The Evening of the Great Skua

One evening after dinner, I decided to go for a walk. My host told me about a hill visible from his place and I took his recommendation and started towards that hulking green mass of rock, away from Skopun’s harbour. Initially it was just a meandering path cutting through a patchwork of sheep enclosures. It was calm and quiet, save for the calls of birds in the air (like Iceland, the Faroes are a bird watcher’s dream come true). I might have seen a sheep’s skull at one point – I definitely did at some point on Sandoy, it’s just I’m no longer clear about whether it was on this specific evening.

Walking along the path to the base of the nearest hill took longer than I expected. It wasn’t as simple as a 30-minute walk, and I think this was closer to an hour or even more than that. The path started getting rockier and a gentle incline made itself known. I had no idea about the point at which I wanted to turn back – it’s not like there were markers to indicate my progress and serve as turning points – so I thought I’d just see how far I could go.

Path passing by farmhouses and fenced off sheep pens.

I started going uphill and kept on going. Unlike the volcano on Vestmannaeyjar, the incline wasn’t as steep, making the climb far more relaxing. The sheep enclosures were also on the side of the hill that I was on, and remembering an acquaintance’s words when we hiked in the Westfjords, I kept a look-out for electrical wires on the wire fencing in case the fences were electrified. At one point I thought I might have to turn back because I didn’t see a low point in the fencing. Thankfully, after looking around I saw that there was a wooden plank that let me cross over, and soon enough I was back in business.

As I continued gaining height, the views got more and more spectacular when I turned around. Skopun grew smaller and smaller, and I was able to behold the scale and contours of the bald landscape. (Like Iceland, the Faroe Islands are devoid of trees, so the land is covered by grass but not much else.) There was this softness of light owing to the cloudy skies and the low sun in the sky. As I looked up, I realised that there might be a point where it wouldn’t make sense to continue my little stroll. The hill’s peak was covered in cloud, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to see anything up there and, more importantly, make photographs.

Landscape of Sandoy with shadows from clouds.

Somehow my legs didn’t get that message and they kept on going. After some time I was close to the top, taking more frequent stops to soak in the view. There’s no way of describing what I saw. The view atop Eldfell – the active volcano on Heimaey of Vestmannaeyjar – was grand, but this was that and something else.

View of Sandoy from higher ground.

There was this calmness that words could simply not describe. It was a combination of the soft light, the pastel yellows and greys of the sky, the slight haze introduced by the fog and the extremely calm ocean. Having the reputation of ever-changing weather, one doesn’t often expect the North Atlantic to be calm. That, though, was exactly what it was.

Lone cargo ship sailing through the gap between the islands of the Faroes.
A container vessel lazily sailing through the islands – I’m guessing that the uneven patches on the water’s surface indicated some areas of strong undercurrents
Speedboat cutting through the water with white wake.
A speedboat cutting its way through the water; even atop the hill I could hear the buzz of the boat’s motor

And then it happened.

While walking near the cliff’s edge (I wasn’t on the edge itself but I wanted to be close to it so I could look out to the ocean), I heard this loud whoosh sweeping over me. My heart froze the first time I heard the sound. I saw nothing and was by myself, so I had no idea what could possibly be going on. I thought maybe it was just a violent gust of wind, so I kept on walking and gaining altitude, albeit at a gradual pace.

Rock formation that separated from Sandoy a long time ago.

Then it happened again. As with the first time, my heart skipped a beat but because I knew nothing happened to me previously, I continued on my way. Then came another whoosh, and still another, and soon enough I saw a dark form rushing over my head and out into the distance. Now I knew that I wasn’t alone, so I stopped and lifted my head up, looking around to get a better awareness of the space I stood in.

The dark form circled around and I could clearly see it was a seabird of some kind. I kept my eyes on it as it made its way back, over the hilltop, and flew straight at me and at eye level. We were looking each other dead in the eye until the last possible moment, when I ducked and the bird pulled up and flew away from the cliff, over the water. It was a large bird – its wingspan longer than both my arms outstretched.

Now filled with adrenaline and some irritation, I realised that (a) this was interesting and almost quite fun, (b) I must be close to its nest and (c) I should back away from the cliff’s edge because I didn’t want to slip and fall off the cliff and die like that. So I moved away from the cliff, taking note of sloping areas to avoid, and continued my game of staring the bird in the face and ducking as it flew over. Soon I realised that the ducking was unnecessary, because the bird would pull up right as it approached me to fly over as close to my head as possible (hence the almighty whooshing sound).

As it flew over, I took note of its characteristics because I wanted to tell Niclas, my host, about it and learn what it was. The bird’s plumage was generally dark brown, but its wingtips had accents of white feathers. Given that it flew so quickly this was the best description of it I could gather. The bird made no sound as it flew at me, and at no point in time did I hear it call.

As the bird kept up its intimidation, I grew tired of it. I didn’t want to walk around getting continuously harassed by some seabird, and I couldn’t locate its nest as much as I tried. This meant that I had no idea if I was walking closer to or further away from it, and furthermore, I really didn’t know what would happen if the bird got more aggressive. (Again, recall my earlier thought of not wanting to slip and roll off a cliff in the middle of the North Atlantic.)

I began my descent, stopping every so often to make photos. There were clearly others who frequented the hill before me, because I saw arrangements of rocks that could only have been made by people, and a really strange collection of rock mounds that were covered in grass. I had no idea what those were and I still haven’t a clue about what purpose they served.

Mysterious mound on cliff on Sandoy.
Please leave a comment if you know what purpose these were supposed to serve!

Back at my hosts’, I told them about where I went and the bird I encountered. My description was obviously rather vague, but as luck would have it, there was a book of Faroese seabirds on the coffee table in the living room, so Niclas opened it and began showing me some birds to help with identification. None of them was the one I saw, until he pointed out one particular bird whose colouration fitted my description: dark brown plumage everywhere, except for black and white accents on the wingtips.

Called the great skua, the seabird that tried to intimidate me is an aggressive creature that routinely robs other seabirds of their catches. It does this by attacking them and persisting until their victims give up their catch. The Wikipedia entry even mentions researchers observing the great skua achieving this at night. It also talks about the behaviour that I observed first-hand: that of flying straight at the head of anyone encroaching on its nesting area.

So, in conclusion, I guess it’s rather cool that I got to experience this. There aren’t any skuas where I come from, and certainly not any cliffs from which one could roll off and die. My one regret is not knowing how to use my camera’s manual mode at the time, because I then would’ve been able to photograph it in flight.

Nonetheless, this isn’t an episode I’ll forget anytime soon!