Do you love puffins? Because we do, and we love showing the characteristic bird of the Westman Islands to our friends. In the Westman Islands, we have an enormous population of puffins in Iceland, and our history is very connected to that beautiful bird.
Puffins are members of the Alcidae family, along with many seabirds in the Westman Islands. They look a bit like penguins, black and white, and can stand upright, but assured that they are not. To further guarantee you, you can’t find penguins on the north side of the world. The puffins are not very large, just about 30 cm / 12 inches in length, with a wingspan of 47-63 cm / 18-25 inches and weighing 300-450 g / 10-16 ounces.
The first thing you notice about puffins is their highly decorative beak, red and yellow striped with a blue colour next to the head. Their beak remains decorative from the nesting season and the plates forming the coloured streaks fall off in autumn.
Puffins can be distinguished from other birds in flight by their frequent wing beats. The puffin has been estimated to mow up to 3-400 times per minute, but despite its rather clumsy flight, it reaches a high speed on a direct flight (80 km/h or 50 mph).
Most puffins spend most of the year at sea, but you can see them at the colonies by the end of April or early May. The colonies of puffins are often located above rocks in grassy hills, and the males struggle to dig with their beaks and legs evenly in the spring to prepare the soil to make a nest for their females. A puffin hole is a great nesting site; within it, the birds use several corridors as toilets. The holes are typically dug upward so the nesting will not fill with water during rainy weather. Puffin pairs usually stay together for life, with the male frequently visiting the Westman Islands before the female repairs their hole from last year. If she's too fashionable, a new girlfriend might appear in the nesting hole, but because puffins are monogamous birds, they always end up together again.
The mating season often begins early in the spring; the female puffin lays only one egg in June, which takes around 42 days to hatch, and the parents participate. The puffin does not lie on the egg as is customary among birds but restrains it under the wings. The young puffing is called puffling.
The skin of puffins folds at the corner of the beak During the nesting season, which makes it possible for the puffin to collect many sand eels and other small fish in their beak. The number of sand eels or other small fish can be up to 20 pieces in one round to feed the puffling waiting in the nest. The parent puffin takes turns feeding and caring for their young hence they spend a lot of time in front of the hole. You can spot them while visiting the Great Cape (Stórhöfði), a puffin colony in the Westman Islands.
After 40 days of feeding and caring for their young puffling, the parents leave them to manage themselves and head out to sea from mid-August to mid-September. Hence, the puffling has to leave its holes to look for food. They are supposed to exit the hole during the nighttime and glide to the sea, and then they immediately start diving for food to strengthen themselves to become a wedge. The average time for that is nine days after leaving the hole when they are about 49 days old. When leaving their holes, they go out in the dark so that the predatory birds won’t see them and are supposed to glide towards the moonlight.
In Westman Islands, the pufflings can get distracted due to the streetlights. Having an enormous puffin colony next to a town, the distracted birds effortlessly glide into town. The islander’s history is so beautiful that for many decades and maybe centuries, the children of the Westman Islands go out at night to rescue the vulnerable baby puffins. Families go out together in the evening, late at night, and early in the morning, looking for the pufflings that landed due to the streetlight and gathering them inside a puffling box to keep them safe.
From mid-August to September, you will see children and families with their flashlights out searching for pufflings all night, rescuing many of them. The next day we register them in our own Puffling Patrol, which makes data collection of our favourite birds easy. The baby puffling is released to the ocean the day after they leave the hole.
You will most likely see some cars there when visiting us during the puffling time. A great spot for freeing the pufflings is on the way to Great Cape (Stórhöfði). Klaufin, our black beach below Great Cape, is also another spot for freeing the young pufflings. When releasing the pufflings, we help them glide towards the sea to begin their journeys through life.
You can look for some documentaries about those beautiful experiences for families like “Iceland puffins, National Geographic” and maybe one day visit us for the rescuing of pufflings.