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Illustration by Jón Baldur Hliðberg

Hot spring bird

The hot spring bird or hverafugl (vera-foog-ksh) is an unknown species of bird said to inhabit the hundreds of isolated hot springs around southwestern and northeastern Iceland. Their precise anatomy is not often described but is often compared to ducks or snipes with black or dark red plumage.

The first report of a hot spring bird was in Dithmar Blefken’s 1607 book on Iceland, where he describes them as red-coloured “ducks” that could be seen swimming in the hot springs but would dive into the boiling water if you attempted to get closer. In a mid 17th century poem by Rev. Þorsteinn Björnsson, hot spring birds could be seen gliding at night in the Ölfus municipality in southwestern Iceland and were described as being the same size as a crow.

According to a book in 1703, multiple witnesses described seeing a group of small duck-like birds with black plumage and a white ring around the eyes swimming and diving in the Reykjadalur hot spring in a remote inland pass northwest of Selfoss. In 1772, Eggert Ólafsson wrote about several sightings at the Grafarhver hot springs, with the witnesses claiming they were small dark-coloured birds with small wings. In 1792 a clergyman named Snorri Björnsson wrote that hot spring birds were common, but very elusive and shy, and have been killed in several different locations. He claimed they were edible, but difficult to cook and their meat had a “coldish” taste.

In 1857, a woman who worked at a farm claimed to have seen a few birds swimming around the surface of a hot spring near the Ölkelduhál’s ridge.

In the spring of 1887 about 8 a.m., Gísli Magnússon, the district counsellor of the village of Krókur was gathering his sheep for shearing at the end of the Reykjadalur Valley when he saw two very strange birds only about 60 ft from him swimming on the surface of a hot spring. He described them as being the size of a small duck, with a very dark peat-brown colour, with lighter plumage on its breast and chin with a sharp and narrow beak. He walked closer, but they both dove into the spot where the water was boiling the most in an attempt to escape. Since he had to singlehandedly corral 12 sheep, he didn’t have enough time to wait until they resurfaced. Interestingly, another farmer claimed to have seen the exact same thing at the same hot spring.

In the 1890s and 1900s, naturalist Þorvaldur Thoroddsen claimed to have interviewed several witnesses who claimed to have encountered hot spring birds. In 1911, a 10-year-old boy claimed to have encountered hot spring birds with his friend near Hengill in northeastern Iceland. He also claimed to have seen them several other times, with his last encounter in 1935. He described them as being dark-coloured plover-like birds with short tails, a fat body and very smooth, insulating feathers, presumably in order to protect themselves from the hot water.

There have been only a handful of sightings of hot spring birds after the ’30s, but there are occasional sightings going all the way into the 21st century, most recently in Mývatn.

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