Attack of the Arctic Terns

Recall on day 4 in Iceland, I had mentioned swallow-like birds that started attacking us? They are known as Arctic Terns. The acute wedged tail, the sharp hooked wings, the red legs and beak, and the black head makes this bird exceptionally pretty. At the same time however, they are very aggressive to humans coming near their nests. Anyone who has been to Iceland during summer knows that if you are at a grassland near the coast you will be attacked by these rather small birds. The attack consists of dive-flights to your head. At the very last moment they will back off rarely ever hitting you, but our kayak guide Danny mentioned that he had actually been pecked by one and he did bleed. We’ve witnessed the terns also attacking horses and sheep. The worst thing you can do is to react: it will make them even more nervous and they might drop faeces on you. Apparently the best thing to do is to take a stick or so and point it straight above your head. It redirects their focus of attack. We’ve also seen fly fishermen simply waving their hats above their head.

These birds will also attack your car. We figured out that they only attack if you are moving. When we stopped the car, they all calmed down. We also became aware of when they are in attack mode versus when they dive-bomb to catch food. In attack mode, they make a lot of fast clicking noises and it sounds aggressive so you will know they are after you. In the car, they swoop down close to the car and windows. They are completely fearless.

There are signs on the side of the road to warn of tern attacks in the area. According to my guide book, the terns lay a pair of eggs on open, gravel-strewn fields, typically inside a crude little indent of pebbles. Once they hatch, the babies are just teeny weeny balls of fluff with black speckles and these 2-inch tall birds tend to wander clumsily while their parents are out collecting fish to feed them with. It’s no surprise that birdwatchers can easily crush the eggs and babies and not even know it. In response, the tern collective is a highly defensive bunch, with appointed lookouts that fly high and sound a piercing alarm call for incoming predators. The closer you get to a young one, the crazier the group gets. The terns will also keep an eye out for the young eider ducklings and puffin chicks. Icelanders don’t view the kría (the local name that matches the sound of the bird’s banshee criesa) as violent.

We had a number of further encounters with the Arctic tern while we were in the car. There was a tern chick on the road.

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