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Arctic Terns Nest and Attack in Iceland

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ARNARSTAPI, Iceland- Migrating from the Arctic to Antarctica and back each year, the Arctic tern is truly the traveler’s bird. Traveling 70,900 km — 44,300 mile — annual circuits, no other known animal on the planet has a regular migration route that comes even close to being as long. In a typical year, Arctic terns nest in the far northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia in summer, go all the way south to Antarctica, and then travel all the way back north again. Traveling across the northern and southern hemispheres from summer season to summer season each year, the Arctic tern experiences more daylight than any other animal on the planet. They mate and nest in the mid-night sun of the north and then go south when the seasons change for the same luxury. These birds have a life expectancy between twenty and thirty years, and they can travel over 2.4 million km (1.5 million mi) in this time.

The total range of the Arctic tern covers the polar regions of the globe, and is over ten million square kilometers.

Arctic tern

Looking at these birds as they brooded, ate, and shat all over Arnarstapi, I had to admit that they did not look like much. They were streamlined and had true command of the sky, but they were dinky, chirpy, and seemed rather erratic. They did not look like anything that should be traveling from the Arctic to Antarctica. They looked like little twirps that would be blown away if caught up in a strong gust of wind.

Arctic Tern Migration Route

But this is precisely what enables them to travel so far and so quickly. Along their routes of migration, Arctic terns are seldom seen within sight of land, they just stay in the sky and at sea, gliding with the wind currents for thousands and thousands of miles. To put it basely, these birds truly fly.

A colony of Arctic terns in Iceland

Although the migration routes for these birds are long, they travel them relatively quickly. Tags on a few of these birds reveal that they can travel from the Farne Islands in the UK to Melbourne, Australia within three months and from Labrador, Canada to South Africa in only four.

Research using tracking devices attached to the birds was published in January 2010 and showed that the above examples are in fact not unusual for the species; eleven Arctic Terns that bred in Greenland or Iceland each covered 70,900 km on average in a year, with a maximum of 81,600 km. The difference from previous estimates was because the birds were found to take a meandering course to take advantage of prevailing winds. –Arctic tern

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Generally, these birds mate for life and return to the same mating grounds each year. It is only when they are nesting that they come into contact with land based humans. This was how I observed Arctic terns throughout my travels in coastal Iceland, though I cannot say that the experience of meeting these birds was overtly enjoyable.

Arctic terns are not friendly creatures, in fact, they are very aggressive, and show no fear of humans. They will attack you.

Arctic tern bird in Iceland

I was attacked by these birds many times throughout my travels on bicycle and on foot. At first it was novel, I was able to interact closely with a species of bird I’ve always wanted to see, but after the 30th odd time of being squawked at, dived bombed, shat upon, and pecked by a gang of Arctic terns, the appeal very thoroughly wore off. Like packs of street dogs, these terns are often difficult to a avoid: if you want to go from point A to point B you need to go through their territory.

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“If you don’t want them to peck your head, you can put your arm up in the air, because they will attack the highest point on you,” I was told. This strategy works, although I still do not want birds dive bombing my hands. Rather, I chose, more often than not, to exit Arctic tern territory as quickly as possible, or risk doing battle. It is my impression that all parties involved prefer the former option.

A colony of Arctic terns

A minor man vs. nature conflict is created as these terns seem to prefer nesting in the flat shrub lands of Iceland, which is precisely the same places that humans like to settle and roads are constructed. To travel in the Iceland countryside in summer is to do battle with the Arctic tern, there is no way around it. In fact, Arctic terns are called “kia” in Icelandic, because of the sound they make when on the attack.

“What, do you think they travel all that way by being nice?”

Videos of Arctic Terns


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Filed under: Animals, Europe, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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