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June 2011

"Iceland and the Plight of the Atlantic Puffin"

Atlantic Puffins were among the birds enjoyed
during the FONT tour in Iceland in June 2011



List of Birds during our Iceland Tour - June 2011

Birds during previous FONT Iceland Tours

Complete Iceland Bird-List
(383 species, including vagrants from mainland Europe, Asia, & North America)

Wildflowers of Iceland  (with some photos)

Upcoming FONT Birding & Nature Tours in Iceland

A following narrative was written by Armas Hill, leader of the tour:

Most of the many Atlantic Puffins in Iceland are not along the northern coast of the country, but rather, they are locally abundant along the southern. 
In the southernmost town on mainland Iceland, late in the evening, above the Hotel Lundi in the heart of the town, I noticed a Puffin flying out from the cliff. "Lundi" is the Icelandic word for "Puffin".
I watched the small bird fly with its little wings pitter-pattering rapidly. It headed toward a distant swarm of birds that were all flying about in the twilit sky by another cliff just above the ocean. I went closer. 
That swarm, that at a distance appeared superficially as an evening mass of insects or bats was of course, as I just noted, and knew at the time, of birds. And all of them were Puffins with their little wings fluttering rapidly. There were at least a thousand in the sky. And many more than that were out on the water. Others were standing out by their burrows on the cliff-tops. It was going on midnight, but as it was mid-June, the lightness enabled me to enjoy the spectacle.

The place in Iceland with the most Puffins was not far away: an offshore group of 14 islands known as Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westmann Islands.    
We went there the next morning on the first ferry. What was more than a 3-hour (and sometimes rough) ferry-ride to the islands is now less than half an hour, from a new port. 

From the ferry on the way to Heimaey, the only one of the Westmann Islands that is inhabited by people, about 4,000 of them, a flock of Manx Shearwaters was seen. In Iceland, that species only nests in Vestmannaeyjar. 
Also seen from the ferry were Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and yes, Puffins.

Whereas there are people on only 1 of the 14 islands, there are birds inhabiting all of them, on sheer rocky cliffs and otherwise. When we took a boat-ride throughout the islands, we saw many. 
There were 5 species of alcids. In addition to the Atlantic Puffin, there were Razorbills, two kinds of Murres (mostly Common, also some Thick-billed), and the Black Guillemot. We saw all of these on and by those shear rocky cliffs along with the many Kittiwakes and Gulls and Gannets.

On Heimaey Island, where we spent most of a day, and a night, there's a place above a high seacliff that's said to be a place for Puffins. At that spot, there is a wooden hide, or blind, with openable windows, at a "Puffin spot". When we first went there, during the day, there were Puffins in the area, but they were ALL below, well below us, on the water of the sea. There were none on the nearby grassy slopes above the cliffs. 
When we returned later in the day, it was much the same. 
But I remembered the previous evening's activity back by the mainland coastal cliffs, so I returned to the hide at about 10pm. And, then, at that time, the Puffins were coming in too! 
So, I went back to the hotel to get the others, and soon, when we were inside the hide, there were Puffins outside, sometimes nearly within reach!  There were well more than a thousand, for about 2 hours, before they started to go, individually or in small groups, back down to the ocean below.   

What we learned, sadly, when we were in Iceland, and particularly when we were in the Westmanns, is that the Atlantic Puffin has not been doing well, for a few years now. It is becoming, and I must say sadly again, a species in peril. 
Yes, the same bird that in Iceland is depicted so many places, as on postcards everywhere, on shirts and other garments, and on signs and in ads, is now in trouble. The bird, clown-like in appearance, called the Puffin, or Lundi, has been as common in Iceland as a caricature can be.   

Referring to the "real thing", Iceland has had the largest number of Atlantic Puffins anywhere, with over half of the total global population of the species residing there in the summer.
An estimated 3 million pairs of Atlantic Puffins have been breeding in Iceland each year - that is about 6 million birds. On average, 70 per cent of the total Icelandic population of Atlantic Puffins are breeders, so the total number in Iceland each summer has been from 8 to 10 million birds.   

And about half of the Atlantic Puffins in Iceland have been in the Westmann Islands. As noted earlier, it has been the place in Iceland with the most - but not just the most in Iceland. 
The Westmann Islands has been the place with the most Atlantic Puffins on Earth, with some 700,000 nesting pairs - that is 1,400,000 birds, with each pair normally raising but one young bird per year. 
So, it has been, on average, that about 20 per cent of the global population of Atlantic Puffins (1 out of 5) has nested on the Westmann Islands.

And the birds even had a new island there on which to nest. It was noted that there are 14 islands in the Westmann group. There were 13. That was until 1963 when a new island was created, as a volcano erupted in the ocean. On that island, called Surtsey, afterwards, Atlantic Puffins began making their homes.        

But during more recent years, the Atlantic Puffin population has fallen so drastically that the species is being put on the Birdlife International "watch list". 
Overall, during the last decade, there has been a 20 per cent drop in the species' population. And during the most recent years, the situation has worsened yet.

In 2007, Maria Frostic, an employee of NASA in the US, took a leave in July and August, and went to the Westmann Islands, intending to make a documentary film about medieval sagas. Instead, learning immediately upon her arrival how poorly the Puffins were doing during that nesting season, she did instead a film entitled "Plight of the Puffins" that aired the following year on television on PBS.

In 2009, it was in the news that on the Westmann Islands "very few Puffin chicks hatched and survived the summer".

When we were in the Westmanns in June 2011, we were told that in the summer of 2010, the Puffins on the islands again did not successfully raise their young. And we were also told that the current 2011 season did not yet seem to be any better.
A reason said for this, and also purported in that 2007 documentary film, is the depletion of the Puffin's food-source, a fish called the Sand-eel. From whatever cause, and maybe it's been said due to climatic change, that fish is now scarce where it used to be abundant. And where it is now scarce is where the Puffins are during their nesting season.

On the Westmann Islands during August, for years, there has been a tradition. Puffins are weak flyers, even at best. They do best when they take off into the air from the top of a cliff. Sometimes, young Puffins, after leaving their burrows, descend not to the water as they should, but instead into the town on Heimaey
They land on a moist road or street as it appears to be water.  In the evenings, when that happens, the children in the town go about and gather up the forlorn Puffins, putting them in boxes to release them from cliff-tops in the morning. The child, who doing so, saves the most becomes the "Puffin Fledgling King" for a year. We were told that in 2010 there were no young Puffins for the children to rescue.

After my return home from Iceland, I looked a bit more into the situation regarding the Atlantic Puffins in Iceland. I found it written that the decline of the species has been due in part to factors such as "human persecution", pollution, and the reason that I had already been told, "a shortage in the food supply resulting from oceanographic changes". Due to the last of these, it's written that there has been ""poor breeding success" and "a high mortality rate of young birds". 

I found it said that the fish consumed by Atlantic Puffins include, as noted already, Sand-eel, Ammodytes sp., which is the majority of the diet of the chicks, and some forage species including juvenile pelagic fishes such as Herring, Clupea hareegus, and juvenile and adult Capelin, Maliotus villosus.     

I also found in a non-nature publication that in 2010, at least 38 Icelandic fishing vessels each caught fish worth more than 1 billion Icelandic Kroner (or 8.6 million US dollars), which was a new record. As a comparison, 28 vessels reached that goal the previous year, in 2009. 
Relating to the Capelin, the small cold-water fish eaten by Puffins, after some years with meager catches, it is said that 390,000 tons will be fished this year, providing a needed boost to the economy and a good increase in exports. A starting quota of 200,000 tons was issued when the size of the stock was first estimated. A further quota of 125,000 tons was later added. The quota is decided on the basis of leaving 400,000 tons of spawning Capelin in the waters to ensure sustainable stock.
A bit about Capelin biology: They come to the sandy shores of southern Iceland  to spawn between the ages of two and six. After spawning, most die.     
During the last 3 years, Capelin were scarce in Icelandic waters, with about 100,000 tons caught each year. 

Hopefully, an increase in one of the prey of the Puffin will help the bird. And if that were to happen with the Sand-eel, the Puffin would have better times ahead. Optimism certainly is not in order yet. Only time will tell.

Mention was made earlier of a new island that was created in 1963. Another offshore Icelandic island disappeared back in the 1800s, and its doing so was at least partly a factor in the disappearance forever of a bird, referring to the extinction of the flightless alcid, the Great Auk.    
The island of Geirfuglasker, where most of the Icelandic Great Auks bred, disappeared under the sea in 1830 during a volcanic cataclysm, resulting from an earthquake. Birds moved to Eldey Rock when their former home sank. It was there, on Eldey Rock, off the coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula in southern Iceland, where the last of the world's Great Auks, a pair, were clubbed to death on June 3, 1844. Unfortunately, Eldrey was more accessible to men than Geirfuglasker had been.   
Now, Eldey Rock is the site of the largest colony of Northern Gannets in Iceland.
During the FONT June 2011 Iceland Tour, we were on the coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula, where we could see Eldey Rock, and where there is now a larger-than-life statue of the Great Auk. It's too bad that the bird is no longer "in life".      

One thing that there is now more of in Iceland than there has been in the recent past is forest. Some good reforestation has been going on for years. 
Walking in an Icelandic coniferous forest, as we did during our June 2011 tour, is a nice experience, even when the only birds are Redwings and Redpolls.

During our walks, a small white moth was seen. In all, 82 species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) have been recorded in Iceland, compared, interestingly, with 76 in Norway and 77 in Britain.
Iceland is not a place to see butterflies. Only 4 species have ever been found, all as vagrants: the Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, and the Peacock.   

Nor is Iceland a place for land mammals. Only the Arctic Fox is native. Each year, lately, the odd Polar Bear has been coming ashore into northern Iceland from the ocean. And some other mammals have been introduced by man, including the Reindeer, American Mink, and a mouse or two.   

Of course, the most obvious of the mammals in Iceland today are the sheep and the horse. They seem to be "everywhere", especially the sheep. They occur even high up in the mountains and on small remote islands, on both at times on precipitous slopes. The total winter stock of sheep in Iceland is said to be about 900,000 animals.

Not many cattle are now seen as one travels around Iceland. But during the first 800 years of human settlement in Iceland, until the 17th century, there were many, peaking with about as many as 120,000 head. It was due to the overgrazing by cattle that sheep later became the principal livestock in Iceland.

Horses came with the first settlers to Iceland, the "most useful servants", being tough, strong animals, They bore the brunt of long, arduous working days. They brought home hay from distant fields. They helped round up sheep in the mountains in the autumn. They took part in festivals. And they were the only means of transport for both people and goods. 
There were no bridges in Iceland until the early 20th Century, and all of the large and dangerous rivers had to be crossed on horseback, a tricky affair that could be fatal for both horse and man. 
These are just some of the reasons why it's been said that without the horse, Icelanders in all probability would not have survived in their barren, mountainous, and remote land. 
Today, the Icelandic Horse is one of the most picturesque aspects of the Icelandic countryside, being attractive animals, with a notable characteristic being their "fifth gait", a running walk that is not found in many other breeds of horse.  

It must be said that even though Iceland does not have many wild land mammals, butterflies, or any reptiles and amphibians, there is a considerable amount of nature in the country, and much of it is quite interesting. 

In the waters, there are sizable populations of marine mammals and large numbers of fish.

There are, from spring through fall, large numbers of birds, with some of the species in especially large numbers. The norm for species, at any given time, is not large, with just over 70 species nesting annually. But it is quite interesting that over 350 varieties of birds have been noted as occurring in Iceland, as the island can act as a migrant for vagrants from the Americas, elsewhere in Europe, and even as far as Asian Siberia.

And the geology of Iceland is, simply put, fascinating, or to use a word of the day, "awesome".

The nature of Iceland includes glaciers, glacial rivers with black sand, volcanoes and newly-formed lava fields, extensive heaths and wind-blasted deserts, untouched wilderness, areas of geothermal activity, crystal clear mountain streams, waterfalls, sea cliffs, and the midnight sun
An interplay of fire and ice occurs that can be found nearly nowhere else on Earth.

Much of what was just noted in the previous paragraph was what we saw and experienced during our June 2011 FONT Tour in Iceland.

The oldest parts of Iceland were formed about 15 million years ago. But the country is relatively young, with half of it less than 2 million years old, and as much as 80 per cent less than 8 million years old.

There are almost 100 volcanoes in Iceland, of which about 30 are active. Many eruptions have been recorded since the settlement of the country, especially in four areas: Reykjanes, Hekla, Katla, and under the Varnajokull Glacier. Other devastating eruptions have occurred outside those areas in the Myvatn district, Lakagigar, Askja, and in the Westmann Islands in 1973.

The biggest of these were the Fires of Skafta. In 1783-84, lava and ash were emitted from a fissure, 25 kilometers long, resulting in a row of craters called Lakagigar. The lava covered 580 square kilometers and flowed up to 55 kilometers from the craters.   
Huge quantities of ash were discharged into the atmosphere forming a cloud that spread around much of the Northern Hemisphere, influencing the climate of northern and western Europe for several years.

More recently, in 1973, a powerful volcanic eruption shook the island of Heimaey, in the Westmann Islands, causing extensive damage to property. The population of about 5,000 escaped to the mainland. About one-third of the houses and buildings on Heimaey were destroyed in the eruption.
During the day and night that we were on Heimaey Island during our June 2011, I'm glad to say that there was no volcanic activity whatsoever.

The famous volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, spewing ash and closing European airports, was that of Eyjafjallajokull

There are a number of areas in Iceland where geothermal heat reaches the surface. Warm sources exist all over the country, but high temperature areas reaching 200 degrees Centigrade are restricted to the active volcanic regions. 
Warm pools and boiling fumaroles are characteristic of Iceland, especially geysers, although they are few in number. The most well-known geothermal phenomenon is undoubtedly Geysir, from which the English word "geyser" is derived.
The plume of steam going at intervals high into the air that we saw during our June 2011 tour was the geyser known as Strokkur, very close to where Geysir is now quiet.  
The place, where during the tour, we experienced the most hot springs and pools was the town of Hveragerdi.     

Earthquakes occur regularly in Iceland, but most are weak, as is usually the case where the continental plates are separating. Tremors occur mostly in volcanically active areas, mainly in southern Iceland. A powerful earthquake hits the southern region every 100 years or so. The most recent was in the summer of 2000.
There were no earthquakes during our Iceland tour in June 2011.  

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, separating the European and American continental plates, is nearly all under the waters of the ocean. But it is above sea level in Iceland. In the southwestern part of the island, it is quite apparent. At a bridge over the ravine in that area, one can walk "from America to Europe and back again".  We crossed that bridge during our June 2001 tour.

Iceland also lies at the meeting point of two great ocean currents. The warm water of the Gulf Stream come from the south and meet the cold water streaming down from the Arctic. Northern Iceland touches the Arctic Circle, at 66 degrees north of the equator.
From the distant Caribbean Sea, the Gulf Stream carries carries warm water, passing to the south of Iceland, and also to the west where it meets the icy East Greenland Current
Sea temperatures are on average 5 to 10 degrees Centigrade of the south coast of Iceland, but 1 to 8 degrees Centigrade in the north.

Iceland's climate is categorized as "temperate". It can be wet and rather cold. Statistics indicate the average temperature to be 5 degrees Centigrade, which is above that normally expected as such a northern latitude.

Glacial rivers in Iceland have their sources under icecaps, of which the Varnajokull Glacier is the largest with 8,300 square kilometers. It is the largest glacier in Europe. Other glaciers in Iceland, Langjokull and Hofsjokull, are with about 1,000 square kilometers. Myrdasjokull Glacier is just under 600 square kilometers. That glacier could be seen in the distance from where we were in southern Iceland during our June 2011 tour.   
Glaciers are well-known features of the Icelandic landscape, covering about 11 per cent of the country. Their area has fluctuated since the human settlement of Iceland.

The first human settlement in Iceland was back, way back, around the year 870, during the Viking Age (from 800 to about 1050 AD). During that time, bands of Norseman (that is, from Norway), known as Vikings, searched for new territories, for pillaging, profit, and in which to settle.
The Swedes went east to Kiev in 862 and south to Byzantium. The Danes went south to Normandy and England. The Norwegian Vikings made their way to Scotland, Ireland, and then sailed further on the Atlantic Ocean to settling the uninhabited Faroe Islands and Iceland. From Iceland, they went to Greenland, and then on to the east coast of North America. Around the year 1000, maybe the most famous of the Vikinfgs, Leif Eiriksson sailed from Greenland to what is now eastern Canada off Newfoundland and maybe further south. 
During our tour in June 2011, when we were in Reykjavik, we saw a large statue of Leif Eiriksson in front of the famous landmark church in the city, Hallgrimskirkja.

It is interesting that Christopher Columbus is said to have visited Iceland. He visited Bristol, in England, in 1477, where he certainly heard of lands in the west from English sailors. According to an account in his biography written by his son, Columbus traveled from Bristol to Iceland, his first ocean voyage.  

A parliamentary assembly first functioned in Iceland back in the year 930, established at a place called Thingvellir, about an hour from Reykjavik by the shore of Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavain, and along the Mid-Atlantic Rift. That assembly, called the Althing, has continued to function annually.
When we visited Thingvellir, now in a national park, during our June 2011 tour, an "Icelandic Wren" was singing in the rocks along the rift.

It was at Thingvellir that the modern Icelandic Republic was born in 1944. That was when Iceland separated from Denmark. it was a result of World War II when Denmark came under the control of Germany, and Iceland was declared by Germany to be in the "war zone". Britain and the United States then came to the defense of Iceland.

Independence for Iceland in 1944, at Thingvellir, came on June 17, now known as Iceland's "National Day". That holiday was our last full day in Iceland.
We were, that day, in Rekjavik. as were many Icelandic people celebrating with parades, speeches, and performances, mostly in front of the Parliament Building in the city.

Traditionally, on that day, some woman wear a special dress called the Fjalkonan. When wearing such a dress, as a "Mountain Woman", a poem is read. The Fjalkonan represents the Icelandic spirit and nature and it became a symbolic figure in Iceland's struggle over the years for independence.
That dress is normally worn only on National Day. It may be less so, on some other holidays, and when people are dancing national dances.
We were fortunate on National Day to meet a lady wearing the Fjalkonan as we were about to have lunch in a restaurant in Reykjavik, where we also saw some young girls in pretty holiday garb.

Our lunch on that National Day was really quite Icelandic, as it was with lamb and salmon, both specialties of the country, along with an array of Icelandic salads and vegetables.    

A traditional Iceland lunch was also enjoyed, earlier during the tour, in a small fishing village in the remote northwestern fjord region of the island. 
It was with various types of fish, breads, vegetables, fruit, and yogurt. A nice thing in any country is to enjoy during a tour a "typical country meal".

Mention should be made, as I nearly end this narrative, of the most famous of the geothermal hot pools in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon. It was formed when a local energy company was drilling for hot water. Minerals crystallize as the water cools, and thus the pool takes on a vivid blue hue. 
Bathing there, as done during the last full day of our tour, is both an enjoyable and healthy experience.

Late that night, as I walking at just about midnight, I couldn't help but notice that the sky overhead was beautiful with that same vivid blue hue as earlier that day at the lagoon, with a smathering of beautiful pink-red clouds. 
As it was just a few days before the longest day of the year, the Sun was sitting low on the horizon, a Midnight Sun. It was the last if many fine experiences during our June 2011 FONT tour in Iceland.

A traditional Icelandic lunch 
in the northwestern fjords region 
during the June 2011 FONT Iceland Tour. 
(photo by tour participant, Susan Lin)


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