Puffins are adorable birds. Everyone loves puffins. They and Icelandic Horses are symbols of Iceland, though the puffins in Iceland and elsewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean are being threatened. In October 2015, puffins joined the International Union for Nature Conservation's red list for species at risk of global extinction. They are at the same level as the African lion and the elephant.
Now that I have seen and interacted with these quirky and delightful birds, I don't want to imagine a world without them. Plus, if puffins disappear, it will be a sign of ominous things occurring in the web of life.
Puffins return to the same breeding grounds year after year, much like sea turtles return to the same beach. The West Islands of Iceland are home to the largest puffin breeding colony in the world, but their populations are rapidly decreasing. This National Geographic article entitled "Iceland's Seabird Colonies are Vanishing, with "Massive" Chick Deaths" reported very alarming statistics in 2014 and our local Icelandic guide and lifelong photographer Haukur Snorrason says things have gotten worse. Here's the link to the article: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140827-seabird-puffin-tern-iceland-ocean-climate-change-science-winged-warning/
Puffins feed on sandeel, narrow pencil-shaped fish. However, the two days we went to the Latrabjarg Cliffs we didn't see any of those fish in their beaks. Dee Ann Pederson and Hakaur Snorrasan, our Icelandic guide, told us that was very unusual. The sandeel population may be rapidly diminishing due to climate change and warmer waters. In addition, the more southerly mackerel may be entering Icelandic waters and eating the smaller fish the puffins depend on as ocean temperatures increase. Iceland has been through fluctuations in ocean temperatures before, and there is even a term for it: Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. However, Erpur Snaer Hasnen of the South Iceland Nature Center said that during this warming cycle, which began in the 1990s, the temperature has increased by 2 degrees celsius and chicks are taking a big hit. In fact, we did not see any. In the 2014 National Geographic article, it was reported that there has not been a proper chick production in 12 years. This is very saddening to me.
Puffins are so much fun to watch because they come very close to people and don't seem alarmed. This one stopped to look quizzically. They are not afraid of people but maybe they should be. Puffins are still hunted for food, although it is mostly by the older generation. People also overfish Icelandic waters, which is contributing to the decline of their food sources. Water pollution is also taking a toll on aquatic life. And then there is climate change, which humans are playing a large role in. There are new limits on fishing, but climate change is difficult to control. The warmer ocean temperatures are causing ocean acidification and are also throwing breeding cycles off. The chicks are bred later and fed less often, and if they don't hatch the puffins return to sea earlier.
There used to be thousands of puffins, but now there are far fewer. When I got to the cliffs seeing any of these birds was such a treat and I didn't realize anything was wrong at first. I saw them preening and engaging in other natural behaviors as they flew on and off the cliffs all evening. They would pop in and out of their holes, though the holes were difficult to see since they were on the other side of the cliff edge, which is constantly eroding and not safe to stand on. I could see how people who didn't know any better, like me, would be excited by seeing the puffins and think this was all normal.
They got so close, it wasn't even necessary to use a large lens.
I just received my August/September issue of the Nature Conservancy magazine and on the back cover, there is a photograph of a puffin because the bird has just earned a spot on the Nature Conservancy's Birding Bucket List of 10 must-see birds. They earned this spot becasue of "their tuxedo-colored bodies, bright beaks, and swimming acumen." I also reflected that people better see them now, since more and more are disappearing each year–not the best reason for any species to make a bucket list.
I tried not to focus on their diminishing numbers and delighted in watching them, as I studied how they managed to make their awkward looking bodies fly. It was pretty much impossible to photograph them leaving. They just suddenly plop down off the cliff with little to no warning. Catching them arriving was pretty challenging too, as in most locations they would suddenly emerge from below the cliff line and then instantly land.
On the first evening the sun broke through just before we were leaving and shined golden light on these spectacular birds, as they interacted with each other.
I watched them fly in and marveled at how beautiful they looked and how each one seemed to have a different personality.
Then a rainbow formed and it all seemed even more magical. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to visit with these birds and then take action to help save them by joining groups that are involved with their preservation or by working to raise awareness about climate change or finding ways to help avert it and ocean acidification. It will be very sad when these birds are merely remembered or considered mythical. They are such special creatures.