Smartly dressed in black and white finery and sporting a colorful beak and expressive black eyes, the Atlantic Puffin is one of nature’s most adorable creatures. Traveling nature lovers and birdwatchers go to great lengths to spot the lively sea birds, and their cute looks and antics have earned them nicknames like “sea parrot” and “clown of the sea.”
But the puffins, weighing 19 ounces or less and measuring around 10 inches in length, aren’t putting on a show for travelers to North Atlantic countries. They’re showing off their colors in the warmer summer months to find a potential mate. After finding the love of their life, their beaks fade to a duller hue for the winter.
Like most sea birds, puffins have long life spans. Most live to be between 15 and 20 years old with the oldest on record, a chick in Norway, making it to the ripe old age of 41!
Even more amazing, puffins are monogamous and spend their lives together laying one egg per year with both parents raising their young together. They wait until age three to six years to breed, and their young, called pufflings, take several years to mature.
Puffins are picky about where they live and the happy couples return to the same burrows each year. The cozy burrows are lined with feathers, seaweed, and grasses.
Puffins live mostly on the water and are excellent fliers, swimmers, and divers. They flap their wings 400 beats per minute to reach speeds up to 55 mph. They dive up to 200 feet below the water’s surface still flapping their wings while hunting for fish. Their large, orange feet help them steer.
So where are the best places to go to get a glimpse of these elusive birds? They’re the official bird of Labrador and Newfoundland Canada, and, with more than 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic Puffins, Iceland is the puffin-watching capital.
Around 30 percent can be found in Norwegian territory, and looking for them on a summer holiday in Norway when they come ashore to breed is a popular sightseeing adventure.
The vast majority of puffins in Norway are found in the northern part of the country along the Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea where they come ashore to breed. Only one percent or less breed in the high-Arctic marine zone.
Puffins are mostly seen in the Svalbard archipelago, on the rocky outcrop Bjørnøya (also known as Bear Island) along the western coast of Spitsbergen, and in the Barents Sea. Rugged and remote, the Svalbard archipelago lies between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Norway’s southernmost large colony of puffins is found on the island of Runde near Alesund. So, if you are not heading far north, this is where you want to go.
Runde is very small and you’ll find only about 150 human inhabitants on the island. However, the bird population, in general, is huge. There are around 500,000 seabirds including as many as 100,000 puffins.
This island is a joy to visit on its own, and we spent a day there hiking and Puffin hunting. It is about an hour up to their colony, however, be aware that they are only there for the summer and usually leave at the end of July. We did not manage to see any as they typically come home to feed late in the evening. So, keep that in mind too. Inform yourself at the visitors center before coming or upon arrival.
Lovund in Hedgeland along the so-called “Helgeland coastal road” or Helgelandskysten, a section of the stunning Kystriksveien we drove just recently. It is one of the outer islands in the region and requires a little driving south of Bodo, plus a few ferries if you want to get there directly. Although personally, I would just plan it in on your way along the coastal road as it’s a stunning area to visit in and of itself.
Lovund island has one of the country’s largest puffin colonies boasting an excess of 300,000 birds. The island’s proximity to the cities makes it a popular place to search for puffins. Located off the Hedgefield coast, the remote area covers less than five square miles and only has 475 inhabitants. A ferry from Stokkvågen or a boat from Nesna will take you there. At the local Coastal Culture Center, you can learn about the wildlife and the life of the people who live here.
Vesterålen, in the northernmost part of Nordland County and the adjacent Lofoten archipelago, are also excellent birdwatching destinations. One of the largest seabird colonies including 80,000 pairs of puffins is found on the small island of Bleiksøya about 90 minutes by ferry from Andenes.
You can also find Puffins on the Lofoten if you are visiting this stunning corner of Norway. You need to get to either of the more remote islands in the chain of Værøyor or Rost. On Værøy you need to hike to their nesting cliffs outside of Sørtland for one chance to see them. And on the small island of Røst in Lofoten there were an estimated 1.5 million puffins in 2006, and you will need to do a tour to see them.
Many puffin-seeking travelers find Bleik Island one of the best places for their quest. Bleik is a fishing village in Nordland County’s Andøy Municipality on the northwestern part of the Island of Andøya. And then there’s the seabird colony at the Bleiksøya Island Nature Reserve off the coast of a triangular-shaped island called Bleiksøya where you’ll find one of Norway’s largest puffin colonies.
Food shortages have dwindled that number but there are still hundreds of thousands. You just have to be at the right place and at the right time to see them.
Norway’s easternmost point, in the heart of the Varanger peninsula, is another great place to see Puffins, along with various other sea birds. Apart from the distance you have to travel to get to this part of Norway, the visit to the island is relatively simple for such a remote location. It is a 10 minute ferry ride from Vardo, a ferry that runs almost hourly during summer (you can see the schedule here).
Most people don’t go to the island for the puffins alone as this island is one of Norway’s premier birding locations. There are over 100 species and 80,000 birds on the island including White-tailed Eagles, Red-throated Pipits, Common Guillemot, Black-throated Thrush and Lesser Short-toed Lark. You can also spot both whales and dolphins from here.
Puffins and other sea birds are plentiful and everywhere down Norway’s coastlines, and you don’t have to travel far to see them. But as birders will tell you, they often take flight after you only get a glimpse of them. Sightings take time, planning, the right location, and the right guide. The colonies can be reached by a guided boat tour or by hiking.
You must stay very quiet and still to get a good look at puffins, and it helps to have binoculars or a telephoto lens. Learn to emulate a nature photographer. You should also take care not to get too close to the edges of the cliffs where they nest.
The grassy slopes camouflage the network of tunnels where the puffins have dug burrows to lay their eggs. The holes can easily collapse when stepped on, creating a dangerous situation for you.
From our experience visiting Runde, it pays to know when they will be on land, as they spend most of the year out to sea and only come to land to nest and feed their young. This is usually throughout the summer.
Also, they still spend most of their day out to sea fishing, so trying to view them later in the day or early evening is ideal. However, it also depends on the colony. I can only speak from our time at Runde, so do some research before you come.
The adorable, clownish puffins don’t appear to be afraid of humans. However, this doesn’t mean they want you to pet them. Touching their features can actually harm them because they have water-repelling properties that can be ruined by a human’s touch. It’s important not to feed or touch them. Lay quietly in the grass, approach them slowly, and watch them motionless.
Because of Norway’s physical geography, the birding seasons differ depending on where you are. Northern Norway lies within the Arctic Circle and central and southern Norway do not.
The climate also differs between the east and the west. December, January, and February are cold and dark, and no time for bird enthusiasts anywhere except for a few other seabird species along the coastlines such as diving ducks and grebes.
Northern Norway is the main nesting region for puffin colonies, particularly on Lovund Island, Runde Island, and Western Spitsbergen. Overall, the breeding season occurs between April and August for sea birds, and the prime season to spot puffins is June through August.
On Svalbard, the exact arrival and departure dates are not known, but they arrive in early to mid-May in some parts of the archipelago. On Spitsbergen, the largest and only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago, adult puffins have been seen feeding their chicks as late as the last week in September.
On the island of Runde, the prime season is May through July. Guided boat tours are offered here during the summer.
Puffin tours offer the best options for spotting puffins and observing them up close in their habitats. Board a classic mahogany boat or a luxury cruiser for tours that last from three to five hours. The boats are warm and comfortable, and the views of the Norwegian fjords are amazing.
The tours feature a host of amenities such as insulated body suits, hot coffee, snacks, or even a lunch or dinner of Arctic fish.
The local guides are knowledgeable and narrate the history, geography, and ecology of the region and the best way to see puffins. You’ll also spot other wildlife such as sea eagles, eider ducks, and seals. Dolphins and small pilot whales play in the water.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!