Nature and Wildlife of Iceland – by Crossbill Guides

Naturalists, birdwatchers, ramblers, photographers and all other nature lovers, a warm welcome on this page about the nature and wildlife of the island of Iceland. This website accompanies the Crossbill nature travel guide with the same name. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to warm you up for your stay, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the guidebook. Enjoy!

Iceland is a volcanic island in the northern Atlantic some 850 kilometres north of Scotland and 300 kilometres off the coast of southeast Greenland. Although significantly further south than either Svalbard and the Varanger Peninsula in northern Norway, Iceland is the only other part of Europe where you can experience what can be considered Arctic conditions. Despite this, only the extreme northern tip of Iceland breaches the polar circle.
Iceland is sparsely populated. There are only half a million people, of which the majority lives in the two largest cities (Reykjavik and Akureyri). The central highlands are completely uninhabited and wild.

Landscape of Iceland

Extreme landscape,
extreme geology

Iceland’s landscape is one of a kind. It is completely volcanic and fully exposed to the harsh weather of the Northern Atlantic, which has sculpted the tuff stone and basaltic bedrock in the most extreme forms.
Iceland lies right above the Mid-Atlantic rift valley, where the North American and European continental plates drift apart, thereby regularly tearing open the earth crusts and releasing lava from its interior. Eruptions take on many forms. Sometimes they are violent explosions of hot magma and dust, but at frequently, the liquid rock simply oozes out of cracks in the bedrock.
The active faults run from the southeast and south-central part of the island to the centre and onwards to the north. This is where the land is youngest. Towards the north-western and eastern coasts, the land is younger. Here glaciers have carved dramatic fjords during the last ice ages.

The Coast

All imaginable types of coastline are present on Iceland. There are wide river deltas with salt marsh, young lava fields with tidal rock pools, dramatic U-shaped fjords, black beaches and steep coastal cliffs with grassy headlands. In many places, there are islands and skerries.
In terms of wildlife, the coast is probably the richest part of the country, and one could happily spend an entire holiday exclusively on the Icelandic coast. The oceanside grasslands are full of Arctic wildflowers in summer and colonies of skuas, gulls and terns in spring. Sea bird colonies with Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills are dotted on the cliffs all along the coast. Seals, dolphins and whales frequent the fjords, especially in the western and northern parts of the country.

The lowland meadows

In many parts of the island, there is a smaller or wider band of lowland between the coast and the uplands of the interior. Especially in the south and west of the country, and more locally in the north, this is agricultural land. There are meadows, many of which are peaty. This is a rather friendly part of the country, with a rich birdlife. This is wader country, with Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit, Snipe, Redshank and Whimbrel breeding in large numbers.

Heathlands and scrub

Slightly wilder terrain is covered in heathland. Patches of it can be found all over the lowlands, but this landscape increases in the north, west and east. The Icelandic heathlands support a surprisingly rich flora, including many gentians and orchids (see below). In more sheltered places, a scatter of stunted Birches gives the landscape a bushy character. Locally the Birches form, together with Rowan, an open woodland – the natural vegetation of large parts of the Icelandic lowlands. There are some coniferous forests too, but these are all planted. Except for Juniper, there are no native conifers on the island.

Barren land, hot sources

Volcanic eruptions erase all life in places that are covered in hot lava or masses of ash. However, they also create a clean slate for new life to emerge. The very young fields of block lava are completely black and barren, just sharp cinders of black rock. Within a few years, however, their sharpness is softened by a beautiful, greyish green fringe-moss (Racomitrium), that soon covers the rock like a blanket. Other mosses emerge, as do lichens and clubmoss. As the lava fields grow older, the many cracks and clefts develop a special vegetation. Being damper and more sheltered, nutrients build up and a rather lush vegetation may develop, that is not unlike what you’d expect in forests. Shade tolerant ferns and wildflowers such as Herb-paris (Paris quadrifolia) grow in these hollows.
For some birds, such as Ptarmigan and Northern Wheatear, these lava fields are important.

Rivers and lakes

There are countless lakes, streams and rivers on Iceland, although perhaps less than you’d expect of a northern country with lots of rain and snow. The young volcanic soils are porous and water seeps away easily. Underground, the water gathers and where it reappears it can form huge rivers that thunder down cliffs in spectacular waterfalls.
As with everywhere, rivers and lakes on Iceland are hotspots for wildlife. Several plants (e.g. Arctic River Beauty) and birds (e.g. Harlequin Duck) are typical of the rivers. Many waders, ducks, geese and swans gather in the river deltas near the coast, where there is plenty of food. Some also breed here, but for others, it is only a staging post first in spring before moving on to the breeding grounds in the highlands or Greenland, and then in late summer as they migrate south.

A very special area of lakes is found in the north-east: Myvatn. Due to tectonic activity, Myvatn emerged as a shallow and slightly warm, nutrient-rich lake where many thousands of waterfowl breed, such as Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebe. Myvatn means fly lake, and it is the summer ‘bloom’ of many millions of small flies (non-biting fortunately) that form the basis of Myvatn’s food chain.
Here and elsewhere there are also warm water sources, which have a special flora of mainly dwarf plants, that is unique for Iceland.

Highlands

The central part of Iceland is a huge area of highland. Whereas the climate at the coast is softened by the Atlantic, the highlands have an extremely harsh climate, with lots of snow from autumn to spring, and sometimes even in summer too. There are several permanent icecaps, but much of the highlands are a polar desert. It is termed a desert since water is largely unavailable to living things, not because it is absent, but because it is first locked away as snow and ice and when it melts it quickly disappears into the porous soil. The highlands are a stunningly wild, beautiful and extremely challenging environment. There are no tarmacked roads and even the two dirt tracks across it are only open in summer months and then solely for 4×4 vehicles. Life in the highlands largely revolves around the lakes, rivers and damp spots, where a limited flora and fauna occurs. In particular, there are some Arctic plants that are restricted to the highlands, although most of them can be found in valleys on the north side that give access to the highlands. The highlands are the main breeding ground for Pink-footed Goose, plus Ptarmigan and its predator, the Gyrfalcon.

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Geysir, eerie-coloured hot lagoons, smokers, boiling mud pots in strange colours, steaming hot rivers, craters, shield and strato-volcanoes – Iceland has some of the world’s most diverse and extreme geothermal sites. Some are turned into bathing sites.

Glaciers have cut out dramatic fjords in Iceland’s extreme east and northwest coast and make a jaw-dropping background to a hike or drive.

Iceland’s birding hotspot with huge numbers of waterfowl in yet again a spectacular landscape.

Large colonies of auks (Puffin, Razorbill, three species of guillemot), gannets and other seabirds are all along Iceland’s coast.

Iceland is sometimes called a treeless island, but that is not true. The native forests of stunted birches and rowans are beautiful and add a gentle tone to the otherwise harsh landscape.

Iceland has many small villages with wooden houses and turf [sodden?] rooftops. Often in the middle of meadowland where large numbers of birds breed.

There are various centres for whale-watching, from Reykjavik to Snaefellsness up to Husavík (see map).

One of Iceland’s most famous sites really is one of its most impressive: the Jökulsárlón glacier lake. Squeezed in between the ring road and one of Iceland’s largest glaciers, this lake is where the icebergs break off and melt. The blue ice with swirls of black lava grit is a photographer’s paradise.

On the southern edge of the interior highlands, the weirdly coloured rhyolite mountains of Landmannalauger are another stunning landscape feature. Only reachable by 4×4 or a summer bus service.

Iceland is famous for its many thundering waterfalls, many of which are easily accessible as they are on or just a short distance from road 1.

Birds and wildflowers  – The flora and fauna of Iceland

Iceland is isolated both in space and time. It is quite far off from any land mass and was (almost) completely glaciated some 10,000 years ago. As life is concerned, Iceland was pretty much a tabula rasa until the glaciers retreated (although there is some debate on whether some species survived in ice-free spots). As a consequence, all living organisms had to colonise this far-off island in this relatively short time. Unsurprisingly, not many species did so.
Iceland can therefore be characterised just as much by what cannot be found, as by what is present. There are no reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies or butterflies for example, and nor are there bats or native rodents. What does occur – the terns, the auks, the ducks, the green orchids, occur here in massive numbers. They have the island all to themselves.
In terms of biogeography, Iceland is predominantly European. It is covered by European bird guides, not by American. Most species present are either European or circumpolar, meaning that they occur in a band around the North Pole. However, there is a distinct set of species the country shares only with North America. Examples are Great Northern Diver (Common Loon in American), Grey phalarope, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, Northern Green Orchid, Arctic River Beauty and Marsh Felwort. Iceland has also garnered a reputation for turning up rare American vagrant birds in late autumn in sheltered spots and islands.

Flora

The flora of Iceland is at first glance a paradox. It is in its totality rather poor in species, yet when you look at what grows in a square metre, it is at many locations surprisingly rich. This is both a country of polar deserts, nearly devoid of plants, but also one with literally millions of wild orchids – plants you’d normally associate with damp, tropical locations, the exact opposite of Iceland. The base-rich, alkaline volcanic soils are in part responsible for this odd flora. Many species that are elsewhere restricted to the rare calcareous spots in the northern ecosystems are widespread on Iceland. Much of what is rare in Scotland or Scandinavia (both with predominantly acidic bedrock) is common on Iceland.

The volcanic soils support a high diversity of plants. But because the land is so young and ecosystems hardly differentiated, many species occur throughout.
Common plants are Northern Green Orchid (Platanthera hyperborea), Northern Small White Orchid (Pseeudorchis straminea) and Coralroot Orchid (Corralorhiza trifida), Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris), Hairy Stonecrop (Sedum villosum), Moonwort (Botrichium lunaria) and Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala).
More local are some truly Arctic plants like Arctic Poppy (Papaver arcticum), Moss Heath (Cassiope hypnoides).

Mammals

There are only two native land mammals on Iceland – and they are quite surprisingly Arctic Fox and Polar Bear. The latter has no permanent population on the island. Rather it is a regular vagrant that ends up on shore with large sheets of ice from nearby Greenland.  All other species (mice and rats) were introduced. There are also some feral herds of Reindeer in Eastern Iceland. They were brought here from Scandinavia.
Sea mammals by contrast are plentiful. Common and Grey Seals breed in many bays whilst visiting Harp and Hooded Seals can be seen along northern coasts in the summer. Whales and dolphins  include Humpback and Minke Whale, Orca, White-beaked Dolphin and Harbour Porpoise.

Birds

The Icelandic birdlife consists of a superb blend of boreal and Arctic species and Atlantic seabirds. The low diversity of songbirds in comparison to other birds is striking. This is again the result of the isolated position in the Atlantic, which makes it hard for birds to reach it. Common songbirds are Redwing, Northern Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Redpoll and Wren (the latter two have unique Icelandic subspecies). More local are Snow Bunting, Goldcrest and, in a few spots near habitation, Blackbird, House Sparrow and Fieldfare.
By contrast, there are many seabirds  some in impressive numbers. On the coast, there are large colonies of Arctic Tern, Fulmar, Puffin, Guillemot (including Brünnich’s Guillemot in some colonies), Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Manx Shearwater, Eider and Great and Arctic Skuas. Glaucous Gull breeds on the west coast (counter-intuitively, “Iceland” Gull doesn’t breed here).

A large number of waders breed in the moors and meadows, with the Icelandic race of Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Snipe, Dunlin and Redshank being very numerous. On (coastal) lakes, there are Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Red-necked Phalarope and, locally, Grey Phalarope. The rivers and the lake complex of Myvatn has more aquatic birds. These are haunts of Harlequin Duck (on rivers) and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Iceland’s interior has breeding Ptarmigans, Gyrfalcon and Pink-footed Goose, amongst others.

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Probably the most adorable of the six species of auk that breed on Iceland. It breeds in large colonies in burrows on steep, grassy slopes and are easy to see in several of their colonies.

Europe’s largest falcon is restricted to the Arctic environment. It breeds in the Interior, especially around lakes Myvatn.

This beautiful duck breeds along fast-flowing rivers in the interior of Iceland (especially Myvatn). Although the European population is restricted to Iceland, it is more widely spread in the northern latitudes of North America and the Russian Far East.

Otherwise restricted entirely to North America, this species has a unique outpost on Iceland.

The Arctic Fox is present in the more barren parts of the island, with the largest population in the West Fjords. The Icelandic Arctic Foxes have black furs.

This Orchid is native to boreal North America, Greenland and Iceland. On Iceland, it is very common and grows all over the heathlands and commonly along roadsides.

This beautiful wildflower grows along inland river banks.

One of the most spectacular whale species Which often comes close to the coast in western Iceland.

Found mostly in western Iceland where, if you are lucky, they can put on a great show, wildly breaking the surface, jumping or showing its huge flukes.

This rare wading bird occurs in two coastal populations, one in the southeast and another on islands in the Breidafjordur. The females have a beautiful brick-red breeding plumages.

Routes and practicalities

Many of Iceland’s specialties, its birds, plants and striking geology and landscape, are easy to see. Only the interior highlands are difficult to reach. Or more accurately, they are expensive to get to, as doing so requires the hiring of a four-wheel drive.
Iceland has a good public transport system, even having buses to some of the sites in the interior, that cater for tourists. Iceland has one circular road, road #1, from which all other local roads branch off.
The best routes, both car routes and walking routes, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on Iceland.

Sustainable tourism

Iceland has become a very popular destination, both for European and American travellers, and to a lesser extent for travellers all over the world. The fragile environment, which is under pressure from climate change is suffering from this large number of tourists. This is what you can do to minimize your impact.

  • Birds are easy to find in the breeding season, but easily disturbed. Don’t get too close and never attempt to approach a breeding bird on the nest. Don’t walk into colonies of breeding birds. As a general rule of thumb, if a bird gets restless, step back.
  • As above, but with seals. Seals are often found on the shore and need their time here to rest. When a seal starts raising its head, it is a first sign you are getting too close.
  • Be careful when driving minor roads through the meadows in the breeding season, as waders and terns often rest on them.
  • Erosion is a major problem in Iceland’s drier soils, especially in the interior. Don’t engage in off-road driving, either on quad bike or 4×4. It is extremely damaging.
  • Buy local food but refrain from eating whale meat, wild birds or their eggs.

For more information, see the
Seal Watching Code of Conduct

The book

The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers their chosen region in-depth with descriptions of the landscape, habitats, geology and all the main species groups, and links these to the routes where they can be best seen.

These routes are typically a mixture of walking routes and car itineraries with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for finding birds, plants and mammals. They are also set out to give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.

The Crossbill Guide to Iceland contains:

  • 264 pages
  • 23 detailed routes
  • 57 site descriptions

The authors

Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.