Adventure Islands Faroe Islands Nature & Wildlife

The seagull has landed: bird watching in The Faroes

Mykines, Faroe Islands
Written by Kirstie Pelling

The seagull has landed: bird watching in The Faroes

Are you a bird spotter? Ever considered bird watching? I wasn’t and hadn’t until I stopped off at The Faroes. I thought birds were just playthings for cats until I visited Mykines; home to several huge colonies of… well birds. Well you don’t expect me to know what they’re called do you?

The only wren I knew was a teacher..

One of Hannah’s primary school teacher is called Mrs Wren and she’s probably the only wren I have ever been able to identify. Apart from her husband, Mr Wren, but as he is also one of Hannah’s primary school teachers, I’m not sure I can claim much credit for either. You see, birds never really did it for me. I was always more of a big cat kind of girl. And then I visited The Faroe Islands, slap bang in the middle of the North Atlantic. Reader; it was Damascene! One minute I was eating a chicken sandwich, and the next I was wondering if I could smuggle a puffin into a four berth cabin on the Smyril Line.

Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffins. Photo courtesy: rainbirder

The beaky one

When you first see a puffin in flight, you think it’s carrying an enormous orange worm in its beak. And then, as it parks itself outside its burrow, you realise that the mass of orange is in fact the beak itself. They’re even cuter than they look in the postcards, these little fellas, as they busy about getting food for their pufflings. Yes, that’s right little puffins; pufflings! How cute is that? Of course by mid August most of the little ones have flown the nests for the winter and soon the remaining adults will disappear too. Which makes it even more of a privilege to hang out with them for a while.

Atlantic Puffin landing

Puffin landing. Photo courtesy: rainbirder

The chilled out one

But talk about hanging out. As we drop down steep cliff sides holding onto guide ropes, sea birds cruise on the breeze next to us, bobbing about like a Fred Olsen liner. I can’t be specific about what these sea birds are called. As I say, I spent most of my adult years ignoring the bird part of the animal kingdom entirely. But they are gulls of some kind. As they hover on the wind a few inches from my face, they don’t even look real. For a moment I wonder if I’ve stumbled into a Harry Potter filmand met Hedgewig’s distant cousins. But as we gaze into each others eyes, I feel we start to bond. They have a very endearing way of landing. They kind of reverse park onto the cliff with their bottoms, before suddenly dropping their legs down, like an after-thought. I resolve to try that on the sofa when I get home, then I too could look both cute and comical.

Birds on the cliffs at Mykines

Birds on the cliffs at Mykines

The hungry one

My mother used to call me a gannet. And she was right. I can finish a box of Maltesers quicker than a magician can make a woman in a tutu disappear from a glittery box. I don’t know where her favourite phrase came from but I’m assuming being greedy is a characteristic of a gannet. Mykines has than thirty species of birds nesting on its cliffs but these, the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic form a substantial colony on the cliffside close to the lighthouse.  They spend their time sunning themselves on a rock and then diving for food; their yellow heads going first as they hook out their prey from the water. They look very good at doing that. Gannet hunting is a favourite past time of the small Mykines population, but as they have to climb down one of the steepest cliffsides I’ve ever clung to, it looks like a sport for fools. Better to watch from a far while you eat your butties.

Looking at the gannet colony on Mykines, Faroe Islands

Looking at the gannet colony on Mykines, Faroe Islands

The googled one

I don’t want to hunt them, but I do find myself wanting to know more. No sooner am I off Mykines than I’m Googling them. And I discover gannets have no nostrils.  They are bubble wrapped by air sacks under the skin. (Who doesn’t like popping bubble wrap?) They can strike the water at 100 miles an hour. That’s faster than Tom Daly surely? So then I look up the Atlantic Puffin. I find out that its beak is only brightly coloured during the breeding season. So what colour is it the rest of the time?  They can beat their wings 400 times a minute. They sometimes lay lilac eggs. They can hold a dozen fish in their bills at once. Respect!

A lonely puffin on Mykines, Faroe Islands

A lonely puffin on Mykines, Faroe Islands

Whoops, I seem to be turning into a bird spotter

So then I feel the urge to google a wren. Just so I know what it looks like when it isn’t teaching at Hannah’s school. And I find out that the female wren makes the male wren build several nests for her until she chooses which she wants to live in. Now if Stuart had done that for me when we moved to Cumbria I’d never have ended up in our drafty Old Post Office that grows  mould spores on the furniture if we leave it unoccupied for so much as a lunchtime. And as I Google away, it occurs to me that I practically live next door to  the RSPB in Silverdale, which attracts starlings in flocks or ‘murmurings.’  These flocks swoop and dive above the reedbeds at sunset in a mesmerising display of togetherness. It is spectacular to watch and I’ve never properly spent time doing it. I resolve to change this.

Starlings roosting near Silverdale

Starlings roosting near Silverdale

Why have I not done this before?

I ask the kids if they want to come and check out the starlings. They say no thank you. They are happy playing on their iPods. Angry Birds, of course.

Mykines, Faroe Islands

Mykines, Faroe Islands: Scene of my transformation

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • Great photos.

    The Faroe Isles look fantastic. We knew little about them until watching ‘whale wars’ on discovery channel. They look just the place we would want to visit with the kids, however after seeing the whale slaughters, we’re a little put off.

    • Thanks Gav. The whale slaughters are controversial for sure. Although personally I found it interesting to learn a bit more about Faroese whaling through some of the locals we met. Local perspectives (and there are many) help put the practices into different contexts and there’s much of historical, cultural and community significance that surrounds the hunting that happens. From the pictures we saw in the museums it is clearly a very visceral and dramatic experience for hunters, and observers. But then so is a visit to an abbatoir!

  • The chilled out one is a fulmar. The fulmar is not related to the gull at all although it looks very similar. It is actually related to the albatros (obviously a lot smaller than the albatros, though). The fulmar is by far the most numerous bird on the Faroes, and can been seen all over the islands.
    The gannet, on the other hand, exclusively nests on Mykines and has never been known to nest anywhere else on the islands.
    The logo of Atlantic Airways is a gannet.

    • Hi Oddur, Really glad I didn’t set myself up as a bird expert in this post and thanks for educating me! I saw a lot of fulmar for sale in the market all packaged up like a roast chicken and I did fleetingly wonder what they looked like in real life. I definitely bonded with them that day as they hovered within a few centimetres of my eye line. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment. I’ve learnt something today.

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