Atlantic Puffin at Látrabjarg in the West fjords.
The Atlantic Puffin is the most common bird in Iceland where historically about 60% of the world’s population have bred. But they are currently in serious trouble. In 2003 it was estimated that the Icelandic population was around 8 million birds. In 2016 the population estimate was under 4 million. So why have we lost half of our Puffins in 13 years?
A Puffin with a catch of sand eels at Ingólfshöfði, south shore, in 2006.
The main cause is the lack of food due to rising ocean temperatures. The main food source of breeding Puffins are fish; sand eels, herring, sprats and capelin. Near the breeding colonies in southern and western Iceland these food sources have plummeted or are too far away for the Puffins to be able to carry to their breeding sites. The natural cycle of fluctuating temperatures puts us in the warming part of the cycle but on top of that the ocean temperature around Iceland has risen dramatically in the past couple of decades. We should be entering a cooling phase of the cycle again in 2030 but will that be too late for the Puffins?
The Puffin can live for a long time, or over 45 years, and don’t start to breed until 5 years old. So in theory the population as such should survive a couple of decades of failed breeding. But while the reproduction is as low as it has been the past decade it does not seem to be enough to counter natural death and hunting of Puffins, which is still allowed in some places in Iceland. Although the numbers are still high, at just under 4 million birds, this 60% population decrease should automatically lead to a complete hunting ban as hunting is obviously not sustainable. And it is a scandal that the Puffin has not been put on IUCN’s red list for threatened species. The qualifications for that are a 30% population decrease in a decade and the Icelandic Puffin unfortunately over qualifies. And not only the Puffin is in trouble but also most of our other seabirds, some of which are still aggressively hunted in spring. Lobbying for a complete hunting ban will be one of the priorities of BirdLife Iceland this year, where I sit on the board of directors. We can not change natural temperature cycles and can’t do much about man made contributions to the warming but we can stop unsustainable hunting.
One of my all time favorite Puffin images. Made at Látrabjarg at sunset with a 16mm lens.
All is not complete gloom for the Puffins though as they are still doing relatively well in certain colonies off the north coast of Iceland, where the ocean is cooler and food seems plenty. In spite of the population crash the Puffin is still a common bird in Iceland and spending time in Puffin colonies is always a treat. They are a fantastic bird to observe and wonderful subject to photograph. In late May this year I will be leading a workshop dedicated to the photography of Puffins and other seabirds with my friend Joshua Holko. We still have a few places available. More details right here.
With short narrow wings, made for diving underwater, the Puffin flies fast as a missile.