Warmer Ocean Threatens Puffin Population

Rising ocean temperatures in the south of Iceland could impact the area’s puffin population, according to a RÚV report.

Iceland is home to the majority of the world’s Atlantic puffin population. The largest colony is in Vestmannaeyjar, the islands south of the coast of Iceland. The locals have a tradition where the children help rescue puffin fledglings who have become confused on their way to the sea and land in the village instead.

Warmer ocean temperatures

Director of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre Erpur Snær Hansen has noted that measurements this year show that ocean temperatures could be the highest so far this century. “You can see that the first months this year are very warm,” he said. “The warm period in the Atlantic Ocean began in 1995 and peaked in 2003. Temperatures went down after that, but are now rising again.”

The puffin population, much like other seabird populations, is dependant on the availability of food in the ocean. Warm waters are not good for sand eels, who are very important for the puffins’ diet. If there is a scarcity of sand eels, it affects both the adult puffins and their fledglings as they leave their nests.

Fledglings are weaker

“They’re laying their eggs later and fewer individuals lay eggs,” Erpur added. “It’s a big factor here on the islands in years like this when a half of the population doesn’t lay eggs. It’s all connected and the fledglings are slow to grow up, leave their nests later, and are weaker, which is very bad as their chance of survival is dependant on this time in their lives.”

When do puffins arrive in Iceland?

Puffin Iceland

The Atlantic puffin (in Icelandic, lundi), is something of a national symbol, with many tourists and Icelanders alike flocking to bird cliffs to catch a glimpse of these brightly-coloured seabirds.

Of course, if you’re planning your trip to Iceland around seeing these birds, then it helps to know when, exactly, they’re here!

When does the puffin arrive in Iceland?

Puffins spend much of their life at sea and are actually only in Iceland for a relatively short time to breed and nest. They tend to arrive in Iceland beginning in April (usually later in the month, just before May) and generally begin to leave in August. The puffins are usually gone by September. The height of breeding- and nesting-season is from June through August.

In 2024, some of the first puffins of the year were recorded on April 11, when small groups of the black and white seabird arrived on the island of Grímsey and in Borgarfjörður eystri, in East Iceland.

Although the puffin typically begins arriving in April, most puffin tours only begin in May, to guarantee better conditions for sighting the seabird.

More about the Atlantic puffin

Unlike many other cliff-dwelling seabirds, Atlantic puffins will actually dig little holes to build their nests in. Puffins monogamously mate for life, and generally just produce one egg each breeding season. Male puffins tend to spend more time at home with the chick and organising the nest, while female puffins tend to be more involved with feeding the young. Raising their young takes around 40 days.

Until recently, it was actually unknown where, exactly, Atlantic puffins spent the rest of the year. But with modern tracking technologies, these little birds have been found to range as far south as the Mediterranean during the winter season. When puffins leave the nest, they will head off on their own without their parents, finding their own feeding and winter grounds. Over their lives, they will remember and repeat their lonely journey. They don’t always head to warmer climates in the winter, however. Icelandic puffins have been found to winter in Newfoundland and in the open sea south of Greenland.

Puffins are relatively small seabirds, averaging about 47 to 63cm [18 to 25in] in wingspan and weighing generally between 300 and 500g [10 to 17oz].

There are an estimated 8 million adult Atlantic puffins, with a majority of the world’s puffing population, around 60%, nesting in Iceland. Besides Iceland, puffins can also be found nesting in Ireland, the UK, Norway, Russia, the Faroe islands, and Greenland.

The Westman islands, an archipelago off the South Coast of Iceland, has by far the largest puffin colony in Iceland, with around 800,000 breeding pairs. Second place goes to Breiðafjörður, with around 400,000 breeding pairs. A less populated, but stunningly beautiful, bird cliff is Látrabjarg, the western-most point of Iceland.

Read more about bird watching in Iceland.

Widespread Bird Deaths in West and South Iceland

Puffin Iceland

Locals have reported dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens and even hundreds in recent weeks, RÚV reports. Such deaths are unusual at this time of year in Iceland and their cause is unknown. While bird flu is unlikely to be the cause, extreme weather may be a possible explanation.

Borgarnes resident Pavle Estrajher spotted five dead puffins on the shore in the town last month. When he made a post about them on Facebook, he received many comments from others who had found dead puffins in the region. Snæfellsnes peninsula resident Jón Helgason reported seeing hundreds of dead puffins and kittiwakes at Löngufjörur beach on the peninsula’s south coast, for example.

Bird flu not the cause

The widespread deaths of Kittiwakes cannot be attributed to bird flu, according to Brigitte Brugger of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). Samples from the birds analysed by MAST ruled out the illness. “In any case, no bird flu viruses were found in these samples that have been taken,” Brigitte stated.

Some have suggested that extreme weather may have caused the deaths, including meteorologist Einar Sveinbjörnsson. The wave height in West Iceland’s Faxaflói bay was forecast at 8-9 metres during last month, unseasonably extreme weather for late May. Previous reports of widespread bird deaths in Iceland have usually occurred in wintertime and been attributed to extreme weather or scarcity of food.

Iceland’s puffin population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years, according to the latest figures. Residents of Grímsey island in North Iceland report, anecdotally at least, that the island’s puffin population is strong.

Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed

puffins iceland

The Icelandic puffin population has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF) has stated that this is bad news for the ecosystem and for companies within the tourist sector, who have marketed the puffin as a kind of national symbol.

Decline much worse than previously believed

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. While the Icelandic puffin population may not be as substantial as that of other bird species in the country, it has experienced a substantial decline over the past thirty years.

In an interview with RÚV, biologist Erpur Snær Hansen revealed that the latest data indicates a staggering 70% decline in the puffin population since 1995, surpassing the previously believed figure of 40%.

“We hadn’t analysed population trends from such an early period before, and it was shocking to discover that the decline was much more severe than previously estimated,” Erpur stated.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent measurements unveiled an unprecedented pattern. “This recent decline appears to be distinct. This consistent delay in nesting and poor breeding is unprecedented in the 140-year history we have been studying.”

The primary cause of this decline stems from a scarcity of food for the birds, which can be attributed to rising sea temperatures. Additionally, puffin hunting accounts for at least 10% of the population decrease. Erpur emphasised that puffin hunting is not sustainable, despite recent declines in its prevalence. “Generally speaking, hunting declining populations is not a good philosophy.”

When asked about the potential ban on puffin hunting, Erpur responded:

“This spring, there was a consideration, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, to have scientists assess the impact of a sales ban because protecting this species is a challenging endeavour. This form of hunting, tied to land ownership, appears to have a peculiar exemption from common sense.”

Bad news for Icelandic tourism

In an interview with Vísir, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), highlighted the negative consequences of the declining puffin population, particularly for the tourism industry:

“Naturally, this is detrimental to the ecosystem and to the tourism industry, too, which has embraced the puffin as its emblem. The puffin is an incredibly beautiful and unique bird. When people visit Iceland, being able to witness puffin nests in places like Borgarfjörður Eystri, Reynisjfara, West Iceland, and the Westman Islands enhances their experience. It would be truly unfortunate if the population fails to recover.”

Jóhannes further emphasised that some tourists specifically travel to Iceland for the opportunity to see puffins: “It is quite possible that individuals come here solely to observe the puffin, especially those from countries where the puffin is protected and, therefore, less visible.”

The constant changes in the biosphere can significantly impact tourism, as Jóhannes noted: “We have already witnessed changes in the distribution of other bird species, such as arctic terns. These developments raise various concerns.”

First Puffins of the Year Sighted in Grímsey

puffins iceland

The first puffins of the year were sighted over Easter, on April 9, on Grímsey.

Grímsey, an island off the north coast of Iceland, is surrounded on most sides by steep sea cliffs which make for good nesting grounds for many sea birds.

Halla Ingólfsdóttir, director of Arctic Trip, a travel company that specialises in bird-watching tours on Grímsey, stated to RÚV: “They are starting to settle down and set up their nests. We were sure they would arrive on April 10. We even had a countdown on our website, so I was very happy that they came a day ahead of schedule.”

Ask Iceland Review: When do Puffins Arrive in Iceland?

Halla continued: “I went both south to the lighthouse and then to the shore and sure enough, both locations had puffins. But it’s been very windy, so you often see them taking off and quickly landing again.”

The puffin, alongside the plover, is traditionally considered a herald of spring. More are expected in the coming weeks, but the larger colonies generally arrive in Iceland later in the year, from the end of April to the beginning of May.

Read more: Golden Plover Arrives in Iceland

 

Great Breeding Season for Iceland’s Puffins

Puffin Iceland

High numbers of puffin chicks, known as pufflings, have been recorded across Iceland this season. The boom is especially apparent in the Westman Islands, off Iceland’s South Coast, where pufflings have been found weighing double their usual weight. A number of factors, including access to food, are behind the development, Erpur Snær Hansen of the South Iceland Nature Research Centre told Iceland Review.

Heavier pufflings five times more likely to thrive

“Breeding has gone really well around the country, it’s great to see how many pufflings there are,” Erpur says. This includes in the Westman Islands, home to nearly 40% of Iceland’s puffins. Puffin numbers in Iceland have decreased around 44% in the past 15 years. “It makes a big impact to have a strong breeding season like this when there have been a lot of difficult years before. In the Westmans this is around 700,000 pufflings that will mostly survive,” Erpur says.

He is particularly optimistic due to the chicks’ weight. Pufflings can weigh as little as 200-250 grams early in the breeding season. This year, however, the first puffin chick weighed by a monitoring team in the Westman Islands measured 359 grams and the heaviest a whopping 429 grams, which may be a record. Weight can make all the difference to pufflings’ survival, as Erpur explains. “A puffling that is 350 grams versus one that is 250 grams is five times more likely to survive its first winter. So these pufflings are very likely to survive their first year, which is their most challenging one,” Erpur stated.

Algae and fish affect population

One reason the puffins are doing well this year is better access to food. “There is sandeel and also a lot of northern krill,” Erpur says. There has been little sandeel in particular along the south coast since around 2005, he adds, though northern krill has been pushing up the puffling numbers since 2017.

Both northern krill and sandeel feed on small zooplankton, which follow the algal bloom in spring. Off Iceland’s south coast, the bloom has been very late in the season for the past 15 years. “Around 2005 the algae started blooming around two weeks later than before. We still don’t know why that happened, but the bloom timing was much earlier this year than it has been since 2005, now it is what we would consider a ‘normal’ time. That seems to have had a huge positive impact on the sand eel.”

Small temperature difference has big impact

According to Erpur, the ocean temperature off Iceland’s south coast has alternating cold and warm periods lasting around 35 years. It is currently in a warm period which began in 1996. Puffin populations do better during cold periods, though it’s not just the temperature itself that is a factor. “During the cold periods there are more marine animals in Icelandic waters, there are more nutrients in the ocean so the fish get bigger and there’s more food in general,” Erpur explains. “We see that there are a lot more pufflings during these periods when the ocean is colder.”

New research on these cold and warm cycles reaching back to 1880 shows that even small changes in ocean temperature can have a big impact on puffin breeding. “We see that with a change of a one degree celsius in either direction from an annual mean of about 7°C chick production drops by 55%. And that happens with all Icelandic seabirds really.” While the puffin is still at risk, Erpur says the population has been increasing its chick production in recent years. “It mainly depends on how it goes in the Westman Islands, where the population has fluctuated the most. We’ve had a few good years now recently but we’ll have to wait and see whether that continues.”

Puff-Inn Welcomes Seabirds for Five-Star Stay

A new hotel is opening by the small town of Borgarfjörður eystri, East Iceland, but if you’re reading this article, its lodgings are probably not available in your size. The Lundahótel, or Puff-Inn, is a project hatched by illustrators Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir and Rán Flygenring, offering luxury accommodations to Iceland’s most beloved birds. Iceland Review spoke to the artists as they were putting the finishing touches on the facilities, located at the farmstead Höfn, just east of the town.

The two artists opened a puffin shop last year at the same location, an answer to Iceland‘s many tourist shops filled with puffin-themed tchotchkes. “We made all sorts of puffin-related merchandise that was not for sale and were thinking a lot about the relationship between puffins, people, and puffin stores,” Rán told Iceland Review over the phone. “Opening a hotel is a logical continuation of that.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/CQ9i1K4gatN/

“The puffin is the symbol of tourism in Iceland but it’s in danger,” Elín says, explaining that human-caused global warming is pushing the bird’s food source north and the puffins are following. “A hotel would be a good way to provide them with refuge.” Early birds can dine on the hotel’s breakfast buffet, complete with sardines and herring (humans are also welcome), and guests will enjoy all the usual offerings of luxury lodgings: “Bathrobes and postcards.”

The Puff-Inn is located by the town harbour across the road from a puffin colony, and the artists admit their new facilities are more of a “staycation” for the birds. Their feathered neighbours are nevertheless are showing interest in the hotel on their doorstep, say the two illustrators, as are the local townsfolk. While there are currently no rooms available for human guests, Rán says they’re welcome to make a booking for a friend of the puffin persuasion.

Rather than the traditional rooms, the Puff-Inn offers burrows to its guests. “We plan to offer burrows of various sizes so birds of all kinds can come and stay,” Elín adds. “All birds are facing difficult circumstances due to human causes, so we hope they all stop by for a visit.”

Interested people and avians can follow the hotel on Instagram.

Reykjavík’s “Puffin Island” Protected

Puffins - Westfjords - Lundar - Látrabjarg

Ten thousand seabird pairs nest on Lundey island, off the north coast of Reykjavík, which was declared a protected area yesterday by Iceland’s Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. Lundey (E. Puffin Island) is appropriately named as puffins are one of the main species that breed there, while kittiwakes, black guillemots, and eider ducks also call the island home.

Lundey is located off the north coast of Reykjavík in Kollafjörður fjord, which is dotted with several islands including Akurey, Engey, Viðey and Þerney. Akurey was the first island in the fjord to be declared protected (in 2019) while the other islands have been on Iceland’s Nature Conservation Register for years. Most of the islands were once inhabited by people but they now host a variety of bird and plant life.

Lundey island puffins Reykjavík
Stjórnarráðið. Lundey island.

“Akurey in Kollafjörður was the first area to be protected in a protection campaign that I launched in 2018 and now it’s time for her sister, Lundey,” the Environment Minister stated. “It’s appropriately named, as the island is an important breeding and nesting area for puffins, which are under threat, and the protection is part of protecting the species here in Iceland.”

The newly-protected area measures 1.74km2 (0.67mi2) and stretches across the island, its shoreline, and the seabed surrounding it. In addition to being an important nesting site, Lundey is home to diverse plant life including common meadow grass, green sorrel, arctic fescue, and meadow buttercup.

Puffins Return to Traditional Take-Off Time

The puffins in the Westman Islands are taking off at a usual time of the year, after having left the country late for the last 17 years.
Erpur Snær Hansen, head of South Iceland Nature Research Centre, says that the puffins have taken off to southern pastures 2-3 weeks later than they’ve done historically. This has been the case for the last 17 years, but this year it looks like the puffins will revert back to the departure time they had stuck to for the 60 years before that. They’ve started showing signs that they’re getting ready to leave the Westman Island.  “It’s a good sign,” said Erpur who expects that the puffins will have departed by the end of August.
Both the Westman Islands and Breiðafjörður bay saw a drastic dropoff in puffin egg-laying rates this summer. Over 60% of the Icelandic puffin population lays eggs in these two places.
The usage rate of puffin nests was 57% in Breiðafjörður this year, down from 83% the year before. The rate was 57% in the Westman Islands, falling down from 78% the year before.
Despite this, Erpur says that the young fared well which can be traced to an abundance of available food compare to the last couple of years.

Illustrators Open a New Kind of Puffin Shop in East Iceland

Illustrators Rán Flygenring and Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir and their puffins

So-called ‘puffin shops’ in downtown Reykjavík have long been synonymous with cheesy tchotchke and concessions made to the tourism market, but two Icelandic illustrators are now giving the concept a makeover.  Rán Flygenring and Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir opened Nýlunda this week, a puffin-themed popup in the East Iceland village of Borgarfjörður eystri selling nothing but a good vantage point to watch the birds in real life.

Nýlunda—which means ‘novelty’ in Icelandic and is also a play on the words ‘nýr´(new) and ‘lundi’ (puffin)—is temporarily operating from Borgarfjörður eystri’s birdwatching house.

“The puffin, in its Viking hat, has become the face of tourism,” remarked Rán in a recent radio interview. “[The phrase] puffin shop has almost become an expletive. Which is why we thought there was an opportunity right now to have the space to investigate this phenomenon. To make a totally Icelandic puffin shop in the middle of a puffin nesting ground.”

While the more common puffin shops aim to sell souvenirs, Nýlunda is no slave to capitalism, as Elín Elísabet explained to Iceland Review. “We’re in the process of developing our products but the process is what’s important. During this process, we’re researching the puffin and trying to find ways to let the puffin be a puffin on its own terms, not swallowed whole by the market. We’re expanding the concept of a puffin store.”

The birdwatching house is only two meters wide—the distance, it might be emphasized, that people are supposed to keep from one another in this time of social distancing—which means that only a few people can visit in person at a time. Indeed, in-person visits aren’t actually encouraged: “Due to the virus,” reads the sign on the outside of the shop, “it is best visited on Instagram.”

 

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The puffins are staying in today. 🌧

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This will affect the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled later today. “It’s just going to be the two of us,” says Elín. “But everyone’s welcome to join us online.” The pair will be sharing their puffin research and adventures on Instagram until August 16th through photos, videos and live-streams from their bird-watching cabin in east Iceland.

Nýlunda will have its official opening at 5pm GMT, which can be watched on the Nýlundabúðin Instagram page.

Elín Elísabet Einarsdóttir and Rán Flygenring in Borgarfjörður Eystri
Sebastian Ziegler