The Atlantic Puffin is an iconic seabird of the northern hemisphere, living off the coasts of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Canada, & Maine. They are beloved for their colourful beaks, charismatic personalities, & captivating behaviour. Their lives are full of wonders & surprises that many may not even know about, from their mating rituals to their varied diet.
The Atlantic Puffin is a true wonder of nature. Found along the coasts of North America & Europe, these remarkable seabirds are beloved by bird photographers, bird watchers & marine life enthusiasts worldwide. Their captivating appearance draws in admirers, & their fascinating lifestyle & particular adaptations make them a truly remarkable species.
An introduction to the Atlantic Puffin
The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is a species of auk found across the Northern Hemisphere. These tiny birds are widely recognized for their colourful & unique markings, which include a bright orange beak & ‘eyebrows' in addition to black & white plumage. They are known for their agility underwater, as they use their wings to ‘fly' under the surface in pursuit of their preferred food sources, including fish & crustaceans.
Puffins live & breed in colonies along the coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean, & are often seen in large flocks around coastal regions & on the sea's surface. These birds form lifelong bonds with a single partner & can often be seen in pairs throughout the breeding season. They are a symbol of the wild & beautiful Atlantic Ocean, & are a favoured sight among birders & nature lovers alike.
What are the physical characteristics of the Atlantic Puffin?
The Atlantic Puffin is approximately 10-12 inches long & has a wingspan of up to 25 inches. It has a black back & wings, white underparts & cheeks, a bright orange-red bill, & bright yellow legs & feet. The wings are short & round & the tail is short & wedge-shaped. The Atlantic Puffin is well adapted for swimming with its short, webbed feet & wings adapted for diving & underwater swimmers. It has a streamlined body which helps it to fly faster & farther. It has a hook on its bill that allows it to catch its prey. It also has a barbed tongue that helps it to hold onto slippery prey. The Atlantic Puffin is a very social bird & often found in large colonies. It nests in burrows on rocky cliffs & is a migratory species, wintering in the northern Atlantic Ocean.
What is the typical Atlantic Puffin Habitat?
The Atlantic Puffin is most well-known for its breeding colonies, which are often situated on rocky cliffs, islands, & maritime headlands. Although this puffin species is well-adapted to cold weather, it typically nests in areas where temperatures don't reach below freezing, & often prefers areas with plenty of sea grass & where there are strong ocean currents to bring in food.
Nesting colonies may consist of tens of thousands of individuals & can be found in places such as the Farne Islands in England, the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago in Iceland, the Gulf of Maine in the United States, & along the coast of Newfoundland & Labrador in Canada.
When not breeding, the Atlantic Puffin migrates south for the winter, spending time foraging for food in the North Atlantic Ocean between Canada & Ireland. These puffins are usually found in relatively shallow water, from 1-50 meters deep, during winter.
Atlantic puffins feed on small fish such as sand eels, capelin, & herring, & can live for up to 20 years in the wild.
What makes up the Atlantic Puffin Diet?
The Atlantic Puffin diet consists mainly of fish & small invertebrates, such as crustaceans, molluscs, & echinoderms. Atlantic Puffins hunt for their food during the day, often diving underwater & swimming with the use of their wings. They typically search for prey by following schools of small fish or by scanning the water for motion.
Atlantic Puffins prefer small, schooling fish, such as sand eels, capelin, herring, & sprat. They may also feed on larger fish, such as mackerel, cod, & hake. In addition to fish, Atlantic Puffins consume a variety of invertebrates, including shrimp, crabs, barnacles, mussels, & squid. They will feed on carrion (dead animals) when available.
During the breeding season, adult Atlantic Puffins will bring food back to their young, typically in the form of small, whole fish with their heads still attached. Overall, the Atlantic Puffin diet is very varied, & consists mainly of small fish & a variety of smaller invertebrates.
What are the Atlantic Puffin Mating Rituals?
Like many other seabirds, the Atlantic Puffin has a highly ritualized mating ritual.
When the puffin pair is ready to mate, they will perform a series of courtship displays to establish their bond & strengthen their union. Puffins will often bow to each other, flap their wings, & rub their bills together. This signals to the other puffin that they are ready to mate.
Once a pair has been established, the puffins choose a nesting site together. They will build a burrow in the ground or an inland cliffside. The nest site is often lined with feathers or grass & the couple will share the nesting duties. The female puffin will lay one or two eggs in the nest & the couple will share the task of incubating them. The eggs typically hatch in about a month, with both parents taking shifts.
When the chicks hatch, the parents share the duties of raising & feeding them. The chicks will remain in the nest for several weeks before they can fly. When they are ready to leave the nest, they will be tended to by both parents until they can fend for themselves.
The mating rituals of the Atlantic Puffin are fascinating & help to maintain the species' numbers in the wild.
What are the parenting habits of Atlantic Puffins?
Atlantic Puffins are very devoted parents that mate for life & share equally in the responsibility of raising their chicks. The parents take turns incubating the eggs, which usually consist of two white eggs. After they've hatched, the chicks remain in the nest on the cliffside for approximately six weeks before they fledge. During this period, the male & female puffin parents will take turns feeding the chicks by bringing them sand eels, herring & other small fish. The male parent typically brings more food to the chicks than the female due to their larger size & ability to dive deeper for food. Once the chicks fledge, they are left to fend for themselves. Atlantic Puffins have a very dedicated bond with their chicks & will often come back to the nest to check on them & ensure they are doing alright.
Conservation Efforts for Atlantic Puffins
Atlantic puffins are threatened by various pressures such as climate change, fisheries bycatch, & plastic pollution. To help conserve their population, many conservation efforts have been implemented or are being proposed.
The most significant conservation effort for Atlantic puffins is various governments' designation of critical habitat areas. These areas are meant to protect essential feeding & nesting areas, & they provide a buffer zone where activities such as fishing are prohibited or tightly regulated. This helps to reduce the amount of bycatch & other disturbances, which in turn gives puffins more space to rest, feed, & breed.
In addition to creating critical habitat areas, governments have also implemented regulations on fisheries to prevent overfishing & the accidental capture of puffins in fishing nets. These regulations have successfully reduced the number of puffins caught as bycatch, which helps protect the population. Various other conservation efforts are being proposed & are currently being implemented. One example is the installation of floating “smart” buoys that detect when a puffin is caught in a net & then alert nearby fishermen. This helps reduce the bycatch & helps fishermen avoid fishing in areas where puffins are present.
Other efforts to help protect puffins include increasing research into their population dynamics & behaviour, raising public awareness & education about puffins & the threats they face, & funding conservation projects. These projects can range from providing nesting boxes for puffins to creating artificial reefs to feed on.
Where in Europe can the Atlantic Puffin be easily photographed?
Atlantic Puffins can be easily photographed in many places in Europe, but some of the best locations are Iceland, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, & the United Kingdom.
In Iceland, there are several colonies of Atlantic Puffins along the coast, especially in the Westfjords & along the southern coast. Photographers can capture images of the puffins in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords, the Latrabjarg Cliffs in the Westfjords, the island of Grímsey & on the island of Lundey off Reykjavik.
The Faroe Islands, located between Iceland & Norway, are home to many Atlantic Puffins. Photographers can capture images of them on Mykines & Klaksvik, where the puffins are often seen nesting in the cliffs. On the island of Viðoy, there is a large colony of puffins & other seabirds that inhabit the cliffs.
Ireland is also a great place to photograph Atlantic Puffins. The birds can be seen at several locations, such as the Skellig Michael Nature Reserve, the Saltee Islands, & the Blasket Islands.
Finally, the United Kingdom is home to many Atlantic Puffins. Photographers can capture images of the birds in various locations in Scotland, England & Wales.
Puffins can be photographed in many places around Scotland, particularly along the coastline; some of the best locations to photograph puffins include The Isle of May, off the coast of Fife – this National Nature Reserve is home to the largest breeding colony of Atlantic puffins in the UK. The puffins come to the island each summer to breed & can be admired from the island's cliffs & beaches.
The Isle of Lunga, off Scotland's west coast, is a National Nature Reserve which is home to a large population of puffins, which can be viewed from the cliffs & the surrounding sea.
The Inner Hebrides are home to various sea birds, including puffins. The best islands for puffin photography include Tiree, Coll, & Islay.
The Shetland Islands are a great place to capture images of puffins, most notably the island of Fair-Isle. The islands are home to many breeding colonies, which can be viewed from the cliffs & the surrounding sea.
The Atlantic Puffin can be easily photographed in several locations in Wales. The best places to view & photograph this iconic seabird are Skomer Island, Ramsey Island, & Grassholm Island. These three islands are part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in South West Wales, & are home to the largest seabird colonies in the British Isles. Skomer Island is considered the best place to photograph Atlantic Puffins, as it's home to the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the UK.
Finally, Puffins can be photographed across much of England; however, some of the best locations are in the far North & North East of England. England's only mainland seabird colonies are on the coast of Northumberland & the Farne Islands. These islands are home to around 37,000 breeding pairs of puffins, making it the largest single colony of puffins in England. The Farne Islands are run by the National Trust & are open to visitors during the breeding season, usually from mid-May to the end of July.
Which photography holidays does NaturesLens schedule for photographing the Atlantic Puffin?
NaturesLens offers a range of Atlantic Puffin photography holidays designed to allow photographers of all levels to capture the character of these iconic birds; our trips typically take place in Iceland, Scotland, & Wales & generally are conducted in May, June & July when the Puffins are most active.
Our photography holidays include opportunities that allow photographers to capture stunning images of Puffins as they capture sand eels, interact with each other, & soar in the air. During some of our trips, photographers will also have the opportunity to photograph a wide array of other wildlife, including Arctic Terns, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, & more.
At NaturesLens, we aim to provide photographers with an unforgettable experience that will leave them with beautiful, memorable images. Our trips are led by experienced wildlife photographers who are passionate about wildlife photography & are dedicated to helping photographers capture the best images possible.
About the images used in this article
All the images displayed above were taken by Robin Lowry, who has kindly allowed us to use them. Robin leads several of the tours for NaturesLens with the Skomer trips for Puffin photography being among those he guides for us.