Sure, I’d seen puffins before…but not ATLANTIC Puffins! In Alaska I’d had decent looks at Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins…and even a Bald Eagle carrying a puffin he’d snagged off a cliff face! (most folks cringed at this but I thought it was quite cool). I was once booked on a boat out of Bar Harbor, Maine to find these “sea parrots” but we were fogged out. So we were both very excited to see Atlantic Puffins…In fact, 60 percent of the world’s population of this species breeds in Iceland.

Puffins are interesting birds. Sexually mature at 4 to 5 years old, the males excavate a burrow atop cliffs. Our guide Magda said some young bachelor males evidently are not ready to mate as they keep working on their burrows for years. A 30-year old puffin is not unheard of.

Puffins can easily dive to depths of 200 feet, surfacing and bringing back the tiny fish with a misleading name “sand eel.” They often arrive back at the nest burrow with several (up to twelve) sand eels in their beak…and most are alternating head and tail. How do they do it? Underwater they are able to hold fish against their palate with their tongue and still be able to use their beak to catch more fish.

After being rained out the day before, we were thrilled that the weather cleared and we could go on the Ingolfshofdi tour. But in typical Icelandic fashion, the whole venture was an adventure. We were all loaded into a haywagon and told to hold on! Pulled by a farm tractor we bounced our way across the land and into the ocean! It could have been 200 feet deep for all I knew, but it was just a couple inches of water covering a tidal flat.

Once we reached the headland part-time island (depending on the tide) we climbed a steep black sand dune to the top. Once there we had to negotiate a gauntlet of nesting Great Skuas who’d just as soon pluck your eyes out. The Germans didn’t understand Magda’s english instructions of “stay in a tight group and they won’t bother you,” and so were promptly attacked.

This is Magda our tractor driver and tour leader. She and her family are one of seven families that are allowed to collect eggs (puffins and murres) and harvest puffins for subsistence…Yes, Icelanders do eat puffins! How they gather the eggs and birds is an interesting story. One person is lowered down the cliff face on a rope while seven or so others anchor the other end. Magda’s husband is a smaller guy (smaller than her!) and so is the unlucky (lucky?) one on the seaward end of the rope. By having humans anchoring the rope instead of a metal post (no trees on this island), they can maneuver the collector across the face of the cliff to the nests. The number of eggs collected is controlled and most will lay eggs to replace missing ones. Also, they only harvest non-reproducing younger puffins…Magda said with experience you can tell them from older birds. Here Magda holds a puffin net. She said that her family was at the end of their “egg season,” eating hundreds of eggs in a month or so.
In fact, I tried to find a restaurant that served puffin, but to no avail…I’ve eaten Minke Whale in Norway, roadkill Spruce Grouse, and Sandhill Crane so I thought I’d add Atlantic Puffin to the list!