Par Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Iceland is home to about 378 different species of birds. They have become an intrinsic part of the landscape that signifies the changing of the seasons, the coming of better weather and even when it’s better to just stay in the car (there are a few birds of the swooping variety).
Few birds that call Iceland home command the awe and excitement experienced when looking at the Atlantic Puffin.
These stout, colourful sea birds look like they were destined to be the inspiration for a Disney side-kick. Their faces seem to display a human range of emotion. They are absolutely fascinating, yet most people live their lives without ever seeing one in person.
For several months of the year, Iceland is home to large colonies of puffins, so on a visit here, you might just get the chance to see the ‘clowns of the sea cliffs.’
But why are puffins in Iceland? When can you see them? Where are the best places to go looking for them? Read on to find out more.
Why Are There Puffins in Iceland?
The Atlantic Puffin is a migratory bird. This means that the bird species regularly travels along specific flight paths depending on the year’s season. Bird migration often lines up with seasonal changes. Most people have heard the term ‘the birds fly south for the winter.’ This is an example of bird migration.
Puffins migrate towards landmasses for their breeding season. They form large breeding colonies throughout this time. Typically puffins nest in the United Kingdom, Greenland, Canada, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Iceland is actually the chosen nesting ground for about 60 per cent of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population.
When to See Puffins in Iceland
Culturally Icelanders place a lot of importance on migratory birds. Due to harsh, long winters, the return of nesting birds was a signifier that warmer days were about to arrive for the Viking settlers 1000 years ago.
There’s even a bird that modern-day Icelanders associate with the arrival of spring. The Lóa or Golden Plover’s arrival in Iceland each year is heralded as the beginning of spring. There are poems, folktales and even songs written about the arrival of this seasonal bird.
Puffins arrive in Iceland from early April. The males usually arrive first and begin setting up a nest as they wait for their partner. Puffins display what is known as strong nest-site fidelity. This means they tend to return to the exact same spot or as close to it as possible for nesting each year.
Puffins don’t necessarily breed for life, but they form very strong breeding bonds. When a male has waited for some time without his breeding partner arriving, he has been known to take a new partner. Sometimes, his original one eventually turns up, which can create a bit of Mexican telenovela style drama.
Before laying a single egg, both parents finish the nest preparations. Their nests look a bit like rabbit holes in the side of grassy cliff faces. This shields them from the elements and keeps their young safe from predators.
Each parent takes turns keeping the egg warm, and within about six weeks, a baby chick or ‘puffling’ is hatched. The puffling stays in the burrow as the parents take turns hunting for fish and zooplankton to help it grow. By September, it’s fully grown and ready to head out to sea and fend for itself.
By the end of September, the last of the puffins usually have left Iceland, meaning ‘winter is coming.’
When is the Best Time to See Puffins in Iceland?
The best time of day to spot puffins in Iceland is when they are hunting for food. Puffins tend to have a morning and an evening hunt. Typically in the morning, puffin breeding pairs will tag team their hunt between approximately 7am, and 10am.
The evening hunt usually takes place between 6pm and 10pm. Now puffins are pretty habitual, but it’s not like they have an apple watch telling them to stand up every hour. They can be seen outside of this time, hanging around their nets or even heading into the sea for a chance to catch a bite.
Where Can I Find Puffins in Iceland?
The most likely place you will see puffins is in a breeding colony. Puffins choose grassy cliffs that face the ocean to house their colonies. The telltale sign that a cliff face is a puffin colony is when you can see lots of tiny burrows dotted along the exterior. It might look like the home of hundreds of cliff dwelling rabbits or even elves from a distance.
You can also see puffins from the sea. They spend a significant amount of time hunting for fish to feed a growing baby, so heading out into a bay would also give you a chance to see them.
Where is the Best Place to See Puffins in Iceland?
Puffins can be spotted all over Iceland, but there are a few hotspots where you are more likely to catch a glimpse of these little fat sea clowns.
There’s a group of islands off the coast of Iceland that are known puffin hotspots. In particular, the island of Heimaey is a must-visit if you want to get your puffin fix. Heimaey is home to the largest puffin colony in Europe, and 50% of Iceland’s puffins live here. Heimaey was also the site of a very famous volcanic eruption in 1973.
Akurey and Lundey
Source: Lundey Island. Wikimedia. CC. CGPGrey
There are two islands in the bay off the coast of Iceland’s capital Reykjavík that are home to colonies. Akurey and Lunday are small islands not inhabited by humans. Lundey is actually named after the Icelandic word for puffin ‘Lunda’, so it basically is ‘Puffin Island.’
The South Coast is a massive hub of some of the most incredible attractions Iceland has to offer. You could easily base yourself here for a few days and make the most of it through day trips. If you would like to take advantage of that, staying somewhere like the Panorama Glass Lodge will put you in a prime position for travel, thrills, wonders and relaxation.
Dyraholaey is a cliff face on Iceland’s South Coast that is famous for its birdlife. It’s not far from the town of Vík and overlooks black sand beaches and a very picturesque sea arch. Although the numbers of puffins aren’t as prominent here as they are in other spots around Iceland, you can still get an excellent chance to see some if you’re there early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve
If you want a little bit more of an adventure into the wild, this is a great location for puffin spotting. Ingólfshöfði Nature Reserve is a cape on the South Coast of Iceland. It’s incredibly remote, making it a safe haven for many species of birds. If you want to see puffins here, you will need to book a tour as the journey involves some tricky terrain and crossing private property.
Papey is perfect if you would really love to see Puffins up close. The island in the east was abandoned by people in 1948. Since then, birds have well and truly taken over. Papey is also a fascinating place to visit because all of the buildings that were once home to Icelanders are still there, abandoned. If you wish to get here, you will need to take a ferry that runs from the nearby town of Djúpivogur.
Another beautiful location in the remote Eastfjords of Iceland, Borgarfjörður Eystri, is surrounded by incredible natural beauty. Its harbour Hafnarhólmur has become known as ‘Puffin Paradise’ because it is home to around 10,000 nesting pairs.
Puffin Paradise also has a well-setup viewing platform so you can get close to the birds without disturbing them. This is great for those all-important Instagram shots.
Located in the North of Iceland, Tjörnes is only a 15-minute drive from that Husavík town everyone is crazy about thanks to the Netflix movie ‘Eurovision.’ It’s also an area of great geological importance in Iceland with fossils over 2 million years old.
Látrabjarg is possibly the most famous puffin location in Iceland’s Westfjords. It’s the most western point of Iceland and also the largest sea-bird home in Europe. It’s about an hour’s drive from the town of Patreksfjörður and worth the visit if you want to combine your puffin spotting with incredible views of winding fjords.
What Puffin Tours Are Available?
Many places to see puffins in Iceland are easily accessible on your own without the need to take a tour. Having said that, there are some puffin vantage points you can only access on a tour.
For example, if you would like to see puffins on the south coast at Inglofshöfði, you will need to book a tour because to get to the best spot, you will have to travel across a volcanic sand cape that is sometimes submerged in water. There is a bird-watching and history trip that will take you there on the back of a converted tractor.
In the north, a great tour to take advantage of would-be this whale and puffin tour from Husavík.
Husavík is known as the whale watching capital of Europe, and in this experience, you will take a RIB boat out into the harbour. The smaller RIB boat means that you can get even closer to both whales and puffins without disturbing them. This will support the possibility for you to get the best photos.
From Reykjavík, there are also quite a few puffin tours that visit the islands that are home to puffin colonies. Some Puffin tours from Reykjavík will get you into the heart of the feathered action.
If you want to get a completely unique experience, you could opt for a Puffin and Volcano Tour of the Westman Islands. Here you will go in search of puffins while also taking in the incredible volcanic landscape in the history of this area of the country that is known for its fiery past.
How to Photograph Puffins in Iceland
When trying to get a puffin pic, it’s important to remember that although they are pretty adorable, they are wild animals, and you want to avoid causing distress to them by getting too close.
Although puffins aren’t typically spooked by people, any interaction you have with them should be respectful. Think of it like this, if you’re able to make the puffins feel like you’re not there, you will be more likely to get a great shot of them.
Some of the puffin lookouts around Iceland have viewing rooms, where you can quietly observe these birds through perspex so you can get as close as possible without scaring them.
One handy tip is to get as close as you can to the ground, lie down on your stomach if possible, and just calmly wait.
If you’re avid photographer, you’ll want to ensure you bring a zoom or telephoto lens with you to get a crisper shot. Often the best shots are caught with a 300m lens with a sharp aperture, such f2.8.
Puffins can be quite active movers so you’ll need to keep a pretty fast shutter speed to avoid any blurry photos. My best tip is to focus your shots on their nests as they will habitually step out, pause, and have a nosy look around before taking flight.
Why Do Puffins Migrate?
Puffins are a little different from other birds because they actually spend most of their lives at sea in large flocks known as rafts. They are excellent swimmers and use the rhythm of waves to rest.
They feed mainly by diving into the water to catch small fish, and throughout the colder months of the year, the fish are more abundant in the open ocean.
Puffins are fatty birds, so they don’t feel the cold as much as humans do. The average temperature of the waters in which the puffin spends most of its life would kill a human in about 4 minutes from hypothermia.
The puffin’s feathers are slicked with a coating of hydrophobic oil; this means that their feathers don’t get completely wet, which keeps out some of the cold and also enables them to fly straight from the ocean.
Puffins only return to land for breeding and nesting. Their iconic colourful beaks are also a bit like makeup. Puffins only develop that colouring for the breeding season. When they’re out at sea, the birds’ colour scheme is more of a muted grey.
Are Puffins Endangered in Iceland?
As of 2018, the Atlantic Puffin was listed as critically endangered on the Icelandic Red List of Birds.
At that time, Iceland was home to around 2 million breeding pairs of puffins. That sounds like a lot, but consider that this number was about 40% of the total population of puffins in the world.
Thanks to conservation work, today, the puffin’s endangered species status has been scaled back to ‘Vulnerable.’
Can You Eat Puffin in Iceland?
Icelandic cuisine is known for having some unusual delicacies. The most famous of these would be the fermented shark ‘Hákarl’. It’s gross; take it from me; you won’t ever forget the taste of it because it lingers for a while.
A lot of these unusual foods came from the fact that Iceland is a relatively young landmass. As a landmass gets older, it develops a wider variety of vegetation and then eventually animal life. Compared to most other landmasses, Iceland is a child. For this reason, the early settlers had a very tough time finding things to eat.
They had to make do with what was available, and for that reason, puffin was a bird that was regularly eaten.
Modern-day Icelanders don’t eat puffin regularly, but it is still legal to hunt in the North of Iceland. You can eat puffin in some Icelandic restaurants, but keep in mind you are going to be tasting a species that has just been brought back from being critically endangered.
I have never really been into bird-watching, but I completely understood why people do it the first time I ever saw a puffin.
If you ever get a chance to see puffins in action, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you manage to see a colony. The buzzing activity, the constant fluttering, the parents of young tag-teaming to catch fish; you could completely lose track of time.
If you do come to Iceland during puffin season, get over to a hotspot, bring your camera and just enjoy. It won’t be long before a puffin is the star of a new Pixar film, and you’ll be able to say that you saw them before they were famous.