I learned a few things about birdwatching on the Faroe Islands. First, it’s actually pretty cool. Second, you don’t need an enormous lens to get some nice photos. I also discovered I can actually go on a boat without instantly getting seasick.
But what was really awesome about this leg of our Faroes trip was the dizzying sea cliffs at Vestmanna – the Vestmannabjørgini. (No, I have no idea how to pronounce that). Hundreds of meters of black volcanic sea cliffs, speckled green with outlandish tufts of bright turf, itself munched on by even more outlandishly surefooted sheep. Though we were late in the season, still scores of seabirds swooped and swirled around the cliffs, our boat, and us. Add a salty fresh sea breeze off the North Atlantic and one of the very few appearances of the sun, and the island of Streymoy gave us a few of our most memorable Faroes days.
Streymoy is fairly described as the main island of the Faroes. The capital Tórshavn sits at the southeastern tail, but the northwestern corner is very sparsely populated. It hits the North Atlantic suddenly – if you were walking without paying attention you could very easily fall straight off a cliff and plummet 500 meters to the sea below (and your inevitable death).
Like all mid-sized Faroes settlements, Vestmanna is actually tiny by anyone else’s standards. Typically, too, there doesn’t seem to be much to do. It does serve as a local center for salmon farming, though, and as we cruised out the fjord the captain told us about the million dollar value of the salmon swimming in several large circular enclosures nearby. Heading further into the larger sound, we learned of the village on the far shore which now served as a collection of summer holiday homes, having been abandoned many decades before. This struck me as extremely bizarre, given the appalling weather all over the Faroes, all year round. What, I wondered, was the point of a “summer home”? Especially one you had to hike or sail to. Faroese – they’re made of sterner stuff.
The Mighty Vestmannabjørgini
The man who ran the boat company was typically gruff. One word answers to my emails, no follow up at all. It was actually a bit tricky to organize, and then to know where to go and when to get there. We managed, though, and boarded the launch at Vestmanna harbour in the morning. This was actually a pretty cool boat with some sophisticated looking controls inside the cockpit. Out into the bay we went, then around to the actual cliffs, right there in the North Sea. To our left there was nothing until the Arctic ice cap; to our right, increasingly high and increasingly intimidating cliffs. And we got closer, and closer, and closer to them. So close, in fact, that the crew issued hard hats to protect anyone from bumping their head up against the cliffs. Eventually, we actually sailed into and through a cavern – sadly the footage was lost in the great and ill-fated upgrade to the El Capitan OS.
Birds of the Faroes
These were some of the birds we saw, here and at similar cliffs around the islands.
Far to the north of Vestmanna lies Tjørnuvík, arguably the Faroes’ most northerly settlement (Viðareiði also claims the title, though I think by actual buildings rather than town borders, Tjørnuvík wins). We visited this town on our last full day in the Faroes, later than the other places in this post. Tjørnuvík is small, like most places on the Faroes, consisting of just a few houses built right in front of the volcanic black sand beach.
We met a man here who served us waffles and coffee in what we took to be the village square. Once a sailor and never a hipster, he served us waffles and coffee in front of his turf-roofed house. “I was born here. I lived long time in Tórshavn. Eighteen years. My woman died. I came back. Now I have no woman”. (Like Icelandic, Faroese uses the same word for “wife” and “woman”, a poignant, visceral mistranslation. Those are some long, lonely, dark winters).
It was windy! From the freezing black sand beach we could see over to the cliffs north of Eiði, known as Risin og Kellingin after the witch and giant they are supposed to be. Legend has it the two waded all the way from Iceland and tried to tow the island back with them. The island split, but they were unable to move it. Their hauling and heaving continued into the night, and so focused were they on succeeding that they didn’t notice the sun rising. And we all know what happens when the sun rises in these stories. Boom! They were turned to stone, and there they remained ever since. It’s predicted that Kellingin, the witch, might crumble within a few decades. Now, she’s the backdrop to locals’ laundry.
The Best Cafe in Fuglafjørður
Fuglafjørður is one of the island’s larger settlements, and like so many, it’s based on fishing. As only wikipedia could state, “In the 1970s there was a terrible stink from the fishing-industry but that has since been solved”. We didn’t notice any stink, nor really very many people. What we did find was a wonderful cafe with free refills of coffee and some quite yummy food. This was a perfect place to lay low for a few hours, and catch up with our friends D and O, who, after all, had come all the way from Norway to see us. They were on their own epic world voyage, still on the road at the time of writing. Over coffee and cake we shared the highlights of recent years and the best of our dreams for the future. And then it was time to head home.
Our last stop really crystalised the Faroes experience. A tiny ribbon of asphalt wound over a green boggy plateau, leading to a postcard village of dark walls and turf roofs set above a slate grey lake. This was once a small harbour, long since silted up. Of course, it was raining, and foggy, and cold. Saksun has about 30 inhabitants and supposedly quite a few sheep (on our visit they were apparently, and wisely, sheltering from the rain).
We left for Tórshavn late in the afternoon, driving into a howling wind and fierce rain. Not for the first time, not for the last, I wondered how anyone could really live on these islands. But they did.
All the bird photos (and most others) in this article were taken on a Sony 9 dSLR, which has a full frame sensor. The lens was a Tamron 28-70 f2.8. Most of the bird shots are cropped from the original image files.