Feature of the Week: The Cute, the Cruel and the Tourists

Magazine

Feature of the Week: The Cute, the Cruel and the Tourists

Everyone likes the puffins, but the cruel skua is indeed a rare bird, as Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir and Benedikt Jóhannesson found out during their respective trips to the Ingólfshöfdi bird reserve.

Published in Issues and Images of Iceland, Vol. 7 1-2011. Published for Promote Iceland by Heimur Publishing Ltd.

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The great skua. Photo by Geir Ólafsson.

ESA: A slain puffin. Its head and colorful beak at a twisted angle, the remains of its innards and skeleton stretched out to twice the bird’s length, black and white feathers scattered around the grass. This is the work of the Great Skua. “I don’t feel sorry for the occasional puffin that gets caught,” says Einar Sigurdsson, who runs tours to the bird reserve Ingólfshöfdi in southeast Iceland with his family. “There are millions of puffins but only thousands of skuas.” There weren’t many puffins on the promontory this early in the season in May but as soon as our guide spotted one, he brought out his telescope, placed it firmly on the edge of a cliff and invited us to take a look at the bird up close. Such an adorable little creature.

For some time, the Great Skuas were hunted in high numbers in the region because people disliked their behavior. But as the skua population started dwindling, people had the good sense to place them under preservation. Today there are approximately 5,400 skua couples in Iceland, which accounts for almost half of the Great Skua’s world population. The bird mainly nests along the country’s southern coast.

As for the puffin, scientists have voiced concern as its nesting in south and west Iceland has failed in the past summers because of lack of sandeels. For now the Great Skua is safe but what happens if its prey disappears? Or maybe the birds are among evolution’s favorites that adapt easily to new situations as long as they are left alone by humans.

BJ: Ingólfshöfdi in late June when the nesting season was at its peak. We were in skua territory. The group stopped and saw a bird sitting on a nest. It looked calm. But don’t let looks deceive you. Suddenly, one of its mates appeared out of nowhere. It was a big bird with a wing span of at least 150 centimeters (about five feet). It looked mean.

Suddenly it attacked.

Fortunately, the guide was the target and he could defend himself with a stick. The skua comes at you again and again as we soon would learn. We ran away. Jumping off the cliff might have seemed like a good idea if the attacks hadn’t stopped.

Luckily, we were then sufficiently far from the nest and had left the protective bird’s territory. The guide pointed out a puffin, thus saving the trip for many of the foreigners.

History repeats itself and this history was no exception. From one nest to the next. Past the seamen’s shelter, to the lighthouse that was serving as a shelter for a group of sheep, standing by its yellow wall.

Issues and Images of Iceland, Vol. 7 1-2011 is available for free download. Click here to read the remainder of this article.