The puffin is everyone’s favourite North Atlantic bird. They are irresistibly cute, intelligent and highly expressive – for centuries their character has been compared to that of whimsical parrots or clowns. Their Latin binomial ‘little brother of the north’ pinpoints their monkish appearance and reveals a long-standing affection for the bird, and with good reason. You can watch puffins for hours and never get bored.
The puffin’s appearance is unmistakable: black wings, neck and hood, with a podgy white tummy and white cheeks. Their eyes look like triangles, and their parrot-shaped beaks show bright red, yellow and blue in summer (winter sees the colours fade to grey). They waddle on bright-orange webbed feet but with such small and stubby wings, puffins are not nimble flyers – to stay airborne they must flap their wings at around 100 beats per minute.
Puffins are, however, incredible divers and swimmers. They can easily outdo some of the other birds, diving to depths of 15m and staying underwater for up to one minute. They also have a jagged palate that allows them to hold fish against the roof of their mouths while they fish for more. It is common to see a puffin flying around with as many as ten fish in its mouth.
Puffins live long and interesting lives. They spend the winters in the deep waters of the Atlantic, feeding mainly on eels, capelin and herring. The first three years of life are spent exclusively at sea, after which they fly back to the very cliff on which they were born. By age five, the sexually mature males will have finished digging a burrow at the very top of a sea cliff. Puffins typically mate for life, laying a single egg in the same burrow year after year. A puffin burrow is between 1m and 2m long with a fork at the back – one side is where the egg is incubated and the chick is fed, with the other side used to collect waste.
From an early age, the chick is trained to relieve itself in this other chamber and keep itself clean, dry and – most importantly – waterproof. The newborn chick is an awkward greyish bundle that bit by bit transforms into the black-and-white patterns of its parents. In Iceland, puffin parents spend their days zipping back and forth between clifftop and sea.
They are feeding a demanding chick who (by the end of the summer) weighs twice as much as its parents. In the long days of summer, the adults return to the cliffs only to rest late at night – typically after 22.00. That’s why the best time to watch puffins up close is around midnight.
But where are the best places to see these entertaining creatures?
Iceland is home to the world’s largest population of puffins, with an estimated six million birds arriving every summer. You can find puffins along most high coasts and islands, but the largest colonies are found in the Westmann Islands, Látrabjarg, the islands of Breiðafjörður, and on Grímsey.
Puffins arrive in Iceland by May and disappear by mid-August. Their departure is instantaneous – nobody knows exactly when it will occur, but when the time comes, it is quick and exact. The adults group together in ‘rafts’ out at sea and within 48 hours they’re gone. The fledglings stumble out of their holes and flop around, eventually making it out to sea and repeating the cycle.
This Danish archipelago is said to be home to more puffins than people, and a trip here during the breeding season is an unmistakable audio-visual delight. Look up at any sea cliff and you’re almost certain to spot puffins nesting on the grassy slopes at the top.
A colony is easily recognised by the luxuriant green colour of the surrounding vegetation which thrives on the birds’ nutrient-rich droppings. They also appreciate grassy tufts on the top of sea stacks. While puffins are seen almost everywhere on the islands, the best places to visit are: the northern islands; Eysturoy; Vestmanna bird cliffs; Saksun cliffs; Viðvik bay, Vagar and Mykines.
The abundance of birdlife here is unparalleled in the UK. At the height of the breeding season from May–August, this Outer Hebridean island is home to a scarcely comprehendible one million seabirds, the largest colony in northwest Europe, which includes the UK’s largest puffin colony.
For all these reasons, St Kilda is one of only 24 global locations to be awarded ‘mixed’ UNESCO World Heritage Status for its natural and cultural significance.
Orkney is home to 21 breeding species of seabird, most notably marine birds. Some reports suggest that one in six of all seabirds breeding in Britain nest in Orkney. The charismatic puffins breed here from May to early July (they total around 60,000 pairs, though the vast majority of these are on the inaccessible Sule Skerry, 36 miles west in the Atlantic).
The best place to see them is around Castle o’ Burrian and Noup Head on Westray and on the southeast coast of Papa Westray; less substantial numbers nest around the Brough of Birsay and Marwick Head on the Mainland.
From the moment you step ashore at this Northumberland nature reserve, you’ll see puffins crash-landing with beaks stuffed full of sand eels, terns wheeling in the sky or spearing fish from the sea, cormorants sitting proud on their castles of dried seaweed, and guillemots guarding rock stacks painted white with guano.
There is no other wildlife experience quite like this anywhere else in Northumberland. But only for a few months of the year. Come mid-August, the birds depart for open waters, abandoning their empty nests to the wind and sea.
‘Lunde øy’ is Norse for Puffin Island, so it’s no surprise that this isle off the coast of north Devon is famous for its population. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the birds, though: in the late 1930s the population of puffins was thought to be around 3,500 breeding pairs; by 2000, there were just five individuals.
Something had to be done – Puffin Island without any puffins was unthinkable. A programme of rat elimination was successfully initiated in 2002, and by 2006 the island was officially declared ‘rat-free’. Since then the population of puffins has steadily increased, numbering 375 in 2017.
For more on the best places to see puffins, check out our guides: