Puffins on the Farne Islands

The puffin is one of the country's favourite birds and there are few better places to see them up close than on the Farne Islands. This rare bird is a firm favourite with our visitors, offering endless photo opportunities in the height of the breeding season.

The puffin is unmistakable; once seen, never forgotten. With its beautiful markings, strikingly coloured bill and almost comic gait it is a bird that has endeared itself to millions. Though often known as a sea parrot, locally in Northumberland, the bird is known as a 'Tommy noddy'. It is a member of the auk family, alongside guillemots and razorbills - also present on the Islands. Males and females look almost identical with the male often being slightly larger. 

Puffins at the Farne Islands, Northumbria
Puffins at the Farne Islands, Northumbria

Puffins live longer than you might think, many in excess of twenty years. Some puffins around the country have been recorded at ages of over thirty years old. 

On land puffins may appear awkward or clumsy, but on their home territory, the water, their evolutionary development shines and, like many seabirds, this is where they gain their agility. Underwater, while steering with their feet, the puffin's wings become flippers, propelling them to depths at great speed in their quest for the next meal.

In peak season, beneath the surface of the North Sea, tens of thousands of birds are active in their search for food, particularly sand eels, a key staple of the seabirds' diet. The health of the sea around the islands and the marine environment is crucial to the wellbeing of the bird colonies.

Puffin season on the Farnes

Each year, puffins return to the Farnes to breed. This is generally between April and late July with the peak breeding season being in May and June. For the remainder of the year, the birds fly out to sea, overwintering on the water, only returning to land each year for a short window to breed and raise their young. It is while out on the water, that they shed their brightly coloured bills, in favour of a dull grey winter bill colouring. But, as spring approaches, the vibrant colours return and, by the time they settle on land again, the bill is clear again for all to see. 

Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland
Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Nesting and pufflings

The puffin nests in rabbit-like burrows. These are clearly visible as you walk around Inner Farne or Staple Island. The peaty ground is burrowed out to create a chambered hollow below ground in which a single egg will be laid.

Early in the season, as the puffins return to the islands, start cleaning their burrows and making a fresh abode for the months ahead. It is in here that a single puffling (the name of puffin chicks) will hatch and grow. Incubation is normally around forty days, the chick developing over a period of a further forty days or so. The puffling won't leave the nest until it is ready to see the world for the very first time. It eventually emerges with its parents for an clumsy waddle down to the water's edge, and its first introduction to the water, its future home.

Video

The first days in the life of a puffin

Our burrow cameras caught the first days in the life of this puffin chick - known as a puffling - on the Farne Islands.

Looking after our puffins

Puffins are an red-listed bird species. This means there has been a severe decline in the population of puffins over the last 25 years. Over half of the UK population is based at just a handful of sites.

Our work to care for the Farne Islands is critical to puffins' ongoing breeding success.  In 2013 we recorded 39,962 pairs of Puffins on the Farnes, level with the previous year. 

Every five years our ranger team undertakes a full census of the puffins. By counting them we can help monitor growth or decline on the colony. This information is fed into national data that help monitor the country's wider population.

The early summer months are the ideal time to visit the islands and see the puffins' story unfolding.

By visiting, you help support the vital work our team undertake on the Farne Islands to protect one of the country's most important seabird colonies. And don't forget, if you get any great pictures on your trip, you can share them with us on Twitter at @NTFarneIslands and @Northumb_Coast.