A Cultural Cartography of a Migratory Bird's Annual Journey

Icelandic Flyway Paintings

C.c. islandica


* Click on each painting image for a larger lightbox view

Altered Tundra

Recent expansion of Snow Goose populations, driven by the conversion of land from forest and prairie to agricultural usage in the southern United States, are changing habitat for breeding shorebirds in the Arctic. As Snow Geese grub for food, large areas of the tundra vegetation are denuded. Tundra vegetation provides essential camouflage from predators for migratory birds. Snow Geese from Eastern Canada are moving into Red Knot breeding range in Greenland.

The Greenlandic word for art – Eqqumiitsuliorneq – literally means “things that look strange”. The painting shows a startled Red Knot at the boundary between vegetated ground, and that denuded by Snow Geese. Along the dividing line is a piece of caribou antler carved as a “tupilaq”. In the ancient traditions of Greenland Inuit, shamans carved tupilaq spirits to act in the real world, bringing harm to enemies. Retaliation to the original carver through these spirit objects was both possible and dangerous. Contemporary tupilaqs carved from bone, ivory, stone, and wood are an important part of Greenlandic Inuit art and are highly prized as collectibles.

Vikings Followed Birds

The west coast of Iceland is an important stopover for C.c. islandica migrating between Europe and northern Canada, as well as a breeding habitat for other shorebird species. Viking legends tell of early voyagers finding Iceland by following flocks of migrating birds when sun and stars were not visible for navigation.

Painted in the style of medieval manuscript illustration from Northern Europe (8-12th centuries), a Viking ship, whose female passengers indicate settlements, follows migrating birds to an island shore in a stormy sea. Shown in the sky are Red Knots, Barnacle Geese, and Icelandic Whimbrels. Along the waves are Common Eider and Rednecked Phalaropes. In one Viking legend, sailors release and follow a Raven to Iceland. This is represented by the shadow bird in the upper left corner.

The Tangled Knots of Competition

Direct competition with humans for cockles, a bivalve invertebrate food source, threatens C.c islandica in the British Isles as shorelines are dredged.

Adapted from 8th century Celtic illuminated manuscripts, this design shows both a human and a flock of Red Knots ensnared by the “demons” of development. The line of Red Knots in the center arch illustrates the color change to breeding plumage.

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