Puffin photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries

When you are describing a landscape, it is important to describe movement. Things that move bring a scene alive. And the things that move most obviously in Iceland are birds.

These aren’t birds that sit quietly waiting to be ticked off birdwatchers’ lists. These are birds that do things.

The most common bird in Iceland is the puffin, which looks like a cross between a penguin and a parrot but can both fly and swim. The Icelandic word for them is lundi, but they also go by the rather lovely nickname prófastur, which means ‘provost’ or ‘dean’. They live in burrows, often on cliff faces, in large communities. They arrive in Iceland to nest in April or May. Puffin is frequently found on the menu in Icelandic restaurants - it’s tasty if cooked well. 

One of the largest colonies in Iceland is on the Westman Island of Heimaey. In August the eggs hatch, and the baby puffins, known as pufflings, waddle forth. These are extremely cute: grey and fluffy and a little clueless. They often get lost and wander into town, but teams of local children are allowed to stay up late in the evening and rescue them. The children take the chicks home for the night. The following morning they find a spot near the sea and throw them high in the air. The pufflings glide down to the water and swim off. You have to put some effort into the throw, apparently, or the pufflings won’t catch the breeze and will splat into the ground.

I most often associate swans with St James’s Park, or perhaps the River Thames, gliding peacefully in sedate surroundings. In Iceland, you can suddenly happen upon small lakes surrounded by lava, in which up to twenty swans paddle. God knows what they are doing there.

Many Icelanders’ favourite bird is the golden plover. People eagerly listen out for its distinctive and persistent ‘peep’, which means that the plovers have arrived in Iceland and spring is here. It is a fine bird, with a royal coat of gold, black and white, and it lurks in the heather.

The word ‘eiderdown’ comes from the down of the eider duck. The males are black and white and the females dun-coloured. They spend the winter at sea, and then nest close to the shore, often on a farmer’s property. They pluck down from their breasts and leave it out to dry, before lining their nests with it to keep their chicks warm. For centuries, eiderdown was an important source of income for Icelandic farmers, who would watch over nests to keep gulls and ravens away.

There are so many spectacular birds in Iceland, all of them doing something: soaring white-tailed eagles, darting gyrfalcons, dive-bombing arctic terns, paddling harlequin ducks, black cormorants splaying their wings, gannets and fulmars diving into the sea, skuas mugging other birds for food, great northern divers or ‘loons’ gliding over lakes with their eerie cry, ptarmigans strutting their stuff in the heather, geese formation-flying in the evening sky.

All right, I can’t deny it: and chickens, or kjúklingar, as they are rather charmingly known in Iceland. Clucking in ugly metal Eimskip shipping containers in a farmyard.

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