Chasing Birds In The Snow

Chasing Birds In The Snow

Photo by
Atli Freyr Steinsson for The Reykjavík Grapevine

In Flateyri, birdwatching is done a bit differently 

“The real birds are wintering in warmer climates, but I can still embark on Flateyri’s mural bird walk.”

It’s Easter break and I see photos of friends around the world wearing dresses and enjoying picnics. But here in this tiny village in the Westfjords, this March day feels like being trapped in a snow machine. I’ve heard that, even in milder weather, Flateyri has a feeling of desolation, haunted by its harsh past and the lingering memory of the deadly avalanche. Now, that emptiness hangs heavy over the village. There’s not a single person on the street and, as our car slowly rolls through in the search of an open place to grab some food, I can’t decide whether there’s a calming or rather ominous feel to it. 

“Bird!” I scream, opening the car window. 

This is how my visit to Flateyri takes a turn — one where I chase eider ducks, golden plovers and 11 other birds native to Önundarfjörður in the dead of winter. The real birds are wintering in warmer climates, but I can still embark on Flateyri’s mural bird walk.

Setting out

I set out with absolutely no idea what to expect. 

The first bird that catches my attention while still in the car is an oystercatcher — you cannot mistake it with anything else. Even amateur birdwatchers like me would recognise that blazing orange beak. The mural of the bird in question adorns a house on the edge of town along Flateyri’s main street. It overlooks the snowy area with its watchful eye.  

I get out of the car, snap a few photos of the bird and start walking in hopes of finding lunch next. Flateyri’s main street, Hafnarstræti, houses the entirety of the village’s culinary scene — a total of three eateries. Gunnukaffi is closed for Easter, but right next door Vagninn is not only open, they’re boasting a guest cook for the day. Though unremarkable from the outside, Vagninn is bustling with people, namely artists and local celebrities, who, like me, are visiting the Westfjords for the annual music festival in neighbouring Ísafjörður. All are taking refuge from the weather outside, hoping for a bite to eat. My guest-cooked burger hits the spot and so does the atmosphere of the place. Even in this snowstorm, it’s full of life, plus there’s beer on tap.

I zip up my jacket and tuck in a few layers of clothes before going out again. It’s not even that cold, but the biting wind makes those first few seconds out the doorway rather uncomfortable. 

Just a few steps away, in a bookstore dubbed Iceland’s oldest, I find a map that reveals the nature of my snowy quest. There are 13 birds and a secret nest hidden on the walls of Flateyri, and I am determined to find them all. Or, at the very least, give it my best shot.

The bird gallery

With a map in my hand, I venture out into the cold. Snow hasn’t stopped falling for a few hours, severely limiting visibility. Distinguishing between the sidewalk and the road is becoming a challenge. As I plod through the village, I wonder if the residents are huddled inside watching TV or they’ve left entirely, only to return with the arrival of more favourable weather. 

As the snow swirls around me, I pause to observe a mural depicting a majestic spói (Eurasian whimbrel) that decorates the wall of a local public school.

A golden plover, or lóa, typically indicating the arrival of spring, rests motionless on the building’s side, the surrounding garden buried under snow. Take a step left and you spot a whooper swan, its white feathers contrasting with the black wall it decorates. A swan is the largest bird that lives in Iceland and has a lifespan that can reach 25 years. 

In just a few minutes, I admit my shoes are wet and I gladly climb back into the confines of the car, dedicated to continuing the bird walk in a lazy traveller mode. From time to time, I glance onto the map, but thanks to Flateyri’s compactness, I can just cruise street by street, stopping whenever another feathered mural catches my eye. 

A black-tailed godwit looks back at me from a wall of a residential house, but the snowstorm obscures its legs, fading them into the whiteout. It’s up to your imagination to fill in the missing elements. Nearby, on a blue house, a snow bunting takes my breath away. This tiny creature breeds farther north than any other land-based bird, demonstrating incredible resilience and adaptability. A great cormorant has made its home on the wall of Flateyri pool, where time seems to have stood still for at least a few decades. The swings on the playground hang still under a heavy blanket of snow. How long until the next kids play here?

As I count the birds in my head and then on the map, I realise I probably won’t be able to find all of them, especially the bonus — the secret nest must be hidden beneath the heavy snow that makes approaching many buildings difficult.

Just as I’m about to leave Flateyri, a tiny tail catches my eye on a building resembling a garage or an electrical facility. The rest of the bird is completely buried under the snow, but I’m determined not to give up. I use my hands to shovel the snow away, feeling the cold seeping through my mittens. Finally, there it is — a tiny Eurasian wren.

Insights from the artist

A few weeks after my visit to Flateyri, still fascinated by my entirely birdless birdwatching adventure, I reach out to the person behind the Flatbirds project, Jean Larson. Naturalised Icelandic citizen, Jean splits her time between the United States and Iceland, spending a considerable amount of time in Flateyri over the past 14 years.

“I fell in love with Iceland,” shares Jean, as I call her one afternoon — early morning for her in the U.S. “We spend quite a bit of time up there — we come and go.” 

“It’s beautiful, enchanting and magical,” Jean says of Flateyri. Being raised on a big body of water in northern Michigan and having lived in a small village in France, small communities aren’t a new thing for Jean and her husband. “We both love nature and smaller communities. It just fit.”

Together with her husband, Jean bought a house in Flateyri about 10 years ago. “I’m a painter, so I needed a place to work and I was able to get a hold of the little building that has the raven on it. That’s where the birdwalk started.” Initially, she just wanted to decorate a blank wall in her studio. “Ravens are my favourite birds,” she says. “It seems like they follow you around. They’re just wonderful creatures.”

The venture sparked the interest of many locals who would pass by and offer walls of their houses to the artist.

“What I wanted to do was make it so that the birds were placed not in obvious places, but so that people would get out of their cars and walk around the village.”

“This was something I was just doing for myself and for my building, but once there was interest, I thought, ‘Well, why not?’” Jean says. She adds that the Flateyri community accepted her family with open arms, so giving back felt only natural.

In the summer of 2021, Jean painted 12 other birds around town, naming the collected works the Flatbirds project. The only stipulation for the project was that the bird had to live in Önundarfjörður. “We haven’t really seen many puffins there. So I didn’t want to put a puffin in,” she smiles. 

“What I wanted to do was make it so that the birds were placed not in obvious places, but so that people would get out of their cars and walk around the village,” Jean explains. 

“Some people asked for a particular bird, others just let me do what I wanted to do,” says Jean, adding that she was happy to accommodate requests whenever possible and didn’t feel they interfere with her art. Local children picked the bird to adorn the local pool, for instance. “I think sometimes you gotta let that go. Because this wasn’t really about me, this was more about a village that I love.” 

Soon, visitors to Flateyri were intrigued by the project. “People would stop by and ask ‘How many birds are there?’ I’d say, ‘You’re gonna have to go find them. I’m not going to tell you,’” laughs Jean. Once the project was completed, Jean, together with a bird specialist, did a guided walk, stopping by each mural and sharing insights about the birds.

Whether equipped with a map or simply strolling around, it’s highly improbable that one would overlook Flateyri’s bird murals. But finding the hidden nest is a quest not for the faint-hearted. Even the village kids required more than one try.

“Just get out and wander around,” advises Jean.

Follow along with the Flatbirds project on Instagram @flatbirdsflateyri

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