Ultimate Puffins, Iceland 2018 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Aug 27, 2018

Tourism is increasing around the world and travel to Iceland is no exception.  This tiny island country is currently one of the darlings of the travel industry and has seen an exponential increase in travelers to its shores—mostly from the United States and Asia.  While this influx of travelers has created some congestion around Reykjavik and the southern coast, many of Iceland’s spectacular wildlands remain crowd free.  These are the areas where we spend the majority of our time on our Iceland tours.

Puffin with wings spreadAlmost everywhere in the world I travel these days, increased tourism ushers in increased regulations and restrictions.  Again Iceland is no exception.  Normally these new rules tend to diminish the nature/photography experience, but without them, a place can be “loved to death.”  However, in one instance in western Iceland—much to my surprise—restrictions have enhanced it!

During our 2017 Ultimate Puffins trip it was rumored that the amazing puffin cliff at Latrabjarg would be fenced off.  A few years earlier a tourist had fallen to his death—a Darwinian reminder not to get too close to the edge of a 1000-foot-high cliff—and casual travelers still continued to try to get full-frame photos of the very tame puffins with their cell phones.  This close to the cliff edge, the tourist activity trampled most of the vegetation and often chased the birds away from the top of the cliff.  A future Darwinian moment was sure to arise as tourists would walk backwards to the precipitous edge with their phone on a “selfie stick” to get a puffin or two in the frame along with themselves!

Iceland wildflowersI had unhappy visions of a chain-link fence being erected that would interfere with our photography and, ultimately, eliminate this place as a great puffin shoot.  But when our group arrived on location, after a day of travel from Reykjavik, I was pleasantly surprised to see the “fence” was nothing more than a knee-high rope and virtually all of the visitors were respecting this boundary.  Because people had followed the rules, the zone between the rope and the cliff was lush and green and it was studded with wildflowers—and puffins were standing among them.  We had three great days of photography here, enhanced by a simple restriction that made a good photo opportunity even better.

While we were in the West Fjords there were chances to shoot red-throated loons, shorebirds and several additional species of cliff nesting seabirds.  Since puffins go out to sea to forage they do not occupy the cliffs all of the time, allowing us an opportunity for a road trip or two to enjoy local scenery and shoot Iceland’s landscapes and waterfalls.
Like following a giant switchback we wended our way along the southern shore of the West Fjords and into the pastoral horse farms of the north coast.  It was a full day drive, allowing us to see a lot of diverse countryside on our route.  Our goal was Grimsey Island, a small speck in the North Atlantic that lies precisely on the Arctic Circle.  It is the northernmost point of land in Iceland.

That next morning we were at the ferry terminal waiting to board our transport to the island.  It is a three and a half hour cruise and has the potential to be somewhat of a rough crossing if there is foul weather or for folks prone to seasickness.  Though the weather forecast was "iffy," our crossing was relatively calm and our group made the trip without discomfort. 

RazorbillsGrimsey is a circular seabird colony—there is an almost continuous seabird cliff around the entire island.  Tens of thousands of birds nest here but our attention was mainly focused on puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and terns.  Grimsey is also home to "waders and moorland" species—but with such great access to puffins, most of our focus was aimed in their direction.  As an added bonus, we were virtually the only photographers on the island throughout our stay.

Grimsey is spectacular for puffin flight shots.  Because it is a small island located far offshore, there is almost always a fresh wind blowing.  That creates perfect conditions in one location or another to capture the comings and goings of the birds as they commute from the island to their fishing grounds and back. They arrive with beakfuls of fish dangling from their bills to feed their solitary chicks sheltered from predators in their underground burrows.

Puffins on cliffsOur trip was purposefully timed to be able to photograph the puffins with beaks full of fish.  Our timing was good and we had lots of flight shot opportunities.  Many birds were coming to the island with fish.  Due to its offshore location the island is situated closer to some of the fertile fishing grounds than many of the puffin colonies on "mainland" Iceland.  In some cases those mainland commutes could be as much as 50 miles.  On the southern shore of Iceland, those colonies are suffering major puffin population declines as climate change, presumably, has created shortages in food and unfavorable habitat conditions for the small fish that make up their diet.  Our birds were coming in with lots of sand eels (Ammodytes sp.) a fish normally shiny and silvery in color.  But the fish were in a "larval" stage—very thin and somewhat translucent.  As one trip member asked, "What's that snot dripping from their bills?"  And sure enough, from a distance that is what it looked like.  But close up they were distinctly "fishy."

Our four shooting days on Grimsey went by quickly.  With 24 hours of daylight shooting was possible into the "wee hours," and since our guesthouse was a five-minute walk from a beautiful stretch of bird cliffs we could use any free time to stroll over and shoot hundreds of birds as they flew by.  While some of us slept, the diehards were out and shooting!

On our way back to Reykjavik we photographed Icelandic horses, waterfalls, more coastal cliffs and lava fields.  We had a great trip with a very congenial group, a wide variety of weather (and good for photography), and really great access to the birds.  For me, I never seem to get tired of photographing those endearing puffins!

Related Tags:  iceland, puffins

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