Our Beautiful World

The volcano island: Surtsey, Iceland 

Bird migration on Surtsey

© Thorleifur Einarsson

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 for Iceland.

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 improved considerably,
thus making this a nice stopover for exhausted birds.

Another report 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:

cygnus cygnus
©Dick Vuijk

On April 30th two Whooper Swans (cygnus musicus) came flying from SW and headed
for the Westman Islands.

(Iceland Review)

The Grey 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 same time.

mergus serrator
©Dick Vuijk

On May 28 a Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) was swimming close to the shore.
Next day one was seen on the lagoon.

falco columbarius
http://www.duke.edu/~cwcook/pix/birds.html (not 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 a wheatear.
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.

tringa totanus

Almost daily from 1 to 9 Redshanks (Tringa totanus) were seen. Most of these birds made
a stop-over on the island.

calidris alpina
©Dick Vuijk

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.

corvus corax
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: http://www.danielbergmann.com

Two Ravens (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.

oenanthe oenanthe
©Dick Vuijk

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 untill about
15.00 on the 29th when wheaters as well as meadow pipits and white wagtails began
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 in spring
by way of the western parts of the British Isles, although it is
possible that some may travel direct from Western Africa or the Iberian Peninsula to Iceland without touching the British Isles.

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 weight,
apprx. 2/3 of the others. This indicates that the birds in question
must have made a much longer journey (direct from West-Africa?)
or they must have experienced very adverse weather conditions during their sea-crossing.

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.

anthus pratensis
©Dick Vuijk

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
pre-migratory fat reserves to become exhausted before they reach their goal. The fact is
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.

motacilla alba like to hunt insects near water
©Dick Vuijk

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.

sturnus vulgaris
read more about this bird at

A rare visit was observed on April 17th, when a Starling
(sturnus vulgaris)
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

One Redpoll, (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.

plectrophenax nivalis
©Dick Vuijk

The Snow 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 <https://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 passing Surtsey
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 on Surtsey.

Click here for another report from 1969 and 1970

Text mainly extracted from reports made by
Finnur Gudmundsson,
Museum of Natual History, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Surtsey Research Report No. XI

Here you can find more about Surtsey:

 Fossils on Surtsey
 How life developed
 The eruption

See the last report from Surtsey Research - 2009. Click here

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Any questions, or a feeling of knowing more, just get in touch!



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