When it comes to birdwatching in the UK, puffins are a favorite of beginners and more experienced watchers alike. Known for their brightly colored beaks and their trademark waddle, they have been nicknamed the “Clown of the Sea”.
These seabirds are native to the Atlantic Ocean and only appear on land for breeding season, only a short period from late spring through early summer, before returning to the sea. In this time, they populate coastal areas across the Atlantic seaboard, including many clifftops and hillsides in Europe and the UK.
If you are keen to come face to face with Puffins, and fully experience the sight, sound, and smell of them, then you need to approach finding them with great timing, and geographical awareness. Through this list you will discover when and where you can find puffins in the UK, and the best approach for ensuring a successful pilgrimage.
1. Westray, Orkney, Scotland
Fittingly at the top of this list we have a location in the Highlands, Scotland being home to three of the puffin hotspots on our radar. Westray is one of the Orkney Islands just off the coast of Scotland. It is known internationally as a haven for observers of wildlife and a popular site for birdwatching. With a variety of seabirds on display throughout the mating season, puffins begin to populate sites across Westray from late April until early August most years.
The Castle of Burrian is considered the best spot in Westray to see puffins, but do not be fooled by the name, this “Castle” is actually a small sea stack surrounded by cliffs that create a perfect viewing platform. Thankfully, you will not be close enough to disturb the puffins, but a pair of binoculars or a deep zooming camera will allow you an intimate look at these charming little birds. There are other places to see puffins across the cliffs of Orkney, but if you’re playing a numbers game, Westray is the place to be.
2. Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Shetland, Scotland
This cliffside location is situated in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Hermaness is another site known far and wide for its density of seabirds. With fulmars, gulls, and gannets breeding here, as well as puffins, this nationally maintained nature reserve is a must-visit for birdwatchers. The white-stained cliffs of Hermaness overlook Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point in Britain.
If you venture down the paths and boardwalk out to the edges of the cliffs you will be able to see puffins nesting and breeding in their burrows throughout the early summer months. With the puffins sharing the cliff with the walkers and watchers that seek them out, it’s important to be mindful when observing in Hermaness. These puffins are fairly tolerant of humans, but like most birds, too much excitement will cause them to fly away.
3. Isle of May National Nature Reserve, Islands of Forth, Scotland
The final Scottish site on our list is an island located 5 miles off the coast of mainland Scotland, now operating entirely as a nature reserve. Only a 45-minute ferry ride from the port of Anstruther, the Isle of May is another hub for seabird life, as well as habitat to many seals. While historically the Isle of May was a site frequented by Vikings and Smugglers, now there are no permanent residents on the Isle, and boat trips from the mainland are only available from April through to September.
You can view the abundance of seabird life, including the dance of the humble puffin, from the clifftop path, or in a more sheltered setting from the visitor center. The best time to take a visit to this historic heritage site is between June and July, as this is the peak breeding season for seabirds. Like in Hermaness, the birds are housed on the main cliff system that you will be walking through, so be wary of keeping them calm and relaxed as you wander through their homes.
4. Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire, England
Located on the east coast of Yorkshire, the white-faced Bempton Cliffs are buzzing with wildlife. Being the site with the highest population of seabirds in the whole of England, it’s no surprise that there is an abundance of puffins to be seen here from mid-April till the middle of July. With the cliffs also a habitat for barn owls, tree sparrows, guillemots, and even a multitude of butterflies amongst other species, it appears to be a no-brainer visit for avid observers of nature. With a 2-mile trail running along the cliffs, walkers can enjoy the sites of seabirds alongside panoramic sea views as they trudge along the side.
There are even six specifically made viewing platforms right on the edges of the cliff to allow for a better view of the reserve in all its glory, and a better angle at which to view the puffins and their burrows. Complete with a visitor center, café, and various nearby BnB’s this is a perfect spot for birdwatchers who perhaps want to see out some more of the season on a staycation.
5. Farne Islands, Northumberland, England
Touted by none other than David Attenborough as his favorite place in the UK to see “magnificent nature”, the Farne Islands are home to seals and a multitude of seabirds. Only accessible via boat ride from the Seahouses harbor, these islands and their visitors are maintained and regulated by the National Trust. Closed over winter for the sake of habitat conservation, a trip to Inner Farne (the main visitor island) between May and June will see you coming close to a number of puffins, with over 35,000 choosing the Farnes as their home throughout the breeding season.
With rabbit-like burrows dotted all over the islands, it is easy to see your fair share of puffins on Inner Farne, granted you come during the correct season. With a massive population of Arctic Terns and grey seals, as well as various other species of seabird, a trip to the Farne Islands is essential to watchers of wildlife.
6. The Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, England
With this spot on our list, we move from northeast to southwest into the Isles of Scilly, just off the coast of Cornwall. Puffins make homes on the uninhabited islands in Scilly, with protected island Annet known as their most popular spot for burrowing. The puffin watching experience differs on the Isles of Scilly, in that the majority of sightings to be made are on the sea itself. Watching is done from boats where you can see these jesters of the ocean in action, diving underwater to catch fish or flying close above the water at speeds of up to 50mph.
There are various boating expeditions available to visitors in Scilly, with some touting themselves as “sea safari” experiences. On these regular journeys the captain will sail you around the islands in an effort to see puffins, dolphins, seals, and a variety of other seabirds. As with the other locations on this list timing is of course crucial to ensuring a successful voyage to see the puffins themselves, and the perfect time to take a trip to the Isles of Scilly is between May and late June, as this is their prime mating period. You won’t want to forget your binoculars on this trip.
7. South Stack Cliffs, Anglesey, Wales
Situated on Holy Island in Anglesey, the South Stack Cliffs are another favorite breeding ground of puffins and seabirds. With lush heath and farmland covering the island, the cliffs and their surroundings make for an enchanting location for birdwatchers and ramblers alike. With Ellin’s Tower in place as a viewing platform, you can absorb and enjoy the stunning view over the Irish sea, as well as having a bountiful array of wildlife to observe alongside the puffins.
The island is also a seasonal home to Peregrine falcons, razorbills, and hosts chough, the rarest breed of crow, all year round. This gorgeous little island is an easy choice for a visit if you are an active birdwatcher, and with a number of trails dotted around there is plenty of walking to be done also. Spotting the abundance of puffins and other seabirds nesting on the cliffsides is a sight to behold, and we recommend taking your binoculars to fully appreciate your view of the wildlife on display.
8. Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Just a mile out from Pembrokeshire, Skomer Island is famous for its seasonal puffin colonies. With some of the richest sea-based wildlife in the UK, Skomer Island is a wonderful spot for all active observers of nature. With animals such as seals, dolphins, and the indigenous Skomer Vole, as well as other birds such as Manx Shearwaters and gannets, among others all using the island and its surrounding waters as a habitat, you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed on a trip to Skomer Island.
Only a short boat ride out from the mainland, trips to the island are affordable, and easy to book online, however it is known to be oversubscribed during the peak puffin mating season of May – mid July, so get your booking done early! Skomer Island is also notable for becoming totally covered in bluebells throughout the spring, and then sprouting a few campions over the summer giving the landscape a gorgeous color. On this trip, you will be able to come within a few feet on puffins on your cliffside walks, but the Welsh Wildlife Organisation does ask that you read their code of conduct before observing the seals and seabirds on the island.
9. Rathlin Island, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
For our final choice, we move away from Britannia to an island just off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland, the civil parish known as Rathlin Island. One of the more populous locations in terms of people, Rathlin Island is home to a church community and a fishing port, alongside Northern Irelands largest population of puffins and other seabirds. With stunning green cliffsides as far as the eye can see, there are plenty of trails to walk around Rathlin Island including through Roonivoolin, but the perfect viewing space to see the puffins is the West Light Seabird Centre. This upside-down lighthouse (light at the bottom) offers amazing views of the island, and its cliff faces on viewing platforms, which are also used to view the puffins and other various seabirds.
The center also contains exhibits on the local wildlife and history of Rathlin on the inside, so you can learn on your viewing expedition. It is a great spot to see the puffins migrating to the island in mid-May, chicks hatching in June, and the departure of the birds in July, but of course as they are not up close and personal, binoculars are encouraged.