In 1968 the island was manned during the height of the spring migration
period, just one year
after the eruption has finally ceased. A careful observation on
all land-birds stopping on or
passing the island en route to the mianland of Iceland. Most birds
arrived after a seacrossing
of around a 1.000 kilometers, which is the distance between Surtsey
and the nearest pars
of the British Isles where most of the migrants no doubt depart
Previous observations on Surtsey have shown that this new volcanic
island, which in 1968
had an area of apprx. 2.8 km² and reaches a height of 160 m
asl, has both advantages and disadvantages as a base for mird migration
studies. As the southernmost outpost of Iceland
it is obvious that it will attract more or less exhausted land-birds
approaching Iceland, but,
on the other hand, the still mainly lifeless habitats of the island
do not provide food or other essentials of life for most migrants,
with the exception of birds of prey, which have access to
a rich selection of prey amonng the exhausted migrants, as well
as scavengers and a few
waders, which may subsist for a time on organisms, dead or alive,
which are washed
upon the shores of the island.
However, the main disadvantage of the island for migration
studies is its location at the
western periphery or even west of the mian path of migrants arriving
in Iceland by way
of the Britsh Isles. It is well known that under normal condistions
most migrants turn first
up in spring in South east Iceland, and then proceed westward along
the south coast -
or northward along the east coast.
On the other hand, this is now history. The observations to follow
were made 34 years ago,
and much has changed since then on this island. The size of the
island above sealevel has
been reduced to about 1.6 km², but then the vegetation has
thus making this a nice stopover for exhausted birds.
from 1969 and 1970 is given here
We do at present have no more information
on the migration
of birds since 1968,
but will search for more in the near future.
Now to what could be seen in 1968:
On April 30th two Whooper
Swans (cygnus musicus) came flying from SW and
for the Westman Islands.
Lag Goose (anser anser) were seen on April 17th,
and on the 20th and 22nd
from 2 to 12 in small flocks passed the island. Some of the birds
first circled the island
before continuing. Later that week some of them settled on the island.
In 2002 a pair breeded
on Surtsey and had 3 chickens!
On April 29th two flocks of 20 birds in each flock passed
the island and headed northward.
The next day another 32 birds passed in the same direction, and
about the same time
55 came flying from east and headed for the mainland west of Surtsey
after having cirkled it.
On May 6th one was sitting among gulls on the northern beach.
Barnacle Goose (branta leucopsis)
passed late in April by 35 to 65 in each flock.
On April 30th up to seven were seen sitting on the island at the
On May 28 a Red-breasted
Merganser (Mergus serrator)
was swimming close to the shore.
Next day one was seen on the lagoon.
valid as per Sept. 2010)
On April 30 a Merlin (falco columbarius)
stayed on the island the whole day.
Early the next day a merlin was encountered where it was eating
Later that day another female was seen chasing a meadow pipit round
the research station.
© Soenke Morsch
Six oystercatchers (haematopus
ostralegus) were repeatedly seen on the shores of the
island during late April and early May, and some days as many as
18 were seen at once.
Almost daily from 1 to 9 Redshanks
(Tringa totanus) were seen. Most of these birds made
a stop-over on the island.
A few Dunlins (calidris alpina)
were seen on the shores early May. Another species,
the Knot (calidris canutus) were observed flying northwards off
the island in a flock of
about 200 - 500 waders, were most of them were thought to be knots.
This photo has not yet been made
available by nature photographer Daniel Bergmann.
A portfolio of his nature photography on Iceland can be seen at:
(corvus corax) (a pair?) stayed on the island throught
the study period
(April 16 - May 10). They were frequently seen, but no signs of
nestbuilding or breeding
were observed. They habitually patrolled the tideline for anything
edible, such as dead
sea-birds, fishes or invertebrates washed upon the shore. On May
3 a third raven appeared
on the island, but it was vigorously attacked and chased away by
the two resident ravens.
Wheatear (oenanthe oenanthe).
The first one was seen on April 17. The next one was to appear on
April 26. The following days 5 - 10 birds were observed each day
15.00 on the 29th when wheaters as well as meadow pipits and white
to appear in somewhat larger numbers on the island. The next day
hundreds of wheatears
were present on the island that day. The next days they increased
fast, and on May 6 only
2-3 birds were seen.
As far as is known Icelandic wheatears apparently
winter in W.Africa, but we must assumethat they reach Iceland
by way of the western parts of the British Isles, although
possible that some may travel direct from Western Africa or
the Iberian Peninsula to Iceland without touching the British
Nearly 50% of the birds were excessively fat on arrival.
This is not very surprising because wheaters are relatively
long-winged and powerful flyers. However, only about 10% of
all the wheaters had no fat reserves and where also down in
apprx. 2/3 of the others. This indicates that the birds in
must have made a much longer journey (direct from West-Africa?)
or they must have experienced very adverse weather conditions during
This theory can only be accepted if due consideration is taken
of the westerly geographical position of Iceland, i.e. its position
is more westerly than that of any other European country.
The first Meadow Pipit (Anthus
pratensis), was heard on April 17, but it was not until
April 24 that they were observed on the island in some numbers.
Flocks up to 25-30 birds
were observed but already on the 29th there were only 2-3 birds
present on the northern
part of the island.
It is assumed that the meadow pipit is less powerful flyers than
wheaters and consequently
less adapted to meet the stresses of long sea-crossings, which in
turn causes their
fat reserves to become exhausted before they reach their goal. The
that their weight upon arrival on Surtsey is only about 50% of their
weight when they leave
Iceland in the autumn. Some birds were even seeking shelter at the
research station on
Surtsey, and they had a markedly puffed plumage and were shivering.
Such birds may
well have died within a relatively short time.
alba like to hunt insects near water
Seen on most days from April 24 to May 10, was the White
Wagtail (motacilla alba),
but only a few birds each day. On the whole white wagtails did not
turn up on the island in
large numbers like the wheatears and they were even considerably
less abundant than
meadow pipits. But otherwise their magratory pattern was very similar
to that of the
meadow pipits and the wheatears
Icelandic white wagtails apparently winter mainly in West Africa
like the wheatears.
read more about this bird at
A rare visit was observed on April 17th,
when a Starling
showed up. Why was that so strange?
This bird was probably a drift migrant
because the indigeneous starling population, which have become
established in Iceland
since 1940, seem to consist entirely of resident birds.
And so we have to look at the map - and wonder. Why do most
starlings in Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia migrate to
their winter range in Spain, Portugal and Africa, while the
starlings on Iceland move up north toward the Arctic Sea?
(carduelis flammea) showed up on May 4. The subspecific
status of this
bird remains uncertain, but it is most likely a specimen of the
Greenland race C.f. rostrata.
Bunting (plectrophenax nivalis) were heard or
seen on 9 different days,
but only a few birds, 1-4, each day.. It may be assumed that the
snow buntings were
of Greenland origin and that they were on migration
from the British Isles to Greenland.
*** *** ***
No special attention was paid to sea-birds seen around or on the
island. Large numbers
of gulls and kittiwakes habitually roost on the island, and this
has been so ever since
the island rose above sea-level.
For more info see <http://www.vulkaner.no/n/surtsey/esurtbird.html>
*** *** ***
What then is so interesting about bird-migration
on Surtsey? Nothing, you might say.
And, of course, why should it be more interesting to observe birds
than birds passing any other island south of Iceland? But it is.
It really is.
These birds stopping here for a moment, a day, or even longer, all
contribute to the
improvementof the possiblities for any kind of life to succeed on
this new island.
So after all, they are a part of the story about how life is developing
for another report from 1969 and 1970
Text mainly extracted from reports made by
Museum of Natual History, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Surtsey Research Report No. XI
Here you can find more about Surtsey:
last report from Surtsey Research - 2009. Click here
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