Lake Myvatn in the north of Iceland has the feel of a magical place. Created by a volcanic eruption 2300 years ago, the area surrounding the lake is a dramatic landscape dominated by lava pillars, boiling mud pools, steaming fumaroles, and sulphur pits. The lake and surroundings wetlands are rich in plant life, and the lake is one of the world’s richest in aquatic birds - some 115 species have been spotted in the area. With 30 duck species alone, nowhere in the world have so many species of ducks been found in one location.
It was here that Sigurgeir Stefansson was born, lived his life, and where at 37, he died. Raised on the Ytri-Neslönd farm, Stefansson spent his youth collecting birds eggs, creating his own miniature natural history museum. It wasn’t long before he had collected the eggs of every native Icelandic bird.
When he was 14, Stefansson was given a taxidermied bird and soon after began seeking out dead birds and paying to have them meet a similar fate. Soon, his friends and neighbors were calling him anytime they found a bird carcass, and Stefansson spent almost all of his spare money getting specimens stuffed and posed. Eventually, the collection became so large that it had filled his family’s home and it was moved into a nearby shack once used to house seismographic tools.
An enormous bird lover, Sigurgeir Stefansson was in contact and traded with ornithologists around the world. Often approached by visiting researchers, he is said to have been able to identify birds by only the flutter of their wings.
In 1999 Stefansson and two companions were killed when, while helping to repair an underwater telephone cable, a storm struck and capsized his boat. He and two telephone company workers drowned in lake Myvatn.
Stefansson never married or had children, but he left behind his most precious possession - his immaculate collection of taxidermied birds - something which is family felt should be preserved in his honor. When he was alive he had said his dream was to build the collection a proper museum and lamented, “Everybody wants a building, but no one wants to pay for it.”
With help from his family and the Aurora Charity Fund, the Sigurgeirs Bird Museum opened on August 17, 2008, and it holds Stefansson’s unique collection of 330 stuffed birds, among them 180 species, including almost all the stray birds that come to Iceland, all the indigenous Icelandic birds except the red phalarope, as well as a few rare specimens from abroad.
The museum also has an aviary and a guest house where visitors can stay the night. The guest house provides food like “rye bread that’s been cooked in a hot spring with smoked trout, flat bread with home-smoked lamb and fresh waffles.” No doubt Sigurgeir Stefansson would have been proud.