Puffins on the Edge Iceland 2019 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jul 25, 2019

Puffins are believed to have evolved in the Pacific. Today there are four recognized species—horned, tufted, and Atlantic puffins, plus rhinoceros auklets.  Millions of years ago when the continental configuration made Earth a very different place, some puffins and other members of the auk family were able to colonize the North Atlantic. There they thrived where, today, Atlantic puffins now greatly outnumber the combined populations of the three other Pacific-dwelling puffins.
There are an estimated 20 million puffins living in the North Atlantic, and half of them breed in Iceland. These great numbers of birds—along with the host of other photogenic seabirds that occupy Iceland’s prime coastal cliff nesting habitat—make Iceland a prime destination for great puffin photography.
Puffin with capelinThough millions of pairs might seem to be impressive numbers, in recent years puffin breeding success in southern Iceland has met with huge puffin colony nesting failures due to a scarcity of food to feed their chicks. This dearth of prey species is largely attributable to ocean warming by climate change and possibly predation of sand eels and capelin—puffin mainstays—by warmer water fish like mackerel moving in from the south. But in northern Iceland the scene seems to be different and puffins are doing very well. Some colonies are growing and fish currently seem plentiful.  But this increase in colony size may be due to recruitment of southern birds moving northward following the shift in the food supply, rather than a result of any significant increase in food abundance.
This year we visited two northern puffin colonies—Latrabjarg on the westernmost point of land in Iceland, and Grimsey Island situated on the Arctic Circle. Grimsey is located 25 miles north of the mainland and it is Iceland’s northernmost point.  Latrabjarg has been a perennial favorite of mine and I have been bringing groups there for 25 years. Trio of puffinsLatrabjarg is a great location because the puffins are ridiculously tame there and the puffins habitually stand on cliffs that are festooned with several colorful species of flowers. It makes for great shots.  Puffins have not been hunted here in decades so they have become very trusting of people. What’s the downside? It’s a long drive to get there and many cruise ship passengers are now bussed there from a nearby port town on a regular basis which diminishes the remote, rugged and wild feeling we’ve so often enjoyed over the years.
From Latrabjarg we had a daylong drive to Akureyri on the north coast. We drove  through volcanic valleys, horse farms and sheep-studded hay meadows while winding our way around numerous scenic fjords. The ferry from Dalvik to Grimsey set sail the next morning for the 25-mile crossing. The crossing was dead calm.  We took our 4X4 Sprinter van on board with us to use as our transportation on the island. It allowed us to drive to remote spots on the island’s primitive dirt tracks and avoid long hikes with our heavy camera gear.
Grimsey IslandGrimsey is an idyllic spot. There is one tiny “town” with about 60 residents. It is normally quiet and pastoral. Tourists are generally few and most are ferry-riding day trippers. Tens of thousands of puffins, as well as thousands of other seabirds of half a dozen species, populate the crumbling cliffs that ring the island. 
We arrived at Grimsey at the height of the puffin chick-rearing season. Birds returned from the sea with their beaks stuffed with small fish. Each bird quickly delivered that meal to their one growing “puffling” (a relatively new word that would make a professional ornithologist cringe). We had struck gold with the number of birds—each with a beakload of sand eels—that were easily photographed both in the air and on the ground.
Join us for Puffins on the Fly in 2020During our stay here we chartered a boat to shoot birds from the water. This
provided great opportunities to photograph puffins, murres, razorbills and fulmars
on the sea at close range. The sea was extremely smooth allowing for wonderful reflection images of the floating birds.
Snow bunting IcelandThe island has lots to offer including thousands of nesting Arctic terns, common eiders, purple sandpipers, dunlin, European golden-plovers, red-necked phalaropes and snow buntings. There were many opportunities to photograph birds in flight. Our traditional group shot was taken next to the giant concrete ball that sits directly atop the Arctic Circle. The cliffs provide spectacular landscape images. Overall we had an amazing time making images of puffins on cliffs that  were literally across the street from our cozy accommodations.
After five nights on the island we headed back to the mainland, arriving late in the  evening. After an overnight stay in Akureyri we made the long drive across Iceland from north to south, stopping for scenic waterfalls like Gullfoss and Kolufoss in Kolugljufur canyon, before arriving in Keflavik to catch our flights home the following day.
A Note About Puffins in Iceland
The name of this trip—Puffins on the Edge—has double meaning. It both refers to the puffins’ penchant for nesting in sod burrows on the edge of tall sea cliffs and their precarious situation with climate change food shortages. This scarcity of food is effecting all four species and seriously impacting many southern North Atlantic colonies of Atlantic puffins. Puffin in flight with fishIn addition to food shortages, puffins also suffer from oil spills, sea born pollutants and hunting.
While we were on Grimsey we saw (non-islander) poachers illegally shooting birds on the water from a small boat. We also saw puffin netters legally catching birds for an upcoming festival feast in the Westmann Islands where hunting puffins has ceased due to their declining numbers. Murre and kittiwake egg collecting is still a popular food source for the islanders and thousands of eggs are taken every year. Most of these seabirds only lay one egg a year. Contrary to islander belief, they do not lay another one to replace it. Old traditions die hard.  Obviously this does not sit well with photographers and others who come to enjoy these amazing birds. But there is growing opposition to puffin hunting as local tourism increases, and the puffin hunters are getting older and soon will be too old to work the cliffs. For the younger guys, it is safer and more cost-effective to buy a frozen chicken.

Our group at the Arctic Circle marker


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