Birds of Iceland

Before going on any birding trip I like to sketch the avifauna I would be seeing. This helps me pre-visualize the birds I hoped to be seeing as well as putting my excitement onto paper.

Iceland straddles the line between North America and Europe and as such contains birds of the North Atlantic and Northern Europe as well as Arctic breeders. Some of these birds can be seen in the northeastern coast of Northern American but many of the European birds would be considered rarities on this side of the Atlantic.

For the featured spread I created circular icons of birds of Iceland; some of them I had seen but others would be lifers. I took inspiration from the beginning animation of the wonderful film Watership Down, where animals were stylized in an aboriginal form. I also created an Icelandic map that is also very stylized. The birds featured are: Arctic tern, northern gannet, gyrfalcon, snow bunting, think-billed murre, white-tailed eagle, razorbill, Atlantic puffin, common raven, rock ptarmigan, common redpoll, and the outline of a bird which I would never see.

The bird of Iceland that I would never see is the great auk. This large flightless alcid, the largest of the family, was once abundant around the northern Atlantic. This was the penguin of the Northern Hemisphere, although they are not closely related to the two toned flightless birds of the southern hemisphere.

The auk was a breeder to Iceland. The seabird was hunted for both it’s meat and warm down. This aggressive hunting dwindled the populations of a bird that could not fly away from it’s pursuers. It seemed like destiny that the largest alcid would be written into the pages of natural history oblivion.

Ironically enough when the last colony of about 50 auks was discovered in 1835, museums in Europe wanted skins to display which hastened the auk’s ultimate demise.

This happened on Eldey Island, 10 miles off the coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, where the last two existing auks where killed on June 3, 1844. In the struggle the capture the birds, the last great auk egg was stepped on and crushed. This is such a shameful chapter of human’s history in it’s interactions with the natural world. Shame on us that we will never see a great auk again.