10 best places to see a puffin in the British Isles

Visit one of these puffin hotspots in the British Isles for a wildlife encounter to remember. 

Atlantic puffin

It has been suggested that we adore puffins, or ‘sea parrots’ as they are traditionally known in northern Scotland, because their rotund features and comical gait on land remind us of human babies. That may be a little far-fetched, but there’s no doubting the affection in which we hold these charismatic auks.

Despite being pint-sized seabirds just 27–28cm in length, puffins are extremely tough, braving storm-tossed seas throughout autumn and winter, out of sight of land.

Adults return to their breeding colonies on grassy cliff tops in March and April, departing again in mid-August, and the sight and sound of a puffin rookery have to be experienced to be believed.

Parents spend the summer catching fish, mostly sandeels (the record beakful is 61, plus a rockling), and carrying them to their hungry youngster in its burrow.

After hatching the puffling remains safely below ground for six weeks before heading to sea under cover of darkness to avoid marauding gulls and skuas. It will be four or five years old before it breeds.

Top 10 spots for watching puffins in the British Isles

A few places, such as the Bullers of Buchan north of Aberdeen and Bempton in Yorkshire, have small mainland colonies, but most are on islands.

So plan ahead, book boat passages but be prepared for disappointment if bad weather prevents sea crossings.

Easier puffinries to reach by boat include Skomer from Martin’s Haven in Wales, the Farne Islands off Seahouses in Northumberland, and the Isle of May from Anstruther in Fife.

1 Hermaness and Sumburgh Head, Shetland

2 Lunga, off Isle of Mull

3 Fowlsheugh RSPB, Aberdeenshire

4 Isle of May and Craigleith Island, Fife

5 Farne Islands, Northumberland

6 Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire

7 South Stack Cliffs RSPB, Anglesey

8 Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

9 Rathlin Island, County Antrim

10 Great Saltee, County Wexford

■ When you visit a colony, approach the puffin groups slowly and quietly, but don’t get too close. If you stay at a safe distance you should be ableto watch them moving around, investigating burrows, meeting and greeting, fighting and posturing.

■ Look for two birds ‘billing’ by repeatedly and loudly hitting their beaks together, which is thought to strengthen the pair bond. The behaviour can attract a crowd of other puffins as onlookers, one of which may try to join in. A fight can break out if one of the pair rejects the interloper and gives them a bite.

■ Never, ever disturb fish-carriers taking vital sustenance to their young. Puffin life is hard enough without having to contend with human interference.

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