The following is an near exhaustive list of water birds commonly found in the North Atlantic Arctic. Water birds live in and around freshwater ecosystems, for examples ponds, lakes, and rivers. Most have a more aquatic lifestyle than waders, finding food in the water itself instead of on shorelines. In coastal areas, most water birds can be found in the sea as well as as in freshwater. Some species even prefer marine habitats, but they all belong to families of birds that are primarily found in freshwater and wetlands. Because there are so many species, only the ones commonly found at least as far north as Iceland are presented (excluding most species found only up to subarctic Fennoscandia).
Grebes belong the the Podicipediformes family, which includes only one family, Podicipedidae. Although they look like ducks or divers, they are actually most related to flamingos. Grebes are excellent divers and spend most of their life in lakes and ponds. The only grebe species breeding in the East Atlantic Arctic is the Horned grebe Podiceps auritus. Although it is small for a water bird (31-38cm in length for wingspans 59-65cm), it can easily be recognized by its golden double crest in breeding plumage. The non breeding plumage is muted, grey and white. There are two subspecies, one in Eurasia and one in North America. The Eurasian subspecies breeds in Iceland, northern Britain, coastal Norway, eastern Sweden, southern Finland, and subarctic Eurasia. In the Faroe Islands, it is a scarce breeder and a rare winter visitor. A short distance migrant, the horned grebe winters in North America, eastern Asia, and western and southern Europe including southwestern Iceland and coastal Norway.
Divers, also called loons in North America, are the members of the Gaviiformes order. This order contains only one family, Gaviidae, which contains only one genus, Gavia. As their name suggests, divers are largely aquatic. They use their excellent swimming abilities to hunt for small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other similar freshwater prey. There are only five extent species, four of which are found in the East Atlantic Arctic. In winter, divers have muted grey, black, brown and white plumage.
- The Red-throated diver Gavia stellata, also called Red-throated loon. The easiest diver to identify with its eponymous red throat, the red-throated diver is a circumpolar breeder and an Arctic specialist. It is found breeding in southern coastal Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, Scotland, Fennoscandia, northern Russia, Japan, and coastal Canada and Alaska. It also a rare breeder in the Faroe Islands. It winters in subarctic and temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, including Iceland, and western and southern coastal Fennoscandia. Although it is the smallest and lightest of the loons, the red-throated loon is still a large bird (53-69cm in length for wingspans 106-116cm).
- The Black-throated diver Gavia arctica, also called Arctic loon or Black-throated loon. This diver is found breeding from Scotland, Fennoscandia and Siberia to the western tip of Alaska. It winters in subarctic and temperate regions of Eurasia, including southern Norway and southwestern Sweden. One adult individual in breeding plumage was seen in Iceland in 2016. The black-throated diver is slightly larger than the red-throated diver (60-75cm in length for wingspans 110-125cm).
- The Great northern diver Gavia immer, also called Common loon. This large diver (89-91cm in length for wingspans 127-147cm) has a spectacular breeding plumage, with green and purple iridescence on the black head and neck. It is a primarily North American bird, breeding throughout most of Canada, southern Alaska, some northern areas of the U.S, and southern and western coastal Greenland. It also breeds in Iceland, which is its easternmost breeding range. It winters in coastal North America, around Iceland, and in western and northern Europe (including coastal Norway).
- The White-billed diver Gavia adamsii, also called Yellow-billed loon. The largest of the divers (76-97cm in length for wingspans 135-160cm) this species is also the only one of its order to have a pale beak, making is easy to identify. It is circumpolar and a High Arctic specialist, breeding in northern Canada, northern Alaska, and Siberia. it winters on the Pacific coast of North America, coastal Norway, and northern Japan.
Waterfowls are birds belonging to the Anseriformes order. The large majority of waterfowl, including the ones presented here, belong to the Anatidae family. This family contains all true geese, ducks, and swans. Many waterfowl species are present in the East Atlantic Arctic. Here, we are only presenting species that are found breeding in Iceland or above the Arctic circle. Ducks are each presented with a photo of males and females in breeding plumage. The male is pointed out, and the other is the female.
Swans and geese are large to very large waterfowl; they are also characterized by their long necks and their predominantly herbivorous diet. Nine species are common breeders in the East Atlantic Arctic:
- The Snow goose Anser caerulescens. This large goose (75-84cm in length for wingspans 135-165cm) has two possible morphs: white (shown below) or blue (brown plumage with a white head). It breeds in a patchy range in northern Alaska, northern Canada, and northwestern Greenland; it winters in the U.S. and Mexico. It is a regular vagrant to Iceland, being seen every year.
- The Pink-footed goose Anser brachyrhynchus. This medium-sized goose (60-75cm in length for wingspans 135-170cm) closely resembles the bean goose, but it can be recognized by its pink legs and its darker and browner plumage. The head and neck are darker than the rest of the body. The pink-footed goose breeds exclusively in the East Atlantic Arctic, in Svalbard, eastern Greenland, and Iceland. It winters in northern Britain and northern Europe from Belgium to Denmark. Along its migration route, it is often seen in the Faroe Islands.
- The Bean goose Anser fabalis. This large species (68-90cm in length for wingspans 140-174cm) is sometimes separated in two (the taiga bean goose which breeds in Fennoscandia and western Russia, central Siberia, and eastern Russia; and the tundra bean goose which breeds in northern Siberia), but most organizations regard them as a singular species. The population which breeds in Fennoscandia is found in a small inland area in northern Norway, in western Sweden, and northern Finland. This population winters in Britain and northern Europe between the Netherlands and southern Sweden. Bean geese can be recognized by their bright orange legs, brownish grey plumage, and darker brown neck and head.
- The Lesser white-fronted goose Anser erythropus. This goose breeds from northern Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia. The Fennoscandian population is critically endangered, with a 2015 estimation of 20-25 pairs in Norway, 0-5 pairs in Finland, and 15-25 in Finland. As its name suggests, this species is closely related to the greater white-fronted goose but is smaller in size (53-66cm in length for wingspans 120-135cm). Other than size, they are difficult to tell apart.
- The Greater white-fronted goose Anser albifrons. Unlike its smaller cousin, the distribution of the greater white-fronted goose (64-81cm in length for wingspans 130-165cm) is circumpolar. It breeds in western Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. It winters from northwestern Europe (including southwestern Norway) to Japan and from the Pacific U.S. to central America. The Greenlandic population is a separate subspecies which has a darker plumage than other subspecies. It winters in Ireland, and stops in southwestern Iceland along the way.
- The Greylag goose Anser anser. The greylag goose is the largest (75-90cm in length for wingspans 147-180cm) and most well-known of the East Arctic Atlantic geese, as it is the ancestor of most breeds of domestic geese. It is found breeding from Iceland to northeastern China, including coastal Fennoscandia. It winters from western Europe to eastern China (including Fennoscandia), and has been introduced to some areas in Australia. The greylag goose went extinct in the Faroe Islands during the 19th century, where it is now a common breeder again after it was reintroduced in the mid-to-late 20th century. In Svalbard, it is a fairly common spring and summer visitor.
- The Brent goose Branta bernicla, also called Brant goose. This small dark goose (56-61cm in length for wingspans 110-120cm) is a High Arctic and circumpolar breeder, breeding in northern Greenland, Svalbard, northern Siberia, coastal Alaska, and northern Canada. It winters in temperate areas in North America, western Europe, and eastern Asia. There are three subspecies, which can be recognized by lighter or darker underparts. The pale-bellied brent goose, whcih is shown here, is the subspecies that breeds in the Atlantic. Along its migration route, this subspecies is a common autumn visitor to Iceland, and a rare vagrant to the Faroe Islands.
- The Barnacle goose Branta leucopsis. Similar in plumage to its close cousin the brent goose, the barnacle goose can be easily recognized by its larger size (58-70cm in length for wingspans 132-145cm) and white face. There are three main populations: one breeds in eastern Greenland and winters in Great Britain; one breeds in Svalbard and winters in Scotland; one breeds in western Siberia and winters in the North Sea. The Greenland population stops by Iceland on its migration route in spring and autumn, with up to 80,700 birds in 2013, almost 10 times more than when they were first counted in 1959. Barnacle geese have been breeding in Iceland since the 1960s, and they then started breeding in the southern region in the late 1980s. In 2014, more than 700 nests were seen in the area, a number that has been increasing every year. A few breeding pairs are found in the Faroe Islands, but they are presumed to originate from captive birds.
- The Whooper swan Cygnus cygnus. This swan is the largest water bird in the East Atlantic Arctic (145-160cm in length for wingspans 218-243cm) and one of the heaviest flying bird species, with an average weight of 10 kilograms for males (females are lighter). It breeds from Iceland to eastern Siberia, including northern Fennoscandia and most of Finland, wintering in temperate and subarctic areas from northern Great Britain to Japan, including western and southern Norway as well as southern Sweden. The whooper swan was a common breeder in the Faroe Islands until the 17th century when it went extinct as a breeder. Since then it has been a common spring and autumn migration visitor, and ongoing efforts to restore the Faroese population have resulted in some breeding pairs. for Some Icelandic individuals spend the winter in the country, but most migrate to Ireland.
Shelducks belong to the subfamily of large ducks Tadorninae, which are described as the intermediate group between geese and ducks. The Common shelduck Tadorna tadorna is the only shelduck species that breeds in the East Atlantic Arctic. It has a distinctive plumage with a red bill, which is bigger in males. The female has a white spot above the bill, and the plumage patterns are slightly less sharply defined. This species is larger than other than most East Atlantic Arctic ducks (56-67cm in length for wingspans 110-133cm). It breeds from Iceland to Mongolia. This includes coastal Norway (except the far North), southern coastal Sweden, and southwestern coastal Finland. Icelandic breeding areas are patchy and coastal. The common shelduck is a rare breeding bird in the Faroe Islands, where it is also a common spring and autumn migration visitor. It winters from western Europe and North Africa to eastern China.
Common shelduck (male on the right).
Dabbling ducks are characterized by their feeding behavior. They find food close to the surface without needing to dive underwater. Six species are common breeders in the East Atlantic Arctic:
- The Northern shoveler Spatula clypeata. Easy to recognize with its proportionally long beak, the northern shoveler is a medium-sized dabbling duck (44-52cm in length for wingspans 70-84cm). It has a a wide distribution, breeding throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of North America and Eurasia including localized areas around the Icelandic and Fennoscandian coasts, and southern Finland. It winters in temperate to equatorial zones.
- The Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. The mallard is a large dabbling duck (50-65cm in length for wingspans 81-98cm) with an extremely wide distribution, extended by being introduced and invasive to many areas such as South Africa or Australia. It is also the ancestor to the domestic duck Anas platyrhynchos domesticus. It is a native breeder to North America, western and eastern Greenland, coastal Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Eurasia including most of Fennoscandia. In many areas such as western Europe, southern Fennoscandia, the Faroe Islands, and some patchy zones around Iceland, the mallard is present all year.
- The Gadwall Mareca strepera. This medium-sized duck (46-56cm in length for wingspans 85-95cm) has an unremarkable plumage compared to most ducks. It has a wide breeding distribution in North America and Eurasia, including the southern Finnish coast and southeastern Sweden. It also breeds in some patchy areas of the Icelandic coast. It winters in more southern areas of North America and Eurasia, as well as in North Africa.
- The Eurasian wigeon Mareca penelope. This medium-sized duck (45-51cm in length for wingspans 75-86cm) has a wide breeding distribution within Eurasia, from Iceland and Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia. The Icelandic distribution is coastal, and it is not present in most of southern Norway and Sweden. The Eurasian wigeon winters in various areas of the northern hemisphere, including North America, North Africa, Europe, and southern Asia. In particular, it is found wintering on the southwestern coasts of Iceland and Norway. It is a regular spring and summer visitor to Svalbard, where it is possible that some pairs have attempted to breed.
- The Northern pintail Anas acuta. Between winter and summer, this large dabbling duck (51-66cm in length for wingspans 80-95cm) can be found on every continent except Oceania and Antarctica. It breeds in northern North America, Iceland, some large but patchy areas throughout Norway, northern Sweden, Finland, and from the Baltics to eastern Russia. It winters in more southern areas, mostly throughout the northern Hemisphere.
- The Eurasian teal Anas crecca. This beautiful duck is also the smallest to breed in Europe and the East Atlantic Arctic (34-38cm in length for wingspans 56-64cm). It breeds throughout temperate to Arctic Eurasia, from Iceland to northern Japan. It is found throughout Eurasia including Fennoscandia. The population breeding in southwestern Norway is resident, as are some populations in southern and southwestern Iceland. The Eurasian teal winters from western Europe to southeastern Asia, as well as in northern Africa. It rarely breeds in the Faroe islands, but is a common visitor from spring to autumn.
Unlike dabbling ducks, diving ducks dive underwater to find food, such as plants and small invertebrates. Three species breed in the East Atlantic Arctic:
- The Tufted duck or Tufted pochard Aythya fuligula. This medium-sized diving duck species (40-47cm in length for wingspans 57-73cm) is named for the breeding male's "tuft" of feathers at the back of the head. It has a wide Eurasian distribution from Iceland to eastern Russia, including throughout Fennoscandia. It winters in more southern regions of Eurasia, and northern Africa, and some individuals also winter in southwestern Iceland. It is a common visitor to the Faroe Islands, where it has bred at least four times.
- The Greater scaup Aythya marila. Slightly larger than the tufted duck (42-51cm in length for wingspans 72-84cm), this species can be recognized by the grey back and lack of tuft in breeding males. However, it is extremely similar to an East Atlantic Arctic vagrant, the lesser scaup. Here is a good guide on identification between the two species, although it remains tricky. Another vagrant, the ring-necked duck, is similar but can be recognized by its characteristic white-ringed bill. The greater scaup is a circumpolar bird, breeding in North America, Iceland, and from Fennoscandia to eastern Russia. The distribution is patchy in Fennoscandia, with populations breeding in Norway, northwestern and coastal northern Sweden, and northern and coastal Finland. This bird winters at sea from Great Britain, southern Norway and Sweden, to the Caspian sea. It is a rare visitor to the Faroe Islands, where it has been found to breed at least twice.
- The Common pochard Aythya ferina. This medium-sized diving duck (42-49cm in length for wingspans 67-75cm) is only present at the southern border of the East Atlantic Arctic, breeding from Great Britain and around the Baltic sea to central Asia. Two small populations also breed in southern Norway. It is a common spring and summer vagrant to Iceland, especially the Mývatn area.
Sea ducks are mostly Arctic and subarctic species, and they usually spend their life at sea outside of breeding season, although there are exceptions. For example, goldeneyes prefer lakes and rivers in boreal forest habitats. Sea ducks are the group of waterfowl with the most diversity in the East Atlantic Arctic, with twelve species.
- The Common goldeneye Bucephala clangula. The common goldeneyes are found breeding in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, throughout subarctic Eurasia, and from southern Alaska to eastern Canada. They winter south of their breeding range, including in southern Norway and some Icelandic lakes. They are medium-sized (42-50cm in length for wingspans 65-80cm).
- Barrow's goldeneye Bucephala islandica. This sea duck is similar in size (42-50cm in length for wingspans 67-84cm). and appearance to the common goldeneye, its closest relative. The male's white face patch extends further up on the head, and its back and wings have more black. The female's bill is more orange than black. Barrow's goldeneye breeds in patchy sites around Iceland, and it remains all year-long around Mývatn in the Northeast. It also breeds in North America. It is a rare vagrant to the Faroe Islands.
- Steller's eider. Steller's eider is one of the rarest breeding duck in the East Atlantic Arctic, with only 5 to 50 pairs breeding in northern Norway. Otherwise, this high Arctic species breeds on the Siberian and Alaskan coasts. It winters at sea, including northern Norway and a small population in the Baltic sea. It is seen almost yearly in Iceland since the first observation in 1981, and in Svalbard where it may attempt breeding. It is the smallest European eider (43-47cm in length for wingspans 70-76cm).
- The Common eider Somateria mollissima. This large sea duck (50-71cm in length for wingspans 80-100cm) is circumpolar, breeding on coasts in Greenland, around Iceland, in southwestern Norway, southeastern Sweden, Finland, Svalbard, northern Siberia, and northern North America. It winters in subarctic and Arctic seas, including western Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea. A subspecies of the common eider is endemic to the Faroe Islands, and it is present all year-long in the archipelago.
- The King eider Somateria spectabilis. This sea bird is smaller than the common eider (47-63cm in length for wingspans 86-102cm) but with a more striking appearance in breeding plumage. The females are extremely similar, but the king eider female has a darker beak. The king eider is a high Arctic circumpolar species which breeds around Svalbard, Greenland except the South and Northeast, and on the northern coasts of Siberia and North America. It winters in subarctic and Arctic seas including of the coasts of southern Greenland, Iceland, and northern Fennoscandia. It is also sometimes seen in the Faroe Islands wintering among groups of common eiders or harlequin ducks. It is known that common eiders and king eiders are able to produce hybrid offspring, which are seen annually around Iceland.
- The Harlequin duck Histrionicus histrionicus. This small but colorful sea duck (38-45cm in length for wingspans 63-69cm) breeds in southwestern and southeastern Greenland, around Iceland, northeastern Asia, and North America. It winters at sea mostly near breeding sites, including in southwestern Greenland and around Iceland. They are also common vagrants to the Faroe Islands.
- The Velvet scoter Melanitta fusca. This large sea duck (51-56cm in length for wingspans 90-99cm) is easy to confuse with two vagrants to the East Atlantic Arctic: the White-Winged scoter, a North American breeder and a scarce vagrant to Iceland and the Faroes Islands, and Stejneger's scoter, which breeds in eastern Eurasia. Here is a great guide to identify the three species. The velvet scoter breeds in western Eurasia, from Fennoscandia (Norway, northwestern Sweden, and northern Finland) to central Russia. It winters mostly at sea, from northwestern Europe to the southern shore of the Caspian sea including off the coast of Norway and southern Sweden. It is an annual vagrant in Iceland.
- The Common scoter Melanitta nigra. Somewhat similar in appearance to its close cousin the velvet scoter, this sea duck is slightly smaller (44-54cm in length for wingspans 70-90cm) and can easily be recognized in both sexes by the absence of any white markings. The female's head is noticeably lighter on the cheek and down too the neck. It breeds in southeastern Greenland, northeastern Iceland, Norway, western and northern Sweden, northern Finland, and Russia. It winters at sea from northwestern Africa to the Norwegian and southern Finnish coasts. It is seen annually in Svalbard, where it probably attempts to breed.
- The Smew Mergellus albellus. This small sea duck (38-44cm in length for wingspans 56-69cm) breeds from inland northern Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia. It winters from western Europe to Japan, including small population in southern Norwegian and Swedish coasts. It is a rare but annual vagrant to Iceland. The male is unmistakable with its black and white plumage.
- The Long-tailed duck Clangula hyemalis. This medium-sized sea duck (40-47cm in length for wingspans 73-79cm) has a true circumpolar distribution, breeding in western and southeastern Greenland, Iceland, Norway, northern Fennoscandia, throughout northern Siberia, and Arctic North America. It winters at sea in Arctic to temperate circumpolar regions, including southwestern Greenland, western Iceland, and coastal Norway.
- The Common merganser Mergus merganser, also called Goosander. The common merganser is a large sea duck (56-66cm in length for wingspans 82-97cm) with a slender bill. It is circumpolar and prefers subarctic and temperate areas, breeding in North America, Iceland, and Eurasia from Great Britain to eastern Siberia including Fennoscandia (except southern Norway). It winters mostly in temperate areas, at sea or in freshwater. This includes Icelandic shores and lakes and the western Norwegian coast. The common merganser is a rare vagrant to the Faroe Islands.
- The Red-breasted merganser. Like its larger cousin the common merganser, the red-breasted merganser (52-56cm in length for wingspans 70-86cm) has a slender red beak. The plumage is also similar at a glance, especially in females. However, the red-breasted merganser has an overall darker plumage, and its bill and thinner, especially at the base. Males can be further identified by the prominent head crest. This merganser also has a more northerly distribution, and it winters almost exclusively at sea. It breeds on the southern Greenlandic coast, around Iceland, the Faroe Islands, throughout Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia, and in northern North America. It winters in Arctic to temperate shores, including southwestern Greenland, around Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Norwegian coast. It is a scarce spring and summer visitor to Svalbard, where pairs may attempt to breed.
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