Watching migrant birds in the Faroe Islands
The remote location of the 18 islands constituting the Faroe Islands functions virtually as a magnet for birds migrating over the North Atlantic Ocean. The Faroes are exceptionally located for getting birds from the east, but several North American species have also been recorded at the Faroes. There is just a handful of local birders, so the chances of finding rare birds by yourself are very good.
Rare birds can turn up everywhere, but there is a tendency that birds concentrate at the northern, southern, eastern and westernmost points, depending on the dominant winds. This is due to the fact that these places are the first bits of land the birds see. This makes islands such as Svínoy, Fugloy, Mykines and Suðuroy some of the best hotspots for migrants. It is possible to rent houses at most locations at any season through local tourist agencies.
The landscape is both helpful and challenging. Due to the lack of trees birds will often end up in gardens in villages or seek shelter in the plantations. At times these bird magnets can be full of birds and a joy for birdwatchers. In the autumn of 2009 one single garden contained two Arctic Warblers, two Yellow-browed Warblers, a Barred Warbler, two Chiffchaffs, a Song Thrush and a Ring Ouzel. So when it comes to birds that are attracted to gardens it is fairly easy to find them. Other birds like pipits and buntings, which prefer grassy fields, have so much suitable habitat on the islands that finding them can be a hard task.
Just about 300 different bird species have been recorded at the Faroes, but only about 100 are regular migrants or breeding birds. This means that about 200 species are rare migrants and new birds are added to the national list every year.
In spring the Faroes primarily receive spring overshooters. Those are birds that fly further north away from their breeding grounds. This means that birds from central and southern Europe can show up at the Faroes given the right weather conditions in spring. Some birds that arrive in May linger here and make breeding attempts. For instance both a male and a female Subalpine Warbler were seen from mid May until at least June. The male was displaying and the birds favoured one particular scrub in a garden at Trongisvágur, Suðuroy.
If there are consisting southeasterly winds in May passerines can be seen all over. Rare birds can be seen among the common migrants in every garden and every tree. Some of the really good birds that have shown up in spring include a Green Warbler, a Rüppell’s Warbler and no less than 5 Subalpine Warblers in just 2 weeks.
Perhaps the most interesting time to search for rare birds is the autumn. Autumn migration includes both drift migrants from Scandinavia and far eastern birds performing the so called reverse migration – flying for instance northwest instead of southeast. This means that good numbers of for instance Yellow-browed Warblers are recorded every year – a small warbler originating no closer than 3.500 km to the east. Other common reverse migrants include Barred Warbler – about 1 of every 10 sylvia-warblers recorded in the Faroes is a Barred Warbler.
Most eastern birds arrive during days with easterly winds. Easterly winds from August to November are almost guaranteed to bring some migrants. The best places are, as in spring, the points that the birds see first when flying in from the ocean. Some good spots are Svínoy, Mykines and Suðuroy – but again rarities can turn up everywhere. Due to the lack of forests and trees many birds seek to the villages, gardens and plantations. Some good records of eastern vagrants in autumn include 3 Pechora Pipits in one day, 2 Red-flanked Bluetails in 3 days, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and 2 White’s Thrushes.
American birds have also been recorded in autumn. American Bitterns, Common Nighthawk, American Coot and Sandhill Crane are a few of them. Quite interesting is a Tenneessee Warbler and a Yellow-browed Wabler – one originating in North America, the other in Siberia – were caught almost simultaneously in a ringing net at Sumba, Suðuroy. The arrival of american passerines demands certain weather conditions. A fast moving low pressure heading north along the eastern coast of North America, then east from Newfoundland and reaching the Faroes, preferably within 48 hours.
All in all the Faroes Islands are among the least explored countries in Western Europe when it comes to birdwatching in spring and autumn. No regular counting has been conducted – just occasional ringing, e.g. with a Heligoland-trap at Nólsoy. Therefore we know that there is a huge potential, probably equally good as Shetland where lots of new birds to Europe have been recorded. Here is a chance to find your own rarities due to the very few birdwatchers. Here you yourself can find some of the birds people elsewhere travel miles and miles to see!