Puffins in Iceland
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Iceland’s wildlife has long been a source of wonder and pride for its locals. We have a number of beautiful species of birds and fish that call the island home. Visitors come from all over the world to see Iceland’s natural beauty, and hopefully to snap some pictures. In your travels, you are bound to see ravens, arctic terns, and other birds common to the country. But the bird species most tourists want to see is the puffin. So now you’re asking, where to see puffins in Iceland?
How to See Puffins in Iceland
Contrary to popular belief, neither the puffin (Icelandic: Lundi) nor the raven (Icelandic: Hrafn) is the national bird of Iceland. This title belongs to the Gyrfalcon (Icelandic: Húsönd), a lethal predator that’s only found in the northern part of Iceland. But back to the puffin; there are three types: the Atlantic puffin, the Horned puffin, and the Tufted puffin. Only one is found in this country: the Atlantic puffin.
They have a white chest and black back, a bright orange beak, and orange legs. Two nicknames for them are ‘clown of the sea’ and ‘sea parrot’ because of their striking colors. The noises they make also sound a little like laughter. They are about a foot (30.5cm) tall with a wingspan of about two feet (61cm). If you’ve come to Iceland to see puffins, you’re in luck; 60% of the world’s Atlantic puffins live here. During the breeding season, this is as much as 8-10 million.
Puffins nest on clifftops in huge colonies, where they each dig a burrow to lay a single egg. They feed mostly on fish and so of course, their habitat is always near to the ocean. They hunt by diving into the water and using their wings to propel them. Their beaks are designed to carry several small fish at once; ten fish per trip is average. So where are the best places to find them here? Let’s take a look:
The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)
This is a set of 14 islands below the south coast of Iceland. Only four are inhabited with people, and the main island, Heimaey, has a huge population of puffins. The locals actually have a significant part to play in the continuance of their puffin population; more on this later. The Westman Islands can be reached via ferry from Landeyjahöfn on the south coast of Iceland. You can bring your rental car in Iceland onto the ferry if you want to drive while there. However, Heimaey is small enough to be walked or cycled around, and there are many small hikes to hill tops. From these vantage points, you’ll see a lot of puffins in the summer. Puffin is also occasionally eaten here too.
Next to the village of Vík on the south coast lies this famous beach. It’s well known for its landmark, the Dyrhólaey stone arch, but also for the bird watching opportunities. Reynisfjara is a popular nesting area for puffins in summer, who dig their burrows in the grass on cliff edges. Stay a safe distance from these birds, as well as a safe distance from the ocean. Sneaker waves have been known to drag unsuspecting tourists away, so keep at least 30 meters from the shore. This beach was used as a filming location for the popular series Game of Thrones.
This area, in the north of Iceland above the town of Húsavík, plays host to a large puffin colony. To get the best view, hike for 15 minutes to the tip of the peninsula, which is known as Voladalstorfa. Not only that; you will also get an incredible view of the Greenland Sea. You’ll see a large population of another bird species here: rock ptarmigans.
Látrabjarg is found in the north-west of Iceland, an area known as the Westfjords. These cliffs are the western-most point of the country and are home to millions of birds. The puffins here are so fearless and familiar with humans that they barely budge when you come close. Of course, keep your distance, because without realizing you may be stepping on puffin burrows as you approach.
If you’re sticking close to Reykjavík during your time in Iceland, there is a puffin colony not far away. Viðey Island is only a short ferry ride from the capital, leaving from Skarfabakki pier. This tranquil place, as well as offering puffin watching, is also a great day out. It rose to even bigger fame in 2007 with the unveiling of the Imagine Peace Tower. Yoko Ono, the wife of the late John Lennon, chose Viðey as the location for this tribute to her husband. The tower is illuminated for two periods every year: December 21st to January 1st, and March 20th-27th.
Puffin Bird Breeding Season
For most of the year, between September and May, puffins live out at sea. They return to land only to breed and raise their young (baby puffins are known as pufflings). So, you’ll only see puffins in Iceland from May to August. Puffins mate for life and return to the same burrow every year, where they lay a single egg. The puffin colonies separate in the winter, and their migration back to their burrows can be hundreds of kilometers. When the pufflings hatch, within about six weeks they are strong enough to take care of themselves. But human presences near puffin colonies have led to interferences with the pufflings’ instincts. This is where the locals of Vestmannaeyjar come in.
The pufflings’ first instinct when they’re ready to leave the nest is to get to the ocean. They do this at night, but at this point, they can’t properly fly, so they glide down to the water. Unfortunately, they get distracted by the town lights Vestmannaeyjabær, the main urban area of Heimaey. They drift into the town by mistake, and since they can’t fly, they’re stuck there. That is until the youth of Vestmannaeyjar come to the rescue. Around the end of August, the town’s children head out at night and search for the pufflings. They keep them in a box until the next morning, then take them to the island’s puffin center. The staff there will measure the pufflings to determine if they’re ready to be released. If not, they’ll look after them until they are ready. Were it not for this practice, many pufflings would die. This activity is a great source of fun and pride for the local kids.
Puffin Tour Iceland
Now you know where to find puffins, you could just jump in your rental car and search for them yourself. Or, you could join a guided tour to see them. Many companies offer boat tours that will take you close to the cliffs where puffins nest. There are several smaller, uninhabited islands near to the capital that can be easily reached by boat, such as Akurey.
Since the guides know exactly when and where to go, you’re guaranteed to see a puffin colony. From a boat, you’ll also be able to watch them dive into the water and come out with a catch. Other day tours are available that combine land exploration with a puffin spotting boat tour. So, in one day you could visit the Golden Circle (Iceland’s most popular tourist route) and see some puffins. Or, you could see some puffins and perhaps even see some whales; many species frequent the waters around Iceland.
Other Birds in Iceland
There are 413 confirmed species having been spotted in Iceland, so the island is a bird watcher’s paradise. You will encounter an abundance of graylag geese downtown in summer; they come here to breed, then migrate in winter. Be careful not to get too close; they are very defensive of their territory, particularly if they have goslings. Then there is the aforementioned raven, whose feathers and eyes are all black. Ravens have a special place in Norse mythology, being the birds that Oðin uses to keep watch over the land.
They disappear from urban areas in summer and live in the countryside, then return in winter. At this time, you will see many perched on buildings and lampposts, making their distinctive croak. You may also see the arctic tern in summer; these birds have a white body, blackhead and orange beak. They’re a protected species and will fiercely defend their young, even dive-bombing you from above if you get too close. They migrate all the way to Antarctica in the summer, then back to Iceland in the summer. This means a yearly journey of around 25,000 miles.
With surrounding oceans full of fish and little competition from predators, it’s no wonder so many puffins call Iceland home. Take a visit to Iceland in the summer and make the most of the long stretches of daylight. Admire these birds as they raise the next generation of puffins. Remember to give them their space and they’ll happily stand and watch you as you snap a photo.
Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.