In Ireland is lucky enough to be home to puffins, some of most the distinct – and let’s face it, adorable – birds throughout all of Europe. While there are three types of puffins in the world, in Ireland we are home to perhaps the most iconic species, the Atlantic Puffins. These seabirds look peculiar, like cross between a penguin and some sort of tropical parrot or toucan. But although they resemble an adorable children’s toy, puffins are actually wonderful seabirds, built to survive in harsh conditions, travel long distances, and expertly hunt fish in the open ocean.
Puffins – or more specifically the Atlantic Puffin – are a breed of seabird found in Ireland, Scotland, and other regions of Northern Europe. They have a wingspan of roughly 47cm-63cm and can reach about 20cm in height. Both females and males are nearly identical in colouring, which in the summer is black on the back with a white underside, and an orange beak and orange webbed feet. However, the large, orange bill that puffins are known for is actually only for show during mating season and this outer part of the beak is shed for the winter season.
Once ready to begin breeding, male and female puffins form long-term pairs – sometimes breeding for life – and both parents help in the raising of offspring. Each year, females lay a single egg, which the parents keep warm in their brood patches (more or less a featherless patch of skin on certain types of birds during breeding season where eggs can be kept warm).
Baby puffin are called pufflings, and look a bit like a creme egg! Born in spring month, they are brown and white and very fluffy, fed by fish held in their parents’ beaks, a feat made possible by the puffins’ large beaks that allow for a unique unhinging of the beak. Once the puffling chicks become independent, they spend the better part of their youth far at sea, only returning to land about five years later to find a mate and start breeding themselves. An Atlantic puffin’s lifespan is about 20 years.
Atlantic Puffins spend a good bit of their lives living on the open ocean, where they live off of local fish and zooplankton (the type of fish will depend upon their location). Once they attain breeding age (roughly five years old though it can vary), the puffins come ashore in remote coastal regions in order to breed and fledge their chicks, or pufflings.
The puffin breeding season usually starts in late March or early April, finishing in July or August, though of course they follow their own schedule which means that predicting their movements down to an exact week or even month isn’t always possible. At this time, the puffins leave Ireland and the rest of Northern Europe to winter in warmer waters down south.
While Atlantic Puffins are found across Northern Europe from Iceland to Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia (and occasionally a tad further south), Ireland is certainly one of the easiest places to spot these adorably iconic birds.
If you want to see puffins, you have to head to the Irish coasts – in particular, Ireland’s rugged west coast. Islands are the best places to see puffins – and the more remote the island, the better. During breeding season, puffins prefer cliffs, craggy headlands and rocky sea stacks well away from predators and humans.
See below for a few islands where you might have a chance at spotting puffins:
The Skellig Islands are one of Ireland’s most popular and iconic locations. Situated about 11km off the coast, the Skelligs are a collection of two rocky pinnacles, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig. Once home to monks looking to retreat from the world, in recent times, the Skelligs have played host to Jedis as a Star Wars filming location.
The islands also happen to house a resident puffin colony during breeding season – if you visit the islands between April to July, you’re very likely to see at least a puffin or two! Fun fact: those adorable little alien birds in the Star Wars films – the porgs – were added in to the films because of the amount of puffins on the Skellig Islands! As a protected species, the filmmakers were not permitted to move them, and it was too much work to edit them all out… and thus, the porg was born. It even looks a bit like a puffin!
Practical info: Skellig Michael island is open from May – September, and there are several boatmen who operate boat services out of Portmagee, or on a smaller scale, Derrynan. These places fill up fast, so book early. The crossing is long, and the weather is unpredictable, therefore the boats are not guaranteed to run.
Rathlin Island, the only inhabited island off of the Causeway Coast of Northern Ireland, is not only home to a puffin colony, but also a puffin sanctuary. On Rathlin Island, find the West Light Seabird Centre, which is run by RSPB NI (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Not only can you marvel at Rathlin’s strange upside-down lighthouse, but the rocky cliffs and wild seastacks are perfect places to spot the puffins.
Keep an eye out for other seabirds as well, like gannets, gulls, Guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as dolphins in the waters surrounding the island, and even seals (in pupping season, meaning early summer for common seals and later summer to autumn for the larger grey seals).
Practical info: Get to Rathlin Island via the ferry from Ballycastle. The centre is open from the end of March to mid September, and has a small fee to enter. Learn more about the RSPB at Rathlin Island here.
These small privately-owned islands off the coast of Wexford in the southeast of Ireland are uninhabited and therefore perfect for seabirds. The Great and Little Saltee are about 5 km off the coast of Kilmore Quay.
It’s on the larger of the two Saltee Islands where you’ll likely find the puffins, as well as other seabird species like Gannets, Gulls and Manx Shearwaters – making these islands a birdwatcher’s haven. As for history, the Saltee Islands have been inhabited in some way by Neolithic humans, as well as early Christian hermits, Vikings, Normans, monks, and later on, the islands housed fishing communities. The Saltees ideal location in the Celtic Sea on the way to the UK and mainland Europe made the islands popular with pirates and smugglers. The island still contains vestiges of these various civilisations from promontory forts and ringforts to Ogham stones and romantically-named caves. There’s even a throne, built for the island’s local king, King Michael the I!
Practical info: Only the Great Saltee is available to visit (the landing conditions of the Little Saltee are too hazardous for boat landings). There is no regular ferry, but there are charter boats available from Kilmore Quay. No overnight stays are allowed (accept by the residing family), and the islands are open daily from 11:30 – 4:30pm.
Though the Skelligs, Rathlin and the Saltee Islands are perhaps the easiest places to see puffins, that’s not to say other islands don’t house puffins during breeding season. Inisbofin is one such island. Off the coast of Galway and Connemara, this small island – just 5km wide – is an outdoor lover’s paradise with options for swimming, diving, hiking, and horseback riding. Out of the coast of Inisbofin Island dramatically rises the Cromwellian barracks, but there are other things to explore too, like holy wells, forts, cliffs and beaches. You may or may not see puffins, but you’re sure to enjoy your visit to and unspoilt and timeless island.
Practical info: Sail on the ferry from Cleggan Harbour.
Once home to the impressive (and formidable) Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, a semi-legendary figure from the 16th century who once ruled the high seas from Clew Bay (where Clare Island is located) down to Galway Bay, Clare Island still houses vestiges of her pursuits, notably the Pirate Queen’s Castle and her tomb in a beautiful Cistercian abbey. If you want to try to spot puffins, be sure to pack a good pair of hiking boots and take to the coastal trails as puffins generally stay away from human habitation when possible.
Practical info: Catch the ferry from Roonagh Quay. Though it runs all year round, the winter service is spotty. If visiting outside of summer months, be sure to bring a picnic lunch.
Ireland has more than 80 islands on its west coast, and we can’t list them all. Here are a few other islands and coastal spots where you may see puffins in season:
Remember that puffins are wild animals and therefore there is no guarantee that they’ll be in any specific place. (Also remember not to approach or feed them).