceland
Immense whales like this iconic Humpback are a big feature of Iceland (Lisle Gwynn)

After our whale watch, we’ll make the short journey inland to one of Iceland’s premier birding hotspots, Lake Myvatn. Along the way we’ll encounter our first of many tame Meadow Pipits and Redwing, as well as an abundance of breeding shorebirds including, European Golden Plover, European Oystercatcher, Common Snipe, and Common Redshank, and we’ll comb the shorelines for Dunlin and Purple Sandpiper. Arctic Fox is rare in Iceland, but we will keep our eyes peeled for this miniature canid as they are seen from time to time on this tour. Rock Ptarmigan may be another early highlight, sitting atop a volcanic tuff. We’ll arrive in Myvatn by evening to settle into our base for the next three nights. The days are almost 24-hours long here, so there may still be time to explore the local area this evening if the group is not too tired!

Days 2 – 3: Myvatn & Husavik. We’ll spend two full days in the northeast corner of Iceland, the first of which we’ll focus on Lake Myvatn itself. Our main goals will be to search the many rivers for stunning Harlequin Ducks, scour the streams and lakes for Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and keep our eyes open for a Gyrfalcon hunting on the wing. Throughout the day we will be blown away by the numbers of wildfowl around this recently formed lake, and we hope to see 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.

The second of these days will be used to take further advantage of Iceland’s superb whale-watching. We will make our way the short distance to the famous town of Husavik. Here we will board a local whale-watching boat and venture a short distance out to sea in search of more cetaceans. Minke Whales are regular here at this time of year, and although this area regularly produces the incomprehensible Blue Whale, we would still be lucky to encounter one. An excellent supporting cast can include Humpback Whales, White-beaked Dolphins, Harbor Porpoises, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous Gulls, and yet more Red-necked Phalaropes. Once back on dry land we’ll make our way back to Myvatn by way of the superb Godafoss Waterfall and spend the afternoon trying to find any missing targets, perhaps including Gyrfalcon and Arctic Fox. These two nights will also be in the Myvatn area.

The dark castles formation at Dimmuborgir is suitable as a set for the afterworld!
The dark castles formation at Dimmuborgir is suitable as a set for the afterworld! (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Myvatn to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Given the vastness of Iceland, one primarily travel day is needed. We’ll make our way west to the scenic, but difficult to pronounce Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We’ll of course stop several times along the way for any birds we encounter, which may include Rock Ptarmigan, White-tailed Eagle, more Horned Grebes, and Red-throated and Common Loons. Some years, there is at least one immaculate male King Eider spending the summer with its Common cousins on the northern coast, and we’ll make a special effort to see it if this is the case. Our base on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula will be the beautiful Grundarfjörður, famous for its towering and much-photographed landmark mountain. We’ll likely spend the afternoon in the local area, taking advantage of photo opportunities with the mountain, waterfalls and local wildlife, all while keeping an eye on the sea, hoping for one of the area’s regular pods of Orca. The next two nights will be spent in Grundarfjörður.

Common Eider, a beautiful high Arctic duck
Common Eider, a beautiful high Arctic duck (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Snæfellsnes Peninsula. We’ll spend the entire day on the peninsula, with two primary goals. The first will be a visit to some local seabird cliffs, which are rammed full of both Common and Thick-billed Murres, Razorbill but headline with the stunning Atlantic Puffin. Our other main endeavor today will be another whale watching trip. The beauty of whale watching in Iceland is that each hub has its own specialties. Here in the west we’ll search for the enigmatic Orca, and again if we are extremely lucky perhaps the bizarre Sperm Whale, while we also stand a chance of seeing Fin, Sei or even Blue Whales. Seabird diversity is low in the high Atlantic, but Manx, Sooty and perhaps Great Shearwaters could also be seen to compliment our haul of cetaceans. Another night will be spent in Grundarfjörður.

The iconic Orca will be a key target in the west
The iconic Orca will be a key target in the west (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 6: Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Keflavik. Today we’ll spend a long day being “regular” tourists and undertaking the famed “Golden Circle”. We’ll leave Grundarfjörður early and travel first to Thingvellir National Park, which is home to Iceland’s largest lake, and the first home of the world’s longest functioning parliament. Perhaps most impressive here though are the visible rifts where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge passes through Iceland, allowing us to look down into the gap between two major tectonic plates. Onwards, we’ll make our way to the two local, famous, and impressive geysers, known as Strokkur and the imaginatively-named ‘Geysir’ (in fact it is this blower that gave all others around the planet their name), that sit in a thermally-active valley. After admiring the staggering Gullfoss Waterfall, we’ll make a visit to the stunning Kerid Crater, the water-filled caldera of an ancient volcano that has walls of red, green, blue and yellow. Eventually we’ll make our way 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 7: Departure from Reyjavik (Keflavik International Airport). There should 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) are necessary since the birding is almost always best early in the morning. Birding will be done both by foot and by vehicle, with at least two boat trips. Driving between bases involves one long drive (5.5 hours Myvatn to Grundarfjordur), though this is broken with birding 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 be downtime on some days to relax.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding 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, and 24h electricity. The airport hotel at Keflavik is spartan.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will find many excellent and worthwhile opportunities for wildlife photography. Icelandic scenery is famously beautiful, and it is well worth bringing a compact camera just for that.

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 day 6; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 7; 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 with scope and audio gear 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; up to three whale-watching boat trips, which are weather-dependent and subject to last-minute cancellation; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); 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.