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Where To Find Puffins In Scotland

Updated on July 13, 2014

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Can anyone look at this gorgeous little fellow and not fall in love? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. I can’t tell you whether this puffin is male or female because unlike most birds, both sexes look the same. The only difference is that the males are slightly bigger than the females.

I can tell you though that (a) he or she is cute (b) it was the breeding season when this photo was taken, and this is an Atlantic puffin.

When to see puffins

The reason I know for sure this photo was taken in the breeding season is because puffins only have those beautiful orange beaks during that time; the rest of the year their beaks are much duller. You’d also be extremely unlikely to get this photograph any time after August or before April because puffins only come onshore during the breeding season.

So the first thing to remember if you agree with me on (a) is: if you go looking for puffins in November you’ll feel all at sea, because the puffins are all at sea! On the other hand, from mid April to mid August you are almost sure to see puffins if you go to any of the sites listed in this article.

The Best Time of Day to see Atlantic Puffins

I have read that it’s best to look for puffins in the early morning or in the evening just before sunset. This is because during the day puffins are off fishing. However, every time we’ve gone puffin watching it’s been in the afternoon and as you can see from these photos we had no problem finding puffins galore.

How to see Puffins

Puffins have a reputation for being shy birds, but, as these photos show, it is possible to can get in close. The trick is to approach them slowly. My daughter, who was 13 at the time, took most of these photos with an ordinary digital camera. Her cousin was also clicking away. At times both of them lay on the damp grass to get in close and those cute little puffins just cocked their heads and posed for the pictures! They didn’t bother at all that another 5 of us were watching.

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The puffins’ home on Noss

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Best Places to see puffins

Atlantic puffins are found in several places around the coastline of Scotland.

The Shetland Islands

The Shetland Islands are home to roughly a fifth of Scotland’s puffins. Within Shetland there are several places to see puffins, some very easily accessible and some require a little walking.

Noss

All the photos above were taken on the island of Noss, one of the Shetland Islands, and a National Nature Reserve. Noss has around 2,000 pairs of puffins each breeding season, as well as gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars and great skuas.

Noss is small, and tucked away behind the larger island of Bressay. To get to Noss from Shetland’s main town, Lerwick, you take the car ferry to Bressay and then drive or cycle or walk across the island following the signs to Noss Sound. The distance is around 3.5 miles. Crossings to Noss are by a small inflatable ferry, run by the Nature Reserve. This ferry operates between mid April and August, and is weather dependent, so it is best to ring first before setting off. (The telephone number is: 01595 693345)

Accessibility

The path from car park to the ferry is steep and on Noss itself the walk to the visitors centre is also steep and involves some scrambling over rocks so this may be challenging for people with disabilities.

To walk around Noss it is best to allow around 3 hours. Most years in early July, National Nature Reserve Scotland holds an open day as part of Shetland’s Nature Festival.

A puffin at Sumburgh Head
A puffin at Sumburgh Head | Source

Sumburgh Head RSPB Reserve

Of all puffin colonies on Shetland, Sumburgh Head is the most easily accessed. In fact, it is possibly the most accessible site in the UK.

This site is a short drive from Sumburgh airport, and the puffin grounds are just a few metres from the car park. Sumburgh Head has around 5000 puffins that nest, fish and play on both sides of the headland so the chances are you will see puffins flying around the moment you step out of your car.

The site is run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The video below shows two puffins checking their burrow in Sumburgh after returning from the sea in April 2012. (Puffin couples return to the same burrow each year.) You can also see more photographs and videos from Sumburgh in Fun Facts About Puffins.

Puffins returning to their burrow in April 2012

Hermaness Nature Reserve

Other puffin breeding grounds in the Shetland Islands are Hermaness in Unst, Foula, Fair Isle, Fetlar. Hermaness, Fair Isle and Foula have the largest colonies, with an estimated 25,000 pairs at each site.

Like Noss, Hermaness has been a Nature Reserve since 1955 and has over 100,000 seabirds in total. This reserve is more accessible than Noss, but still requires an hour’s walk each way over moorland. The paths are well maintained and the views at Hermaness are spectacular, particularly of Muckle Flugga, the most northern part of the British Isles. There is also the possibility you might see seals.

Hermaness is also a breeding area for the great skua, known in Shetland as the bonxie. These birds are large and can be aggressive if they believe their nests are about to be attacked. Here’s what to do to avoid being attacked – stay on the paths, and bring with you a stick or umbrella! Then wave the stick or hold the umbrella above your head. And don’t be put off by the bonxies, the walk really is worth it!

Hermaness and Muckle Flugga

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Fair Isle and Foula

The outlying islands of Fair Isle and Foula both have large puffin colonies. Fair Isle has a massive bird population. It has a bird observatory with a lodge where visitors can rent rooms. You can participate in a variety of activities including guided tours to the nearby puffin colony, and you may even be able to take part in the work of the observatory such as ringing puffins.

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Catching puffins on St Kilda in 1898
Catching puffins on St Kilda in 1898 | Source

Other Puffin Colonies in Scotland


Apart from on Shetland, there are several other Atlantic Puffin colonies in Scotland.

St Kilda

The biggest is on St Kilda, a remote group of islands 110 miles to the west of mainland Scotland. Somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 puffins nest on the islands of St Kilda, which is around a quarter of the total number for the UK. Wildlife watching boat trips operate to the islands. These are weather dependent and can be cancelled due to rough seas. If you are lucky enough to get good weather for your trip, St Kilda is a place steeped with history and a sense of magic. (I have been, but as a passenger on a helicopter delivering supplies to the army base. My time there was brief but awe inducing!)


The Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands have around 61,000 puffins, but unfortunately 59,000 of them nest on the remote and inaccessible island of Sule Skerry. Westray is the best of the Orkney islands on which to see puffins.

West Sutherland

West Sutherland has a small number of puffins, particularly on Handa Island.

The Firth of Forth

Perhaps surprisingly, the next best place to Shetland for seeing Atlantic puffins in Scotland is in the Firth of Forth. This is close to the Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, and is not in the Atlantic at all but the North Sea, but someone forgot to tell the puffins!

The Isle of May, a small island in the mouth of the Firth of Forth is a National Nature Reserve and home to many seabirds, including thousands of puffins. The island has on bird observatory and is possible to stay there. If you would like to do that, book well in advance as places are limited and book up fast. You can also visit the island for a few hours either by taking a trip from the Seabird Centre in North Berwick, to the east of Edinburgh or by taking a ferry from Anstrutherin Fife.

Another island in the Firth of Forth with puffins is Craigleith. This can also be visited on a boat trip from the Scottish Seabird Centre.

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Some facts about Atlantic Puffins


  • Puffins like cliff tops, but, unlike many birds, they do not build nests on the ledges. Baby puffins are vulnerable to attack from bigger birds so their parents choose grassy ground, and build their nests in burrows that they either dig themselves or that rabbits have abandoned.
  • Baby puffins are called pufflings, which has to be cutest name ever – as fits the cutest baby bird ever!
  • Although St Kilda is now uninhabited except for an army base, people used to live there and I’m sorry to say they ate these cute little birds! In those days there were probably over a million puffins on St Kilda.
  • Puffin numbers are in decline in many parts of Scotland and around the world. Their favourite food is sand eels and due to over-fishing and warmer seas, sand eels are less plentiful. Some pufflings starve to death because the snake pipefish their parents bring is too hard for them to eat.
  • Some good news is that the Scottish Seabird Centre has run a successful campaign to protect puffins in the Firth of Forth. Some puffins had not been able to return to their burrows because of a large plant, tree mallow, which had blocked off entrances. The puffins are now returning.
  • Puffins are able to carry many fish at once because they have spikes in their mouths that keep the fish in place.
  • The best way to see puffins up close is on land, rather than from a boat trip. Therefore, if you book a boat trip, make sure you get time on land.
  • Puffins are also known as the clown of the sea or sea parrots. In the Shetland and Orkney Isles they are called tammy norries.

Map showing main puffin breeding grounds in Scotland

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You guys have all the luck! The only way for me to see a puffin is in captivity at the zoo. They are cute little buggers, aren't they? This is such a cool hub! Thanks for sharing my friend!

    • KDuBarry03 4 years ago

      Puffins are so adorable! Very interesting facts. I would have never guessed they burrowed their own nests. Do they do that with their beaks or their feet, or a combination of both? At any rate, I agree with bill, very cool! Voted up, interesting, and beautiful!

      -KD

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I want a puffin!!! They are so precious!!! I intend to share this so that others could enjoy the puffin and go awwww!:)

    • kelleyward 4 years ago

      I'm jealous! I want to live around Puffins! This is a fantastic hub with beautiful pics I'm thinking a possible HOTD! Voted up and shared! Take care, Kelley

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There are colonies of the same birds off the Maine islands, as well as eastern Canada, Matinicus Island. I have not met any puffins yet, but hope to be able to do it very soon. You had great information on your hub, and I thank you for the great photos, too.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Anyone who is a puffin fan should check out the website for a store in my town (Charleston, SC) called The Silver Puffin. It has loads of unique puffin gifts that are too cute.

      Awesome hub, voted up!

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Someone gave me a stuffed animal that is a puffin. They're so darn cute!

    • bankscottage profile image

      bankscottage 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Nice Hub. You can also see Puffins along the coast of Maine - Downeast Maine (north of Bar Harbor). There are cruises that leave Bar Harbor to see whales and puffins. We went on one, but it was too foggy to see the birds.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      They are adorable! I want one! Is it legal to sell or buy them. But then again, they're better off in the natural home.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Sea parrots! Ohh, are they adorable or what?! I have a little ceramic one my parents brought back from a trip, but have never seen them in person.

      Fab hub! Chock full of info. Voted up, across, and Google+. Really an excellent job.

    • Life and Luxury profile image

      Life and Luxury 4 years ago from South Beach, FL

      I absolutely love puffins and think they are adorable birds. Great article!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 4 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      I will probably never make it to Scotland, so I thank you for sharing these photos. Puffins are so adorable, I would love to see them in their natural habitat, but hopefully I will see one in a zoo someday. Wonderful hub,voted up and interesting! Have a great day! :)

    • sammimills profile image

      sammimills 4 years ago from California, USA

      Cute penguins! I haven't seen one yet, so probably I could visit Scotland the next time I plan to travel. Thank you for sharing! Nice pictures.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Bill,

      There are puffins closer to you than you’d think (only not the Atlantic puffins). Watch this space, I’m puffin mad at the moment. What started out as one hub is becoming 2 and now looks like it could be 3 before I'm finished…

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      KDuBarry03,

      You guessed right: they use both beaks and feet to dig their burrows. (More puffin info is on its way!) Thanks very much for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Sunshine,

      Don’t you just want to pick them up and take them home? They are so sweet! Thanks for your comment and thanks very much for sharing!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Kelley,

      Yes, I consider myself very fortunate to have seen these lovely creatures up close several times. I’ll be heading north to Shetland in the summer and will be out checking on them again!

      Thanks for sharing this.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi aviannovice,

      I do definitely recommend seeing puffins for real if you get the chance. If you go on an excursion to the Maine Islands do make sure to chose one that includes landing as you get a much better view of the birds from land. We went to Seal Island on a whale watching trip years ago, but didn’t land. (We didn’t see any whales either.)

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Natashalh, that sounds like a fun store. Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Susan,

      We’ve got a few stuffed ones too! Hard to got to Shetland and not buy a few. Thanks for your comment!

    • twinstimes2 profile image

      Karen Lackey 4 years ago from Ohio

      Holy cow those puffins are adorable! Great hub. Loved the use of the map, too!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      These little guys are so cute! I've seen them in the zoo, but I didn't know much about them. They look like they want to be your friend and follow you around - there's a pet-like appeal to them. Thanks for this charming hub! I love it!

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 4 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      This is such a delightful read. And your daughter's pictures are wonderful. I'd love to see these beautiful creatures, especially the pufflings, in the wild one day. Up, awesome, and interesting!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Puffins are beyond cute! Mother Nature DOES have a sense of humor!! That said, I don't think I could bear to eat one of these totally adorable creatures even if I was starving! ;

      Voted up and awesome! ;D

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi bankscottage,

      I hope you at least got to see some whales and dolphins after missing out on the puffins. Thanks for your comment, and glad you liked the hub.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Oh Melovy I could NEVER eat one of those!

      They are so adorable and I had heard of the creature before but never saw such adorable pictures or knew that much about them. My kids will enjoy this hub too!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Jpcmc,

      Adorable is exactly the word! Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Clever cat (and very pretty cat at that!)

      A ceramic puffin is cute, but oh, they are such a delight to see in person (or should that be “in puffin”?)

      Thanks very much for your kind comment and for sharing.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks Life and Luxury!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi sgbrown,

      I had no idea till I read Billybuc’s comment above that puffins can be found in zoos. I’ve only ever seen them in the wild! Thanks very much for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi sammimills,

      Glad you enjoyed the hub, and I hope you do get to see puffins one day. Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi twinstimes2,

      Yes, aren’t they so sweet? I’m glad you found the map useful, thanks for that feedback.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Marcy,

      I have read that some are very tame, but the ones I’ve seen are kinda laid-back. They aren’t scared of humans but they don’t really come right up to you either. Funnily enough on the island Noss we probably got closer although I’m sure the puffins at Sumburgh are far more used to humans gaping at them in wonder! Thanks for your comment and for sharing!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Sally’s Trove,

      Thank you so much, especially for your comment on my daughter’s pictures. She loves taking photos, and I’ve used quite a few on hubs if hers are more suitable than mine. I hope you do get to see puffins some day. (It’s not so easy to see pufflings as they generally stay in the burrows.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      JamaGenee,

      I could never eat one either, but then I’m vegetarian! They are such fun aren’t they? Thanks for your comment!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Kelly, I guess you don’t get many puffins down in St Louis! They like it cold I think though there are some (of a different kind) off California. My kids love puffins so hope yours enjoy these too! Thanks for your comment.

    • kittyjj profile image

      Ann Leung 4 years ago from San Jose, California

      Puffins are soooo cute. I love all the pictures here. I pinned it right away. Thank you for sharing a great hub. Very educational. I had my kids read it too. Voted up.

    • Melovy profile image
      Author

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Kittyjj,

      I’ll pass on your kind comment about the pictures to my daughter. Glad you enjoyed the hub and your kids, and thanks very much for pinning it!

    • Fennelseed profile image

      Annie Fenn 4 years ago from Australia

      Melovy, the Puffins are adorable and your hub is so informative. I have learnt so much about these unusual birds and your children did such a great job with capturing these cute little guys in photos. Yes, 'pufflings' is definitely the cutest offspring name ever!!! Thank you so much for this interesting and entertaining hub. My votes and best wishes to you and sharing!!!

    • oceansider 4 years ago

      The puffins are so darling! My daughter used to have those beanie babies (stuffed animals)collection, and one of them was a puffin.

      Thanks for the adorable photos. Voted up!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Those baby pufflings are so adorable.This was a fascinating read. Makes me want to take a trip to see them myself. Great pics. Passing this on.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      You've picked my very favorite bird! When my family wanted to go to Alaska (and I didn't because of cold weather) they convinced my by telling me I'd see Puffins! However, I am so jealous that you got so close and personal with them! We only saw them 'fishing' or in the zoo. Your pictures are amazing. I really love this and look forward to more on the Puffin and her Pufflings.

      Voted up, interesting and SHARING.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      Pufflings!! That's the best word I've heard for years! I'm going to use it a lot from now on. Absolutely gorgeous photos too, very happy making hub altogether :-D

      Voted up etc

    • Claudia Tello profile image

      Claudia Tello 4 years ago from Mexico

      Puffins are quite adorable and, from what I can see in the photos you´ve included, they live in a very beautiful green environment. I met puffins for the first time in a Gordon Ramsey´s TV program in which he went hunting for them and cooked them in situ (they have a very dark red flesh). You know how carnivorous he is... Well, I found them nice looking then and I totally love them now. Hope they are well protected and not excessively hunted.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Fennelseed,

      I am so pleased you enjoyed this and my daughter’s photos. I don’t think many puffins reach Australia, do they?!

      Thanks for your very kind comment and for sharing.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Oceansider, I’ve seen puffin beanie babies, and they are cute. Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Gyspy Rose Lee, go for it, and take the trip. You wouldn’t have that far to go! It’s definitely worth it. Every time I’ve been to any of the bird reserves as left lasting memories for me.

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      tillsontitan, Alaska would be amazing! I’m glad your family persuaded you to go. It’s good to see the puffins “fishing” but seeing them on land is just great, I have to admit. I’m hoping to get a few more visits to puffin grounds this summer.

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Judi, yes, isn’t it just the best word! Someone had fun making it up. Thanks for your kind comment, and glad you enjoyed the hub.

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Claudia, I am glad to say I missed Gordon Ramsey’s antics, but I’ve come across it on the internet a few times. I’m working on a hub from the conservation angle as though puffins are still plentiful their numbers are falling quite dramatically. Even in Iceland things seem to be changing.

      Thanks very much for your comment.

    • Arren123 profile image

      Arren123 4 years ago from UK

      Lovely photos, not yet seen a Puffin in real life, but plan to visit Farne Islands next month, said to have 70,000 of them, thanks for sharing voted up :)

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Arren123,

      I think the Farne Islands are the best place in England to see puffins. The population there had gone down, but I think it is now recovering and with 70,000 birds you’re fairly certain to see some!

      Thanks for your kind comment.

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear melovy

      A very well written and researched article - thank you

      I have seen these lovely birds off the Cornish coast - great time wasters to watch

      Kind regards Peter

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed it and that you also like puffins. I knew there were puffins in the English Channel, but didn't know they came as far as Cornwall. I'm curious which part have you seen them on?

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear melovy ,

      I was watching the puffins just off padstow n.cornwall where they seem to have their own little island. Not to be confused with Lundy island off n.devon where there are a lot. I'm sure I'm telling you something you know but Lundy is the Norse name for puffin

      Kind regards Peter

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks Peter. I wondered if it would be north Cornwall. I must admit I was under the impression from what I'd read that Lundy Island only now had a few puffins. It's great if the population is increasing again. I do know conservationists have cleared rats from the island to help puffins.

    • Turtlewoman profile image

      Kim Lam 4 years ago from California

      Wow, I finally got around to reading your hub on puffins. This whole time I pictured them as water creatures lol. They're so precious. Your daughter did a good job of taking their photos, considering how shy puffins are. Shared and pinned. :-)

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      I'm glad you enjoyed them Turtlewoman! You are right about them being water creatures as they do spend a lot of time on water, but not during the breeding season.

      Thanks very much for your comment and for sharing.

    • kelleyward 4 years ago

      Wanted to stop back by to let you know my boys were asking about puffins and I showed them your hub. My 2 year old is sitting here saying puffins puffins. They loved it! Pinned. Take care, Kelley

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Kelley, that is so sweet! Thank you!

      And by coincidence we have just got back from a walk to see puffins and other seabirds on Hermaness Nature Reserve, so added a new photo to this hub.

    • Dreamhowl profile image

      Jessica Marello 3 years ago from United States of America

      Puffins ARE pretty adorable, I agree. It's great that you were able to see them so close - those are fantastic pictures! This is clearly the perfect excuse to plan a trip to Scotland. :) Voted up!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 3 years ago from UK

      Thanks Dreamhowl.

    • tricia 2 years ago

      What a wonderful article full of great information.

      I also adore puffins. Would love to plan a trip to see them. I live in Glasgow so would not be too difficult.

      I could watch them all day !!

    • Melovy profile image
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      Yvonne Spence 2 years ago from UK

      Tricia, glad you enjoyed the article. You can probably tell I also adore puffins. From Glasgow the Firth of Forth wouldn't be too far for you, but you will have to wait till next year now. I'm not even sure where they go when they head off to sea. Wintering at sea a rough life to me, and many don't survive, poor things.

      Thanks for your comment.

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