Iceland is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of puffins. Over half of the world population of the Atlantic Puffin breeds in Iceland. It is estimated that around 3 million pairs breed in Iceland each year – that´s 6 million puffins but only 70% of the total are breeding birds. So the total population of puffins in Iceland is between 8 and 10 million birds.
Puffins are both beautiful and fun to look at. They exhibit amusing antics and maneuvers both in air and on land. Perhaps it is this combination of strange colorful look and behavior that make them so loveable.
There are a number of places in Iceland where you can visit the Atlantic Puffin. Látrabjarg is one of three largest bird cliffs in Iceland. Located in the west of Iceland it is also as far west in Europe you can get. Other Puffin areas are The Westmann Islands , Breiðafjörður and Lundey ( Puffin Island) just outside Reykjavik. Lundey is not nearly as big a puffin colony as the others but around 30.000 puffins inhabit this small island which is just 3 minutes sailing from Reykjavik.
The other two large bird cliffs are Hornbjarg and in the Natural Reserve Park of Hornstrandir which is in the north west of Iceland. In Hornstrandir it´s ideal to combine hiking and birdwatching.
The Puffins in Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg are more trusting towards people than in other places due to the fact that these areas are not harvested. No puffins or birds are caught in Hornstrandir Natural Reserve Park. We humans are only visitors in their backyard. Many puffins in that area are so fearless that we sometimes can crawl slowly towards them and touch them gently.
In the Westmann Islands, which holds about half of all Icelandic puffins, the puffins are both harvested and saved. Puffins have been a vital source of food through the centuries for Icelanders in the islands. However, they are sustainbly harvested because Icelanders know they need them again next year. Icelander´s also save the puffins when in August millions of newborn puffins leave their burrows in the cliffs of Heimaey—the main island in the Westmann Islands. The puffins leave at night, using the moon to navigate. But the streetlights of Heimaey seem to throw off some of the young birds’ flight plans. When that happens, it’s time for the children of Heimaey to launch the Puffin Patrol—basically a search and rescue operation for the befuddled birds, which, instead of flying out to sea, fly into town where they crash-land and end up on the streets. The children of Heimaey have been saving young pufflings for generations. In fact, at the end of the summer, releasing them by the hundreds to the safety of the sea has become a local tradition. The harvesting season of puffins in the Westamann Islands is from July 1. to August 15 and soon after that the Puffin Patrol starts rescuing the baby puffins on there way to sea. A baby puffin is called “Pysja” in Icelandic.
Around the year 1900 the puffin was almost made extinct in the Westmann Islands because of harvesting. The puffin was hunted for it´s down which was exported to Denmark. The hunting was banned for 30 years and when it was harvested again Icelanders started using a hunting method from the Faroe Islands, where the puffins are caught in a net on a long pole.
Puffins have landed and are making homes on the second-newest island on our planet, Surtsey. It’s part of the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). Surtsey erupted from the ocean as a volcano in November, 1963. Since then only scientists are allowed on the island to study the natural progression of life as it takes hold.
Puffins talk in their underground burrows. In Iceland they nest in the soft earth in underground tunnels. So the sound one hears them make in their soft earthen rooms is a soft growling-moaning. If you sit quietly on the grass, you’ll hear them talking underground in their nest. Like other auks they breed in colonies. One egg is laid generally in burrows on the boundary of rock and turf layers but also in other protected spots. Atlantic Puffins dig burrows underground, about 2 feet in length for their nest, using their beaks to dig and their webbed feet to kick the dirt out. The same puffin was found nesting in the same hole for 30 years which means it was at least 35 years old.
The latin name for puffins is Fratercula Arctica . The first word in the latin name, Fratercula means “little brother” or “friar”. This name can come from their habit of holding their feet together when out of water, giving the appearance of praying. Or it could come from their black and white bodies, resembling a cleric’s clothing.
No doubt the puffin is one of the top photo models in bird photography. The colorful heavy beak and the white face is so characteristic that it cannot be confused with any other species. Note that it has red legs and feet like the black guillemots but unlike all other auks of the region. A characteristic feature of the puffins contrary to other auks is their “at rest” position. They usually stand upright on their feet. Other auks usually sit on their lower legs. Also, the puffin can walk much better than other auks. It is the most common sea bird of Iceland.
These sea birds spend most of their lives on the water, coming ashore only to breed and raise their single puffling each year. Their multicolored beak has caused people to give them nicknames like sea parrot and clown of the sea.
Along with the other Alcids, Puffins swim well underwater using their flapping wings to propel them under the surface and their feet to maneuver. Their bodies, similar in shape to the flightless Penguins, are wonderful for diving and swimming but clumsy in the air. The puffin can dive to about 60 meters. Taking off from land, a Puffin may jump from a cliff to get enough lift to fly. From the water, a Puffin flaps furiously into the wind to get airborne, similar to how airplanes will head into the wind during takeoff.
A common misconception is that Puffins are related to Penguins. Although both birds have many similarities, they come from different families. Additionally, Penguins only live in the Southern hemisphere, the Puffins in the Northern hemisphere.
Like penguins, the Atlantic Puffin’s bodies is camouflaged. If a predator from the ocean, such a shark saw a Puffin, the white would blend in with the sky, water, and water above. If viewed from above, the Puffin’s black back and head would blend in with the water.
There are many fabulous pictures of Puffins with their bills full of dangling fish, many times all neatly lined up. Hmmm… how a Puffin can hold one fish while catching another? The answer lies in the spines on their tongues and roofs of their mouths, securing spearing a fish. Because of their way of holding the fish, scientists have been able to count up to 60 fish (albeit small ones) in a hungry Puffin’s mouth.
During breeding season, an adult Puffin’s bill becomes bright orange and yellow colors. Atlantic Puffins also have blue on their bills. Their feathers form a rosette at the the base of the bill. As winter draws near, the adult will shed the sheath on his bill, exposing a smaller dark bill. The feathers around their eyes molt and are replaced with darker ones. With these seasonal changes, the Puffins’ appearance changes dramatically. In fact, it was once thought that the Puffins with winter coloring were a different species than the well-known Puffins with their breeding plumage.
During the winter, Puffins often live a solitary life or in small groups, never setting foot on ground but living totally at sea. But during spring as the warm breezes blow, they begin their journey back to their nesting ground, the same one where they were born.
Arriving at the shore, they may spend a few days still in the water, congregating with others and possibly locating their mate whom they may not have seen since last year. Finally, the Puffins decide it is time to become land animals once more. They go find their nesting place from last year, meeting their mate there if they had not had a water rendezvous a few days earlier.
Puffins usually keep the same mates for life. However, if no offspring are produced for several years, they will “divorce” and find a new mate. Puffins breed when they become five years old. If a Puffin is at the age to begin breeding, they will seek out a mate from the other young Puffins or take an older mate whose previous partner had died.