By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
Iceland is home to millions of nesting Atlantic puffins, approximately 60% of the global population of 12 million birds, give or take. While this number seems impressive, and you’d think they’d practically be falling from the sky all around us, finding and photographing them can sometimes be challenging.
These hardy birds build their nesting burrows on steep grassy hills near the ocean. They select some of the roughest and most inaccessible terrains for digging their burrows. The cunning Arctic fox, Iceland’s only native land predator, makes quick meals of puffins that make their nests too far inland or in easily accessible habitats.
Additionally, puffins are expert fishers that stay close to their hunting grounds—the ocean. Male and female puffins will alternate taking care of the eggs or pufflings while one heads out to sea in search of food. Sand eels, small fish (not eels) that live in sandy seafloor habitats, are the preferred prey of the Atlantic puffin. Puffins have been seen returning from fishing trips with around ten sand eels tucked away in their serrated beaks. The current Atlantic puffin record for fish stowed in the beak is 62 (according to the Audobon Project Puffin).
The best place to find Atlantic puffins in Iceland is extremely remote and rugged hillsides left inaccessible by sheer rockfaces. On mainland Iceland, these places are few and far between. Lucky for us and nesting puffins, Iceland has hundreds of small islands and islets inaccessible to foxes but accessible to visitors.
A portrait shot of an Atlantic puffin. Puffins don’t exhibit much fear of humans in Iceland; even when approached within 50 feet, they seem quite relaxed and make excellent photography subjects.
A group of Atlantic puffins sitting near their burrows. Each puffin has two adjacent burrows; one for the nest and “pufflings” or chicks, and one for waste.
An Atlantic puffin perched upon a grassy ledge readying itself for flight.
Puffins line their nests with a variety of debris, such as feathers and grass.
Their burrows are often nestled on rocky and steep cliff faces so predators cannot access them. This Arctic fox was spotted only a few miles from some of the puffins in my photos.
A couple of charismatic puffins stretch their wings.
A Nat Hab traveler trying to capture puffins in flight—a daunting task! We try to ensure lots of time around puffins throughout an Iceland Expedition to capture a wide variety of behaviors.
Puffins nest all around Iceland. Visiting Vigur Island in the Westfjords region is a special opportunity. The puffins here are usually backdropped by a stunning snowy landscape, even in the summer.
Up close and personal with the gregarious Atlantic puffin.
An Atlantic puffin launches itself from a cliff in order to take flight. Puffins are clumsy flyers, better equipped for propelling themselves underwater with their wings. Launching from the cliffs like this allows them to gain the speed needed to take off!
A group of puffins sitting on the water waiting for a good opportunity to dive for fish.
Atlantic puffins have rough and raspy tongues that hold fish in place as they open their mouths to catch more. The record is 62 fish, but the most I’ve seen is around 15. Upon closer inspection, this puffin has between 11 and 14 fish. Not bad!
Another close shot of an Atlantic puffin and its haul of sand eels. I can count around ten on this haul. Being able to catch multiple fish in a single trip ensures the young chick in the nest will grow big and strong.
A puffin shows off its beautiful orange beak. A distinctive feature of puffins, these large and bulky beaks become brighter and larger each spring and fade during the winter. It is thought they are used to attract mates and are important breeding signals.
Vigur Island. Home to around 100,000 breeding puffins, this isolated island tucked into a fjord in the Westfjords region of Iceland hosts a small family, an eiderdown farm (no eiders harmed in the process) and important nesting areas for many migratory bird species. We spend part of a day exploring Vigur Island, looking for some of the avian residents while we’re there.