Until fairly recently I had never even heard of the hverafuglar, Iceland’s very own mystery hot spring-dwelling bird.
Unsurprisingly for an island renowned for its geothermal activity Iceland has a large number of hot water springs and pools, in 1910 they numbered some 700 in total. The water in these pools goes from bath water warm to hot enough to boil you alive, dangerously there is little in the way to forewarn you of the exact temperatures of the steaming pools, so it’s best not to jump in to the first one you see. So it would seem on face value that these thermal pools would not be the first place that you would expect to find a mystery bird, with the possible exception of perhaps a parboiled fowl floating on the surface. But it is these same hostile waters that you have to look for sightings of the hverafuglar over the years
The first written reports of these birds are to be found in Dithmars Blefkan’s Islandia, sive populorum & mirabilium quae in ea Insula repriuntur accuratior descriptio published in Leiden, Holland in 1607. Dithmars tells of the red-coloured ducks that he saw first hand on a visit to Iceland in 1563, he watched these ducks from afar swimming around in the pools of boiling water, if they were approached they would dive below the bubbling water not resurfacing until the coast was clear.
By the 18th century the description of the birds had changed a little they were now described as being similar to small ducks, jet black in colour with white circles around their eyes. While their colour may have changed their habit of swimming around the waters of thermal pools had not and they would still dive below the boiling waters for safety rather than fly away. Their peculiar abilities and behaviour led to the belief in some more rural parts that the birds were in fact the souls of the dammed who had been cast down to swim in those boiling waters by way of punishment.
Dammed souls or not sightings of these remarkable birds would continue well into the 20th century. In 1912 two boys at Hengill in the north east of Iceland spotted some hverafuglar describing the birds as about the size of a small duck, a dark peaty brown in colour, except for their neck and breast which were lighter in shade, the two boys noted that when the birds flew they beat their wings rapidly, lest you think that these birds were not true hverafuglar the boys also watched them swimming in the boiling hot waters of the spring, something that the boys knew better than to try themselves.
The most recent recorded sightings that I have been able to find have come from the hot springs at Reykir, Ölfus when a hverafuglar was witnessed as recently as 1940.
If anyone else has heard of recent reports of these wondrous birds I would be delighted to know the details.