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The Faroe Islands:

This is one of those mysteriously remote sorts of places, like the Aleutians or the Falklands, that most would be hard-pressed to find on a map, let alone aspire to visit.

The Faroe Islands are a small archipelago in the North Atlantic - north of Scotland, east of Iceland, west of Norway. The Gulf Stream flows around them, making the climate warmer and more constant than one might imagine from their location on the map.

Like Iceland, the Faroe Islands were uninhabited until Norse settlers took up residence roughly 1200 years ago. Irish monks sojourned there in the late 600s, and likely before that St. Brandan's 7-year voyage of exploration in the 6th century visited these islands. The monks left sheep behind, which led the Nordic settlers to name the place Føyoyar (Islands of Sheep.) Brandon described some islands which he called Paradise of Birds, likely as not the Faroes.

Those settlers had a tough job of survival. Subsistence is traditionally based on fishing and sheep herding. The main agricultural crop is potatoes, which are eaten widely. They also eat a lot of birds and eggs, gathered/hunted from the wild. In fact, you can get a guide to the breeding birds of the Faroes at the airport (c. $16) covering 54 common species. Unique to any bird guide I've ever seen, it outlines hunting season and practices for the many species which are taken.

Birds mentioned in the Hunting Act comprise two groups, the first of which are birds the Faroese consume, while the second are birds which prey on the first group. For instance, the hunting season for Puffin, which is consumed by the Faroese, is relatively long, while the Arctic Skua may be hunted all year because it robs food from the Puffin.
The Faroes, at present, are a protectorate of Denmark, but they still think of themselves as a separate people. They have their own language and currency, and opted out of the EU when Denmark joined in order to protect a 200-mile fishing zone around the islands. The national bird in the Oystercatcher.

This monument (below) is located by the harbor in Torshavn, the Faroes capital.  The Oystercatcher, representing the Faroes, is driving off Danish oppression, largely related to trade issues not unlike those imposed by the British and objected to by their American colonists. The Faroese patriot leader commemorated by the statue, Nólsoyar Páll, is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide's history, so all I know about it is what a local told me.

Everybody knows the different species, except only in their own language.  And birds turn up pretty much everywhere. Puffin is found on restaurant menus. And I happened to notice these in a graveyard.

Some of their common birds are familiar enough: Rock Doves & Collared Doves, and House Sparrows. Except I have to adjust my thinking about them because they are native, not invasive alien exotics.

But someone ran us out of the cemetery. And no wonder: A funeral procession came over the top of the hill just a few minutes later.

We took a boat excursion to visit the Vestmanna Bird Cliffs, and the easternmost island of the Faroes, Mykines, thought to be St. Brendan's Paradise of Birds. It was remarkable, if only because Hobbs & I both climbed up a long ways from the boat dock. (Thanks to ObamaCare for the hip replacements!)

The village in the background (below) on Mykines has no cars, no roads. Access is only by boat and by helicopter. The dock and associated infrastructure was built by the British during WWII. They also built the jet port on another island, part of the Cold War in the 1950s.

That blue place in the village has excellent fish soup. We climbed up higher and along a ridge where the village's Lost at Sea memorial can be found. Being at the top of the cliffs, there were amazing views of the birds nesting around the area.

(Black-legged) Kittiwakes

Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull (yellow legs)

Great Black-backed Gull (pink legs)

(Northern) Fulmar

With a relatively small number of species, and good views of most of them, it's a good opportunity to practice field ID skills. The Faroe Islands are a cool place to hang out, and wouldn't be a half-bad place to introduce someone to birding. (Though I think Iceland would be even better, and for similar reasons.)

(Common) Eider

Common (Black) Scoter

We must have hopped out of the car near this Artic Tern's nest, because it was pissed.  And aggressive, dive bombing right at us.

Of course there were numerous species seen which I didn't get good pictures of.  Especially from the moving boat transport: Black Guillemot, Razorbill, Common Guillemot (Common Murre), Shag, (Northern) Gannet, Arctic Skua. Except for the ubiuitous Oystercatcher we missed seeing shorebirds entirely.

Sheep are found in some remarkable places. Owners rappel down cliffs to gather them in for the winter.

It doesn't get very warm, and the there's precipitation 280 days a year, too. They've got their own traditional woolen wear, seen widely. This picture was taken July 3, while much of the US was experiencing record heat.

There are a few land birds around, as well as the many seabirds. This one's a Rock Pipit.

But then, driving through heavy fog on a mountain ridge not far from a cliff, there was a small dark bird with a light rump flew across the road like a ghost. Could it really be a (European) Storm Petrel? Flying across the highway? Not likely, but I couldn't rule it out.

I think I saw a Raven in the fog, and two-tone Carrion Crows were abundant. They've recovered from a harsh history:

In the interest of protecting domestic sheep from nuisance birds such as eagles, crows and ravens, from the 17th to 19th centuries all males residents of rural districts were annually required to pay a “beak tax”. The minimum was one raven’s beak or two crow’s beaks per man. The beak of a sea eagle allowed life exemption from the tax, which explains probably explains why sea eagles no longer inhabit the Faroes. Fortunately, this tax didn’t bring about the complete extinction of all the species; there are still a few left in Norway, Iceland and Greenland.

The beaks were turned over to district sheriffs, who in turn submitted them to the Løgting. The flat rock, Krakusteinur (“crow rock”), lies on the eastern shore of Tinganes near Skansapakkhusio. One of the Løgting’s annual orders of business was to assemble at this stone and burn all the beaks that had been collected that year.

Update:  Dang! I forgot to include examples of paintings that had bird motifs:


When's the last time you saw an artwork that included Murres?  And another painting by the same artist had Razorbills in it.

7:53 AM PT: I accidentally left out some examples of bird art from Faroese painters.

Originally posted to Birds and Birdwatching on Sun Jul 08, 2012 at 06:05 AM PDT.

Also republished by J Town, Headwaters, and DKOMA.

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