The One with the Puffins

This week, MamaKat suggested a writing prompt to select a photo from your archive at random and post your thoughts about it.  I threw a virtual dart at my digital album and landed on this gem:
So who do you think will win the World Series this year?

So who do you think will win the World Series this year?

The credit for these lovely photos goes to my intrepid travel friend, R. (Hi!)
Out at the western edge of Iceland, at the very tip of the very last fjord, resides one of the world’s most renowned bird cliffs. This is the summer home to a variety of migratory seabirds like puffins, razorbills and guillemots. I wouldn’t consider myself a birdwatcher, but I do enjoy seeing animals in their natural habitat, rather than behind bars or glass. In that respect, I’ve never been anywhere that could compare to the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs.


The bird cliffs are located in the Westfjords, a region in the far northwest of the island, jutting into the North Atlantic like a bird’s elongated wing. To say that it is a little remote is like saying Oprah Winfrey has a little money. In fact the isolation is deceiving. As the crow (or puffin) flies, the cliffs are only about 45 miles from the main road, but what my friend and I didn’t realize was just how long it could take to drive dirt roads probably carved by Vikings and pocked from centuries of harsh Icelandic winters. (Hours!) It was probably good that we had no idea how long the ride would be–we might have turned around.


If we had done that we would have missed one of the most memorable moments of our trip. When we finally arrived, we came upon beautiful seabirds, ranking in the thousands.  At about 450 meters high, the sheer cliffs are safe from the birds’ predators, making them perfect nesting grounds. They settle into the impossibly narrow natural ledges like apartment building with dozens of floors. They arrange themselves in a bird hierarchy with the puffins closest to the top, then the razorbills and guillemots, and the arctic terns and kittiwakes near the pounding sea.


I was as impressed by what was missing nearly as much what was there. The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs have no entry fees, no souvenir stands, no signage. Oh, and no guard rails either. Walking up to the edge is a no-no. See, a favorite pastime of the puffins is to peck into the grassy ledge to burrow for their nests. (You can see them do this in my video below.) This makes the ground unstable and give way at the most inopportune moments. In order to see the puffins, who were mere inches from us, we shimmied on our bellies like army rangers to peer over the edge.


Sometimes a bird, for no obvious reason, would take off and enter the wind currents that rush around the cliffs, needing to do nothing more than extend its wings.  There was a constant and long line of birds sailing by us, either looking for a landing spot or joining the fray. It reminded me of the scene from The Jetsons where George drives his spaceship in a traffic jam of other spaceships by weaving in and out of the line. (Boy, am I dating myself.) It was beautiful to watch the birds glide along on the invisible airstream. An awesome sight, I won’t soon forget!


Fun facts from Project Puffin:
  • Sixty percent of the world’s puffins mate in and around these cliffs.
  • There are four seabirds for every Icelander.
  • Puffins can dive 50 feet underwater to catch the small fish that are the mainstay of their diet.
  • This species of puffin is about 10 inches tall and weighs about one pound.
  • Puffins can beat their wings about 400 times per minute to stay aloft.
  • The colorful puffin beaks get brighter in the summer (mating season) and go dull in the winter.
  • In August, the puffins will leave these cliffs and winter in the open ocean. Young puffins will spend the first two or three years of their lives at sea.

Hello! I’m a puffin. This is Iceland.

Coming in for a landing (left frame)

Hey, lady, how about some personal space.

Check out my video (and fancy editing!) of the comical puffins. The beginning is a little shaky due to high winds. Read more about the trip to Iceland here.

Have you ever gotten up close and personal with wildlife in their habitat? What was your favorite nature excursion?
Have a great weekend, everyone!

If you’re a writerly type, please stop by T.B. Markinson’s website to read an interview with moi!



      1. I think I’ve read that Icelanders would repel off the cliffs to catch the birds and their eggs. Once you see them up close and personal, it’s hard to imagine doing that. I know I couldn’t.


  1. Iceland is on my list. I’d love to go there, especially now that I know the background music is so good.

    My best up close wildlife encounter has been with sharks. I did a few scuba dives in a chain mail suit and fed sharks down in The Bahamas.


    1. The puffins did not seem to like the first musical interlude of Metallica.

      That must have been an incredible diving experience. Have you been diving for long? Have you been to many places?


      1. That ant scared me, yet it fascinated me. I see the link on the blog. Thanks so much for doing the interview. It was fun. You are welcome anytime on either blog. Writing story, travel story–anything 🙂


  2. Oh. My. Gosh. I LOVE this. Now I must go to Iceland and see the puffins! 😉 Thanks for sharing, Jackie. This is fabulous. As you know, I’m up close and personal with wildlife in their natural habitat nearly every day: javelinas (this morning, a coyote ran in front of me while I was running), mule deer, hummingbirds, rattlesnakes (four of my least favorite up-close experiences). My favorite, though, was when I saw “legs” under my Jeep and assumed it was a stray dog. Only after realizing that my whistling didn’t call the “dog” back did I start to think it might be a big kitty. So I grabbed my camera and ran outside, and sure enough, a large bobcat posed for me as I took his photo. By then he was a few steps away (and I had a getaway planned, if need be). Though bobcats want to get away from you faster than you do them (unless they’re rabid).


    1. Melissa, I love, love reading your stories about the desert! Here in NYC, pigeons are considered wildlife. If I saw a bobcat I would be both fascinated and terrified at the same time!

      I hope you do get to go to Iceland someday. Knowing how much you love birds, I think you’d be absolutely in heaven.


  3. Puffins are adorable, Jackie! I love them! Their beaks and feet appear to be created by Pixar. Until this post I didn’t think of them as much other than the bird on the Barbara’s cereal box. It pains me to think that people eat them. Gee, do you think that taste like chicken? Seriously, where does their taste in music lean? Please don’t ruin my impression and say Celine Dion.

    I know this is not telling you something you did not already know, but I am the consummate city slicker. Last December, while briefly out of my glass, steel and concrete element, I had a pretty nice up close and personal encounter with wildlife:


    1. What an incredible experience to see that sea lion head off into the sunset. I’d have turned into a blubbering (no pun intended) idiot at the sight of that.

      Aside from the pigeons, I did see a raccoon on my block. Reggie was not happy about her encroaching on his turf.


  4. Iceland must be an amazing place to visit! The birds are darling. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve seen a puffin before.

    Okay, just got interrupted typing this as the little boy who lives next door came to tell us a baby pigeon had wandered into our house. I kept insisting we didn’t have a bird. Then, lo and behold there the pigeon was in our living room. Does that count as wildlife?

    Hugs from Ecuador,


  5. You’re a very descriptive writer; I felt like I was there, shimmying to the edge of the cliff with you. And “The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs have no entry fees, no souvenir stands, no signage.” Beautiful sentiment and observation! Oh, how I long for a world where nature reigns supreme and we could all just appreciate the beauty of simplicity.


  6. First of all… ICELAND?! WHOA! I’ve heard it’s unbelievably beautiful (and it certainly looks it)! There are quite a few puffins at our zoo’s Penguin House, and while I’d much, much rather observe them in, say… ICELAND… I do like to go there from time to time, because they really are very fun to watch (it’s kind of relaxing… almost like a fish tank… with… birds).
    Also, I really enjoyed your interview! This summer I read all of Philip Kerr’s ‘Bernie Gunther’ novels (they are set in WWII as well). It’s remarkable how many details there are in that sort of thing… I know you already fielded the question in your interview, but that level of research must really take some doing.


    1. I’ve not read any novels by Philip Kerr. I’ll have to check them out since I really enjoy stories set in that time period (obviously 🙂 ). It does involve a bit of research. My story is set on a cross-country train, and I knew nothing about them. But I really like the research part. I find it so interesting and I learn so much.

      I could just watch the puffins all day! They are so fun and comical the way they waddle like penguins. Those beaks!


  7. I came back and I’m glad. I could keep that video on a continual loop all day. The blue of the water is gorgeous, the background music perfect, and the puffins such fun to watch. Excellent writing (as always) and equally excellent videography.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the video. It was so soothing to watch the puffins doing their thing. For the most part, they ignored us and we were able to observe them and be in their world for a little while.


  8. I am super jealous. I have always wanted to see a puffin (and they live in Maine so I should be able to fulfill that dream but haven’t)! I love the caption on the close up: “Hello! I’m a Puffin…” Perfect!


    1. I’m surprised that you’ve not yet seen puffins in Maine, given the #birdnerd that you are! 🙂
      Project Puffin is based in Maine and working on a number of conservation efforts. I hope you’ll get to see them before winter sets in.


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