A puffin up close looking straight into the camera

The Atlantic puffin is Icelands signature bird, their look is just irresistable

Meet the peculiar puffins in Iceland

People coming to Iceland are usually eager to see puffins and puffin souvenirs are popular. But what is so special about this little bird? Where do puffins live and when is the best time to see the puffins in Iceland? Where are the best puffin-watching spots?

To no surprise, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has become the signature bird for Iceland. About 60% of the world population of Atlantic puffins nest here, and it is the country's most common bird. Sometimes nicknamed 'sea parrot,' these stocky little birds with parrot- or penguin-like posture and large colorful beaks are just irresistible. The puffin's breeding habits allow us to watch them from a short distance at their nesting site, but it is important not to disturb the birds by going too close.

The best time to see puffins is in April-July

Puffins sitting on top of a bird cliff
The Atlantic puffin comes to Iceland for nesting in April-July

The Atlantic puffin is a migrating seabird that spends winters in the open ocean in the North Atlantic and moves to shallower waters in early spring when the breeding season starts. It sets in bird cliffs and islands for nesting, usually in late March or the beginning of April. When the pufflings are ready in late July or early August, they start moving out to sea again. It is still possible to see them around the coast in August-September, but after that, they move from the coast, so you can't see puffins in the winter in Iceland.

The parents spend hours out on sea hunting each day, but they usually return to the burrow with their catch in the afternoon. Therefore, a sighting can never be guaranteed. The best strategy is to have enough time on your hand and spend at least several hours at the site or come back at a different time of the day.

Nesting - The Puffins make two-bedroom burrows

A person watching puffins at a sea cliff full of birds
Great caution is needed when bird watching at puffin burrow sites

The puffin is a social bird that nests in large colonies. It burrows in the soil on grassy islands and slopes on top of bird cliffs but doesn't lay eggs on sills like most other seabirds. The burrow is curved, about 1,2 meters long, and has two bedrooms, one for the nest and the other is the toilet. The puffin only lays one egg each year, and both parents share responsibilities for incubating and feeding the chick.

Please note!

  • Extreme care must be taken when walking in an area with puffin burrows. The burrows are shallow, and the ground can collapse. This is both matter of concern for the birds' safety and yourself.
  • Many puffin nesting sites are on top of sea cliffs where the edges can be unstable and danger of rockslides.
  • Birds and their nests are protected by law, and disturbing their nests is strictly forbidden.

Where are the best puffin bird-watching spots in Iceland?

Puffins can be seen on coastal waters all around Iceland from spring to fall, so taking a boat ride usually ensures a sighting. For visiting them at their nesting site, several spots are easily accessible and most hold large populations:

  • Vestmannaeyjar

    (Westman Islands) in South Iceland hold Iceland's largest puffin colony on several islands.
  • Dyrhólaey

    in South Iceland has a small but accessible colony close to a car park.
  • Látrabjarg

    cliff in the Westfjords is Iceland's largest bird cliff and westernmost point.
  • Grímsey

    island in North Iceland.
  • Hafnarhólmi

    in Borgarfjörður Eystri East Iceland. A land-connected island with platforms and stairs.

Climate change threatens Atlantic puffins

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list,

the Atlantic puffin is Critically Endangered (CE) in Iceland

and

the global population of the Atlantic puffin is vulnerable (VU)

. Climate change is the leading cause of the puffin population's rapid decline in the past years and decades. For learning more and supporting puffin conservation, check out the

Protect Puffins site

, a project promoted by

Birdlife Iceland

.

Is puffin on the menu in Iceland?

In the past, the eggs and meat of puffins and other seabirds were a valuable food source for Icelanders. Today, some communities hold on to puffin hunting as a tradition, but they are mainly hunted for selling in finer restaurants due to increased demand with increased tourism. However, puffin meat and eggs will likely disappear from menus in the near future due to the puffin population's rapid decline and its status as critically endangered.

Atlantic puffin facts

A flying puffin with the beak full of small fish
The puffin lines up to 20 small fish in the beak to bring home to the puffling

Population: The Atlantic puffin is the most common bird in Iceland: The population is about 2 million nesting pairs and 7 million puffin individuals each fall.

Size: Length 26-29 cm, wingspan 45-65 cm, weight 500 g.

Special skills: The puffin is an excellent swimmer and can dive down to 60 m.

Love life: The Atlantic puffin is monogamous and mates for life.

Housing: The male puffin uses its feet and beak to dig a two-room burrow, one for the nest and the other is the toilet. He also does all the spring cleaning before his spouse arrives.

Life expectancy: The oldest puffin known was 38, but the average life expectancy is 20-25 years.

Puffin food: The Atlantic puffin mainly feeds on small fish such as sandeel and capelin. It also catches juveniles of various fish, as well as crill.

The puffin’s song: Well, if you can call it that… The puffin makes a growling or rattling sound.

Here you can listen to samples.

Do puffins have wings or flippers? Both! Or rather, they can use their wings as flippers. Despite the relative shortness of puffin wings, they are excellent flyers but even better swimmers. They can dive down to 60 m and stay underwater for 1,5 minutes. They hunt sand eels and other small fish that they line up in the beak, up to 6-20 fish in each trip.

No direct relation with penguins. The look and posture of the puffin may resemble a penguin, but they are not close relatives. The penguins belong to the bird family Spheniscidae, but the puffins belong to a family called Alcidae or auks, including guillemots and razorbills. However, puffins and penguins have evolved in similar environmental conditions, leading to a similar outcome in look and skills.

Get inspired

You might also be interested in