10 best places to see puffins in the UK

Visit one of the UK's puffin hotspots for a wildlife encounter to remember.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) with a beak full of sandeels

There are lots of great places to see puffins in the UK, and it’s always one of our favourite wildlife experiences.

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Atlantic puffin landing on Farne Islands © Henk Bogaard / Getty
Atlantic puffin landing on Farne Islands. © Henk Bogaard/Getty

It has been suggested that we adore puffins, or ‘sea parrots’ as they are traditionally known in northern Scotland, because their rotund features and comical gait on land remind us of human babies. That may be a little far-fetched, but there’s no doubting the affection in which we hold these charismatic auks.

Despite being pint-sized seabirds just 27–28cm in length, Atlantic puffins are extremely tough, braving storm-tossed seas throughout autumn and winter, out of sight of land.

Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) in summer sunshine on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands, Northumberland. © nyiragongo/Getty

The best time to see puffins

The UK’s puffins spend the winter out at sea (there’s a reason our puffin species is properly called the Atlantic puffin), so you need to schedule a trip to a breeding colony during spring or summer if you want to see these comic delights.

Adults return to their breeding colonies on grassy cliff tops in March and April, departing again in mid-August, and the sight and sound of a puffin rookery has to be experienced to be believed.

Pair of puffins in nest burrow
Pair of puffins in nest burrow. © Peter Clayton/Getty

Parents spend the summer catching fish, mostly sandeels (the record beakful is 61, plus a rockling), and carrying them to their hungry youngster in its burrow.

After hatching the puffling remains safely below ground for six weeks before heading to sea under cover of darkness to avoid marauding gulls and skuas. It will be four or five years old before it breeds.

Top tips:

  • When you visit a colony, approach the puffin groups slowly and quietly, but don’t get too close. If you stay at a safe distance you should be able to watch them moving around, investigating burrows, meeting and greeting, fighting and posturing.
  • Look for two birds ‘billing’ by repeatedly and loudly hitting their beaks together, which is thought to strengthen the pair bond. The behaviour can attract a crowd of other puffins as onlookers, one of which may try to join in. A fight can break out if one of the pair rejects the interloper and gives them a bite.
  • Never, ever disturb fish-carriers taking vital sustenance to their young. Puffin life is hard enough without having to contend with human interference.
Puffin Portrait (Fratercula arctica) with beek full of sandeels on its way to nesting burrow in breeding colony
Portrait of a puffin with a beak full of sandeels for its chicks. © CreativeNature_nl/Getty

Top 10 spots to see puffins in the UK

A few places, such as the Bullers of Buchan north of Aberdeen and Bempton in Yorkshire, have small mainland colonies, but most are on islands.

So plan ahead, book boat passages but be prepared for disappointment if bad weather prevents sea crossings.

Skomer puffins photographed at sunset
Skomer might well be the best place to see puffins in Wales. © Matthew Cattell/Getty

Easier puffinries to reach by boat include Skomer from Martin’s Haven in Wales, the Farne Islands off Seahouses in Northumberland, and the Isle of May from Anstruther in Fife.

1

Hermaness and Sumburgh Head, Shetland, Scotland

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica at Hermaness, Shetland
A puffin at the top of the cliffs at Hermaness, Shetland. © lisland/Getty
2

Lunga, off Isle of Mull, Scotland

3

Fowlsheugh RSPB, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

4

Isle of May and Craigleith Island, Fife, Scotland

5

Farne Islands, Northumberland, England

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) with sandeels in its beak on the Farne Islands, Northumberland
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Puffin with sandeels in its beak on the Farne Islands, Northumberland © Colin Carter/Getty

6

Bempton Cliffs RSPB, Yorkshire, England

7

South Stack Cliffs RSPB, Anglesey, Wales

8

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica on Skomer Island
A close-up view of a puffin on Skomer Island. © Nuzulu/Getty
9

Rathlin Island, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

10

Westray and Papa Westray, Orkney, Scotland

A pair of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) on Westray, Orkney
A pair of puffins on Westray, Orkney. © Bhaskar Krishnamurthy/Robert Harding/Getty