Thursday, December 3, 2015

Súðavík and the Arctic Fox Center (Westfjords, Iceland)

The Arctic fox is the only indigenous land mammal in Iceland. Arctic foxes came to Iceland across the frozen sea during the last ice age. The Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík has a small museum exhibit about Arctic foxes as well as an outside pen with orphaned foxes they care for. (There is also a cafe which smelled so good!) In addition, the Arctic Fox Center (along with the Arctic Fox Research Station in Hornstrandir) conducts research related to the Arctic fox.

There are two Arctic fox color morphs: the blue and the white. The blue morph is dark throughout the year, though their fur gets bleached in late winter so they look almost white in spring. The white morph is white in winter, but brown dorsally and light gray ventrally in summer. Most of the Arctic foxes in continental parts of the world are the white morph, while the blue morph is more common in coastal areas. Most of the Arctic foxes in the Westfjords region of Iceland are the blue morph.

I included the trip to the Arctic Fox Center so that I could see an Arctic fox, as my guidebook assured me that it would be very unlikely that I would see one in the wild. Yet, late one night as we were driving to our hotel, we did see one. It was dark. We had been driving with care to avoiding hitting sheep and birds that were on the roadway, and we saw something small, low and dark dash out in front of the car. It ran ahead of us on the road for a while, and then went off into the field again. Given its size and movement, it could only have been an Arctic fox.

We were surprised that one of the foxes in the pen came right up to us. It seemed to have no fear of humans. When we asked the staff about it, one woman said that they were kind of bratty, always begging for food. Sadly, we weren't allowed to feed them.

In tundra areas, the Arctic fox largely eats lemmings and voles, and their numbers vary depending on the lemming population. In coastal areas (including Iceland), Arctic foxes eat birds, eggs, berries, and have even been known to follow polar bears to eat their leftovers. Sheep farmers in the Westfjords saw the Arctic fox as a danger to their livestock, as well (I'm assuming the foxes went after lambs).

While we were visiting the Arctic Fox Center in Súðavík, we noticed that there were bright blue balloons (and plastic cups and plates) decorating the buildings and gardens. We even came across these two blue figures behind someone's house. What is up with the blue decorations, we wondered? A quick internet search reveals that it was the International Blueberry Festival. Blueberries are the only sweet fruit grown in Iceland (everything else is imported) -- so I guess they deserve a festival!

Next up: Adventures with seabirds

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