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.

Nesting Season

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. Akurey and Lundey outside Reykjavik have some of Iceland’s biggest puffin nesting sites.

Where else to see puffins

Westman Islands:

The Westman Islands are famous for their puffin nesting sites. The nesting sites are not easy to reach, but when fall rolls around, people gather around to help the pufflings that get lost in the town’s lights on their way to the sea.

Dyrhólaey:

Just before you reach Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach (driving from Reykjavík), you come to Dyrhólaey. Dyrhólaey, formerly known as Cape Portland by sailors, is a small promontory on Iceland’s south coast, not far from the village Vík. The peninsula is 120 meters (390 feet) high, and the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse is located at the top of the formation, facing the sea. During the summer months, the Atlantic puffin and other birds nest in the area. At that time, it is possible you will not be able to walk on the promontory, but you will get good chances of photographing them.

Ingólfshöfði:

Ingólfshöfi is a small headland and private nature reserve on Iceland’s south coast. It is thought to be the location where Ingólfur Arnarson first arrived in Iceland in or around 874 CE and spent the first winter, and it is named after him as a result. The highest point on Ingólfshöfi is 76 meters (249 ft).

You can expect to see puffins nesting with a variety of other species at Ingólfshöfði, including kittiwakes and guillemots; however, because Ingólfshöfi has diverse vegetation, you can also expect a plethora of seafowl, including many of the country’s saltwater duck species.

People often overlook this nook on the South Coast, making it ideal for admiring puffins away from the crowds.

Papey Island:

Papey Island sits just outside Djúpivogur in the East Fjords. This island is great if you want to get up close and personal with a puffin. This small island was inhabited until 1948, but now its only inhabitants are a thriving birdlife population and the ruins of abandoned old houses, including Iceland’s oldest wooden church. This location is definitely off the beaten path, making it ideal for those looking for a unique puffin sightseeing experience. To reach the island, you can take a short boat ride from Djúpivogur during the summer months.

Borgarfjörður Eystri:

It’s a bit of a drive from Reykjavik to reach Borgarfjörður Eystri, but if you are driving the Ring Road, this is definitely a stop worth making. Around 10,000 pairs of puffins nest in the area, which is considered one of the safest and easiest places to see the birds. If you go to Hafnarhólmi marina, you’ll find shelters and wooden platforms from which you can safely view puffins up close without risking your life on a rocky cliffside.

Tjörnes Peninsula:

Tjörnes peninsula is about a 15-minute drive from Húsavík, the Whale Watching capital of Iceland and is a great place to see some puffin. We recommend you check ou Voladalstorfa and Hringsbjarg. To reach Voladalstorfa, you will need to hike to a bright orange lighthouse, where there is a small, unfenced viewing area. At Hringsbjarg, you will also find a viewing platform, making it a safe place to watch the birds. It is ideal for families.

Grímsey Island:

Grímsey is the only part of Iceland that is actually within the Arctic Circle, but only a part of it. The Arctic Circle is currently shifting northward by about 14.5 metres (48 ft) per year due to long-term oscillations in the Earth’s axis, though this varies significantly from year to year due to the complexity of the movement. The Arctic Circle’s true position in the early twenty-first century is already close to the northern tip of the island, and by the mid-twentieth century, it will no longer cross Grimsey at all.

You can reach the island by boat from Akureyri. The island has about 70 inhabitants, so you can go there and stay a few days and take in the birdlife.

Vigur Island:

Close to Ísafjörður in the West Fjords is the small island of Vigur. The island is best known for its thriving seabird colonies, especially Atlantic puffins, traditional eiderdown production, and historical structures.

The two-story Viktoriuhs, built in 1860, is one of Iceland’s oldest timber buildings and is part of the National Museum of Iceland Historical Buildings Collection. Vigurbreiður, Iceland’s oldest seaworthy boat, is also on Vigur.

Látrabjarg:

The Látrabjarg cliffs in the West Fjords are a popular spot for puffing sightseeing in Iceland. Not only is this Iceland’s westernmost point, but it also has Europe’s largest sea-bird cliff. One of Iceland’s largest puffin colonies can be found in their burrows along these cliffs. These puffins are usually rather calm around people because of the number of visitors; this makes them easy to photograph.

The cliffs are fairly easy to reach, but the road can be a bit rocky, depending on when you arrive. Also, be careful; the cliff is very high and steep.

Breiðafjörður:

Breiafjörur, Iceland’s second largest fjord (Hvalfjörður is the largest), has numerous small islands known for their active birdlife during the summer months. A boat tour around this area will bring you very close to the puffins’ nesting grounds, making it an excellent location for puffin photography. You might even see some dolphins swimming around the bay during your visit!

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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