Where to See Puffins in the U.K.

As a filmmaker, I have traveled the world and had some of the most brilliant wildlife encounters in nature. I’ve spotted wildebeest trekking through the Serengeti, tracked blue sheep in the Himalayas, and searched for snow leopards and ibex among the high peaks of Tajikistan. However, I have often neglected the wonders back home in my native Scotland, including one of the nation’s most remarkable creatures: the puffin.

Their almost comical painted faces are a major draw for summer visitors to nesting grounds along the British coast each year; Their quiet, tolerant nature often results in memorably close interactions. It’s not uncommon for adult puffins to waddle up to nearby onlookers, approaching them to within several feet and tilting their heads curiously as they round up this new addition to the colony. But until this year I had never seen one, although there is a known nesting site in Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve just 40 minutes from where I live in Angus, Scotland.

So last July – after taking a break from traveling to be home – I hopped in my truck with my dad and made the short drive to Fowlsheugh. The reserve, listed under the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, isn’t the most common place in the UK to see nesting puffins, but it offers easy access for travelers visiting the east coast of Scotland. In addition to puffins, who make the reserve their temporary summer residence, more than 130,000 seabirds congregate here in the summer to nest. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars all take advantage of the security offered by nearly 200-foot cliffs, with the North Sea providing ample food for their young.

A colony of puffins on a cliff top in Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve, Scotland.

A colony of puffins on a cliff top in Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve, Scotland

When my father and I got to Fowlsheugh car park it was empty – it looked like we’d have the cliffs to ourselves. After a 15 minute walk we took stock at an observation hut after following the painted signs that led us to a possible puffin sighting. No one was in sight and, overwhelmed by the aerial ballet of tens of thousands of seabirds flying and diving around the cliffs, I was skeptical that we would see any.

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But a little calm and patience paid off, and after just a few minutes of scanning the sandbars, my first puffin showed up: a lone bird, out of place next to the gray of the gulls and the black of the neighboring razorbills. Caricatured in his mannerisms and appearances, I now understood his nickname: Clown of the Sea. Soon we discovered more scattered cliffs. They were fascinating.

Although I didn’t see any puffins – yes, that’s what baby puffins are called – I wasn’t disappointed. I had seen adult puffins flitting back and forth to their nesting sites, as well as an unfathomable number of other seabirds – a spectacle I will never forget. It reminded me how important it is to be a traveler at home. Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re missing.

A man looks through a spotting scope on a cliff top at Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve.

From the high cliffs at Fowlsheugh Nature Reserve, travelers can spot puffins and other seabirds, as well as gray seals, dolphins and minke whales.

When and where to spot puffins in the UK

You’ll see adult puffins – one of four puffin species in the world – on the coasts of Britain from late March, with the best chance of an encounter in June and July. In mid-August they set out to sea again.

More than half a million breeding pairs congregate on British shores in the summer and, like many seabird populations, their numbers have declined rapidly in recent years. In 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the puffin’s conservation status from Least Concern to Vulnerable. The decline is due to overfishing of puffins’ main food source – sandeels – and climate change affecting the migration routes of prey species.

The largest nesting populations tend to be on offshore islands, which requires a bit more planning. Here’s how to make your own puffin dream come true.

Farne Islands, Northumberland
This archipelago lies off the east coast of Great Britain. To get there, take the ferry (approx. 60 minute journey, one way) from Seahouses Harbour, one hour north of Newcastle, England. Boat trips daily from April to September, weather permitting.

Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire

The reserve is a 30 minute drive from Scarborough, England. Accessible year-round, the white chalk cliffs are at their most impressive from April to October, when seabirds – including puffins – come out to shop.

Isle of Skomer, Pembrokeshire

You must make a reservation to visit this island in Wales. Visitors are limited to 250 per day to reduce the impact people have on the environment. Reservations for the 15-minute ferry ride can be made in advance; Visitors can also book a cruise or an overnight stay.

Sumburgh Head, Shetland Islands

The reserve is on the southernmost tip of mainland Shetland, which is most commonly reached by air. Most UK mainland airports have flights. Tour the marine life center, visit the working lighthouse and, of course, look out for seabirds.

Isles of Scilly

The ferry is the most common way to travel to this archipelago off the Cornish coast. From March to November Voyages to the Isles of Scilly– Part of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group – operates the Scillonian III Passenger ferry bringing people from Penzance once a day.

Through Voyages to the Isles of Scilly You can also travel by fixed wing aircraft from Exeter, England (March to October only); Newquay (from May to December); and Land’s End (all year round) arriving at the main island of St Mary’s.

A pair of binoculars from Swarovski

Good binoculars are key to bird watching.

How to prepare for bird watching?

I’ve learned over years of observing nature that a small amount of preparation can greatly enhance the experience. A bottle of coffee and a snack will ensure your stomach doesn’t chase you away prematurely. A small foam pad to sit on provides extra comfort, while a rain jacket, gloves and hat ensure sudden weather changes don’t force you back into the car – this is British summer, of course. After all, I’m never without binoculars, whether I’m fishing, hiking or seeing my first puffin. They allow you to enter nature on a different level, from a distance that does not disturb wildlife. If I don’t have to walk far, I even take a spotting scope and my camera with me to capture the moment.