Atlantic puffin
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What is a Puffin?

A Puffin is a type of auk. Their heads and underparts are mostly black and white and they have brightly colored bills (beaks) and feet during the breeding season. 

How many types of Puffin are there?

There are four different types of Puffins

  • Atlantic Puffin
  • Horned Puffin
  • Tufted Puffin 
  • Rhinoceros Auklet

These seabirds live in the Northern Hemisphere and spend long amounts of time at sea. 

Only one species of Puffin is found in the Atlantic Ocean. Not so surprisingly, the Atlantic Puffin (Irish Name: Puifín, Scientific Name: Fratercula arctica), is the one found in the North Atlantic Ocean. The other Puffin species are found in the Pacific Ocean. 

Are there Puffins in Ireland?

Atlantic Puffins on the Great Saltee Island, County Wexford.
Atlantic Puffins on the Great Saltee Island, County Wexford. (Photo: AndreAnita via Canva)

Yes, large numbers of Atlantic Puffins migrate to Ireland during the breeding season. There are several Atlantic Puffin seabird colonies around the coast of Ireland and Northern Ireland. From about August, the Puffins migrate out to sea and are rarely seen on land until about March or April. 

Atlantic Puffin Distribution Range

As well as being found in Ireland, the Atlantic Puffin also breeds on both sides of the Atlantic. Breeding populations are found in Russia, Greenland, Norway, Faroe Islands, Norway, Britain and as far south as France. On the Eastern Coast of North America, the Atlantic Puffin breeds in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Maine.

From now on the Atlantic Puffin will be referred to as Puffin. 

For more information about Puffins, check out the Puffin FAQ at the end of this post. 

Puffins Bird Ireland

When are Puffins in Ireland?

Atlantic Puffin in flight.
Atlantic Puffin in flight. (Photo: MikeLane45 via Canva)

Puffins spend most of their lives at sea and only return to land to breed and raise their young. Usually Puffins arrive in Ireland (to the same colony where they were hatched) from around March or April. They spend the next few months rearing the Puffin chicks (known as Pufflings) and the Puffins leave Ireland again in early August at the latest. 

Tip: If you really want to see Puffins in Ireland, be sure to plan your trip for the end of July at the latest to be sure. Depending on the year and local weather and food conditions, the Puffins might depart earlier or later than the first week of August. To be on the safe side, plan for the end of July instead. 

When it comes to bird watching and observing nature, there are no guarantees to actually see anything and there is always an element of luck involved too! 

Where to find Puffins in Ireland?

Puffins are found during the summer months around the island of Ireland. Most of the Puffin colonies are on the west coast of Ireland, but there are also three on the east coast, as well as some in Northern Ireland

Where to see puffins in Ireland – Locations

The most accessible places to see Irish Puffins are the Great Saltee Island (County Wexford) and the Cliffs of Moher (County Clare) in the Republic of Ireland. Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland is a good spot in the north. As you will see there are several other sites around the island of Ireland.

Where do Puffins nest?

Puffin Burrows from the Faroe Islands.
Example of Puffin Burrows from the Faroe Islands. (Photo: Tiero via Canva)

Puffins live in nests built on steep cliffs, rocky coastlines and also in burrows in softer soil. As the nests are at ground level, they are very often found on offshore islands, where the risk of attack by predators is not so high

Did you know? Puffins have strong bills and feet which they use to dig their own burrows. Occasionally Puffins will evict the rabbits and take over their  burrows.  

Puffin in a burrow.
Puffin in a burrow. (Photo: Level_Up_Filming via Canva)

Ireland Puffin Locations

Skellig Michael Puffins 

The Skellig Islands are located 12 km (ca. 7.5 miles) off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry and are truly unique islands, both nationally and internationally in terms of their wildlife and historical significance

Skellig Michael (or in Irish Skellig Mhichíl) and the Little Skellig are internationally recognised for the size and diversity of breeding seabird colonies. The waters around the island contain nutrient rich currents that support plenty of fish and plankton to feed the seabird colonies.

Skellig Michael, County Kerry
Skellig Michael, County Kerry. (Photo: Laurens Verhoeven via Canva)

In addition to the Atlantic Puffins that visit the islands during the breeding season, populations of Manx Shearwaters, European Storm Petrels, Northern Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Common Guillemots also nest here. The Little Skellig has the largest Gannet colony in Ireland and is also important globally as one of the more northerly colonies for this species.

As well as being renowned for its birds and other wildlife, Skellig Michael was the location of an early monastic site founded by monks somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries. The monks sought solitude and isolation on this small island off the west coast of Ireland at what was then thought to be the end of the known world. 

The remains of this monastic site, including the famous beehive huts, are remarkably well preserved and the site has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. 

In recent years, Skelligs Michael became an unlikely blockbuster filming location for Star Wars. (Find out all about it and other Star Wars filming locations and Irish related trivia in our Star Wars Ireland Filming Locations Guide.) 

The Puffins on the steps of Skellig Michael.
The Puffins on the steps of Skellig Michael. (Photo: LarryHerfindal via Canva)

Puffins Ireland Skellig Michael – Did you know?

There was much criticism regarding the choice of location and insensitive timing of the filming on Skellig Michael by BirdWatch Ireland and other environmental groups as it took place during the Puffin breeding season (as well as the breeding season for other birds).

The Skellig Michael Puffins were present in some of the scenes. These birds were later digitally altered into the flat faced porgs see in the film. 

Visit the Puffins on Skellig Michael – Practical Information

Puffins on Skellig Michael.
Puffins on Skellig Michael. (Photo: Babett Paul via Canva)

When to visit: April to early August (generally the first week). 

Please note: If you travel in mid August or later, you will very likely miss the Puffins on Skellig Michael as they migrate to the North Atlantic for the rest of the year

How to visit: By boat tour. 

There are two boat tour options available:

  • Landing Tour: Includes landing on Skellig Michael and exploring the island for several hours
  • Eco Tour: Includes boat tour around Skellig Michael and the Little Skellig focusing on the diverse wildlife in the area (such as seabirds, dolphins, Grey Seals, Basking Sharks, Minke Whale and Leather Backed Turtles)

Several boat tours depart daily from Portmagee to Skellig Michael leave daily during the summer opening season (May to September). One tour operator departs from Derrynane.

(The Little Skellig is a designated Bird Nature Reserve and it is not possible to land on it without written permission from Birdwatch Ireland.)

The Little Skellig Island with Skellig Michael in the background.
The Little Skellig Island with Skellig Michael in the background. (Photo: Laurens Verhoeven via Canva)

For safety and conservation of the site, only 180 people can land on Skellig Michael each day during the designated season. As it is a very popular activity along the Ring of Kerry, places are booked up far in advance. Keep this in mind if you are planning your trip and note that poor weather and sea conditions can lead to tour cancellations. 

Please Note: Visitors to Skellig Michael are only allowed to walk on designated paths for both safety reasons, but also for protection of the native wildlife. Puffins and other seabirds nest in burrows and would risk being trampled on if people strayed from the paths. There are also many steep steps on the island, so visitors should be prepared and fit for some hiking.

 

Puffin Island Ireland

Puffin Island in County Kerry
Puffin Island in County Kerry. (Photo: FedevPhoto via Canva)

Puffin Island Kerry is a small uninhabited island (about 1.5 km long/ 1 mile and only 0.7 km/ 0.4 miles  wide) just off the Skellig Ring on the Ring of Kerry. It is only a narrow, but sometimes dangerous) stretch of water (250 m) separates the island from the mainland.

The Puffin Island Reserve, which is run by BirdWatch Ireland, is home not only to Puffins, but to many different species of birds, including Manx Shearwaters, Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes.

Boat Trips to Puffin Island Kerry – Practical Information

When to view the Puffins: April to early August (generally the first week) 

How to access: By Boat Tour

Due to the importance of this breeding site, permission to land on the island is completely restricted by BirdWatch Ireland, however it is possible to view the seabirds by boat.

Puffin Island Ireland tours can be arranged as a privately chartered Puffin Island Boat Tour from one of the boat operators in Portmagee during the summer months. 

Alternatively the Puffins and other seabirds can often be seen quite well from the boats on route to the Skellig Islands from Portmagee (both the Landing Tour and Eco Tour pass near the island). 

Extra tip: Don’t forget to bring binoculars!

Puffins Blasket Islands

Blasket Islands
The Blasket Islands can be seen in the background of this image. (Photo: Dimitry Anikin via Canva)

Off the Dingle Peninsula lie the Blasket Islands. These islands, which are now uninhabited, have a wide diversity of wildlife, both on land and in the surrounding marine environments. 

As well as the Puffins that come each summer to breed, other bird species including Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Gannets, Fulmars and both the Roseate and Arctic Terns are also found on the Blasket Islands. Another regular visitor to the Blasket Islands are the Grey Seals that are sometimes seen on the beach of the Great Blasket.

The remains of the old village on the Great Blasket Island.
The remains of the old village on the Great Blasket Island. (Photo: Noel O’Neill via Canva)

Conditions on these islands can be particularly tough, especially during the winter months. A small community lived on the Great Blasket Island up until the 1950s. Several well known authors and storytellers (in the Irish language) lived on the island, including Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin

Visit the Blasket Island Puffins – Practical Information

When to visit: April to early August (generally the first week).

How to visit: By Boat

The best chance of seeing Puffins around this location is probably by boat. Eco Tours of the Blasket Islands from Ventry Harbour take place in summer and allow visitors to get unrivalled views of the marine wildlife, including the breeding Puffins and other seabirds

Alternatively, several daily trips to land on the Great Blasket Island are made each day during the summer season, leaving from Dunquin Harbour. The chances of catching a glimpse of the Puffins here are highest if you walk to the far end of the island. 

Puffins Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher looking on to Goat Island. (Photo: Dimitry Anikin via Canva)

One of Ireland’s most famous landmarks on the Wild Atlantic Way, the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, is also home to breeding Puffins during the summer months. Many different seabirds make their nests and rear their young on the steep cliffs up to 214m (702 feet) in height, including Puffins, Razorbills, Gannets, Guillemots, Fulmars, Razorbills, Choughs and Lesser Black Backed Gulls. Cliffs of Moher bird watching possibilities are great!

Given the importance as a bird breeding site, the cliffs and the grassy area above the cliffs are designated as a Special Protection Area for the conservation and welfare of the bird species. 

Puffin Cliffs of Moher – Practical Information

When to visit: April to the end of July 

How to view: By boat or by foot from along the cliff walk 

The best way to see Puffins and the many other seabirds is to take a Cliffs of Moher cruise. You will also get a completely different perspective of the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most popular tourist sites. There are several different boat tour operators in Doolin which offer such trips over the summer opening season, as well as trips to the Aran Islands.

View from south of the main viewing point looking north along the Cliffs of Moher walkway.
View from south of the main viewing point looking north along the Cliffs of Moher walkway. (Photo: Tomasz Wozniak via Canva)

It is also possible to view the Puffins from the Cliffs of Moher coastal walk along the top of the cliffs between May and June. The main colony is seen on Goat Island, not too far from the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre, and other colonies are visible both further north in the direction of Doolin and to the south towards Liscannor.

From more information about the Burren and Cliffs of Moher UNESCO Geopark, explore this article.

Tory Island Puffins

View of the windswept (and treeless) Tory Island. (Photo: Andrea De Rossi via Canva)

Tory Island in County Donegal is a well known bird watching location. Not only is it one of the few locations in Ireland where the Corncrake is found to breed, it is also home to many other important bird species. 

Recognised for its both international and national importance, especially in regard to the Corncrake, Fulmare, Razorbill and Puffin are all protected as part of a Special Area of Conservation.

Puffins Tory Island – Practical Information

When to visit: April to end of July

How to visit: By boat

There is a daily ferry departing from Machaire Rabhartaigh and Bun Beag

Donegal County Council has a useful pdf map of where the Puffins, as well as other bird species are most likely to be found. Puffins are found in the north east area of the Island around An Tor Mór. 

Puffins Saltee Islands

The Great Saltee Coastline
The Great Saltee Coastline. (Photo: Perfectstills via Canva)

The Saltee Islands off the coast of County Wexford are one of the best bird watching sites in County Wexford. More than 220 different bird species have been recorded at this very important bird sanctuary. These include Manx Shearwaters, Fulmars, Guillemots, Choughs, Razorbills, as well as Puffins

The best areas to see Puffins on the Great Saltee Island are found along the south east of the island from the first Gannet colony to the head of the island.

Saltee Islands Puffins – Practical Information

Puffin on the Great Saltee Island
Puffin on the Great Saltee Island. (Photo: AndreAnita via Canva)

When to visit: April to about the end of July

How to visit: By boat

The Saltee Islands are privately owned by the Neale family, but daytrippers can visit the Great Saltee Island by ferry between the house of 11 am and 4.30 pm. from Kilmore Harbour. All visitors must leave the island by 4.30 pm. Due to the hazardous landing conditions, it is not permitted to visit the Little Saltee Island.

Puffins Ireland’s Eye Dublin

Aerial view of the Martello Tower and Puffin breeding area behind it
Aerial view of the Martello Tower and Puffin breeding area behind it. (Photo: Levers2007 via Canva)

A short boat trip from Howth Harbour on the northside of Dublin is Ireland’s Eye. This is a great place for birdwatching in Dublin as many different seabirds are found there including Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Shags, Greater and Lesser Black Backed Gulls

Puffins are also present during the summer months. Several pairs of Puffins usually breed on the island. The best chance of seeing Puffins on the island is to observe the area behind the Martello Tower.

Puffins Ireland’s Eye  – Practical Information

When to visit: May to end of July

How to visit: By boat

During the summer months, there is a boat service departing from Howth Harbour offered by three ferry operators. Note: Some tours land on the island, while others offer tours around the island (Eco tours) so be sure you know what you want! 

Northern Ireland Puffins

Puffins Rathlin Island 

The seabirds of Rathlin Island.
The seabirds of Rathlin Island. (Photo: Babett Paul via Canva)

The Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre (run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is possibly the best location for Puffins in Northern Ireland.

The location of the viewing platforms at the Seabird Centre are well positioned to view the thousands of Puffins and other seabirds that nest on the sea stacks. From here, you can observe the courtship, nest building, hatching as well as the migration back to sea of the Puffins. 

Rathlin Island Puffins – Practical Information

When to visit: Mid-May to the end of July

How to visit: By boat followed by short trip by bus, bike or by foot

From April to September there are regular ferries to the island departing from Ballycastle. During peak season, it is best to book these in advance. Once on the island it is possible to travel to the Rathlin West Seabird Centre by bus or rent bikes to cycle the route. Alternatively there is a 7 km walking route that also brings you to the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre.

Many different seabirds including Puffins nest on the sea stacks and cliffs of Rathlin Island
Many different seabirds including Puffins nest on the sea stacks and cliffs of Rathlin Island. (Photo: Babett Paul via Canva)

If you arrive from about early August you might be too late to see the Puffins, so be sure to get a chance to see them before the end of July. 

Please note that the Rathlin Island Seabird Centre is only open between mid-April and mid-September. 

The Gobbins Puffins

The entrance to The Gobbins Cliff Walk. (Photo: FrankvandenBergh via Canva)
The entrance to The Gobbins Cliff Walk. (Photo: FrankvandenBergh via Canva)

There are some breeding pairs of Puffins nesting in burrows along the cliffs of the Gobbins Cliff Walk in Northern Ireland too. This is the only colony of Puffins found on the mainland in Northern Ireland. 

Along the coastline live other bird species such as Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Cormorants.

The entire Gibbons Walk Way is a great location to explore the interesting wildlife and geology of Northern Ireland.

The Gobbins Puffins – Practical Information

The  Gobbins Cliff Walk
The Gobbins Cliff Walk is one location where it is possible to see Puffins in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Thomas Cowling via Canva)

When to visit: June to the end of July

How to view:  Walk along the Gobbins Cliff Path (paid attraction)

The Puffins are found nesting in the softer soils on the cliffs. Keep an eye out for their burrows.

This superb attraction is one of the best in Northern Ireland, so as well as the chance to see Puffins, you also get to explore the coast in an exciting and spectacular way!

Please note that there are plenty of steps on the Gobbins Way Walk and a certain level of fitness is advised. The walk is also not suitable for anyone under 1.2 m or 4 feet in height.

(Puffins Northern Ireland – Additional Location

The Copeland Islands are the other key Puffin colony in Northern Ireland.)

Puffins Bird Ireland FAQ

What does a Puffin look like?

Atlantic Puffin (Photo: CarolinaBirdman via Canva)

In the summer months, the Atlantic Puffin has a black back and crown of its head. Its cheeks and underside are white and its bill is brightly colored orange, black and yellow bill and orange feet. They have a blunt end to their tails. This combination has given them the name as the “clown of the sea” and “Sea Parrot”.

What might come as a surprise to some is that the Puffins look different in winter and not as colorful. These colorful features are only present for the mating season. 

In winter the colorful plates fall off the bill and regrow a little larger the following year. The black patch around the eyes disappearsThe feet are no longer a distinctive orange, and become duller in color.  

How big is a Puffin?

An Atlantic Puffin is about 20 cm (8 inches) in height with the males being slightly larger than the females. Puffins usually weigh roughly 0.4-0.4 kg (14-27 oz.)

What do Puffins eat?

Puffins feed on small fish, mostly sand eels and sprat, which they carry in their specially adapted bills.

Puffin Beaks – What is so special about them?

The colorful bill of an Atlantic Puffin in Summer.
The colorful bill of an Atlantic Puffin in Summer. (Photo: Stockomotion via Canva)

First of all the beaks have a special hinge section that enables the birds to catch more fish, thus reducing the frequency of traveling back and forth to a nest and increasing energy efficiency. 

A series of spikes, known as denticles, point down towards the throat and the raspy tongue of the Puffin helps push the fish towards the spikes and keep them in place (even when the Puffin opens its bill to catch more fish). 

Typically Puffins carry about 10 fish in their beaks at once, but there have been some records made of Puffin caring extraordinary numbers of fish, such as 126 according to Dr. Ellie Owen from the RSPB

Another interesting fact that has recently being discover is that Puffin beaks glow under UV light. The exact reason for this is still unclear, and is currently being researched by scientists.  

Where do Puffins go in the winter?

Once the Puffin breeding season is over and the chicks have fledged, the Puffins migrate out the Atlantic Ocean. There is still much to learn about Puffins and their distribution and habits in winter. 

A recent study carried out by the University College Cork geotagged Puffins to understand more about their movements and behaviour outside the land based breeding season. It found that Puffins from Ireland can travel across the North Atlantic Ocean as far as Canada in search of food. This food is most likely Capelin, a fatty and highly nutritious fish that lives in the north west areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

Can Puffins fly?

A Puffin takes flight from water
A Puffin takes flight from water. (Photo: MikeLane45 via Canva)

Yes, Puffins have short stubby wings that are better suited for swimming under the water than for flying

They can beat their wings up to about 400 times a minute and reach speeds of up 77 to 88 km hr (48 to 55 mph).

How long do Puffins live?

A Puffin pair on the Great Saltee Island.
A Puffin pair on the Great Saltee Island. (Photo: AndreAnita via Canva)

Puffins have a life expectancy of about 20 years, but in some cases can live to be older. 

It takes roughly 5 years for Puffins to fully sexually mature and start to breed. This lengthy pre-breeding period enables the Puffins to learn the extensive knowledge of how to fend for themselves and essential skills that they will need to raise young. 

Do Puffins mate for Life?

Puffin courtship involves bumping bills, which is called "billing".
Puffin courtship involves bumping bills, which is called “billing”. (Photo: by 9th- via Canva)

Yes, Puffins typically mate for life. They also return to the same colony that they were hatched in and use the same burrow as they did the previous year. 

Once the pair of Puffins mates meet each other again at the breeding spot, they greet each other by bumping their beaks as a form of courtship known as “billing”.

How many eggs does a Puffin lay?

Puffins lay one egg a year. Sometimes under stress conditions, the birds might only lay an egg every two years. If an eggs fails to hatch of if the young chicks, known as a Pufflings, do not survive this can have a very negative impact on population number, given the low number of offspring and the length of time it takes Puffins to breed. 

Did you know?

Puffins are very clean birds as they dig out a separate area of their burrow to function as a “toilet”. This helps to keep the feathers clean, which is essential for the young birds when they are learning to fly.

Threats against Puffins

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic Puffin (Photo: MikeLane45 via Canva)

Puffins, like all seabirds, are particularly vulnerable to the environmental effects associated with Climate Change. Rising sea temperatures impact fish populations and thus the availability of fish. Overfishing by humans also has a great impact on their food supply. Pollutants such as oil spills can destroy the waterproofing on their feathers, which means they can no longer feed. Plastic, netting and other waste from fishing vessels also harm these birds. 

Avian flu is a growing concern as many seabird colonies in the UK are being impacted by this very contagious respiratory pathogen that is killing large numbers of birds. 

Threats on the adult population place greater pressure on the breeding season to be a success, especially as a pair of puffins only produce one egg year, or every two years. 

The Puffins in Ireland and Britain are now classified as endangered due to these threats (Amber Conservation Status)

Birds of Ireland

Ireland has many more interesting species of birds. You out more about Ireland’s birds of prey, such as Kestrels and Owls, garden birds,  as well as great bird watching locations here.