Here for the Puffins
Watching Atlantic Puffins on the cold cliffs of Iceland
by Luke Musher
At about 10pm the fog appeared behind us, advancing briskly over the hills and engulfing our campsite in the wet subarctic chill. My hands were soft and wrinkled at the tips, stiff and damp from the cold settling mist. It was still light enough to see, as darkness never truly falls in Iceland at this time of year, and the blueness of it all was soothing despite the conditions. The persistent wind stung the corners of my watery eyes with its chilly bite. My gear was soaked through, not drenched but wet enough to inspire mild bouts of shivering in the dim blue fog.
I had spent the day hiking along the cliffs, taking photos of seabirds that sat awkwardly unafraid, unbothered by my proximity. I set my tent in a grassy campsite surrounded by the stillness of icy fjords. The wild, unearthly moans of puffins echoed from their breeding colonies high above us.
A few hours earlier, I had sat in frigid sunlight and watched the seabirds fly in from the water. Black-legged Kittiwakes– small gulls from the North Atlantic– called vigorously as they flew past; their craws bulging with fish for their offspring. Common Eiders passed as well, their heavy bodies skating low over the water below the cliffs. Northern Fulmars, tube-nosed birds with an extraordinary sense of smell drifted lazily about– the latest to come in to shore.
But I wasn't here for the kittiwakes, or the eiders, or the fulmars. I was here for the puffins.
Roughly half of the world’s eight to ten million Atlantic Puffins breed on the cliffs of Iceland. They dig small burrows where they lay their eggs and raise their chicks. When the eggs hatch, the adults fly dozens of miles to their feeding grounds in the nutrient-rich coastal waters offshore. They return on rapid wingbeats, in large groups throughout the long day, and land clumsily at their burrows. Skuas and jaegers, thieving seabirds, are often close at hand. They harass the puffins and steal their hard-earned catch. Most Puffins escape the thieves, and make it back with rows of silver baitfish lined up in their clownish beaks.
Puffins are members of the avian family Alcidae (commonly known as auks), a group of birds that inhabit the cold waters of the northern hemisphere, and that superficially resemble penguins. Penguins cannot fly, but auks can. And like penguins, auks fly their best when underwater.
I edged toward the puffins on hands and knees. The binoculars pressed tight against my eyes quickly fogged with my warm wet breath. The puffins peered curiously back, calling their eerie song. I wished I could see into their burrows, and watch their downy chicks, but I knew I was at my limit. If I were any closer the cliff might have crumbled beneath me.I pulled out my camera and photographed the birds. One flew off, perhaps startled by my movement, perhaps seeking the sea.
As a photographer, I was captivated by their colorful faces. It was hard not to keep the lens in front of my face. But as a biologist, I wanted to better understand the puffins, so set my lens aside and just watched them. After some time I slowly belly-crawled backward until the puffins were almost out of sight, then stood up and headed back to camp.
It was getting colder then. A dense drizzly fog rolled in. On the hike back, a redwing– a thrush similar to an American Robin– popped out from a bush with a worm in its bill, then flew off. It was a beautiful bird, but I could only think of the puffins. Their presence lingered in my mind. I could still see them over the water. Some were flying in lines of five to ten birds, way offshore, others were bobbing on the sea below the cliffs. I could still hear their wild, melancholy calls. And when the fog arrived, smothering the landscape in its smoky dampness, I had tea and pancakes, and wrote in my field notebook about the day’s adventure.
Luke Musher is a master's student studying ornithology and biogeography at Columbia University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org