The Atlantic Puffin Colonies on Grimsey Island, Iceland

by Jake Jacoby | October 30, 2021

© Jake JacobyIn July 2021, I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland with 8 other photographers under the leadership and guidance of Naturescapes.net. After arriving in Reklavik and relaxing for an evening, we travelled in a 12-passenger bus for a couple of days and eventually arrived at the town of Dalvik. We then boarded the ferry “Saefari” and travelled to Grimsey Island where we spent the next 5 nights. This island was, without question, the highlight of my trip to Iceland.

© Jake Jacoby

Iceland Map of route to Grimsey.

Grimsey has been inhabited since the Viking settlement of Iceland. The first recorded telling of Grimsey is dated in the summer of 1024 when King Olafur of Norway asked for the island as a gift in exchange for his friendship. The Icelanders refused this request as the island was such a rich resource of food (birds, eggs and fish). After Christianity was introduced to Iceland, Grimsey was owned by monasteries on the northern mainland and the island’s farmer tenants had to pay them the annual rent in dried cod. The land on the island is now owned by the local residents, the town of Akureyri, and the Icelandic state.

© Jake Jacoby

Puffin Landing with Sand Eels.

Grimsey Island is home to about 100 people and zillions of birds, most notably, the Atlantic Puffin and the Arctic Tern. Grimsey lies about 25 miles North of Iceland and encumbers the Arctic Circle. The people live in a small village by the harbor and the island is a prosperous and fertile community with lots of children. There was no nighttime during July so I was able to photograph birds 24 hours a day depending on the weather. The main focus of the community is fishing, fish processing and the growing industry of tourism. The island is covered with vegetation which is sculpted by the arctic climate. The scurvy-grass which grows on the coastal rocks is very special as it is rich in vitamin C and is also known for its medicinal properties.

Seabirds nest on the islands high cliffs which house several hundred thousand Atlantic Puffins and Arctic Terns. There are no rats or mice on the island and the only predation is from other birds which are discussed later.

© Jake Jacoby

Resting after a successful fishing trip.

All 9 of us on this photographic workshop came to see and photograph Atlantic Puffins. Their sheer numbers and availability to our cameras exceeded our expectations tenfold.

There are four species of Puffins in the world; Atlantic, Horned, Tufted, and the Rhinoceros Auklet. Only the Atlantic Puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean and they are the smallest of the species. The other three puffins are found in the Pacific Ocean. All puffins have a lifespan of approximately 20 years or more and all are “pelagic (live on the open sea and only return to land in order to breed).

© Jake Jacoby

In flight with a mouthful of Sand Ells.

The Atlantic Puffin has a black crown and back, pale grey cheek patches, a white chest and white underparts. This deceptive coloration is call “counter-shading” which means that the animal has different colors on their backs and stomachs. On the puffin, it makes them harder to see from both below in the ocean and from above in the air when it swims. Its broad, boldly marked red and black beak and orange legs contrast with its plumage. Its striking appearance has resulted in nicknames such as “Clown of the Sea” and “Sea Parrot”. The Atlantic Puffin molts while at sea in the winter and some of the bright-colored facial characteristics are lost. However, during the breeding season on land, puffins change their costume. Their beaks grow thicker and brighter, white feathers replace black ones, and eye ornaments appear. Their face now resembles a “Japanese Kabuki actor”.

The appearance of the male and female are identical except that the male is usually slightly larger. Atlantic Puffins can fly at 50 mph and they beat their wings rapidly to achieve this speed reaching up to 400 beats per minute. Fun to watch but they are difficult to photograph in flight depending on the wind conditions.

Atlantic Puffins spend the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas. They return to Iceland at the start of the breeding season in late spring. They nest in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The sole chick will feed primarily on whole fish and grows rapidly. After about six weeks, the chick is fully fledged and makes its way to the sea during the night. It then swims away from the shore and does not return to land for up to 5 years when it will start the breeding cycle. Puffins are extremely social birds and make their nests in large groups call colonies.

© Jake Jacoby

Resting in the flower beds.

Colonies are usually on islands where there are no terrestrial predators like Grimsey, but adult birds and newly fledged chicks are still at risk of attack from the air by gulls and skuas. Sometimes a skua will harass a puffin arriving with its beak full of fish, causing it to drop its catch. The primary diet of the puffin on Grimsey is a fish called “Sand Eels” but they will also feed on shrimp and cod when available. When fishing, puffins swim underwater using their semi-extended wings as paddles to “fly” through the water and then use their feet as a rudder.

The greatest natural predator of the Atlantic Puffin is the Great Black-backed Gull. This very large gull can catch adult puffins in mid-air. Also, this gull will circle high above a puffin colony and pick out a solitary puffin and then catch it from behind by dive bombing the unwary bird.

On January 26, 2021, the CDC began enforcing an order requiring that all air passengers arriving into the U.S. from a foreign country to get tested for Covid-19 no more than 3 days before their flight departs for the U.S. Then each passenger must present the negative results to the airline before boarding their flight (checking in). This order also applies to U.S. personnel which had been fully vaccinated previously. So, 3 days before our departure, we all assembled together and processed our tests online, one at a time. Greg Downing from Naturescapes.net monitored each transaction and we were all successful. It turned out to be a non-event but did create some stress thinking about it during the workshop.

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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