Few birds have the gift of evoking such sympathy in humans as the small, comical-looking puffin. In many ways, its appearance is reminiscent of penguins, although the two aren’t closely related. Nor do they share a habitat: Penguins are inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere, while all four species of puffins inhabit the Northern Hemisphere instead. Let’s take a closer look at the life story of one of them today, the Atlantic Puffin.
You’d think the Atlantic Puffin would have a good relationship with humans. After all, who among you would hurt this cute creature that moves on land with such touching clumsiness? The expression on its face combines curiosity with a hint of sadness. Exactly the combination that people find cute and charming. But the reality is not so bright.
A combination of hunting, oil pollution, fish declines, and other threats have landed the Atlantic Puffin with a “vulnerable” classification. What’s more, many of their traditional habitats were deforested centuries ago, such as the island of Iceland. Maybe that’s why the sadness is on their faces?
I went to photograph puffins on the small Norwegian island of Runde, within sight of the town of Ålesund. For a significant part of the trip, I was walking with more than thirty kilograms on my back, since I wanted to photograph the puffins with a variety of lenses. It was tiring but beautiful as I walked under the midnight sun.
In early July, when I visited, the days are very long. The sun sets below the horizon for just a moment and then begins its celestial journey high into the sky again. It’s great time for photographers, because – aside from sleeping – you can shoot all day long. And given the beautiful scenery, you’ll never run out of subjects.
Runde, Norway is home to many birds that raise their young on the island. On my way to the puffin colony, I walked through the grass-covered interior of the island, where Great Skuas attacked me every once in a while. The Skuas defend their breeding territory with great courage and vigor. As soon as you are near their often-unseen nests, the parents turn into a pair of fighter jets that attack directly on your head.
Most of my time, however, I spent on the edge of the cliff that puffins uses as a maternity ward. I deliberately say maternity ward, not home, because the true home for these birds is far out at sea. That’s where they feed, rest and sleep. Once a year, puffins return to land to lay a single egg in their nesting burrow. Amazingly, they time everything perfectly, so that the eggs will hatch around the time that migrating fish start to reappear in nearby waters.
After 42 days of relative peace on the nest, the real toil begins for both parents. They must provide enough fish for their only offspring. If there are no other options, they can fly 50 to 100 kilometers away to find fish. Then they can dive more than 20 meters deep. Puffins feed their offspring up to nine times a day. To do this, they carry fish in their beaks like a strange mustache.
Raising a young puffin requires attentive parenting, which is probably a familiar story to many of you. But what makes Puffins different from us humans is the very low “divorce rate.” Only 7% of couples break up!
For about 50 days of hard work, the puffin parents stop at nothing to feed their beloved chick. Until one night, alone, under cover of darkness, the chick leaves its burrow and plunges into the dark depths. The wings it has trained will carry it to the safety of the ocean’s surface.
If the puffin is lucky, it might come back next year. But the statistics are merciless. About three-quarters of immature puffins never get to blow out the first candle on their birthday cake. After the first year, the puffin’s chance of survival gradually increases. In another four years, it may start a family of its own, and if it’s lucky, it will fly over the waters of the Atlantic for twenty long years.
I didn’t get to see the chicks with my camera. I had to leave the reef and the island at the height of the parental rush. But I’m sure I’ll return to Runde, Shetland, or another Puffin Island. The time I spent there was one of my most unforgettable experiences as a photographer.
I went on a cruise to Iceland and Greenland. Puffins were put of season. Going to Norway in April. Hope to see some there.
Great photos, great adventure, great story! Thank you,
Beautiful photos, Libor. I absolutely adore puffins, to me they are one of the most photogenic bird species.
However, these days, when I look at such photos I cannot get rid of this overwhelming feeling that this is one of the last moments we would be able to see such wildlife. The climatic and environmental changes have drastically sped up during the last few years.
Sadly, I am afraid that our generation is one of the last to experience the world in the remnants of its original beauty. Already, many places have been irreversibly decimated. Just yesterday I read a Facebook post by my friend Tomas Grim who was horrified by the situation in Madagascar. I guess it’s really too late to cry somewhere.
My viewing experience with a puffin “maternity ward” was in Elliston Newfoundland (near Bonavista). I had binoculars that served me well, but only had a travel camera with a short zoom. These birds were incredibly entertaining and beautiful at the same time, much like this article and the images. An 11-16mm zoom? I commend you for your stealth and skill!
I’ve only seen Newfoundland from a plane so far and it must be a beautiful part of the country. I must go there sometime. Not just to see the Puffins. I’m very pleased, Bruce, that you found my article entertaining. More to follow.
You’ve certainly captured such lovely photos of the puffins! I was fortunate to see some off the coast of Nova Scotia this past summer and had no idea how small they are. I had to zoom in a lot to actually see what wasn’t black blobs haha.
Thank you Linda for your comment. You are right that from the photos one expects the puffins to be much larger.
Mr. Libor, beautifully written article! Your photographs are excellent. I hope the Puffin survives for many many centuries.
Thank you very much Ron for your kind comment. I wish the puffins and the other ten thousand or so bird species the same.
Here in the UK we normally have several good puffin areas – the best in my view being Hermaness at the northernmost tip of the Shetland Islands. Sadly, this year bird flu has been a major problem for sea birds in the UK.
Puffins are wonderful photographic subjects, best photographed in non-sunny conditions. The combination of black and white feathers can be very challenging in bright conditions, although you have taken some excellent against the light shots.
Thank you for your comment Tony. Bird flu is indeed a problem. Especially bird populations that have slow reproduction can take years to recover from it.
And thanks for the tip on Shetlands. A friend of mine was there too and brought back some great photos from there. I only saw them from the deck of the Norena, on the way to Iceland.
Lovely images and an interesting article, Libor!
“A combination of hunting, oil pollution, fish declines, and other threats have landed the Atlantic Puffin with a “vulnerable” classification.”
Sadly one of the ‘other threats’, avian flue, has in many places devastated nesting sea bird populations over the past year, as the following article heartwrenchingly describes: www.theguardian.com/envir…-birds-aoe
In relation to this also a warning to those planning to visit nesting sites: don’t pick up dead birds if you come across them – the chance of infection is small but real. The same goes for your pets – there are some known cases of dead foxes infected by bird flue.
Thanks for the update, Greg. Bird flu is a real problem. Especially this mild winter in Europe has been a disaster. Right now they are killing off a farm near us with three-quarters of a million hens because of suspicion of bird flu.
Beautiful written and amazing pictures Libor!
I saw and photographed puffins for the first time in Iceland this year and it was such a great experience! Can´t wait to experience the puffins again!
Hi Till, thank you so much. When I was sorting through those pictures, I was thinking the same thing. If it works out, I’d like to go to Puffins this year.