Puffins in Iceland

Puffins in Iceland

One of the most unique, beautiful and downright amusing birds can be found right in Iceland. Puffins are usually compared to penguins for very nearly resembling each other. They are both black and white in color, short and stout. These birds engage in funny antics that makes them so lovable. Over half the world’s population of the Atlantic puffin roost in Iceland. Iceland has about 8 to 10 million of puffins, despite the eagerness of ex-farmers to climb seaside cliffs and harvest their eggs.

Features, Behavior and Migration Range of puffins in Iceland


Puffins are stout, short-winged, short-tailed birds, with black plumage on their upper-bodies and white or brownish-grey bottoms. The head has a black cap, the face is plainly white, and their feet are orange-red. They have larger beaks than other birds. During the breeding season, commencing late spring, their beaks seem larger and appear to have more vibrant colors. But after the breeding season, they shed the colorful outer parts of their bills, leaving a smaller and duller proboscis.
Unique to oceanic predators, puffins can paddle along on the surface and dive underwater on spotting prey. It’s an advantage for them to go below water for food, for which they can dive to depths of 60 to 200 meters. The plump body and black-and-white plumage invite comparisons with penguins. Like penguins and auks, puffins stand upright on land. They have the same build that is wonderful for diving and swimming though penguins do not fly, of course. When pressed, such as returning with a beakful of fish to its clifftop nest, the puffin is perfectly capable of flying. In the air, they can flap their wings up to 400 times per minute. This explains how they are able to cross the Atlantic from, say, France to Newfoundland and Maine in one go.
Penguins often slide on ice floes on their way to a dive into the ocean. One reason puffins amuse birdwatchers is that they are more agile, given to sliding about ice caps and all in all, behaving as playfully as children let outdoors at the first snowfall.
Although puffins and penguins have lots of similarities, they come from different families. Penguins only live in the Antarctic and puffins in the milder latitudes below the Arctic Circle. These sea birds spend most of their lives on the water, coming ashore only to breed and raise their single puffin each year. Their multicolored beak has caused people to give them nicknames like “sea parrot” and “clown of the sea”.

The Bright Bill, Breeding and Molting Plumage


The beak or bill of a puffin is one of its most prominent features. During breeding season, an adult puffin’s bill turns bright orange or yellow and feathers form a rosette at the base of their bill. When winter comes, they shed the sheath on their bill, exposing a small dark bill. The feathers around their eyes molt and are replaced with darker ones. With all those changes to their bill throughout the year, people can be forgiven for thinking that the puffins they see in winter are different from those they see during spring.
Puffin’s bills have this great ability to dangle up to 60 fishes, albeit small ones, neatly lined up all at once. How can they hold on to a fish and catch another one? They have spines on their tongues and roof of the mouth.
Most of the year, puffins remain in open water. The first warm breeze of spring sends them ashore for the breeding season.

Where to Find One


Half of Icelandic Puffins are in the Westmann Island, where they are both harvested and conserved. Icelanders have long harvested puffins for food. During the nesting season, however, Iceland’s children actually stand watch over newborn puffins in the cliffs of Heimaey.
Hornbjarg and Hornstrandir, located at the northwest of Iceland, are two large bird cliffs, where puffins can be found. Since puffins are not harvested in these areas, they have become very trusting of people. Anyone can come close and stroke them. In Hornstrandir, this sort of puffin-human contact makes for an interesting interlude while hiking the otherwise-stark emptiness.
Surtsey, a part of the Westmann Islands (also, “Vestmannaeyjar”) has its share of Icelandic Puffins. Since Surtsey is a new island on the geologic time scale, scientists visit to conduct experiments or study what hardy life forms live in the island. The puffin is a really rare bird, seen only in countries near the Arctic. They have wonderful and unique features, so make sure to add Westmann Island, Hornbjarg or Hornstrandir to catch sight of this amusing bird. You can go for many of the whale watching tours in Reykjavik to see puffins, however this is primarily in the summer time.