Little Northern Friar

When I was a child I had a picture book of birds of North America. I was delighted by the picture of the Atlantic puffin, and dismayed to read I had to go to Maine or better yet Canada to see one.

That memory came back to me on our trip to the Faroe Islands. On America’s Independence Day, Steve and I set out on a small ferry from Sørvágur across choppy waters to the small island of Mykines (pronounced “Mitchiness”). A short but tricky hike took us west from the village and across a bridge to the sister island Mykines Hólmur, known for its lighthouse and bird colonies. There were kittiwakes (right) and gannets by the thousands.

And puffins.

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is pelagic, spending more of its life at sea than on land. In spring, they come to shore to breed, each female laying a single egg in a burrow dug into rocky cliffs, then they return to the sea in late summer. Their nesting sites range from Maine north through coastal Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, the Faroes, Norway, Scotland, and Ireland.

The fledglings will spend up to five years at sea before returning to nest in the colony where they were born. They appear to mate for life, although apparently that’s coincidental: what they really do is return to the same burrow year after year.

They look a little awkward in flight, even though they reach speeds of 88 kilometers per hour, wings beating 400 times per minute. But puffins are excellent swimmers. They dive for fish, staying under 20-30 seconds, or sometimes as long as a minute, then return to their burrows with up to a dozen small fish in their bills.

Puffins don’t nest in places where there are land-based predators (not for long, anyway). One of the nice things about Mykines Hólmur is that the puffins are right there, easy for humans to get to, once they’ve gotten to Mykines, that is. The problem is that the birds are in danger of being loved to death. People leave the trails to get close to the birds, which spooks the birds sometimes, but more importantly, the burrows get trampled, and sometimes the chicks get trampled within them.

So the Faroese government passed a law earlier this year: visitors to Mykines are not allowed to leave the village without a tour guide. However, they have no way to enforce the law, and not enough tour guides for the number of people the ferry can bring.

The tourism infrastructure in the Faroes isn’t well developed yet, but the number of tourists is increasing. Hopefully the Faroese won’t allow their wonderful islands to be loved to death.

More Faroese Wildflowers

Here are a few of the showier, prettier, and more interesting wildflowers I saw in the Faroe Islands. Many of these have a worldwide distribution pattern known as arctic-alpine, which means exactly what you would expect: they are found at high latitudes, and at high elevation at lower latitudes.

Armeria maritima (sea thrift, Plumbaginaceae)
a circumpolar species that likes poor, salty soils; thrives on rocky coasts

 

 

 

Dactylorhiza maculata (heath spotted orchid, Orchidaceae)
common in mountainous areas in Europe; can vary greatly in color from dark pink-purple to almost white

 

 

Dactylorhiza purpurella (northern marsh orchid; Orchidaceae)
these two Dactylorhiza species are difficult to distinguish and it’s quite possible that I’ve mis-identified them; also Dactylorhiza is one of those “problem” genera; found in the UK and Scandanavia

Geranium sylvaticum (wood cranesbill; Geraniaceae)
found in temperate regions throughout Europe; introduced in Quebec and Greenland

 

 

Pinguicula vulgaris (butterwort; Lentibulariaceae)
found in boggy areas in the upper Mid-West, New England, Canada, and northern Europe; the plant’s leaves produce both a sticky substance and enzymes which together trap and digest insects

 

Polygala serpyllifolia (heath milkwort; Polygalaceae)
I can’t find much on where this species is found, other than the British Isles (and of course the Faroes)

 

 

Polygala vulgaris (common milkwort; Polygalaceae) this species has a widespread distribution in Europe and Asia; it’s introduced in Michigan and Oregon

 

 

Salix herbacea (dwarf willow, snowbed willow; Salicaceae)
a subshrub growing to only 2 inches tall, with arctic-alpine distribution in North America and Europe

 

 

Micranthes stellaris (formerly Saxifraga stellaris; starry saxifrage; Saxifragaceae)
this little charmer is found in arctic-alpine areas of Europe, and in Quebec, Labrador and Greenland in North America

 

Silene acaulis (moss campion; Caryophyllaceae)
arctic-alpine distribution, including the Rocky Mountains in the United States

Sod Roofs

Tórshavn, with the island of Nólsoy in the background

Ordinarily when I photograph plants, they’re in natural settings. Sometimes they’re in gardens. Once in awhile I’ll do a still life.

But I never photographed plants as roofing material before going to the Faroe Islands.

the Faroese Parliament buildings (the red ones in the center), with sod roofs

Not every building in the Faroes has a sod roof, but a lot do, and they aren’t limited to farm outbuildings. Houses have them, too. Sometimes very large houses.

Even the Faroese Parliament buildings have sod roofs.

close-up of sod roof on a house in Mykines

I asked a tour guide in Mykines about them. From what I recall, there’s a base layer of tarred plywood that’s topped with layers of felt, bubble wrap, and plastic mesh; pipes on the edges keep the sod from sliding off. The pipes are often covered in strips of birch bark (the traditional base layer). Once the sod is established it makes an excellent insulator. It lasts a long time, and is inexpensive (though labor-intensive) to replace.

I was really quite taken with the combination of practicality and aesthetics.

 

sod roof in Saksun

 

 

 

 

sod roof on a house in Kirkjubøur, with sod-roofed dog house

 

 

 

 

sod roof in Gjogv

 

 

 

 

sod roofs in Saksun

the village of Funningur: a typical setting, with some sod roofs

Why Føroyar?

first glimpse: approach to Vágar

Føroyar (literally, “sheep islands”) is a group of small islands, about 18 depending on how you count them, and not including islets and sea stacks, lying northeast of the Shetland Islands, roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland. This self-governing region within the kingdom of Denmark has been continuously inhabited since about AD 800.

Steve and I spent a few days there last month. We keep getting asked, “why?”

the sod-roofed church at Saksun, Streymoy

Lots of reasons. I’m aesthetically drawn to sparseness and desolation. I love the flora of the subarctic regions. I like visiting places that are off the beaten path, especially places that don’t suffer from American cultural imperialism. I don’t like crowds of people and I don’t like areas that are developed for tourists. And of course I love spectacular natural areas.

the sheep are just about everywhere

 

It had been on my mind for awhile, but I made the decision to actually go when I found out about Sheep View 360, one woman’s response to Google Maps’ refusal to provide street views for the Faroes.

I love a wacky sense of humor.

no, really, they are everywhere

The islands were formed by several sets of volcanic eruptions, and later carved by glaciers. They are rugged and sparsely vegetated (thanks to the sheep), with no trees except where people have planted and fenced them in. The weather is stormy, with rain and wind, and lots of it, but it never gets hot or too cold. The resulting landscapes are dramatically beautiful. Read about the geology here.

traversing Slættaratindur, the tallest mountain at 880 meters, on the island of Eysturoy

It’s a hiker’s paradise, so long as you don’t mind elevation changes: pretty much everything is either up or down. It’s a birder’s paradise, too. As for botanizing, well, that proved tricky. More on that, and other things Faroese, in posts to come.

sunset near Kirkjubøur, Streymoy, looking toward the island Koltur

Føroysk Flora Woes; Potomac Gorge Update

Yes, I’m a book nerd: I bought reference books in a language I don’t read.

You would not believe how much time I’ve spent trying to identify the flowers I found on my trip. In most cases genus is easily determined, but getting the species requires, well, specifics, many of which can be found in the three sources pictured here.

Of course, I don’t read Faroese.

puffin (Fratercula arctica) playing peekaboo on Mykines Island

I assumed I’d be able to use google translate to look for cognates in other Nordic languages, but that hasn’t worked so well. There are a few on-line translation services, but Faroese appears to have many noun cases, and I keep running across what I assume are declined nouns and conjugated verbs. And of course there’s botanical jargon.

Hopefully now that I’m back I can use my English-language book of Icelandic flowers to solve some mysteries. We’ll see. Expect scattered posts about the Faroe Islands in the coming months.

buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) playing peekaboo yesterday morning

In the meantime I’ve gotten out to the Billy Goat C trail twice. I was afraid I’d missed a lot, but nope: lots of great flowers to see if you look in the right places. Now blooming in that area: nodding onion, swamp milkweed, buttonbush, swamp candles, fogfruit, monkeyflower, sea-oats, thin-leaved sunflower, grassleaf mudplantain, wild potato vine, common arrowhead, starry campion, horsenettle, American germander, culver’s root, jumpseed, various St. Johnsworts, St. Andrew’s cross, and water willow. Halberd-leaved rosemallow is budding up, and the joe-pye weeds are, too, and close to opening.

It’s good to be home.

62° North

Greetings from Føroyar! I have just a little time to kill in the airport, so here’s a picture of Armeria maritima (sea thrift), growing on a bluff in the town of Gjógv. In the distance is the island of Kalsoy.

I believe the plant is named mjátt sjógras in Føroyskt (Faroese), but info is hard to find on the internet if you don’t read Faroese. And annoyingly, the two wildflower books I purchased are in my already-checked luggage. Also those books are in Faroese, so gleaning information from them will be a challenge.

More about Faroese flora and natural history in coming days.

Føroyar means “sheep islands”.