or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Puffin

The puffins in Iceland are the Atlantic puffin. It is called lundi in Icelandic and is a migratory bird that lives most of its life way out at sea. It comes to Iceland in April/May to nest and moves back out to sea in August/September.

Photo: Charles J. Sharp   

Despite it only living in Iceland a few months out of the year, it has become the national bird of Iceland (even though another migratory bird, the European golden plover, will probably have that distinction among Icelanders themselves)

It is a stocky bird which sometimes looks like an overgrown bumblebee when trying to take flight, it is actually a very good flyer and swimmer.

Basic Info on the Puffin

The International Union for Conservation of Nature registered the Atlantic puffin as a vulnerable species in 2015. However, Iceland does not explicitly have that classification as the country is one of its biggest nesting grounds.

About 10 million birds come each year to nest, which is about 90% of the entire population in the world. This makes it the most common bird in the country. Iceland is without a doubt the best place to see and photograph this beautiful, stocky bird in the world.

The puffin:

  • weighs about 0.5 kilo / 1.1 lb
  • is about 20 cm high on average
  • can dive down to 60 metres / 198 feet
  • is a good flyer with about 400 wing flaps per minute
  • can reach up to 88 km/h / 55 m/h
  • can live up to 20-25 years in nature. The oldest bird found in Iceland was 38 years old

Breeding Colours of the Puffin

puffins in Iceland
Photo: Charles J. Sharp   

The colours of the puffin, as we generally know them, with the colourful beaks is, only for the breeding seasons. When they move out to sea, they lose the colour and external growth of their beaks.

In the winter months, and before they are sexually mature, they have black to orange beaks and are blacker in overall colour.

The Puffin Out at Sea

Puffins have not been studied much at sea as they are hard to find in the vast ocean. However, they spend much time preening to keep their plumage in order and spread oil from their preen glands. They bob around like a cork, propelling themselves with powerful feet. They usually turn towards the wind, even when resting and apparently asleep.

Their colours, black on top and white on the stomach, is typical for seabirds as it gives them camouflage from predators. They are challenging to see from above against the dark, watery background and underwater attackers fail to notice them as they blend with the bright sky above the waves.

Puffin – The Travelling Bird

It is a migratory bird, and the first puffins start arriving in Iceland in the middle of April. By the beginning of May, all puffins have arrived. They usually always return to the same place they were born in.

The first to arrive are sexually mature birds (4-5 years old), who have then been seven months out at sea. They spend their time further south and southeast of Iceland, but some also spend their time at the southern edge of Greenland. Younger birds travel more. They, for example, travel all the way to Newfoundland.

The first birds take hold of the best holes and locations, but puffins often return to the same burrows year after year.

Their nesting period is between the latter part of May to early June. They only have one egg which is about 60g. They nest in a hole which it digs. The burrows can be about 50cm deep. It takes about 40 days to gestate the egg, and the puffling will be in the burrow for about 45 days until it goes out to sea. Then it will spend all its time at sea for the next 3-5 years. It is believed that puffins mate for life. However, that might be due to their preference for going back to the place where they were hatched and lived before, rather than the bird they mate with.

puffling, young puffin, puffins in Iceland
Photo: T.Müller

Most pufflings manage to fly directly out to sea for their travels. But in Vestmannaeyjar, the pufflings sometime get confused by the town’s lights and fly into town instead of out to sea. Due to this, it is custom for children and their parents to go out to the streets to save the pufflings. They go out at night with a cardboard box to pick up the pufflings. They will get a place to rest for the night, but the day after, the children will take them to the beach, where they are set free.

Sadly this has become less common because the puffin stock in Vestmannaeyjar is in great decline, so there aren’t as many pufflings that hatch.

Climate Change Forces it to Move Further North

Photo: Tony Wood

As the ocean gets warmer, a greater number of the puffins in Iceland are moving further north. That is not because they prefer the colder climate but because their food source migrates further north to colder waters. They mainly feed on fry, capelin, krill, squid and crustaceans.

When they fish, they dive underwater using its semi extended wings as paddles to “fly” through the water and their feet as a rudder. They can dive about 60m down into the water and be submerged for up to 1 minute.

The Puffin’s Main Nesting Sites

puffins in akurey, puffin, puffin in iceland
Photo: Special Tours

Vestmannaeyjar in South Iceland has been the puffin’s biggest nesting site. Still, as we already said, the puffins are moving further north to follow their food.

Other places you will puffins in Iceland are Borgarfjörður Eystri in the East Fjords and Grímsey Island north of Akureyri in North Iceland.

In Kollafjörður outside Reykjavík, there are a few islands where puffin nests. About 10 thousand birds nest in Lundey (Puffin Island), 12 thousand in Akurey and even more in Andríðsey. Unlike the pufflings in Vestmannaeyjar, the people of Reykjavík hardly ever see the puffins on land. It does occasionally happen.

Where to Photograph the Puffin

puffins in iceland
Photo: Special Tours

Over the summer months, it is possible to take puffin tours from Reykjavík harbour. We recommend doing the people and puffin watching tour especially.

In Borgarfjörður Eystri you can get close to it on land, but we ask you to be mindful of your surroundings and not disturb the bird.

You will also be able to see them in Vestmannaeyjar, but they are harder to reach there.

Icelanders Hunt and Eat Puffins

Puffins in Iceland are hunted. It, however, has mostly been banned since 2011 due to a decline in its numbers. It’s not due to over-harvesting, but a decline in food and thus, fewer pufflings make it.

Other Predators

puffin in Iceland, puffin predators

Puffins in Iceland have other predators than just humans. The great skua and great black-backed gull can catch the bird in flight or attack those who aren’t fast enough on the ground.

When puffins detect danger, they take off and fly down to the safety of the sea or retreat into their burrows. If they are caught, they can defend themselves with their beak and claws, which they will do vigorously.

Other predators such as the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull cannot take on a grown-up puffin. They stride through the colony, eating eggs that might have rolled out to the burrow’s entrance or recently hatched pufflings that have ventured too far towards daylight.

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