In summer, plentiful food and nesting space make Mývatn the best place in northern Europe to see wild ducks – it’s possible to clock up eighteen species during your stay. Their favourite nesting area is in spongy heathland on the northwest side of the lake, though more accessible places to spy on them include Mývatn’s southeastern corner (especially good for Barrow’s goldeneye); the Laxá outflow on the western side of the lake (for harlequin ducks); and even the shore at Reykjahlíð (anything). Female ducks tend to be drably coloured, to blend in with vegetation while incubating their eggs, and unless otherwise stated, the following descriptions are of breeding drakes.
Several types of duck at Mývatn have a black head with a black and white body. The most celebrated is Barrow’s goldeneye, resident year-round and easily identified by a characteristic white comma-shaped patch between the manic golden eye and bill. Keep an eye open too for their black-and-white striped chicks. Barrow’s goldeneye are most likely to be confused with either the similar-looking tufted duck or scaup, though neither shares its “comma” – tufted ducks also have a droopy back-swept crest, while the scaup has a grey, not white, back.
Mývatn’s other speciality is the harlequin duck, here from May until July, which sports unmistakable chestnut, white and blue plumage. As indicated by the Icelandic name – straumönd, stream duck – harlequins are most often seen bobbing in and out of rough water on the Laxá. Other marine ducks spending their summers at Mývatn include the scoter, a uniquely all-black diving duck, which in Iceland breeds only at Mývatn, and the long-tailed or old squaw, another strikingly patterned bird with a summer plumage including a black neck and crown and very long, pointed tail (the similar pintail has a white throat, though so does the long-tail in winter).
Otherwise, you’ll be fairly familiar with most of Mývatn’s ducks, which are primarily freshwater species. Some of the more plentiful include the mallard; the red-headed pochard; the long-beaked merganser and goosander, and the wide-beaked shoveler; wigeon, with their coppery heads and vertical blond streak between the eyes; the uniformly nondescript gadwall; and teals, which sport a glossy red head and green eyepatch.