Puffin: “little brother of the north”
The Atlantic Puffin is the species most commonly seen in Iceland. Puffins belong to the Alcidae (auks) family of seabirds. The other puffins in the auk family are Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin and the Rhinoceros Auklet. Puffins are beautiful and fun to look at. They exhibit amusing antics and manoeuvres both in air and on land. Perhaps it is this combination of strange colourful look and quirky behaviour that makes them so loveable.
The Latin name for Atlantic Puffin is Fratercula arctica – “little brother of the north”. The name Fratercula - "little brother", or "friar" - may have come about because of their habit of holding their feet together when out of water, giving the appearance of praying. It could also have been an allusion to their black and white plumage resembling a cleric's clothing. On the other hand, their multi-coloured beak has prompted people to give them nicknames such as "the sea parrot" and "clown of the sea".
No doubt the Puffin is one of the top photo models in bird photography. The colourful heavy beak and the white face is so characteristic that it cannot be confused with any other species. Note that it has red legs and feet like the black guillemots but unlike all other auks of the region. A characteristic feature of the puffins, contrary to other auks, is their "at rest" position. They usually stand upright on their feet. Other auks usually sit on their lower legs. Also, the puffin can walk much better than other auks.
Puffins talk in their underground burrows. In Iceland, they nest in the soft earth in underground tunnels, so the sound one hears them make in their cosy earthen rooms is a muffled growling-moaning. If you sit quietly on the grass, you'll hear them talking underground in their nests.
During breeding season, an adult puffin's beak turns a bright orange and yellow colour. Atlantic puffins also have blue on their bills. Their feathers form a rosette at the base of the bill. As winter draws near, the adult will shed the sheath on his bill, exposing a smaller dark bill. The feathers around their eyes moult and are replaced with darker ones. With these seasonal changes, the puffins' appearance changes dramatically. In fact, it was once thought that the puffins with their winter colouring were a different species from the well-known puffins in their breeding plumage.
During the winter, puffins often live a solitary life or in small groups, never setting foot on the ground but living totally at sea. But during spring, as the warm breezes blow, they begin their journey back to their nesting ground, the same one where they were born. Arriving at the shore, they may spend a few days still in the water; congregating with others and possibly locating their mate whom they may not have seen since the previous year. Finally, the puffins decide it’s time to become land animals once more. They find their nesting place from the year before, meeting their mate there if they’d not had a water rendezvous a few days earlier. Puffins usually keep the same mate for life. However, if no offspring are produced for several years, they will "divorce" and find a new mate. Puffins breed when they become five years old. If a puffin is at the age to begin breeding, it will seek out a mate from the other young puffins or take an older mate whose previous partner had died.
Like other auks, puffins breed in colonies. One egg is laid generally in burrows on the boundary of rock and turf layers but also in other protected spots. Atlantic puffins dig burrows underground, about 2 feet in length for their nest, using their beaks to dig and their webbed feet to kick the dirt out. The same puffin was found nesting in the same burrow for 30 years, which means it was at least 35 years old.
The South Iceland Natural History Institute has colour-ringed and electronically tagged puffins in the Westman Islands, for research purposes, in order to gain insight into their habits and migratory behaviour. The lighthouse keeper at Stórhöfði (Storhofdi) in Westman Islands, Óscar J.Sigurðsson, has alone labelled about 85, 000 birds, mostly puffins - a world record in bird labelling. Ringing, air photographing and counting nesting burrows of puffins has enabled ornithologists to assess that Westman Islands habitat contains 1/5 of the world´s total number of pufifins, confirming that Westman Islands in Iceland are the largest single puffin colony in the world.