Where to Find Puffins in Scotland
Can anyone look at this gorgeous little fellow and not fall in love? 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 males are slightly larger.
I can tell you though that 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 then; the rest of the year their beaks are much duller. You’d also be extremely unlikely to get this photograph after August or before April because puffins only come onshore during the breeding season.
So the first thing to remember 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.
Best places to see puffins.
Atlantic puffins are found in several places around the coastline of Scotland. The following are some of the best sites, either in terms of numbers or accessibility or both.
The puffins’ home on Noss
The Shetland Islands
The Shetland Islands are home to roughly a fifth of Scotland’s puffins, making them one of the best destinations for puffin-watching (or for any bird watching.) Within Shetland there are several places to see puffins, some very easily accessible and some require a little walking.
All the photos above were taken on the island of Noss, which is 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, 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)
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.
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, and on the small islands of 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
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.
Other Puffin Colonies in Scotland
Apart from on Shetland, there are several other Atlantic Puffin colonies in Scotland.
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. However, in spite of their large quantities, St Kilda's puffins are not easy to see. The main island, Hirta, is not home to puffins. Instead they live on remote "stacks" (pinnacles of rock.) Therefore, the only way to see St Kilda's puffins is from the sea.
As the photo above shows, in times gone by the people of St Kilda used to catch puffins to eat. This stopped many years ago and the puffins are left in peace. People no longer even live on St Kilda. Wildlife watching boat trips operate to the islands from the Hebrides. These trips 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 has a small number of puffins, particularly on Handa Island. Boat trips operate to see them.
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 Anstruther in 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.
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.