Everything You Need to Know About Puffins in Iceland

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Michael Chapman

Spring is on the horizon in Iceland, heralding the return of the Atlantic Puffins. As home to the largest puffin colony on earth, Iceland offers countless opportunities to spot these iconic birds in their natural habitat. Read on to find out how to see Atlantic Puffins during your trip to Iceland.

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A Brief Overview of Icelandic Puffins

A puffin stares directly into camera
Photo credit: Jim Leach. Flickr.

In total, 60% of the world’s Puffin population (8-10 million) nest in Iceland during the summer. There are four species of Puffin, though only the Atlantic variety travels to Iceland. (Other species include the Rhinoceros Auklet, the Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin.) Icelanders know Atlantic Puffins as “prófastur” (preacher), so named because of the black and white colouring of their feathers. 

Now considered an unofficial icon of Iceland, the birds have been crucial to life here for centuries as a food source. Thankfully, their new role as the island’s most recognisable mascot attracts thousands of visitors a year. For clarity, the Puffin is actually the official bird of the Canadian province, Newfoundland and Labrador. Iceland’s official bird is the impressive gyrfalcon, a known predator of Puffins. 

How do Puffins in Iceland behave? What do Puffins look like? 

Atlantic Puffins are instantly recognisable thanks to their colourful bills, reminiscent of cockatoos or penguins. Because of this dazzling feature, the species’ nickname is ‘Sea Parrot’ or ‘Clown of the Sea’. Biologists believe that these vibrant bills are used to attract an appropriate mate, when not storing fish for later consumption. Not many people know that a puffin’s bill turns grey during the winter. This behaviour, common among many animals, is called ‘moulting’ or ‘sloughing’

When it comes to mating, Atlantic Puffins behave very differently to most birds. They tend to be monogamous and return to the same nesting site each year to lay a single egg. After the egg hatches, baby puffins (known as a ‘Pufflings’) are reared by their parents for roughly six weeks. 

A baby Puffin is called a puffling
A young Puffling rescued at Látrabjarg Cliffs, Westfjords. Photo Credit: SEA LIFE Trust

Both the male and female puffins share responsibility, taking turns to incubate the egg. After this period, the young puffling is considered fully grown, or fledged. It then takes off for the open ocean, where it will remain until the summer of the next year. Puffins can live up to twenty years in the wild. 

Puffins separate from one another during their time spent out at sea. During this period, they are entirely silent, which makes for a change given their constant chattering onshore. A single bird will have up to a square kilometre of the ocean to itself, where they spend around 2-3 years bobbing amidst the waves before returning to congregate with others. But how does this cute creature manage such an incredible feat? 

Atlantic Puffins are incredible survivors but are better adapted to life in the water as they are in the sky. When searching for their favourite foods (herring and sand eels), puffins can dive down to sixty metres, making a joke of scuba divers with their quick ability to descend. 

When in flight, things are often more complicated. Puffins can reach speeds up to 90 km/h, though it requires beating their winds 400 times a minute just to stay in the air. Their rough and tumble landings only add to their reputation as being somewhat clumsy aviators.  

Best time to see Puffins in Iceland

Atlantic Puffins are seen in Iceland between April and September each year. They are best spotted at their nests in early mornings or evening. Most of the day, the parents are fishing out in the ocean. 

A puffin flying.
Photo: Pikist.com

In previous decades, it was normal for puffins to leave for the open ocean by August. However, food shortages linked to environmental pressures have pushed this departure period back in recent years. This trend has caused some concern among conservationists since pufflings have less chance of survival in colder temperatures. 

Those visiting during the winter will still be able to see puffins living in captivity. The Puffin Rescue Centre, part of the Sea Life Trust Beluga Sanctuary in the Westman Islands, offers a close-up look at these magnificent birds all the year-round. 

The Puffin Rescue Centre undertakes essential conservation work, monitoring and nursing young puffins to health before releasing them back into the wild. In previous years, the number of pufflings checked and measured has exceeded 5000. The operation is run by volunteers (the ‘Puffin Patrol’) who are passionate about conserving Iceland’s birdlife. There are currently 12 puffins who live at The Puffin Rescue Centre the year-round. 

Best places to see Puffins in Iceland 

The Atlantic Puffins that summer in Iceland nest within coastal cliffs across the country. Whatever region you’re staying, if you’re close to the ocean, there’s always the chance of spotting Puffins going about their daily lives. Below, we have listed some of the most highly praised locations for Puffin watching in the country. 

Flatey Island, West Iceland

Flatey Island @mikeywchapman

Flatey is a stunning little island found in Breiðafjörður, between the Snæfellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords. You can reach Flatey Island by taking the ferry from Stykkishólmur town. Other small islands that can be visited from here, and also boast their own puffin colonies, include Þórishólmur and Steinaklettar. The Breiðafjörður area is also home to whales and dolphins, so make sure to keep a lookout from the ferry deck. 

The best place to see puffins on Flatey is by walking to the northern edge of the island, a little way out of town. Here, these little birds dot the beach like party guests in tuxedos, making for great photo opportunities. 

Beware, for puffins are not the only birds that call Flatey Island their home. Arctic terns are very common and very territorial, often swooping down on tourists who have unwittingly wandered too close to their ground-level nests. 

Látrabjarg Cliffs, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Westfjords 

The cliff sides of Látrabjarg
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. CC. Progresschrome.

The Atlantic Puffins at Látrabjarg show hardly any fear of humans. Their lives in the nature reserve are peaceful. Even the predatory Arctic foxes are unable to reach their cliffsides nests, providing the freedom that has bolstered bird populations in the area for decades. (As a side note, Látrabjarg also happens to be home to the world’s largest Razorbill colony.)

There are more reasons to visit Látrabjarg Cliffs than just the puffins who live. Not only do these towering rock faces mark the westernmost point of Iceland, but also the entire European continent. Aside from that, the scenery is incredibly dramatic and unhampered by modern infrastructure, creating a lush paradise at the edge of the world. 

The gorgeous cliff sides of Hornstrandir Nature Reserve can be visited following an hour’s drive from Patreksfjörður town. Due to the lack of cement roads in the region, much of this journey will be on rough backroads. Even so, the epic scenery of the Westfjords more than makes up for the discomfort.  

Dyrhólaey, South Iceland 

A hot air balloon over Dyrhólaey in South Iceland
Photo Credit: Flickr. Andrés Nieto Porras

Dyrhólaey promenade is found along the south coast of Iceland. This frequent sightseeing stop is located before Reynisfjara black sand beach when driving from the capital, Reykjavik. Dyrhólaey attracts visitors for two significant reasons, these being its dramatic rock arch and its quaint lighthouse. From atop the promenade, you will be in for fantastic views over the black shorelines of the south. 

Of course, summer visitors will hardly find themselves alone when standing on the heights of Dyrhólaey. Amidst the rocky shelves of these ancient sea cliffs, thousands of Atlantic Puffins have set up their temporary burrows. Enthusiastic photographers will jump at the chance to capture both landscape and wildlife pictures while at Dyrhólaey. 

Cape Ingólfshöfði, Southeast Iceland

Named after Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfr Arnarson, this natural paradise is home to seabirds, including Arctic Skuas and Puffins. A stunning headland, Cape Ingólfshöfði is found partway between Jökulsárlón lagoon and Skaftafell reserve in Vatnajökull National Park. 

There are fantastic 2-3 km hiking trails at Ingólfshöfði, many of which can be walked as part of a guided tour of the area. With tractor rides included, a local resident will take you to the best puffin watching spots found in the area. Breathing in the refreshing sea air, surrounded by grasslands and ancient cliffs, Ingólfshöfð is Icelandic nature at its finest. 

The Westman Islands, South Iceland 

The Westman Islands are otherwise known as the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago. Fifteen islands in total, the largest amongst them is Heimaey (‘Home Island’). Heimaey is a fascinating location in its own right, having suffered pirate raids and volcanic eruptions in its long and captivating history.  

As the only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago, residents share their home with Iceland’s largest puffin colony. This relationship has been temperamental over the years, but modern traditions see the locals helping puffins in need. 

Pufflings often need rescuing after their first attempt at flight fails. During early August to September, children stay out late to patrol the streets, shoebox in hand, in search of puffins hoping to be rescued. This tradition was the focus of Bruce McMillan’s photo diary for children, a book named ‘Nights of the Pufflings’ (1995). A blind rescue puffin called Mundi was also a subject for the 2019 children’s book ‘The Adventures of Mundi the Puffin’.

You can reach the Westman Islands either by domestic flight from Reykjavik or by travelling on the ferry, Landeyjahöfn. Visitors are especially recommended to visit the Stórhöfði lookout, which promises excellent views of puffins. 

Lundey (“Puffin Island”), Reykjavik 

If you want to go Puffin watching in Reykjavik, then Lundey island is the best choice for you. Every summer, this gorgeous little isle is taken over with tens of thousands of nesting puffins, some of which fly over Reykjavik during their stay. Another island nearby equally known for its Puffins is Akurey. 

The tour runs between May and August each year, departing from the capital’s quintessential Old Harbour. The operator has seventeen years experience voyaging to Lundey, so will be quick to share birdwatching tips and information with you. Your vessel will come equipped with binoculars, allowing you a better view of these delightful winged critters. 

Grímsey Island, North Iceland 

With its green and gentle slopes, Grímsey Island is 40 kilometres from the northern shores of mainland Iceland. It is famous as the only location in the country that crosses into the Arctic Circle. 

The island is circled by high cliff sides that make perfect summer homes for migrating puffins. You can often see these birds soaring past, or bobbing by, as you take the Sæfari ferry from Dalvik. Those looking for a more personal experience can also take a walking tour on the island. This enjoyable hike will not only provide you with a closer view of these adorable creatures, but also the chance to hear stories about local life on the island. 

Puffins help to make up the 1,000,000 birds that congregate on Grímsey each season. Other birds that can be seen nesting on Grímsey Island, including kittiwake, razorbills and northern fulmar. Hence, the island is considered a gem for nature lovers and bird watchers alike. 

Vigur Island, Westfjords 

Thousands of puffins descend on Vigur each year, burrowing nests into the island’s soil without worrying about the island’s residents. This laissez-faire attitude means that visitors must follow designated hiking trails to avoid stepping on their eggs. The islanders are famous for their working relationship with another bird species; the Eider Duck. Residents take special care to keep the duck populations high to collect their down each season, given that it’s an expensive luxury resource.

Vigur is only 2 kilometres long, with a narrow width of 400 metres. This tiny size makes it possible to embark on fun open-sea kayaking tours that take you around the island. An adventurous activity such as this is also a great way of spotting other birdlife, and even seals sunbathing on the island’s bays. You can take tours of Vigur Island by leaving from Ísafjörður town. 

Are Puffin tours available in Iceland?

Puffins standing on a cliff
Photo Credit: Pxfuel. Creative Commons Zero – CC0

There are many different ways to spot puffins during your travels in Iceland. Aside from getting lucky, the most definitive means of ensuring a sighting is with a guided wildlife tour. These can be undertaken from land or sea, with both tour options revealing new sides of Iceland’s landscapes. Visitors hoping to see these little birds by foot can expect to enjoy long hiking trails surrounded by the most dramatic aspects of the island’s nature; its ancient sea cliffs, black sand shorelines and surrounding mountainscapes. 

Puffin tours in Iceland by boat

Puffin tours by boat in Iceland are a popular choice, adding a touch of adventure to the experience. Boats used specifically for puffin tours are often small vessels with quiet motors so as not to disturb the nesting birdlife. As mentioned previously, many kayaking and canoeing excursions often include the chance to spot puffins while paddling by. 

A small whale watching boat
Photo Credit: Pxfuel

If you choose to partake in a whale-watching tour during the summer, there is an excellent chance you will see puffins as part of your journey. The best spots for watching wildlife in Iceland can be seen by boarding a vessel from Reykjavik, Akureyri and Husavik (often cited as the ‘Whale Watching Capital of Europe’.)

Tips for Puffin Watching in Iceland 

When watching birdlife, it is always important to remain as quiet as possible. This is so you don’t disturb the natural equilibrium of their environment. 

Don’t attempt to feed the birds. Puffins are more than capable of feeding themselves—these birds are fully matured after six weeks—so they do not need the charity of tourists. Giving any bird food that they are not used to threatens to damage their digestive systems, as well as instil bad habits. If you have snacks on hand, make sure to keep them to yourself. 

If you are taking a puffin watching tour, make sure to always choose a reputable vendor who has the puffins’ best interests at heart. When watching these birds in the while, you must never try to touch them, their burrows or their eggs. If you would like to approach for a closer view, make sure to do so carefully and quietly, making sure to avoid the cliff edge. It is often recommended to keep low to the ground and leopard-crawl so as not to frighten the birds. 

Make sure to leave the area clean. Foreign objects left behind by visitors may be mistaken for food, which again, is liable to hurt the birds. Littering also ruins the Icelandic landscape for other visitors and should be considered a high moral crime while exploring the country.  

Are Puffins an endangered species? 

Puffins are not currently categorised as an endangered species. They are, however, considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of nature. This is due to decreasing populations and the ever-present threat of human activity. Serious problems that still require solutions include overfishing and pollution. 

How can you help support Iceland’s puffins? 

A close up on a puffin's eye
Photo Credit: Tesni Ward Photography. Sea Life Facebook

The best way to support Iceland’s puffins directly is to ensure you are doing your part to protect the environment. This sentiment goes equally for at home as it does abroad. You could, for instance, help to organise a beach clean up or choose to purchase only paper straws and alternatives to plastics and packaging. 

When travelling in Iceland, it is vital to make sure you leave the environment as though you were never there. Iceland’s economy relies on its beautiful nature and pure coastal water, so all guests should strive to respect and care for the land just as much as locals do. 

A small gathering of puffins
Photo Credit: PickPik  

Finally, you could support a wildlife charity with financial donations. These critical and largely-volunteer based organisations work hard to demand conservation efforts, speaking for those who cannot. Because of the Atlantic Puffin’s migratory habits, supporting international charities is just as worthwhile as supporting purely Icelandic organisations.

Finally, sharing your experience with friends is a great way to spread the word about how special Atlantic Puffins really are. Often, word of mouth is the best means of persuading others as to how essential environmental conservation is in our modern world.  

What gear do you need for Puffin watching in Iceland?

A group of birdwatchers
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. CC. Ryan Hagerty

In many places around Iceland, puffin burrows can be seen with the naked eye, either from viewpoints or hiking trails. This makes bird watching an activity that requires very little equipment to enjoy. There are certain bits of kit, however, to keep in mind before setting out.  

Given Iceland’s unpredictable weather conditions, it’s always best to pack away thick clothing layers, ever during the summer. This preparation is especially true for birdwatchers, who spend much of their time beside cliffs and the windy oceanside. It’s recommended to add further accessories, including gloves, scarves and a woolly hat. 

Aside from clothing, handy field guides can often be purchased from Visitors Centres around the island. These make for informative companions, allowing you to identify any birds you might see during your travels. Dedicated twitchers can better adapt to bird watching with visionary enhancement equipment like binoculars and telescopes. 

Are there any tips for photographing Puffins in Iceland? 

Someone photographing a puffin
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. CC. Mike Pennington 

To savour the memory, you’ll want to capture images of Puffins. Make sure to bring a tripod, a high-powered camera body and a range of super-telephoto lenses. Because Puffins are quick flyers, you will need to keep a fast shutter speed on your camera settings. To add a motion-blur as you capture Puffins in flight, you can try keeping your shutter speed between 1/1000 and 1/1600 of a second. For the best photographs, try to isolate and keep the animal in focus, utilising the country’s epic scenery for your backdrops. 

Thanks to the Midnight Sun in summer, there is plenty of light in your days (and nights) seeking out the best Puffin photograph you can. Specific times each day, known as ‘The Golden Hours’, refer to the fantastic light effects of The Midnight Sun. These periods are considered optimum for photographing the island’s landscapes and animals. 

Make sure to shoot your photographs in RAW rather than JPEG. This format better retains colour and detail, allowing you to enlarge your photographs to large, decorative size. 

Follow the Puffin Live Map 

If you’re interested in following the migration habits of Iceland’s favourite bird species, then make sure to check out the website, All About Birds. This interactive online map has been tracking puffin sightings since 2015. This record provides a fascinating insight into the significant habitats of Atlantic Puffins worldwide. Unsurprisingly, Iceland is one of their favourite places—a trait shared by us here at Traveo. Other countries where puffins live include Greenland, Canada, UK, Faroe Islands and Norway. 

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