Wildlife Photography – Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffin in Flight

The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), often referred to as the Common Puffin, is a seabird in the auk family. It’s most likely the name Common Puffin that makes us think that these iconic birds are prolific. For example with an estimated 9.5-11.5 million Atlantic Puffins in Europe, you might also be excused in thinking they are. However, in the last few years, their numbers have reduced drastically; by as much as 42% per year in some areas. So much so, that in 2015 the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed their status from “least concern” to “vulnerable”, and in 2018 Birdlife International registered them as being threatened with extinction.

As wildlife photographers, it is my firm belief that we have an obligation to both understand what we are photographing. Further, we should help raise public awareness of the hardship that wildlife faces. This article is therefore dedicated to the humble Atlantic Puffin.

Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffin

MankindAtlantic Puffin’s Worst Enemy

The biggest threat to puffins is climate change caused by mankind. Rising sea temperatures have caused the fish that puffins eat to migrate north in large numbers. This combined with mankind’s overfishing has played a huge part in the puffin’s decline. Further, climate change has brought with it a redistribution of ground predators such as rats, wild cats, and mink. Pollution is another major issue. For example, in 1967, 85% of the puffin colonies in France were wiped out by the Torrey Canyon oil leak.

Puffins are also hunted for food, particularly in Iceland & the Faroe Islands. It is argued that this is done in a sustainable way, however with the population of puffins steadily declining year on year this seems a weak argument.

All of these factors have contributed to the continual decline of the entire species of birds, with reports of a steady reduction in their numbers since the 1960s.

Diet

Atlantic Puffins feed on small fish such as white-bait. Puffins are able to swim quite adeptly, catching their prey by diving deep underwater, and using their wings to propel themselves.

Atlantic Puffin

Habitat

Favoring open seas when not breeding. When nesting they favor grassy cliff-tops and islands, and sometimes boulders at the foot of steep cliffs. The Atlantic Puffin’s main breeding grounds are Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Newfoundland, Labrador, Faroe Islands, and the west of the UK.

Distribution data is a rough illustration based on UKG data.

Size & Appearance

The Atlantic Puffin has a very distinctive appearance. Its nickname is ‘sea parrot’, and whilst it may well look a little bit like a parrot it is actually related to razorbills and guillemots; from the auk family. Standing at around 30cm tall and weighing 345-488 grams. Their wingspan ranges from 146 to 170mm.

The Atlantic Puffin has a black crown and back, with white cheeks and belly and orange legs with webbed feet. Its iconic beak is red and black. Whilst at sea, the bright appearance of the face is somewhat lost, though this returns during the spring. Males are typically slightly larger than females, other than this their external appearance is the same. The juveniles are grey colored and do not sport brightly-colored beaks.

Behavior

Atlantic Puffins spend the autumn and winter months in the open oceans of the cold northern seas. The Atlantic puffins return to coastal waters in the late spring to start breeding. Nesting in clifftop colonies, breeding pairs typically burrow into the ground or use old rabbit burrows. The females lay a single egg which is incubated for 39 days.

Atlantic Puffin

Whilst puffins do not mate for life, they are quite monogamous. Breeding pairs very rarely change mates, and couples usually return to the same nesting sites year after year.

A puffin chick is called a pufflin, and takes only 6 weeks to be fully-fledged from hatching. The pufflins are able to eat whole fish, and when fully-fledged make their way into the sea. However, the juveniles are unable to fly, so instead tumble down the cliffs and into the sea. This they do in the night to avoid gull and skua attacks. Once at sea, the juveniles learn to fish for themselves, as well as fly. Returning to their colony each year, but not breeding until they are at least 4 years old.

Longevity

Atlantic Puffins can live up to 20 years.

Natural Predators

Because colonies are predominantly on islands, puffins have no terrestrial predators. Puffins are known to fall prey to eagles, and young chicks are at risk of attacks by gulls and skuas. Even adult puffins sometimes fall victim to skuas harassing them to steal their food. Take a look at this little clip from the BBC showing a skua steeling a puffins catch.

Where To Photograph Atlantic Puffins

Since Atlantic Puffins spend the Autumn and Winter months at sea, the Spring and Summer months are the most reliable way to spot them. Also, whilst you can get glimpses of the birds from inland e.g. at the cliffs of Bempton in. North Yorkshire, the most reliable way of photographing them up close, is on a dedicated puffin safari. Boat trips run from various locations in the UK.

If you are fortunate to visit them on a resident island, then you really can get up close. Puffins are less afraid of mankind than they are of predators, so they are not averse to photographers and nature watchers laying in the grass and watching them from only meters away.

Camera & Settings

A zoom is beneficial, especially if you are visiting an island, as a long telephoto will be too long! From personal experience, I use a Canon EF100-400 USM with my Canon EOS 5D IV.

I tend to photograph in auto-focus and on AI Servo so that I can continuously track movement. Many people use. center-point focus, I have found I get a better success rate using an expanded center point. I use speed priority as a general rule and set the speed based on the focal length of the lens as well as the amount of activity of the animal.

I shoot in speed priority, and depending on light conditions will be from 1/250s minimum, but preferably 1/500 – 1/1000s if conditions permit, particularly for in-flight shots.

If you enjoyed this Wildlife Photography Conservation article, here are some related articles that may interest you. Also, check out my gallery of Atlantic Puffins.

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European Otters numbers have been increasing in recent years, but they are still a threatened species. Find out more in this article.

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Red Deer

Red Deer are a common sight. However, it is perhaps little known that in Europe they are under threat of extinction.

Scottish Highlands
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8 Top Photographic Locations in the Scottish Highlands, written by a local photographer.

References

International Union for Conservation of Nature

BirdLife International

Distribution: JNCC Data


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