Puffins on Grímsey in the north of Iceland

Summer is a great time to go for bird watching in Iceland. Grímsey - an island off the north coast of Iceland - is a great spot to observe a great variety of birds. Arctic terns, black-legged kittiwakes, or northern fulmars are typical bird species of Grímsey. However, another typical bird of this island, which surely attracts many visitors, is the puffin. In this blog entry I write about my bird observations in general, but especially about the puffins on Grímsey. 

Arctic terns. Eurasian golden plovers. Or red-necked phalaropes. Grímsey is a paradise for birds and bird watchers, respectively. Numerous groups of different sea bird species have spread out around the island.

Be it in the east or in the west. The number of different species on this tiny island is incredible. Grímsey is just a fabulous place for any person interested in birds.

However, the probably most prominent bird on the island among all the other birds is the puffin.
A medium-sized bird with its typical triangular and multi-coloured bill.

Puffins on Grímsey

I’m sure that almost everyone connects Atlantic puffins with Iceland when seeing a photograph of these birds.

Although, of course, Atlantic puffins do not only live on Iceland.

During spring and summer, numerous puffin breeding colonies form around the coasts of Iceland. Both in the North or South, and in the East and West. There are indeed many, many breeding colonies distributed around Iceland.

Puffins on Grímsey

But where is the best place to observe these colourful, sympathetic and adorable birds?

Well, I haven’t been at that many places, as there are so many. But what I know, is, that there are some places in Iceland where the conditions for Atlantic puffin observations are great.

And this is, for example, on Grímsey - an island in the north of Iceland.

Grímsey Island

Before I go deeper into my observations of Atlantic puffins on Grímsey, let me first tell you more about this interesting island.

Grímsey is a small island. A very small island! With only about 5.3 square kilometres and a length of apparently 5.5 kilometres, the island can be easily explored on one day. Like the rest of Iceland, Grímsey, as well, is formed by volcanoes.

The island is lower in the west where the village and its harbour are located and rises up to 105 metres above sea level on the east side.

Grímsey island
Grímsey island

Interesting: Grímsey is about 40 kilometres off the north coast of Iceland and can be easily reached by regular flights from Akureyri and by ferry from Dalvík. Please see below for further information about how to get to the island.

In some places, like on the south of the island, there are beautiful basalt pillars.

Bird watching on Grímsey

The present population (in 2023) is fewer than 100 inhabitants. In the past, people lived from subsistence farming, bird hunting and egg gathering. However, nowadays, fishing and tourism seems to be now the most important industry on Grímsey.

Bird watching on Grímsey
Bird watching on Grímsey

Although tourism is an important economic branch on Grímsey, everything still seemed so small to me. There was only one shop on the island which opened only between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and one restaurant that served food not earlier than 12 p.m. (when the ferry arrives). At least it was like that when I was on Grímsey.

There are also guest houses on the island. I stayed in one of them (see below for more information).

Nevertheless, despite of the small size of the island, Grímsey can be a little bit busy after the arrival of the ferry. But by all means, it never felt crowded!

Although there are guest houses on the island, most people visit Grímsey just for a day trip.

I stayed overnight and was quite happy with my decision.

Accommodation on Grímsey

Information: On the west side of the island was an old church which was built in 1867. Interestingly, this church was built by using driftwood. However, a fire in autumn 2021 completely destroyed the church in only twenty minutes. There are plans to rebuild this church on Grímsey. Until the fire, there were only four services per year in the church.

Another interesting highlight for most visitors of Grímsey is the Arctic Circle. There is only one place in Iceland where the Arctic Circle crosses. And that is on the island Grímsey!

In June, at summer solstice, the sun is visible there for twenty-four hours.

However, the position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed. It shifts northwards. About 300 years ago, the Arctic Circle first entered Grímsey. In the future, to be more precisely, by 2050, the Arctic Circle will cross Grímsey not anymore. It will take about 20.000 years for the Arctic Circle to return.

In the north of the island is a stone which marks the current Arctic Circle - Orbis et Globus. A symbol and landmark for the Arctic Circle.

It is a huge concrete sphere with a diameter of 3 meters. This artwork was inaugurated in 2017 and meant to be moved every year to the north according to the movement of the Arctic Circle.

Arctic circle on Grímsey
Arctic circle in Iceland

Information: There is a path to the current Arctic Circle landmark Orbis et Globus. It is a walk of about 3,8 km. If you walk very slowly and watch the birds (like me), a round trip takes about three hours from the village.

The landscapes around the Arctic Circle landmark are also incredibly beautiful.

I was completely alone. I didn’t see any visitor on my walk to the north of Grímsey. I was just surrounded by many, many sea birds. Especially northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes.

But more about that in another paragraph below…

Bird watching on Grímsey

It was indeed very beautiful. I was surrounded by a calm sea and green shining landscapes. The green of the island and the blue of the sea were too beautiful to be true.

Grímsey island
Grímsey island

Maybe I was not quite exactly alone with the birds…

On my path to the north of Grímsey I met some sheep.

Sheep on Grímsey

But also, on my way back I encountered some sympathetic sheep in the middle of the path.

And as it seemed, they were not shy at all. They did not make any move to let me pass.

Sheep on Grímsey
Sheep on Grímsey
Sheep on Grímsey

Some bold sheep even followed me…

Sheep on Grímsey

Thus, I actually had some company on my walks on Grímsey.

Only here and there I saw other walkers, photographers or locals from afar.

Bird watching on Grímsey

Information: There are possibilities to participate in a photography tour. I met some people that participated in an organized tour. I observed tours using cars to get around the island with all the camera equipment. However, importantly, not all places are accessible by car.

And how was the weather on Grímsey?

Well, on Iceland, in general, you have to be prepared for rainy weather. But I felt very lucky during my stay on Grímsey, because I could be outside for several hours without getting wet. It was just drizzling in some short moments.

When I arrived on Grímsey, it was cloudy and no sunray could make it through the cloud cover. But it was okay, as like that I had perfect conditions for taking photographs. No harsh light. No dark shadows on my photo motifs. And no necessity to care about the position of the sun.

I even had the chance to get nice views over to the mainland. Even on a cloudy day.

Puffins on Grímsey
Grímsey island

Just on the second day on the island, it rained early in the morning. But later on, I was lucky again and had good conditions to walk and photograph.

In some moments, it was quite windy. Especially on the east side of the island, close to the lighthouse.

Light house on Grímsey

As I visited the island in July, the landscapes were covered with yellow meadow buttercups.

Be it in the east (photographs above) or in the west (photograph below) of the island.

Grímsey island
Grímsey island
Bird watching on Grímsey

But on all of my walks, I was looking out for sea birds. Especially for the Atlantic puffins.

I can say that everyone interested in Atlantic puffins on Grímsey, will find many, many chances to observe these magnificent birds.

But when is the best time to observe puffins on Grímsey? Where can these birds be found on the island? And what to consider during bird watching?

Well, the next paragraph is only about the puffins on Grímsey.

Puffins on Grímsey

Information: If you want to know more about Grímsey, please check the website of the Municipality of Akureyri. Akureyri is a town in the north of Iceland and since 2009 Grímsey belongs to this municipality.

Puffins on Grímsey

Although puffins look a little bit like a penguin. Puffins are not at all penguins!

Yes, puffins and penguins are both black and white in colour. They furthermore have both an upright posture. And both share some of their typical habits like breeding in colonies.

But puffins are actually auks!

However, here I have to be a little bit more precise, because there are three different species of puffins.

The tufted puffin.

The horned puffin.

And the Atlantic puffin. Also known as the common puffin or Fratercula arctica in Latin.

Puffin on Grímsey

Information: Please note here, there is one more species of puffin. And that is the Rhinoceros Auklet. This species is also a puffin, but unlike the other three puffins, it belongs to a different genus - Cerorhinca.

While tufted puffins and horned puffins are birds of the North Pacific, Atlantic puffins are - as the name already suggests - birds of the North Atlantic.

They occur, for example, in Russia, Norway, Greenland, but also in Canada or on the Faroe Islands and, of course, in Iceland.

At the moment, there are three subspecies recognized. However, they only differ in their size. Typically, puffins further North are larger than puffins further South.

So, importantly, as puffins live in the north, they will never meet a penguin, as penguins only occur in the southern hemisphere like in Antarctica and the Sub-Antarctica islands. Their northernmost distribution extends to the Galápagos Islands where the Galápagos penguins live - a banded penguin (Spheniscus) like the African penguin.

Nevertheless, puffins are not the only auks!

Other typical auks are common murres (see below), razorbills (on the left) or black guillemots (on the right).

Razorbills on Grímsey
Common murre in Iceland

All auks belong to the family Alcidae.

Auks are typically pelagic birds. Meaning, they spend the majority of their lives on the open sea and only come back to land for breeding (although there are exceptions).

Most auks are colonial breeders.

Like Atlantic puffins on Grímsey and elsewhere. They are gregarious at their nesting sites, but solitary in winter.

Puffin colony in Iceland

They are probably monogamous and mate for life (because of the nest site fidelity and not because of their mate). They typically lay a single egg and use their nesting sites year after year.

Puffin in Iceland

Please note here. Although I use the word “puffin”, of course, I mean “Atlantic puffin”. So, if I write about the puffins of Grímsey, of course, I only mean the Atlantic puffins.

Another interesting feature that distinguishes auks like the puffins from penguins is their ability to fly and swim.

While penguins are famous for being flightless birds, puffins are able to use their wings to both fly and swim. They are even able to dive by using its wings to push under water and forage while they are swimming underwater.

Although puffins are able to fly, honestly, puffins look a little bit clumsy in the air. But still, they are actually indeed highly adept flyers.

Puffins on Grímsey

Interesting: Puffins are able to dive for about one minute. However, typically, they stay underwater for only about 20 or 30 seconds. They can reach depths of up to 200 m, although they usually don’t diver deeper than 50 m. In the air, puffins can reach a speed of almost about 90 km/h.

Just imagine a penguin in flight!

Imagine its size and its weight.

Could a penguin be able to fly with its size and weight?

Well, this leads me to the next difference between puffins and penguins.

While puffins are quite small - smaller than 30 cm with a weight of about 500 g - penguins like the emperor penguin can reach a size of about 100 cm and may weigh up to about 45 kg. Please not here, however, there are also smaller penguins like the little penguins that only grow to a size of about 30 cm and weigh only about 1 kg.

Nevertheless, be it a small or a large penguin, penguins are not able to fly!

Puffins are indeed quite small. Observing puffins on Grímsey was actually the first time for me. I had never seen these magnificent birds before and was amazed how strong their presence was even though they were so small.

Bird watching on Grímsey

Puffins are often named “clowns of the sea” or “sea parrots”, because of their clown-like appearance and their colourful beaks.

Penguins, in contrast, have rather long, downwardly curved and narrow beaks.

On the left photograph is a puffin, and on the right an African penguin.

Bird watching on Grímsey
African penguin at the Boulders Beach in South Africa

Interesting: Did you know that the colourful beak of a puffin will change to a drab gray in winter? Only in spring/summer the puffins develop a colourful beak like we know them on photographs.

Due to the puffin’s appearance, it is easy to distinguish these birds from other bird species. And furthermore, on Iceland like on Grímsey, there is only one puffin species.

Did you know that most Atlantic puffins on the world live in Iceland?

Atlantic puffins are exclusively found in the North Atlantic, but in Iceland lives the most proportion of the worldwide population.

One of the biggest colony of puffins in Iceland with thousands of individuals is on the west coast.

Puffins on Grímsey

Although I was not at the largest puffin colony in Iceland, I still had great possibilities to observe the puffins on Grímsey to get a glimpse into their lives.

Although puffins on Grímsey prefer precipitous, rocky cliffs as a nesting site, it was still possible to observe the birds in front of their burrows from afar.

Puffins on Grímsey

Important: Please be respectful with the birds and do not disturb them! Puffins on Grímsey breed on that island as it is a good breeding habitat for them. Breeding requires a lot of energy and every unnecessary disturbance must be avoided.

Puffins prefer small fish as food like sand eels, herring, hake or capelin. Depending on the fish availability around a breeding colony. However, they also might feed on crustaceans or mollusks. Thus, they are considered as carnivores.

I could observe quite many puffins on Grímsey with a beak full of fish.

The offspring of puffins, as well, is usually fed with fish by their parents. Parents typically carry the fish in their beaks to their burrows. Usually, a puffin chick is fed several times during the day.

Both parents take turns feeding the chick. Meaning, they fly out to the sea, go fishing and come back with their beaks full of fish.

Puffins on Grímsey
Puffins on Grímsey

In one moment, I observed a puffin with fish in its beak. It landed almost in front of me, just a few meters far away. I was surprised. As I did not want to move quickly, I remained where I was. However, I could perceive that the puffin did not venture towards its nest. I was too close. When I noticed that, I slowly moved backwards so that the puffin could go into its nest. I was not standing beside its nest, but the bird was still afraid of me.

Puffin on Grímsey

Interesting: Did you know that a puffin can carry on average around 10 fish per trip in its beak? Although in Britain a puffin was observed to carry even 62 fish at once!

In that moment I became thoughtful.

I adore these beautiful birds and I just wanted to take photographs of them. But I was worried at that point, as I thought, maybe I have disturbed this little bird for a moment.

That was not my intention at all.

Puffins on Grímsey

In another moment, I was asking myself how to tell females and males apart?

In puffins, males are typically slightly larger than females. But in a large group of puffins, it is quite difficult to determine the sex of a bird for an untrained eye.

And what about still non-breeding individuals?

Interestingly, most puffins start breeding only at the age of five. Is this because they have to learn so much before breeding? Like finding good food resources, choosing a mate and a nesting site?

Not to forget! Puffins live in pair bonds and mate for life!

Puffins on Grímsey

Interesting: Puffins are relatively long-lived birds. They can live up to 20 years or more. Apparently, the oldest found puffin lived 36 years! However, as puffins spend most of their lives in the open ocean, it is difficult to find the adequate technique to detect the age of the puffins.

A puffin pair prefers to make its burrow in earth or anywhere between rocks. Typically, anywhere close to steep cliffs in order to protect the nest against predators.

Usually, the burrow has a length of between 70 to 110 cm with a soft nest of feathers and other material like grass at the back of the burrow.

Interestingly, puffins use the same nest year after year where they typically lay 1 egg per year.

Both female and male incubate the egg and share rearing the chick.

Puffin on Grímsey

Interesting: Atlantic puffin young leave their nests after more or less 40 days after hatching. Typically, they leave their nests at night and head directly out to the open ocean. Only after several years they return to land.

As I was on Grímsey only for two days, of course, I could not observe all of the different behaviors, puffins might show.

Like, for example, billing - a behavior where a male and female puffin rub their beaks together.

I also couldn’t observe any aggressive behavior between the birds. Apparently, the wider the beak of a puffin is opened, the more upset an individual is. Curiously, puffins also stomp their feet in place when displeased and even might engage in wrestling matches with conspecifics.

Puffins are quite interesting birds!

I wish I would have had the chance for more observation possibilities to better understand these birds.

Nevertheless, the best time to observe puffins on Grímsey is May, June and July. In the first week of August, the puffins fly away again.

In winter they stay on the open sea far from land.

Maybe this is the reason why we know so little about puffins in winter?

As they stay far from land, and additionally, on the open sea, it is more difficult to observe them.

Most people know puffins in their summer plumage. In winter, in contrast, puffins get a grey face. The parts above and below the eye, and even at the base of the beak, turn grey due to the lack of ornaments.

In July, all puffins on Grímsey, which I saw, had a colourful beak and a white face.

Puffins on Grímsey

Interesting: Puffins stay in the open sea the first few years of their lives. When they are mature enough to breed, they come back to the vicinity of the colony where they were born. So far, little is known about their migrations.

Puffins have several natural predators. Be it on land, in the air, or while on the water.

On land, typical predators are mammals like, for example, rats or foxes. In the air, great black-backed gulls and great skuas are common predators for puffins. And on the water, seals and even large fishes might be a threat for puffins.

But who is the most dangerous predator for the puffins? Well, I have my opinion about that...

Nevertheless, puffins on Grímsey are still numerous, luckily, however, the future is uncertain...

Puffins on Grímsey

Although it seems that there are so many puffins on Grímsey or at other places in Iceland or elsewhere, according to the IUCN, the Atlantic puffin is listed in the category “vulnerable” and its worldwide population even seems to be decreasing.

In the past, overharvesting of eggs and adults were major threats for the Atlantic puffins. Nowadays, overharvesting is not the main cause for decreasing numbers of puffins. Although, in Iceland it is still allowed to hunt Atlantic puffins.

For me it is hard to believe that hunting Atlantic puffins on Grímsey and other places in Iceland is still allowed!

Puffins on Grímsey

Even on Grímsey you can try the meat of an Atlantic puffin in the only restaurant of the island! At least I saw it on the menu. After some internet research, I even found that people from the south, that means, from the Westman Islands, travel to Grímsey for hunting Atlantic puffins! After a significant decline of puffin numbers in the south, they now hunt for puffins on Grímsey!

Puffins on Grímsey

Information: If  you want to read more about the puffin hunt and the importance of it in Icelandic tradition and culture, please check an article of the Hakai Magazine or a photo story of Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Please note that the photographs in both articles are not easy to look at. What do you think about it? Please let me know your opinion in the comments.

Apparently, the puffins on Grímsey are still numerous.

But what if their numbers decline?

What is more important - the survival of a species or traditional practices?

Will the Atlantic puffin end like the great auk?

The great auk was a flightless auk which became extinct in the 19th century. Hunting alone was probably the main reason for the disappearance of the great auk on our planet. The last two great auks were killed on Eldey - a small island off the coast of Iceland.

Well, I'm not that into that topic about puffin hunting and I'm just an outsider. However, in the light of the fact that excessive hunting led already to the death of the great auk, of course, I'm asking myself, why is it still allowed to hunt puffins on Grímsey?

And now, do we want to be responsible for the disappearance of another auk?

Puffins on Grímsey
Puffin on Grímsey

Nevertheless, climate change also was already found to be the cause for a decreasing number of puffins, as increased sea surface temperatures may alter the distribution and abundance of prey like, for example, herring or sand eel. Food shortages or poor food quality might consequently negatively impact breeding success.

The fishing industry as well, might have a direct or indirect, respectively, negative effect on the puffins worldwide. Commercial fisheries are often harvested in an unsustainable way which causes a reduction in the availability of food for the puffins, and thus, again, negatively impact the breeding success of puffins. As puffins forage in the sea, a puffin might also be caught in a gillnet or any other fishing gear.

Puffin on Grímsey

I was on Grímsey mainly because of the puffins.

I met and saw so many bird photographers.

And I talked with other people who were like me enthralled by these wonderful birds.

Thus, I very, very hope that the future for these fascinating, beautiful, and enchanting birds look bright.

Be it hopefully all over Iceland and in the Atlantic region!

Information: There are different statistics about the number of puffins in Iceland. In a more recent statistic, apparently, about 36-40% of the world’s population breeds in Iceland whereas 41% of the total number of puffin pairs (830.000) breed in the Westman archipelago. Do you know a more recent statistics?

More bird life on Grímsey

Although the Atlantic puffins are already a highlight on Grímsey, there are many more wonderful and interesting birds to observe on this small island.

Birds that live very close to the puffins are razorbills and common murres. Both are - as mentioned above - auks. Thus, it is not surprising seeing these two other bird species close to the puffins.

I observed both already in the past in Germany. And that was on Heligoland - an island in the North Sea.

On Grímsey again, I saw quite many of them.

Common murres on Grímsey

Tip: If you want to observe common murres on Grímsey, I suggest to walk to the southeast of the island. Close to the lighthouse is a path that leads to the puffin colony. In the middle of the puffins, there are here and there common murres.

Common murres have a circumpolar distribution, and thus, occur both in the North Atlantic and in the North Pacific.

Apparently, there is another murre species on Grímsey - the Brünnich’s guillemots or thick-billed murre, respectively. However, unfortunately, I could not spot them. Both species look quite similar, as they are closely related. They differ in average size.

Common murres on Grímsey
Bird watching on Grímsey

The other auk in the southeast of Grímsey is the razorbill. Like common murres, I just saw them at that place on the island. And again, I had seen razorbills already on Heligoland. But in comparison to Heligoland, on Grímsey they were more numerous. While it was quite difficult on Heligoland to detect a razorbill among all the other sea birds, on Grímsey, they were close to the path on the cliff top, and thus, easy to spot.

Razorbill on Grímsey

Interesting: Razorbills are auks like puffins and common murres. However, did you know that razorbills are the closest living relative of the great auk? The great auk was an auk which became extinct in the 19th century probably only due to hunting by humans.

As an auk, razorbills show typical features of this bird family. They are black and white in appearance, they can both fly and swim, they spend most of the year on the open sea, and they breed along coastal cliffs. Like puffins.

While I could not spot a common murre on the first afternoon at the cliffs in the southeast of Grímsey, I observed razorbills on both afternoons.

Is it always like that? Are razorbills more common than common murres on Grímsey?

Razorbills on Grímsey
Razorbills on Grímsey
Bird watching in Iceland

As I have not been on Grímsey for such a long time, I don’t know if razorbills are indeed more common than common murres on Grímsey.

A beautiful observation was when I saw the three auk species standing together on the cliffs.

Bird watching in Iceland
Bird watching in Iceland

Another bird species that was quite prominent on the island was the Arctic tern.

If you visit Grímsey, sooner or later you will make the acquaintance of Arctic terns and probably love and/or “hate” them.

Although walking along a path close to Arctic terns can be quite uncomfortable, I still love these birds.

Arctic tern in Iceland

They are not only very beautiful and elegant birds, also, they have a very long migration behind every year!

This strongly migratory bird can fly from the north of the Northern hemisphere to the south of the Southern hemisphere being an animal with the longest migration routes in the animal kingdom!

This is quite smart. If it is summer in the north, they migrate to the north. And when summer is over in the north, they return to the south to skip winter in the north and spend summer in the south.

On Grímsey, I saw quite many of these fascinating birds on the many paths.

Arctic terns on Grímsey
Arctic terns on Grímsey

Information: Do you want to read more about animal migrations? There is a book by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti - “Where the animals go”. Please read more about this fascinating book in one of my previous blog entries.

Another good spot to observe Arctic terns on Grímsey is a lake in the west of the island close to the village.

At that lake you can not only observe Arctic terns, but also many other sea birds.

Arctic terns on Grímsey

It was quite interesting to observe these fascinating birds. Sometimes they flew above the water surface. And other times they were taking a bath in the lake.

Arctic terns on Grímsey
Arctic terns on Grímsey

There is a reason why Arctic terns on Grímsey appear quite aggressive (that is why you might "hate" them...).

The reason are their chicks! As Arctic terns are quite protective birds, they attack every intruder who moves too close to their chicks.

Sometimes I was walking on the path and I noticed a more aggressive behaviour than normal. If that was the case, I knew that a chick had to be around. In those moments I tried to move as quickly as possible to get out of that area. Usually, I did not see any chick.

Just in one moment I saw a chick.

I did not want to stay. I just took a quick photograph and left.

Arctic tern chick on Grímsey

I love these birds even more for their protective behaviour.

Someone who has to move through an area with many Arctic terns, the best way to move is holding a stick up into the air, as Arctic terns typically attack the highest point.

I saw two people moving through a meadow full with Arctic terns…

Arctic terns on Grímsey
Arctic terns in Iceland

I think it is quite incredible how many different bird species live on such a small island like Grímsey.

There were two more birds I had already seen on Heligoland, but also live on Grímsey.

On the one side the black-legged kittiwake, and on the other side, the northern fulmar.

Black-legged kittiwakes are quite numerous both on Heligoland and on Grímsey.

Black-legged kittiwake

I saw quite many of them in the lake close to the village - together with the Arctic terns. But I also observed them in the northeast of the island where they breed in colonies and in the southeast close to the lighthouse where the puffins, murres and razorbills were.

Black-legged kittiwake on Grímsey
Black-legged kittiwake on Grímsey
Black-legged kittiwake on Iceland

Northern fulmars, in contrast, are very numerous on Grímsey, but quite rare on Heligoland.
They are very abundant in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Although they look quite like gulls, Northern fulmars are not gulls. They form a separate bird family, named Procellariidae including petrels and shearwaters.

Northern fulmar on Grímsey

Information: Another bird of the family Procellariidae is the Cory’s shearwater which can be observed in the Azores. A good way to observe these birds is on a whale watching trip. Please look at one of my previous posts to get more information.

Very typical for the northern fulmar is its salt gland which helps to get rid of the excessive salt in the body. The excretion of high saline solution happens from their noses.

Like puffins, Northern fulmars return to their nests year after year.

Along my walks around the island, I spotted here and there a nesting northern fulmar.

Northern fulmar on Grímsey
Northern fulmars in Iceland
Northern fulmar on Grímsey

Not that numerous on Grímsey are other birds like common eider ducks or Eurasian oystercatchers.

I only saw them, because I tried to be as attentive as possible to see as many birds as possible. In one moment, I saw an Eider duck (on the left) down the cliffs, and in another moment, I saw a Eurasian oystercatcher (on the right). As well, down the cliffs.

Bird watching in Iceland
Bird watching in Iceland

It was very difficult to spot them. I almost oversaw them. But luckily, I could observe them from afar.

In contrast, not very difficult to oversee was the red-necked phalarope. I actually saw quite many of them, mostly anywhere on the paths or close to the paths.

Red-necked phalarope on Grímsey

Like many other birds on Iceland, red-necked phalaropes are home on the open sea. They breed in Arctic regions - like in Iceland - and spend most of the winter and migration on the open ocean.

As females are the more brightly coloured sex in red-necked phalaropes, I had a close look at every individual I saw.

On Grímsey I saw them especially in the lake close to the village and on several paths in the west of the island. Sometimes taking a bath in small puddles.

Red-necked phalarope on Grímsey
Red-necked phalarope on Grímsey

Interesting: Females in red-necked phalaropes are not only more brightly coloured than males, they are even larger and fight over males. Furthermore, only the males incubate the eggs and raises the chicks while females look for another mate after laying the eggs.

Another beautiful and special bird on Grímsey, which I frequently saw on the west of the island, was the European golden plover.

Often, I heard their typical “tuu” call before actually seeing them.

European golden plover in Iceland

European golden plovers are quite widespread in Iceland. I even saw them later in another region, that means, in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords.

On Grímsey, I saw them often anywhere on meadows. That is not surprising, as they breed on a variety of grasslands like meadows. They also might occur on moorland and heathlands.

Apparently, the first European golden plover in Iceland indicates the end of the winter and the beginning of spring.

European golden plover on Grímsey
European golden plover on Grímsey

A more inconspicuous and shy bird on Grímsey was the common ringed plover. Common ringed plovers and European golden plovers are of the same bird family Charadriidae. The bird family comprises more than sixty species and are distributed worldwide.

However, I saw a single common ringed plover only once on Grímsey.

Bird watching in Iceland

Information: In the past I saw plovers in Brazil like semipalmated plovers in Guarapari and collared plovers in Itaúnas. The Southern lapwing belongs to the same family and is a widespread species in Brazil. I saw them as well in Guarapari and Itaúnas, but also in Ubatuba. In South Africa I spotted close to Plettenberg Bay a blacksmith lapwing.

Similar to European golden plovers, red-shanks are “loud” birds. I heard quite frequently their typical piping call. Sometimes they were in flight. And sometimes they just found something to stay and let all the others know that they were there.

Redshank in Iceland

They are also quite common in Iceland and, in general, a widespread species.

Common redshanks are migratory birds, however, unlike many other bird species mentioned here, they spend winter close to the coasts.

On Grímsey, they are easy to identify with their red legs and black-tipped red bills. However, there are several subspecies recognized. The common redshank on Iceland and the Faroe Islands is one subspecies.

Redshank in Iceland
Bird watching in Iceland

Information: The common redshank is a sandpiper of the family Scolopacidae. Other sandpiper species are dunlins, common snipes, red-necked phalaropes, Eurasian whimbrels, and ruddy turnstones.

A closely related bird to the common redshank is the dunlin.

I only saw them for a very short moment on a meadow. With its black belly it has something in common with the European golden plover, however, their plumage and bills differ from each other.

Bird watching on Grímsey

In contrast, I saw a common snipe on Grímsey not only once, but twice!

Common snipes are also closely related to dunlins and common redshanks. They are quite common on Iceland. In the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve I didn’t see any common snipe, however, I heard quite often their typical call which they produce by vibrating their tail feathers.

Bird watching on Grímsey

Another very common bird on Grímsey is the snow bunting. I saw them quite often, and sometimes, they were sitting very close to me without any fear.

The snow bunting is a sexually dimorphic species. Meaning, the male is white and has black wingtips and a black back during the breeding season while the female has a rufous coloured back. Only in winter both females and males share a rufous coloration of the back.

Snow bunting on Grímsey
Snow bunting in Iceland

Interesting: The snow bunting is the only passerine bird that winters that north. The only exception is the common raven which also can winter as far north as the snow bunting.

While I saw quite many redwings in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, I only saw a single redwing once on the ground close to a car when I was walking from the lighthouse in the south up to the village.

I almost missed the bird, because as soon as it appeared as fast it vanished again.

Bird watching in Iceland

There is one last bird, which I saw and would like to mention. I did not see this bird on the island, but in Dalvík - the place from where I took the ferry to Grímsey.

And this was a Eurasian whimbrel.

Bird watching in Iceland

I only saw the bird from afar. As soon as it perceived me, it flew away.

Dalvík is the village from where the ferry to Grímsey leaves. In the next paragraph I give you some impressions of the place and its region.


Dalvík is a very small village. Very small. With only about less than 1.400 inhabitants, Dalvík is still a place with relatively many visitors. Probably due to Grímsey.

Dalvík in Iceland

Because of the harbour in Dalvík, the village is important for import and fishing in the north of Iceland. Of course, the harbour is also the place to leave for Grímsey.

Dalvík in Iceland
Dalvík in Iceland

Dalvík is a drive of just about 40 km from Akureyri.

I arrived in the evening in Dalvík and stayed at the hostel. On the next day, I left for Grímsey. After a night on Grímsey, I stayed for another night in the hostel in Dalvík. Everything was quite uncomplicated in the hostel and in Dalvík.

As I was in Dalvík just for a short time, I did not see so much of the village. Of course, I left the hostel, but the first thing I did was to head to the mountains and the surrounding beautiful landscapes.

Dalvík in Iceland

I did not know where to look at first.

The landscapes were just too beautiful.

The snow-covered mountains on the one hand.

Dalvík in Iceland

And the lilac lupins on the other hand.

Dalvík in Iceland

I imagined how life might look like living in such a place…

However, I also must mention that I was very lucky with the weather on the first day. No rain and no wind.

Furthermore, warm light and for Iceland nice temperatures.

Dalvík in Iceland

Dalvík is small, but every minute was worth to spend it there.

Information: It is also possible to go whale watching in Dalvík. If you want to know more about whale watching in Dalvík or in other places like Húsavik, please visit either the official website of Dalvík or check my other blog entries.

Practical information

How to get there

Dalvík was my first travel destination in Iceland, as I wanted to visit Grímsey. I arrived at the Keflavík airport close to Reykjavík. I stayed one night in Reykjavík and took a bus to the north on the next morning. I wanted to take the bus from Reykjavík to Dalvík. There is a bus, however, not every day. Unfortunately, as the website of the bus company does not work properly, I could travel only until Akureyri and there was no bus from Akureyri to Dalvík on the day of my bus journey.

I was very surprised!

Later in the hostel I learned that I am not the only one who had problems with the website of the bus company. I cannot really tell why I got the wrong information, but maybe I would have had the correct information if I would have looked for a connection from Reykjavik to Akureyri and then from Akureyri to Dalvík and not from Reykjavik to Dalvík, but how should I have known about this before my journey?
Anyway, in Akureyri I was at the bus station and wondering how to get to Dalvík. In a close-by tourist information point the woman suggested me to hitchhike, take a taxi or rent a car.

Well, the taxi would have cost more than 200 Euros and renting a car was no option, as there was no point of the car rental company in Dalvík to leave the car.

Thus, I only could hitchhike.

I was lucky. The first person took me by car to a spot with lots of traffic. Another person finally stopped and took me to Dalvík, as they passed the village on their journey.

Landscape in the north of Iceland

Information: The bus company is Straeto. There are buses and it is possible to travel by bus, however, it is important to be careful with the information on the website. I highly suggest to get the information at the corresponding bus stops. Even the people in the tourist information centres do not have the correct timetables of the different buses.

Later I found out that hitchhiking is quite common in Iceland.

Well, I’m not the person who enjoys hitchhiking, but in that moment, I had to and everything worked.

More reliable, in contrast, is the ferry from Dalvík to Grímsey. The company’s name is Sæfari. There are trips throughout the year. One trip takes about three hours. Take this into account when visiting Grímsey just for one day without staying overnight!

Please check the website of the ferry company to get most up to date information about the timetable and the prices. For both tickets I paid 8.000 ISK.

The journey on the sea was calm with spectacular views. Just see for yourself!

Landscape in the north of Iceland


I stayed at the Dalvík Hostel Gimli in the street Hafnarbraut 4, 620 Dalvík, Iceland. It was a very nice, comfortable, and clean hostel just opposite of a restaurant and the harbour.

I paid 65,55 Euros for one night in a single room.

On Grímsey I stayed at the guesthouse Gullsól and paid 7.500 ISK for one night in a single room.

Information: Please not that I booked on different websites. Therefore, I paid either in Euros or in Icelandic Krona. As I booked directly on the website of the Gullsól hostel for the night on Grímsey, I could pay directly in the guesthouse and not in advance via a booking platform.

More information

Information about puffins in general

Information about the Atlantic puffin

Atlantic puffins on Wikipedia

The Seabird's Cry by Adam Nicolson

Orbis et Globus on Grímsey

Official website of Grímsey

More about the migration of arctic terns

Whale skeleton from Grímsey in the Húsavík Whale Museum

Puffins on Grímsey
Puffins on Grímsey

Have you ever seen puffins on Grímsey or at any other place? If you have been on Grímsey, which other bird species have you seen? Do you know another good place to observe puffins? Please let me know in the comments.

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