Puffins in Shetland Islands

July, 2013


About 600,000 pairs of Atlantic Puffins nest in Britain and Ireland, the majority on offshore islands. Farne islands, Foula, Skomer Island are among few popular destinations which offer great opportunities to see and photograph Puffins.

The Shetland Islands are home to roughly a fifth of Scotland’s puffins. So it is a perfect destination for puffin photography. 

If you arrive to Sumburgh airport, do not miss Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve. It is a lovely place offering many photographic opportunities. Early July is a perfect time for puffins in flowering sea thrift.

One mile north of Sumburgh Head is the settlement of Grutness, which is the terminus of the Shetland Mainland to Fair Isle ferry service.

For us Fair Isle in Shetland is one of the best places to photograph Puffins. It’s a magical 'get-away-from-it-all' destination, not overcrowded with tourists. But most important it is one of a few places where you are able to stay overnight on the island, which allows you to photograph birds in the morning and evening light. 

Fair Isle is a very quiet and remote location, in fact it is the most remote island in the United Kingdom. The island is tiny as well:  only 5 kilometers length and 3 kilometers width. It is inhabited by thousands of seabirds but only by 60 people.

Fair Isle can be reached from the Shetland mainland either by a cargo ship "Good Shepherd" for 12 passengers or by 8 - seater “Islander” aircraft. Due to very fast changing weather, fog, strong winds or bad seas, ferry and flights can be cancelled. So leave plenty of leavay. It is possible that you might not be able to get on or off the Fair Isle on the day you expect. If you are suffering from seasickness, we strongly advise not to take a ferry. It is a very rocky ride. Our 2.5 hour trip seemed an awful long way. For our return trip from Fair Isle to Mainland we've booked plane tickets.

The main puffin colonies are located in the North of Fair Isle. Accommodation wise, the ideal place is Bird Observatory & Guesthouse. Puffins are nesting just a few minutes walk from the Observatory. We did not book the place early enough so we stayed in South Lighthouse bed&breakfast. It meant that we had to walk ~ 2.5 miles each way to the puffin colonies, which to be honest we quite enjoyed; especially very early mornings in cool and mystic atmosphere.

With the average of 136 hours of sun in July we were very lucky to have  beautiful golden light, great sunrises and sunsets. 

Atlantic Puffins are true seabirds considering they spend most of their lives at sea. First puffins return to Fair Isle in late March.
The birds line their nests, which are at the end of 70-110 cm (27-43 inches) burrows, with grass, seaweed and feathers. All the necessary material is carried in the beak, which by the way becomes deeper with age and gets up to 3 grooves.  

 We are not sure what this puffin intended to do with a bone but other puffins seemed to be interested in it as well…     

Puffins raise one chick at a time and feed it 5-8 times daily. It is a very busy season for puffins and obviously a great time for us photographing these  birds with the beaks full of sand eels. Traditionally puffins feed on a mixture of fish, but nutritious sand eels make up a high proportion of their diet.

During the middle of the day the life in the colony is quiet; some puffins spend time preening, others are down in the burrows or out at sea feeding, some stand by their burrow entrances and interact with other birds.  

Photographing puffins in flight is very challenging as they fly up to 55 mph. Fast 300 mm f2.8 lens, good wind direction and light enables to capture some flight images.  

Most puffin colonies are empty soon after mid-August. Puffin chicks leave a colony when they fledge and head off to the ocean without their parents.  They return to land when they are 2-3 years old. Adults come back to their breeding grounds next year in spring. 

If you travel around Shetland islands, we would advise to visit Hermaness Nature Reserve. The cliffs are home to numerous nesting seabirds including a big colony of puffins. It's about an hour walk from the car park to the cliffs.


A tiny island of Noss has around 2000 pairs of puffins and offers amazing views of  23,000 gannets, 24,000 guillemots and 10,000 fulmars nesting on the cliffs.

To get to Noss you must take a ferry from Lerwick to Bressay, and travel three miles across the island to get on a inflatable motorboat which takes you across the narrow gap of water to the island.  

 To sum up, we would totally recommend visiting Shetland Islands. It is a place where you will definitely enjoy amazing seabird colonies.


If you have any queries or would like to leave a comment, please drop as an e-mail.  We are always happy to hear from you.


Nerealūs kadrai!!!
They are similar to penguins..Love this bird's...:)
Great photos, from a clearly enjoyable journey!
george lewis(non-registered)
Most enjoyable!
Lovely field work!
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