Atlantic puffin (Fratercula artica) GB Population 580,000 pairs Length 26-29cm Wingspan 53cm Weight 310-550g Lifespan upto 30 years
“I will never forget getting my first photo of a Puffin at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire and how it elevated my passion for wildlife photography and travelling the country to discover more birds and animals to photograph.”
Also known as the sea parrot, this magical looking character of a bird is also truly fascinating. Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea, battling storm tossed seas throughout autumn and winter, landing on coastal islands in the spring and summer to form huge breeding colonies. The Atlantic puffin that visits the coast of Great Britain is one of three puffin species. The other two species are the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata).
Puffins are carnivores and eat small fish such as herring or the iconic sand eels they bring back to the nest for the young. The “Pufflings” or chicks will remain in the burrow below ground for six weeks before heading out to sea in the dark of the night to avoid predators waiting outside the nest. Breeding age is usually 4 or 5 years old and they can live for 30 years!
Atlantic puffin with a beak full of Sand Eels for the chicks
The Puffin has two unique features that are like tools to make it a super efficient hunter of fish. It has a modified tongue and a series of spines on its upper palate. The tongue is mostly fleshy but it has a very rough end to it, so the Puffin will use its tongue to push the fish onto the spines above, enabling the bird to hold lots of slippery fish in it’s beak while it flies back to the coast.
The Farne Islands, Northumberland.
A Puffin at Bempton Cliffs heading out to sea.
Most of the large colonies where you can get close to the birds and their burrows are on islands (Skomer island in Wales, Isle of May in Scotland or the Farne islands in Northumberland). You can find smaller colonies at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, Fowlsheugh, Anglesey, Rathrin island in Ireland, Orkney in Scotland or the Bullers of Buchan near Aberdeen. The smaller colonies can be anything from six pairs to thirty and it’s often on a cliff face below you. Bempton Cliffs is a RSPB reserve so it has platforms over the cliff edges and lots of helpful staff to help you find them. It’s a beautiful place to go, with Warblers in the reeds and a resident Barn owl that flies around at dawn. You might even see the Albatross if you’re lucky!
The cliffs of the Farne island from the boat
It can be disappointing if you go there just for the Puffins because you might not see any, sometimes the cliffs are so hectic with all the other birds like Gannets and Razorbills that the Puffins tend to stay away or you just don’t notice them on the cliffs. It’s a bit like that book “Where’s Wally?” trying to pick them out from thousands of birds on the cliffs. Usually you’ll find out when one is spotted (by other photographers or RSPB staff) . Also bare in mind, at Bempton, you have a downward angle on most of the puffins you do find, so its difficult to get a nice portrait shot and I would say 500mm-600mm lens is the minimum requirement.
Personally I love the Farne Islands in Northumberland. I’m a Geordie originally and I have lots of childhood memories and family in Northumberland so it makes an even more special trip for me. You also have Bamburgh Castle nearby if you enjoy your Landscape photography. This year I went at the end of May to Bempton and saw only two Puffins, then I went to the Farne islands at the end of June and it was perfect timing, sadly the day after I was there the island was closed to the public due to a Bird Flu outbreak.
Puffin coming out of it’s burrow on the Farne Island
Make sure you book the boat in advance, you’ll also need a National Trust pass to exit the boat on to the island where the Puffins have their burrows. It can be a rough sea journey so be extra careful taking photos from the side of the boat (make sure you have neck strap!). It takes about an hour to get to the Puffin island and they will be flying past the boat very low to the sea, you’ll see Grey Seals on the rocks and lots of different sea birds like Shags, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets.
When you exit the boat you’ll be greeted by the National Trust staff who are there to protect the birds and assist you or answer your questions. There’s a wooden walkway that goes through the colony that you can sit down on or lie down to get eye level with the birds. You will also have them flying towards you from the sea with sand eels in their beaks, which is great fun to photograph!
If you stay at a safe distance you’ll be able to watch them moving around, investigating the burrows, meeting and greeting each other and sometimes fighting. Sometimes you see two birds ‘billing” by repeatedly and loudly hitting their beaks together which is thought to be a bonding ritual. This behaviour can also attract a crowd of other Puffins. Its all very social and fascinating to watch!
You get surprisingly close on the island
Dinner is served! Farne islands
What’s in my kit bag?
I am Sony mirrorless shooter. All photos in this blog are my own and copyrighted.
Winner of the Sony Alpha European Spring competition for Animals.
Runner up of Close up photographer of the year 2019, 2020 & 2021.
Featured on BBC’s Winterwatch and in UK Newspapers.
Photographic contributor to the Wildlife trust and ambassador for Buglife.
This year (2022) I have just upgraded to the Sony A1 which I use with the 200-600mm lens and I also use the Sony A7riii with the 70-200 2.8 lens as my second camera for close ups or more scenic compositions.
I use a Gitzo Fluid gimbal on a Gitzo carbon tripod or I’ll wander shooting handheld.
In addition to my cameras, spare batteries and lens cleaning cloths I also make sure I wear clothing that won’t frighten or scare the birds. I have some army trousers with built in knee pads which are great for getting down low on the floor. You’re going to get bird poo and mud on you, so don’t wear your best jeans! I wear waterproof Timberland boots, and have some gloves and warm layers in my bag incase the weather turns. Lastly, make sure you have plenty of drinking water for the journey, as you’ll be out at sea for about 3 hours and the sea air makes you very thirsty and dehydrated.
Have fun! Tag me on instagram if you go, I’d love to see your pictures!
Thanks for reading!
If you have anything to add or ask me please use the comments below!