At 8am, two men arrived at my door dressed in utility trousers and plaid shirts. Friends for over seventeen years, Edward and Sigmundur (Simmi) are old hands at birding in Iceland. This was the time for my initiation. Edward gave me a pair of binoculars and a bird book, and I abandoned my weekend plans to chase birds.
For almost two decades, Birding Iceland has been a hub of information for locals and travellers who’ve got the twitch. Edward Rickson is one of two “twitchers” who regularly document rare bird sightings on the group’s Facebook page. It’s a somewhat niche hobby, sure—but let’s make one thing clear, birdwatching isn’t just for pensioners.
When people ask about my interests, they’re often surprised to discover that I love birdwatching, beer and football.
“There is no typical birder,” explains Edward. “It varies massively. Of course, there are the obsessive types—but there are a lot of people who get into birdwatching because they have an interest in photography, or even science.”
I accompanied Edward and Simmi to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. These guys have toured the world together to spot birds, going as far afield as Kenya, Australia and Spain. Every now and then, the car slows down as the hawk-eyed pair catch a glimpse of something special.
“Rock ptarmigan!” exclaims Edward, spotting a ptarmigan—a fluffy little grouse, or rjúpa in Icelandic—that’s often camouflaged in summer. Spotting birds is a lot like playing Pokémon Go, only it’s real, and it’s not shit.
After a coffee stop, we pull up next to the river. “Rivers and coastal areas are best for birdwatching,” explains Edward. Simmi hits the brakes, gets out of the car, and picks up something unexpected—a baby ringed plover who’d stumbled into the road. I start tearing up. I’m not ashamed to say that cute things make me cry.
“They like to lay their eggs in the rocks as they’re well hidden,” explains Edward, which seems a little reckless to me.
Birdwatching isn’t as peaceful as you might expect. The silence is often broken by text alerts. Are these guys the most popular pair in Iceland? Well it turns out Edward and friends are part of a text group, alerting one and other if they spot something rare.
“One day in 2002, Simmi gave me a call at 9:30 in the morning,” Edward recalls. “There had been a sighting of a great egret in southeast Iceland. Twenty minutes later we got in the car. Since we’d travelled so far, we decided to keep going east to see another rare sighting—the steller’s eider. It was a 27hour round-trip.”
These guys take it to the next level.
Don’t go chasing waterfowl
The first rule of bird club? Once you get wind of a sighting, go as quickly as you can. “ Two months ago, Jann—who also runs the Facebook page—was travelling to Husavík,” says Edward. “ On the plane he got a text saying that there was a night heron not too far from Reykjavík. It was too late to get off the plane, so when he landed, he flew straight back to Reykjavík.”
The pair laugh, and Simmi laments how his penchant for watching waterfowl sometimes gets him in trouble with his wife, as he’s often gone for hours on end.
Wild goose chase
You don’t need much to start twitching: just a pair of binoculars and a bird guide, which you can pick up at any bookshop. It’s easy, cheap—and increasingly popular. “ Now is a great time to spot birds in Iceland,” says Edward. “ It’s perfect for people who want a relaxing birding holiday, because they are so easy to see. It’s great for families too as it’s usually one person who is interested in birds, but there’s lots of other things to see.”
When we made it to the cliffs of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we caught glimpses of a token puffin and a pod of killer whales (not a type of bird). If you’re bound to Reykjavík, however, Edward recommends taking a stroll down the harbour to see species like the common eider, lesser black-backed gull, arctic tern and the northern fulmar.
“There are many types of birds to see around the coast and on wetlands,” he finishes. “Walk along the sea front from the centre of town, out to the lighthouse, and you’ll see a whole array this time of year.”