Puffins of Fair Isle

Clowns of the sea – puffins are unique and iconic seabirds.


I’ve had the pleasure of photographing Horned and Tufted Puffins at leisure from various bases in Alaska including the dramatic colonies of St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. Atlantic Puffins are found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and while there are several places to view them, after some research, I settled on the tiny rock called Fair Isle in northern Scotland.

Fair Isle doesn’t seem to get a lot of visitors – relatively speaking – which is a good thing because the infrastructure can only support so much. One of the reasons might be the notoriously poor chances of actually making the journey to the island. There are two ways – by a very rocky four hour ferry ride or a small twin-engine plane from the tiny airport near Sumburgh Head on ‘mainland’ Shetland. Both are regularly canceled due to fog or bad seas. Here is where my luck came through – I was able to make the journey rather uneventfully from the midwestern United States to Glasgow to Sumburgh.

After recovering for a night, I was up before five in the morning – blame jetlag. So I took a quick shower and made the somewhat long but invigorating walk to Sumburgh Head.

Sumburgh Head

The trail took me along the edge of some sheer cliffs – with lots of seabirds – guillemots, murres and fulmars in plenty – but no puffins!

After a brief couple of hours, I doubled back to my hotel and from there went right to the little airport and finally to Fair Isle by small aircraft. Right off the air strip we were whisked off to a reported sighting of a pod of Orca (!). Hours after landing we were greeted by rain – but that only lasted the night. Four glorious days of mostly sunny weather followed.

And the puffins. There were puffins. So. Many. Puffins.

Atlantic Puffin

Close enough for headshots.

Sometimes – crazy close. With some patience and disregard for laying in puffin excrement.

But some of those shots stood out – this one I took in pouring rain. One morning, the usual sunny sky clouded over and the skies opened up for a while. This was my opportunity for a little something different. This puffin didn’t stop bringing back food, so I kept shooting with frequent wiping off of my gear with my shirt.

Puffin headshot in rain

Another opportunity presented itself a different morning. As the sun rose and the light got harsher I was thinking about breakfast. I had been up since 4 am and gotten little sleep thanks to some late night storm petrel banding action. And then there arose a great racket from the other side of the cliffs. Great Skua – but that wasn’t all. It caught breakfast of it’s own – at point blank range.

Skua vs Puffin

There were opportunities for backlit puffins as well. With clear skies and sometimes dramatic sunsets reflected in the water below. Can you tell which ones are sky vs water?

The birds were so approachable, that I managed several in ultra-wideangle.

But at the special time known as golden hour, it was time to play with flare and wing flaps.

Flight shots were tricky – these birds are as quick as bullets – but I managed a few of those as well.

And while I’m flirting with puffin overload – here are some other special shots of these beautiful birds to wrap up this post.

Much appreciation to the following for their help with logistics, great company and fantastic food:
The good folks at Nature Lens
Ace photographer Kevin Morgans
Fair Isle Bird Observatory
Sumburgh Head Hotel

See an article in National Geographic about some of my puffin photography here:

  • Parameswaran Ponnudurai - Amazing photos and enjoyed your thrilling story.ReplyCancel

  • Leslie Kannan - Thank you! Your puffin shots put the viewer eye to eye. Love your description of Fair Isle too.ReplyCancel

  • Suzanne Rosser - I am in San Diego, but while enjoying your amazing photos I could feel the cool, hear the sounds, and smell the puffin poo! For a moment you transported me to a place that couldn’t be more different than my daily life. You are a rare talent. Thanks for the trip!ReplyCancel

  • Beverly Talerico - Your photos are perfection and your narrative is enthralling!ReplyCancel

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