Bird Watching in the Faroe Islands – Your Ultimate Guide
Birdwatching is one of the biggest attractions of the Faroe Islands – and it’s not hard to see why. The North Atlantic archipelago is not only a magnet to millions of nesting seabirds each summer, it is also an important stepping stone on spring and autumn migration routes. Read our ultimate guide to find out about the best places to spot everything from puffins to golden plovers.
How many birds are in the Faroe Islands?
The total number of birds in the Faroe Islands fluctuates with the spring and autumn migration and an influx of seabirds at the start of the breeding season. During the peak summer months, there are millions of birds in the archipelago, including around 600,000 pairs of fulmar, 550,000 pairs of puffin, 250,000 pairs of storm petrel, 230,000 pairs of black-legged kittiwake, 175,000 pairs of guillemot and 25,000 pairs of Manx shearwater. This vast seabird population of over 3.5 million birds only includes the most common seabirds – and not their offspring for that season. Of the 305 bird species that have been recorded in the Faroe Islands, around 50 species breed regularly – from gannets to goldcrests – while 60 are regular visitors.
What type of bird species are in the Faroe Islands?
The main habitats in the Faroe Islands are coastal or open moorland, so the type of birds that are most commonly seen are either seabirds (nesting on cliff ledges, turf-covered clifftops or along rocky shores and beaches) or birds of open country (heathland, moorland, lakes etc). Visit the Faroe Islands during summer and several of the sea cliffs for which the archipelago is famous will be festooned with nesting fulmars, gannets, common and black guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills. Puffins, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels nest in burrows on the clifftops, while offshore islands often host breeding colonies of shag (curiously, cormorants are only a scarce visitor to the islands).
Along the rocky shores and pebbly beaches, eider ducks build their nests above the high-water mark and you will often see oystercatchers feeding along the wave-scoured coast, their piping calls rising above the crashing surf. Arctic terns, frequently seen diving for fish offshore, nest in colonies on the coastal heathlands. Purple sandpiper and dunlin are less common breeding birds in the Faroe Islands, while turnstones can be seen year-round, but do not breed in the archipelago. Some of the most conspicuous shorebirds are gulls – black-headed, herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed gulls are all breeding species, while several other gulls are regular visitors, including glaucous and Iceland gull. Notorious for stealing food, mid-air, from kittiwakes and other smaller seabirds, Arctic skua and great skua are both fairly common breeding species in the islands, nesting in loose moorland colonies which they vigorously defend against intruders (including humans).
Other moorland-nesting species include golden plover and merlin, the only breeding bird of prey in the Faroe Islands. Spend some time exploring the freshwater lakes dotted across the moorland and you may spot waders such as common snipe, whimbrel and occasionally curlew, black-tailed godwit or red-necked phalarope. Red-throated divers sometimes build reedy nests along the lake margins. Great northern diver and red-breasted merganser can be seen year-round. Other species to look out for in the Faroe Islands include hooded crow, raven, meadow pipit, rock pipit, northern wheatear, goldcrest, blackbird, house sparrow and the Faroese subspecies of the starling. During the spring and autumn migrations, large numbers of redwing descend on the islands, often joined by fieldfares and song thrushes. Among the rarities to be recorded on the islands recently are olive-backed pipit (May 2020), tufted puffin (Jan 2020), black-browed albatross (Jul 2019) and Eurasian spoonbill (Sep 2018).
What are the best bird watching spots in the Faroe Islands?
Although the Faroes are a veritable paradise for birds during the summer, three islands are particularly renowned for birdwatching. Easily reached by catching the ferry from the village of Sørvágur near the airport on Vágar island, Mykines (westernmost of the Faore Islands) has a footpath leading to its picturesque lighthouse. Along the way, you pass a large puffin colony where you can stand quietly right next to their breeding burrows. South of the lighthouse, there’s an equally captivating gannet colony, while a nearby ridge (known as Mykineshólmur) is a nesting site for storm petrels. Oystercatcher, whimbrel, purple sandpiper and both Arctic and great skua can also be seen on the island. An organised walk with a certified guide is highly recommended to enhance your experience and ensure you minimise disturbance to the puffins and other birds on the island.
For an unforgettable perspective of the famous seabird cliffs of the Faroe Islands, head to Vestmannabjørgini (Vestmanna bird cliffs). Operating from May to September, two-hour long boat trips provide neck-craning views of the 700m-tall cliffs – an imposing backdrop to the swirling confetti of fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins and gulls that nest there. Some boat trips combine Mykines and Vestmanna.
East of the capital, Tórshavn, the island of Nólsoy (served by several ferries a day) is another excellent birdwatching destination in the Faroe Islands. Guided trips are regularly arranged to visit what is probably the world’s largest colony of European storm petrels, while a walk from the village to the lighthouse can often be rewarded with sightings of moorland species such as golden plover, oystercatcher, whimbrel, northern wheatear and, with luck, red-throated diver.
Located to the west of Sandoy, the small island of Skúvoy also has a wide range of moorland birds, plus puffins and guillemots. But it’s the Arctic skua (after which the island is named) that leaves the greatest impression on visitors. Take care when walking near the colony as the adults are extremely territorial and will dive at intruders. Linger on Skúvoy and you will be treated to summer evening skies peppered with thousands of Manx shearwaters returning to their nesting burrows from feeding out at sea during the day.
Does the Faroe Islands have a national bird?
Although puffin, petrel, guillemot, skua or any of the Faroe Islands’ other abundant seabirds make excellent candidates, the national bird is actually the oystercatcher. Easily recognised by their striking black and white plumage and long red bills (used for prising open molluscs on rocky shores), oystercatchers also have a distinctive call – a shrill piping that’s evocative of wild, lonely places.
The festival of Grækarismessa on 12 March marks the return of the Tjaldrið (oystercatcher) after the long dark winter.
When can you see puffins in Faroe Islands?
Puffins are pelagic – they spend much of their lives at sea, only returning to land to nest. The first puffins arrive to breed in the Faroe Islands in early May, or sometimes late April. For the first month – until the beginning of June – they are most readily seen close offshore on the sea. During June, however, breeding activity intensifies: the puffins are much more likely to be seen on land as they prepare their metre-long burrows for nesting. By around mid-June, large colonies, like the one on Mykines, will be bustling with puffins, easily visible during walks on the island. Baby puffins (or pufflings) hatch during July, but won’t leave their burrows until mid-August. It’s a wonderful time to observe the adults returning to their burrows, colourful bills crammed with sandeels. By the end of August, the chicks have fledged and most puffins have left their nesting colonies and returned to sea.
Where are the puffins on the Faroe Islands?
Several small islands in the Faroes, identified as Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International, have large colonies of Atlantic puffins, including Lítla Dímun and Stóra Dímun (near Suðuroy), Koltur and Hestur (west of Streymoy) and Skúvoy (south of Sandoy). However, the most well-known – and one of the most accessible – islands to see puffins is Mykines. You can easily reach this westernmost of the Faroe Islands by catching a ferry from the village of Sørvágur near the airport on Vágar island. A spectacular footpath leads to the island’s lighthouse, passing a large puffin colony along the way. Although you can stand quietly right next to birds, it is important to remember that their nesting burrows often extend under the path and are vulnerable to collapse – if possible, join a guided walking tour with a local expert who will not only be able to tell you more about the puffins, but also provide guidance on how to minimise their disturbance.