Summer Bird Photography in the Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands, a small self-governing (while still part of the Denmark Kingdom) archipelago of eighteen islands located between Iceland and Norway, north of Scotland in the North Atlantic. These enchanting isles started growing in popularity for landscape photography several years before Covid shut down international travel as photographers discovered the epic cliffs and constantly changing weather. However, millions upon millions of seabirds have known of the rocky, sheer cliffs that outline the Faroes for thousands of years.
For me, my introduction to the Faroes happened through a small group of friends back in 2018. Visiting in September with focus on landscape photography, I was taken with the vistas, the weather, and the culture of this incredible location and the company was pretty good too. So much so I returned again the following month for another week with my friend James Kelly, a wonderful photographer and human who has family ties to the islands and knows the Faroes in and out. During these visits, I was also struck by how little wildlife there was on the islands, with the exception of some various gulls and the national bird of the Faroes, the Eurasian oystercatcher. That all changes during the summer months though.
Note: You can read about my 2018 landscape photography trips here.
As James and I discussed and planned my return trip to the Faroe Islands to scout for a bird photography tour in the summer of 2020, the world shuttered its preverbal doors. In places like the Faroes, where populations are remote and the healthcare system is smaller, it took a bit for travel restrictions to loosen and with good reason. So, I finally touched down once again in the Land of Maybe late June 2023, almost three years after the projected return. Better late than never though!
The delay allowed me to bring with me several really good friends who helped make the trip super memorable as well. All are excellent photographers and people I highly respect so I was ecstatic when they took me up on the offer to join me on this adventure. Our group consisted of Linda Nickell, Lee Hoy, Andrew Peschong, James Kelly, and myself. So now when I say we, you will have an idea of who I'm referring too in this article. Want more photo inspiration? Make sure to check out their websites too.
Traveling from the States, we met up in Iceland as, at least in the summer of 2023, there are only three regularly flown routes to get to the Faroes. One is from Iceland, one from Edinburgh, and one from Copenhagen. On prior trips I have done both from Iceland and from Scotland and enjoy both of those routes. My choice is often based on what is cheapest and which location I want to spend some extra time in either before or after the Faroes (because why not extend?). This summer Iceland was by far the cheaper option and makes for a good stopover, even if it is just for a day to visit Reykjavik. From Iceland, we met up with James upon landing at Vágar International Airport (IATA: FAE) in the Faroes.
Now, there are a couple of reasons why my scouting trips are either done solo, with other instructors, or with only a very select group of chosen photographers. It is because scouting trips are just that, they are unrefined ideas for future tours. These trips are where I have done many hours of research into locations, accommodations, wildlife species, landscape topography, and in this case many email, messenger, and Zoom calls with James. Even with all that, there is a need to be flexible, be willing to move on even when, from a photographic standpoint, it would make more sense to continue going back to the same spot. Essentially, I ensure I have tried as many options as possible for potential locations so that when clients are with me in the field, we get the absolute best locations for the weather we are given and the species/behavior we are looking to photograph.
Additionally, at least prior to this trip, the closest to wildlife photography James had really done was working with clients for equine photography. His background has been primarily as a premier Scottish wedding photographer and Faroes landscape photographer. Wild birds are an entirely different game all together. So, while he knew the land, he had not considered it from the standpoint for best bird vantage points. That added an additional layer to the scouting as we combined what I knew of the birds and their favored habitats and what he knew of the land. It was a challenging adventure that paid off with big dividends that our future clients will heartily enjoy!
One aspect of travel in the Faroes that we must work around is the ferry schedule. To access man of the outlying islands, ferry is the only way, especially if taking a vehicle. Out of the eight days we were in the Faroes, we ended up on at least one ferry on five of those days. Some are short, being only 30ish minutes but others, like the ferry to the southernmost island of Suðuroy, are several hours long.
Logistics tip: If you are prone to seasickness, bring medications and/or wrist bands. The ferries depart under most weather conditions as the Faroes people are a very hardy people. The last thing you want to do is have a bad morning crossing that wipes you out for the rest of the day because you didn't have the appropriate precautions with you.
From both bird and landscape photography opportunity, the ferries actually provide some wonderful viewing time if the weather is good. The ferry between the capital of Tórshavn and Suðuroy is one of my favorites for photographing some of the islands. It passes Sandoy, Skúvoy, Stóra Dímun, and Litla Dimun. As the ferry cruises along, these islands overlap and give each other space as the perspective changes. With the long hours of light during the summer at these northern latitudes, the sun starts to set at 10pm. Combine this with these islands frequently can create their own weather, makes photographing from the ferry a great position for clear views of moody scenes.
Here, I was able to capture not only the setting sun, but, if you look closely, those dots below are loose clouds of seabirds that are coming and going from the cliffs. There is a mix of gulls, fulmars, arctic terns, kittiwakes, murres, guillemots, and Atlantic puffins!
While each island has its own unique identifiers and some cultural differences, when it comes to birdlife, some species are found throughout the archipelago while others are only found on one or two islands. Even on islands where certain species are common, they are not always in easily accessible areas either. With very rare exception, all land in the Faroes is private land. With the boom in tourism and the increase in foreigners disrespecting the land (and needing rescue in some cases), the Faroese have cracked down on freedom to roam and most of the popular hikes and photography locations now require visitors to hire a local guide, with fees being split between the guide and the landowners in many cases (if the guide isn't the landowner). As tourism historically has not been a pillar of the Faroes economy, as it has been in many places like Iceland or Costa Rica, they have both the ability and will to limit or close to tourism as they see fit. Each year since the spring of 2019 (minus 2020), the Faroes have closed to tourists for up to a week, during which they allow 100 foreigners to participate in volunteer projects that help maintain various tourist sites and hiking trails.
But back to the birds. Species like northern fulmars, Eurasian oystercatchers, common eiders, and arctic terns are seen throughout the islands. Other species like great skuas, parasitic jaegers, European golden plovers, black legged kittiwakes, whimbrels, and Atlantic puffins are numerous but concentrated in specific spots.
Then there were special surprises like the family of whooper swans we found. This species had been expatriated since the 17th-18th century. In the late 20th century a handful of swans were banded and cared for on one of the northern islands before they migrated the following year. Today, the species is considered only a migratory visitor, yet, we had an amazing encounter with a really sweet little family. The two parents were very watchful of their four cygnets. Of the four, we were able to watch as one of the braver cygnets joined its father outside the reeds.
Northern, or arctic, fulmars are probably one of the most common seabirds seen around the islands. They seem to have no issues defying the high winds and tempting fate by nesting on tiny ledges. We were able to photograph them at almost every coastal cliff-side location we stopped, with some being better than others for positioning due to winds and how close or far from the edge we were comfortable standing.
Safety note: The Faroes are beautiful and raw with nature. This means that there are no fences or railings or, in many cases, even trails, more than a sheep's path, to keep adventurers "safe"; James and I are well aware of the dangers that the Faroes display and will be providing a safety briefing for anyone who travels with us. We do not push people beyond their comfort level and have found locations that are both picturesque and as safe as possible in this rugged landscape. If you decide to go on your own, be aware that cliff edges can have cornices like thick blankets of snow. Learn to read the land and understand a bit about geology and meteorology. This will help you stay safe while exploring.
Beyond their nesting choices, fulmars are really very interesting birds. Looking similar to gulls, fulmars are part of the tube-nose family that includes petrels, shearwaters, and albatrosses. This ridged elongation of the nasal passages can be seen as a defined bump on top of the bill, where the bill and face meet. This evolutionary design helps these birds locate prey miles away by funneling in the micro-scents of biological chemicals like fish oil floating off the surface of a bait ball. This, in turn, allows tube-nosed birds to spend the majority of their lives out on the open ocean, returning to land only briefly when ready to nest. With fulmars, this usually starts between ages six to twelve years of age.
Monogamous, fulmars return to the same nesting sites with the same partner year after year.
Should you join me on a tour, you could be photographing the same birds I have photographed.
Especially considering fulmars can live as long as forty years.
Arctic terns were another commonly seen and photographed bird throughout our trip. This is a species I have now run into in a handful of locations around the world considering they are well known to hold one of the longest migrations of any species. Some birds that nest in Iceland and Greenland have been recorded to travel an average of 44,100 miles annually between their northern nesting and their southern non-breeding grounds. That's more miles than I do in a year!
The grace and speed of these birds cannot be fully captured in images in my opinion. Doesn't keep me from trying though! They glide along their flight path smoothly and then suddenly bank. Their high pitch peeping cries fill the air whenever they are near. It is an entirely sensory experience to photograph this species, especially when standing at the edge of a colony, so many birds coming and going, that it can be hard to know where to point your lens.
As we moved through the Faroes and from one cliff top to another, there were many other birds that make their nests a bit further inland. The glacially carved, undulating "flats" summits that make up the lands between the coastal cliffs are the summer home to species like red-shanks, whimbrels, European golden plovers, jaegers, and meadow pipits.
Photographing these species takes a lot of patience, a bit of luck, and a willingness to get low to the ground in order to get as close as needed to photograph them.
In the few wooded areas throughout the Faroes, all introduced tree species as there are no trees native to the Faroes, you will find species like common blackbirds and wrens.
But for me, the bird that is seen commonly enough across all islands and is frequently spotted from the road is the Eurasian oystercatcher. Like the American oystercatcher, this species has the black top and white belly coloration. It has a bit more red in the red-orange bill, but the biggest difference is in the eyes. They have rich red eyes instead of yellow like we see with the American and Black oystercatchers of North America.
The Faroese National bird, the oystercatcher and its haunting piping that echoes throughout the coastal bays and inland dales, is frequently found defending territories during the spring and summer months. Another species that mates for life (usually), the chicks are hard to photograph due to the parental guidance that leads them to hide in tall grass and within rocky outcrops. Their "personal bubble" is larger than most birds, except many eiders.
With good reason the oystercatchers teach their chicks to hide at the slightest disturbance for their largest predators here in the Faroes come from above. Great Skuas and Parasitic Jaeger raise their chicks on the islands as well. Predatory birds, other birds' chicks make for easy prey if left unattended or out in the open by their parents. Skuas and jaegers also harass adult seabirds, such as gulls and kittiwakes, to force them to give up their catches which are ultimately meant for the victim bird's chicks.
Frequently you can hear other birds, such as plovers and oystercatchers, sound alarm calls when there are skuas and jaegers soaring above a valley. Kittiwake, puffin, and fulmar colonies will increase their usual chaotic burbles to indicate a danger inbound.
Then there are the puffins. Atlantic puffins, to be exact, average 500,000 nesting pairs (so 1 million individuals plus) across the Faroe Islands each summer. They are the most numerous species on the archipelago, second only to fulmars. The dramatic coastlines in which they excavate their burrows for nesting only add to the grandeur of photographing this species in the Faroes. Outside the landscapes, puffins are the number one species for ecotourism in the Faroes as well.
With good reason too. If you know where to go, you can get within feet of these dapper little flying footballs with their colorful summertime bills. The dramatic coastlines in which they excavate their burrows for nesting only adds to the grandeur of photographing this species in the Faroes.
While most locations are further away from human settlements and the best (and safest) photography positions have some cliff-line but mostly ocean behind the birds, there is one island where both the cultural architecture and the iconic puffins can come together to create images that can't be found elsewhere. The most westward island of Mykines (pronounced MEE-chin-ness) is the most visited island between May and August due to the presence of the largest puffin colony in the Faroes. That said, due to the popularity and impacts that large numbers of visitors have on these rural communities and sensitive environments, the island now limits the number of daily visitors to just 200 people. For an island with a population of 14, that is still a huge number of strangers each day.
Mykines is, and several of the other locations we visit if you travel with us, designated as a RAMSAR site. RAMSAR is an intergovernmental treaty on protecting wetlands of global importance, including bird cliffs. Ramsar sites are to be managed sustainably, the natural environment preserved, the area utilized sensibly, and measures should be taken to protect the environment. Essentially these are very similar to what we have here in the U.S. as National Wildlife Refuges except these are internationally recognized and for the protection of wetlands and sea cliffs that provide important habitats for biodiversity. On Mykines alone, 15 different
species of birds, about 250,000 pairs, have been recorded annually.
Logistics tip: Be prepared to hoof it on Mykines. There are no cars on the island at all. Upon arriving, there is a set of about 100 steep steps that must be climbed for continuing on a path up to the main village. The puffin cliffs are another 500 meters or so uphill. Bring gear you are comfortable packing up and down hill and a trekking pole or two can really help, especially for anyone with lower joint issues. Speed is not needed however, so you can take your time as needed.
The island is also home to the only colony of Northern Gannets in the Faroes. Unfortunately, when we visited (June 2023), the 2022/2023 winter weather had been extremely harsh and caused numerous landslides and wide swaths of cliff erosion leading to unstable cornices. The trail that once led out to Mykines' lighthouse and northern tip where the gannet colony rests has been cut off due to one of these large landslides. We hope that in the coming years this trail is fixed. Until then, we still are able to see gannets from the ferry during the ride to and from the island as well as occasionally from the trails that are still open towards the northern end of the island.
While this is by no means a full account of all the birds we saw, it does give you an idea of the main species we target while exploring this amazing collection of stones set amongst the North Atlantic. To me this is the ultimate summer trip for any nature photographer who wants to explore outside their own country. There may not be the mega-fauna like bears or tigers, but there is still plenty of adventure, a wide array of photography subjects, and the challenge of the ever-changing weather. Oh, and James makes sure we never go hungry.
Is your interest peaked? Do you want to experience a Faroese summer and all the birdlife the season brings to their shores? Join James and me next July for the ultimate Faroese birding photography tour during which we will visit many of the eighteen islands, including Mykines, as we put you in just the right spots for amazing bird, and even some landscape, photography while you learn about the culture and people from a local-in-law. To find out more details and register, visit Wildside Nature Tours' Wild Faroe Islands.