Adam Masterton Nature Photography logo


Atlantic Puffin

Puffin flight

Scientific name: Fratercula arctica

Affectionally know as the “Clowns of the sea or the sea parrot” The Atlantic puffin has to be one of the most charismatic birds that can be photographed in the UK. Its distinctive appearance, a brightly coloured bill, and quirky mannerisms are the first thing that I think of when picturing the puffin.

  • Bird family: Auks
  • Length: 26-29cms
  • Wingspan: 55cm
  • Weight: 400g
  • Average lifespan: 18yr’s
  • Population (UK): 580,000 pairs


The Atlantic Puffin lives in the North Atlantic and spends most of its time at sea, their waterproof feathers allow them to stay warm, they can dive as deep as 60 m when hunting for herring and sand eels. They swim by flapping their wings to propel them through the water whilst using their feet to steer.

Once a year Puffins comes ashore in the summer months to bread. Interestingly the puffin is mainly monogamous, and rarely changes mates, the pairs usually go back to the same place to nest year after year. Before nesting, to reconnect they will perform a mating ceremony known as “billing” where the two birds rub their beaks together, thus reaffirm their bond.

Puffins make their nest in burrows about 90 cm (3 ft.), the female will lay a single egg, which they will take turns incubating it for about 40days. Once hatched the parents will care for the puffling for a short time, around 34 – 60 days before leaving for open waters at the end of the summer.

Conservation and Distribution

The Puffin in the UK is Classified as Red under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4, this is due to mainly due to overfishing and pollution, this means that the puffins have to travel further and further to find food, resulting in less successful chicks fledging and making it to adulthood.

It’s not all doom and gloom if you want to a chance to capture a glimpse of this bird you will need to plan a trip between March and August during the breeding season. However in my experience, the best opportunities would be between April and July, as at the start of the breeding season the puffin sits on the water just offshore, this is called rafting, and once the pufflings have fledged the adults will soon fly out to open water on mass, around the end of July

Puffing sites:

  • Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales
  • Hermaness and Sumburgh Head, Shetland, Scotland
  • Fowlsheugh RSPB, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
  • St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
  • Isle of May and Craigleith Island, Fife, Scotland
  • Farne Islands, Northumberland, England
  • Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire, England
  • South Stack Cliffs RSPB, Anglesey, Wales

Watching and photographing Puffins in the UK is becoming very popular with more and more international visitors. Note this isn’t an exhaustive list, I recommend undertaking your own research, and plan your visits as some require boat trips to the locations, which can be limited.

Puffin Facts

  • Atlantic Puffins flap their wings at up to 400 beats per minute and can reach speeds of 55mph.
  • Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea, resting on the waves when not swimming. Their range spans the eastern coast of Canada and the United States to the western coast of Europe.
  • A puffin’s beak (or bill) changes colour during the year. In winter, the beak has a dull grey colour, but in spring it blooms with an outrageous orange! It’s thought that the bright colour helps puffins assess potential mates.
  • Baby puffins are called chicks and informally referred to as ‘pufflings’.