Iceland Mag

20 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Birds

Video: Meet the friendly falcons of the Westfjords

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • A noble bird One of the three young gyrfalcons who hatched this spring in Hringsdalur valley in the Westfjords. The three and their parents have stayed in the valley all summer, but the young have now left the search for their own nesting sites. Screenshot from video, see below.

Historically one of the most priced exports of Iceland were gyrfalcons. During the middle ages Icelandic falcons, Falco rusticolus islandicus, were considered priced possessions of European kings and nobility. The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species. It breeds on Arctic coasts and the islands of North America, Europe, and Asia. A fourth of the entire European gyrfalcon population is believed to live in Iceland. Currently the Icelandic population, which has been protected since 1940, counts between 300 and 400 adult nesting pairs. 

Most of the falcon population of Iceland lives in Northeast Iceland, with the Jökulsárgljúfur river canyon being one of its key habitats, but these majestic birds also live in the Westfjords, where the video below was shot.

Magnificent birds and efficient hunters
Gyrfalcons don’t construct their own nests, instead they frequently taking over old raven nests. The falcon in the video below has recently left the raven nest where he spent the first weeks of his life. Hilmar Einarsson who owns a cottage in Hringsdalur valley in Arnarfjörður fjord in the Southern Westfjords told us the video was shot a good distance from where a falcon pair has been nesting in the past.

“They don’t return every single year,” he told us, “but the pair has come regularly over the past few years. It’s a good location, judging by how successful they seem to be at hunting in the fjord.” The falcons in Hringsdalur hunt seabirds in the fjord.  The area is prime hunting ground for birds of prey, which is evident from the name of the fjord: Arnarfjörður translates literally as Eagle-fjord.

Mountainside littered with carcasses of seabirds
“The mountainside below the nest is littered with the carcasses of seabirds,” Hilmar notes. “There are literally piles of dead birds there!” The young left the nest sometime in mid-July but kept close by as the mother continued to feed them seabirds she caught in the fjord.

Hilmar tells us that the Falcons have been very successful at raising their young in the valley. Several chicks always seem to make it to adulthood, and this year all three chicks which hatched survived. “They have stayed in the valley, practicing their skills, weaving in and out of the tree hedges. They are remarkably tame and indifferent toward their human neighbours. They frequently sit by the gravel road, observing the infrequent traffic, to the great delight of passing motorists.”

In the last few weeks the falcons have been expanding their range, and Hilmar suspects the young might have left to explore the wider world.

Family friends
The video shows how tame and friendly these magnificent birds of prey are. It was shot by Hilmar’s thirteen-year-old grandson Birkir Rafnsson in the mountainside above his cottage at the end of July, ten days after the three young falcons left the nest. Hilmar tells us the young falcons have now left the valley, as young falcons wander around Iceland for two to four years until they find their own nesting place. “But we expect the parents to stick around and nest in the valley next spring. We have grown quite fond of these neighbours of ours!"

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