The wildlife in Iceland isn’t always a reason for visiting the country, however the range of creatures in this hostile landscape is really quite amazing. Even if you are only there for a short while there will always be something to see and more importantly, photograph. This short guide will introduce some of the more commonly seen wildlife in Iceland with suggestions of the best places to visit to increase your chances of an encounter.
These horses (Equus ferus caballus) were brought to Iceland over 1,000 years ago and are the product of selective breeding and natural selection. The horses that you see across Iceland today are extremely hardy, friendly, very curious, and great photo subjects. They are easy to find across the country but do remember your safety and respect for the animals and their owners.
READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH ICELANDIC HORSES
Iceland is home to over 60% of the world’s nesting population of these small and comical birds. One of the best places to see puffins (Fratercula arctica) is at Látrabjarg in the Westfjords, Westman Islands off the south coast and at Hafnarhólmi near Borgarfjörður Eystri. They can also be spotted near Vík. May through to early August is the only time that they will be on land and can be seen.
READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH PUFFINS
Wild arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) have been in Iceland since before the Vikings arrived. They are quiet and elusive and hard to find. Preferring the wilderness regions they make their home in the remote corners of Eastfjords and the Westfjords. One of their key domains is the mostly inaccessible Hornstrandir peninsula. They are usually white in the winter and brown or grey in the summer.
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are not native to Iceland but live in wild herds in the southeast and eastern parts of the country. During the summer months they are rarely seen as they are grazing in the more remote areas. However, during the winter months they will move down to lower levels where they can often be seen from the road between Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the town at Höfn.
Iceland is one of the best places to see whales and whale watching tours offered from towns around the country. The two main starting points for tours are Reykjavík and Húsavík in the north. Tours also depart from a number of other towns and villages in the north and west but are not as frequent.
Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are the most commonly seen during whale watching tours. Orca (Orcinus orca), harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and white-beaked dolphins (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) can be seen at times, but are less common.
In the Westman Islands the two beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) rescued from Shanghai now spend their days at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary which is a fantastic facility for them. Having seen Little Grey and Little White while they were in quarantine it is easy to imagine how they are settling into their new world.
Iceland does have a difficult history with whales but times are changing and as the popularity of whale watching tours increase the need for whale hunting has all but vanished. In 2020 there was no whale-hunting season so hopefully this is the first of many years with no hunts.
The only seals which stay around the coast of Iceland and raise their young in the freezing waters are harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Harp seals, bearded seals and rings seals can also turn up along the coast through the year. In Hvammstangi you´ll find the seal museum which provides all the information you need about seals in Iceland.
The Vatnsnes Peninsula in northwest Iceland is the best-known place to go seal watching. All around the peninsula there are road signs with pictures of seals, indicating a good viewing spot. You will pass these signs as you follow the Arctic Coast Way that winds its way along the northern coast.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach in Southeast Iceland is another god place to see seals. They can often be seen floating on icebergs in the lagoon or popping up just off the beach.
Melanes campsite on Rauðasandur in the Westfjords is close to a small seal colony. This is hard to reach although seals can be seen all the way along the beach beyond the campsite.
You should always keep an eye out for seals in Iceland, you never know quite where they will pop up!
If you visit Iceland from late spring through to the autumn, you will see sheep everywhere, often running in unison away from your car even if you are hundreds of meters away. They are easy to spot for photos, but as with all species you must remember your safety and that of other road users. They have some road sense but are easily spooked and will panic.
In the autumn, the sheep are brought down from the hills in a massive corral which involves all the farmers in the area. If you happen to be there at the right time it is a real spectacle to see.
Birds and Waterfowl
A huge number of birds and waterfowl call Iceland their home through the year. Iceland holds numerous opportunities for bird photography, especially in the spring and summer on the numerous lakes and bird sea cliffs.
Even at the busiest tourist spots you will see birds hopping around and going about their days. It is not uncommon to have a redwing come and visit if you are camping. they are bold and persistent. Not afraid to hang around until they get what they came looking for!
Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) are the largest birds in Iceland and can be seen all year round. During the winter months their numbers increase with the small lagoons and bays being completely full of them. They can be seen all over the country even within Reykjavík but they seem to prefer the wilderness of the southwestern regions.
Gannets (Morus bassanus) make the high sea cliffs of Iceland their home. Eldey Island has the largest colony in Iceland with Stóri Karl in the east having an accessible viewing platform out over a slightly smaller colony. Unlike other seabirds the population of gannets in Iceland is increasing by around 2% each year and is currently estimated to be 37000 breeding pairs.
READ MORE: GANNETS AT STÓRI KARL
Ólafsvík Seagull Frenzy
Amidst the frenzy of tourists around Ólafsvík in the west of Iceland a wild frenzy can be found. Just before the town opposite the F570 mountain road there is a day marker guiding ships into the nearby harbour. However on these cliffs are thousands of gulls. Every single one riding the thermals and fighting against the wild winds.
Why this spot? There was nothing visible to the human eye, but the smell of fishy guano and buffeting wind to attract the mayhem is obvious. Beyond this it is just another Icelandic cliff. Standing on the edge, eye to eye with a seagull as the wind attempts to take you off your feet really makes you realise their strength and grace.
Snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) are regular winter visitors to the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. However their summer residence is in the south of Iceland.
Tucked into the reinforcements at the side of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon under the road bridge in the south east of Iceland these small birds are hunkered down against the elements. Completely different in their summer plumage and topped with a shower of Arctic rain they appear bedraggled and weary.
The bustle of tourists above the rocks is ignored by these small birds as they nest in the rocks and feed on the small insects collecting in the crevices.
Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) are known as Kría in Icelandic. Their name reflects the sharp noise they make. They can be seen all around the country but on the Diamond Beach and in the Westfjords you will find larger colonies. We even had an encounter with these birds in the centre of Reykjavík.
If you visit Grótta Lighthouse just outside Reykjavík in the summer months you will not be able to walk across the small causeway to the lighthouse and the island. The terns nest on the ground and the only way to protect them is to prevent anyone from walking around the island. The lighthouse is best viewed from the mainland shoreline anyway so it isn’t a huge problem.
These birds are incredibly protective of their nests and territories and will not hesitate in attacking heads, cars and anything else that may come too close. If you are going along a beach with Arctic Terns, make sure you have a hat as they will divebomb and attack.
They are however, beautiful birds and will soar and dive with aerial fights not uncommon. They are fast birds and will need a fast shutter speed for capturing photographs of them.
Eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) are beautiful ground nesting birds that can be seen around Iceland. They tend to be found in small groups and feed on mussels, crabs as well as some seaweeds. They are seen all around Iceland in shallow water with the distinctive white males with their green flash on the back of their heads and the simple brown females.
Whilst they are seen all over Iceland they tend to nest in a few protected areas including the grassy area around Hraunhafnartangi Lighthouse. It is located 10km northwest of Raufarhöfn and is the most northerly area of mainland Iceland. There are also protected nesting grounds in the sand dunes around Önundarfjordur in Westfjords. If you see signs about it being a protected area, find somewhere else to walk and avoid the area during the nesting season which is usually given on the signs.
They are ground nesting birds and will often nest in the same areas as the Arctic terns.
The females are responsible for the hatching and raising of the young and will take them to the water soon after hatching to reduce the chance of predation. They often congregate in large groups during this time to increase the chance of survival of the young.
Eiderdown has a long history in Iceland since the birds were introduced in the 9th Century. There is a tradition of collecting the soft and luxurious down from the nests once the birds have reared their young. In return for the eiderdown, the farmers will protect the birds from predators as best they can as well as ensuring the nesting areas are prepared for the birds arrival in spring.
The campsite at Reykjahlíð slopes gently down to the shoreline of Lake Mývatn. There are geese and ducks floating in the late afternoon sunlight in the sheltered inlets of the wind exposed lake. However, tucked away in the reeds away from the main raft and general bustle of the lake are two Slavonian grebes (Podiceps auritus) and their striped youngsters (are they chicks or ducklings?!).
The Slavonian Grebe is a small diving water bird which feeds on larvae, small fish and aquatic invertebrates. In the breeding season it has distinctive golden horns of feathers and deep brown cheeks and lighter reddish head and neck. In the U.K. it is only found on a few lochs in Scotland and is on the red list of conservation concern, but here is Iceland it is more common.
Their shrill call echoes across the lake as they attempt to control their demanding offspring. The adults leave the young hidden in the reeds returning a short while later before diving for insect larvae and small fish. While it wasn’t the red-necked phalarope I had wanted they were still a superb treat!
Plants – Fungi, Moss and Flowers
Despite the harsh environment and the weather plants survive even in the most unexpected places. Driving across the lava desert to Askja looks barren at first sight, but there is life. Small birds are around, flowers line the river banks and small mosses and grasses grow between the rocks.
In a similar way, the black sand beaches aren’t as bare as they first appear. The sand dunes are composed of grasses and beyond these on the beach itself there are small succulent plants creeping across the sands.
In the summer months the roadsides and meadows across the country are a riot of colour. Everything from lupins to harebells and tiny forget-me-nots are seen all over the country. In the more boggy areas cotton grasses cover the landscape in a haze of white. While there are not many woodlands in Iceland there are a range of low shrubs which change with the seasons giving a feel of autumn to even the most exposed areas.
As well as mosses and plants, fungi are common across Iceland. This is especially the case in the damper areas with shaded cover. Tucked away in the woodlands and trees around the edge of less wild areas as well as cliff tops, fungi can be found across the country.
Lichen is also found everywhere and adds a range of colours and textures to even the most boring of rocks.
Other Wildlife Encounters in Iceland
While this post brings the more common wildlife to find in Iceland, you never know what you may see or find. Look beyond the landscapes and absorb the details and you will be amazed the amount of wildlife that you will see.