Vigur Island is a privately owned island in the waters of the Isafjarðardjúp fjord, approximately 30 minutes by boat from Ísafjörður. During spring and summer the island becomes the nesting place for countless birds including puffins, arctic terns and black guillemots. The island’s name comes from it’s unique, spear shape, as the word vigur is Icelandic for vector.
We set off on a guided walk of the 2.5 square kilometre (1 square mile) island. Our first stop is Iceland’s only windmill, behind which sits a flock of puffins.
The puffin is Iceland’s most common bird with a population of eight to ten million. It is also the best known member of the auk family. It is remarkable for its coloured, parrot like beak, which gives it a comical appearance, and for its upright, dignified stance that gave it the nickname of Prófastur, meaning The Dean. However, as author T. A. Coward stated, ‘it is not the patri-coloured bill, nor the black and white plumage, or the upright carriage or the orange legs that give the Puffin its quaint look, but it’s the eye’. Once known as the Sea Parrot, the puffin’s eye is set deeply above the round, full cheeks, from which a conspicuous groove curves backwards. Around the eye there is a crimson ring, above it a small, triangular, blue, horny plate and below it a similarly coloured bar.
This year the puffins have begun to arrive on the island early and flocks cover the grassy slopes. We continue to the other side of the island, where we are able to observe the puffin’s burrows more closely. These birds do not build a nests, instead they dig holes up to 1.5 metres (five feet) deep. It is currently breeding season and so the birds are sporting their colourful red, yellow and blue beaks as they reunite with their partners and return to the same burrows they used last year. These nests have been dug by both the male and the female by scratching at the earth with their strong legs and six millimetre (1/4 inch) claws. During the second half of May a single egg will be laid and around 40 days later the chick will hatch. Both parents will feed the chick for about 40 days and after this time they will leave, forcing the chick to make its own way to the water to hunt for fish.
We pass a few oystercatchers, wading across the shallow waters. These birds can be found from the coastal regions to the inland meadows in Iceland and have developed the interesting habit of simulating crippled wings to lure predators away from their nests.
A purple sandpiper is resting on a rock near the pier. These birds breed in the tundra and spend the winter farther north on the Atlantic Coast than any other shorebird. During winter it is mostly slate-grey with only a faint purple gloss and, despite its name, shows no purple at all in breeding plumage. Like many birds, purple sandpipers are monogamous.
Back by the pier we pass a sheep pen, as we follow our guide into a barn where we learn how the family that own the island has lived off the island’s farmland and birds since 1884. The main export from the island is the eider down that is collected each Spring.
Eiders are the largest ducks found in the northern hemisphere. The male’s plumage is black, white and green, while the females are russet-brown to grey. Broods of females often come together to form ‘creches’ of a few to over 150 ducklings with non-breeding females accompanying them for protection. Eider down comes only from the belly feathers of the female eider duck, which she will shed naturally due to hormonal changes during the egg-laying period. The feathers will line the nest to insulate the eggs, while the bare spot on her belly will allow her to emit heat directly to the eggs. Iceland is the world’s biggest harvester of eiderdown and the feathers are replaced with hay, causing no harm to the birds or their eggs.
Some relics of old farming methods have been preserved on the island, including Iceland’s only corn mill, built in 1840 and used until 1917 for grinding imported wheat from Denmark. A 200-year-old, eight-oar rowing boat has also been carefully preserved and is still in use to ferry sheep to the mainland.
Our final stop is Viktoria House, now the location of a coffee-shop and one of the smallest post offices in Europe. The building was erected in 1862, using wood that was pre-cut in Norway. In 1993 the house was lovingly restored by the National Museum of Iceland.
- Information provided by Cruise and Maritime Voyages
- Information provided by tour guide on Cruise and Maritime Voyages excursion
- Insight Guides: Iceland
- Birds of Britain and Northern Europe