As a filmmaker, I have traveled around the world, experiencing some of nature’s most brilliant wildlife encounters. I’ve watched wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti, sought out blue sheep in the Himalayas, and searched for snow leopards and ibex amongst the lofty peaks of Tajikistan. However, I’ve often neglected the wonders at home in my native Scotland, including one of the nation’s most notable creatures: the Atlantic puffin.
Their almost comical, painted faces are a huge draw for summer visitors each year at nesting locations along the British coastline; their calm, tolerant nature often results in memorably close interactions. It’s not uncommon for adult puffins to waddle over to nearby spectators, approaching within several feet, inquisitively canting their head as they sum up this new addition to the colony. But until this year, I had never seen one, despite the fact that just 40 minutes from where I live in Angus, Scotland, there’s a known nesting site at Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve.
So this past July—having pressed pause on travel for a time to be at home—I jumped in my truck with my dad and made the short drive to Fowlsheugh. The reserve, listed under the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, isn’t the most abundant site in the United Kingdom to see nesting puffins, but it offers easy access for travelers visiting the east coast of Scotland. In addition to puffins who make the reserve their temporary summer home, more than 130,000 seabirds congregate here to nest during summer. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, and fulmars all take advantage of the safety afforded by nearly 200-foot-high cliffs, with the North Sea offering abundant food to feed their young.
When my dad and I arrived at the Fowlsheugh car park, it was empty—it looked like we would have the cliffs to ourselves. After a 15-minute walk, we took stock at an observation hut, having followed the painted signs directing us toward a possible puffin sighting. None were in sight and, overwhelmed by the aerial ballet of tens of thousands of seabirds swooping and diving around the cliff tops, I was skeptical that we’d see any.
But a little calm and patience paid out, and after only a few minutes scanning the sandy banks, my first Atlantic puffin revealed itself: a solitary bird, out of place beside the grays of the gulls and blacks of neighboring razorbills. Cartoonish in its mannerisms and appearance, I now understood its nickname: clown of the sea. Soon, we spotted more dotted around cliffs. They were mesmerizing.
While I didn’t see any pufflings—yes, that’s what baby puffins are called—I wasn’t disappointed. I’d seen adult puffins flying back and forth to their nesting burrows, as well as an unfathomable number of other seabirds—a spectacle I’ll never forget. It reminded me of how important it is to be a traveler at home. Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re missing.
When and where to spot puffins in the U.K.
You will start to see adult Atlantic puffins—one of four puffin species in the world—on U.K. shorelines beginning in late March, with the best chances of an encounter in June and July. By the middle of August, they are starting to head back out to sea again.
More than half a million breeding pairs gather on U.K. coastlines in the summer, and as with many seabird populations, their numbers have seen rapid declines in recent years. In 2015 the conservation status of the Atlantic puffin was downgraded from “least concern” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The decline is attrbuted to overfishing of the puffins’ primary food source—sand eels—and climate change, which is impacting the migratory pathways of prey species.
The biggest nesting populations tend to be on islands off the coast, which requires a little more planning. Here’s how to make your own puffin-spotting dream come true.
Farne Islands, Northumberland
This archipelago is located off the U.K.'s eastern coast. To get to the Farne Islands, travel by ferry (about a 60-minute ride, one way) from Seahouses Harbour, an hour north of Newcastle, England. Boat trips daily, April through September, weather permitting.
Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire
The Bempton Cliffs reserve is a 30-minute drive from Scarborough, England. The white chalk cliffs are accessible year-round, but most impressive from April to October, when seabirds—including puffins—set up shop.
Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
You must make a reservation to visit Skomer Island in Wales. Visitors are limited to 250 per day to help mitigate the impact of people on the environment. Reservations for the 15-minute ferry ride can be made in advance; visitors can also book a cruise or an overnight stay.
Sumburgh Head, Shetland Islands
The Sumburgh Head reserve is on the southern-most tip of mainland Shetland, which is most commonly accessed by plane. Most mainland U.K. airports offer flights. Tour the marine life center, visit the working lighthouse, and, of course, watch for seabirds.
Isles of Scilly
Ferry is the most common travel option to the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast. From March through November, Isles of Scilly Travel—part of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group—operates the Scillonian III passenger ferry, shuttling people from Penzance once a day.
Through Isles of Scilly Travel you can also travel by fixed-wing aircraft from Exeter, England (March to October only); Newquay (from May through December); and Land’s End (year-round) arriving on the main island of St. Mary’s.
How to prepare for bird-watching
I have learned over years of nature observation that a small amount of preparation can vastly enhance the experience. A flask of coffee and a snack will make sure your stomach doesn’t drive you away prematurely. A little foam pad to sit on adds some creature comfort, with a rain jacket, gloves, and hat ensuring that any sudden changes in weather don’t chase you back to the car—this is the British summer, of course. Finally, whether I’m fishing or hiking or out to see my first puffin, I am never without binoculars. They allow you to reach into nature on another level, and importantly at a distance that doesn’t disturb wildlife. When I don’t have far to walk, I even take a spotting scope and my camera to try to capture the moment.