Puffins – lundi in Icelandic – are, without doubt, the most charismatic of Iceland’s seabirds, plump little auks with an upright build and pied plumage, all set off by bright orange feet and a ridiculous sail-shaped bill striped yellow and red. This comical livery is compounded by an aeronautic ineptitude: their method of landing seems to consist simply of putting out their feet and stopping flying – bad enough to watch on water, but painful to see them bounce and skid on land. Puffins also seem to get victimized by just about every other sea-bird species: when feeding young, they fly back from fishing with their catch carried crosswise in the beak like a moustache, a clear signal for gulls, skuas and even razorbills to chase them, hoping they’ll drop their chick’s meal.
Until very recently, some two million puffins bred on Heimaey each year, excavating their burrows and raising their chicks – pufflings – in huge, dense colonies on the island’s grassy cliffs. Each August, all the adult birds depart Heimaey at the same time, and hunger draws the pufflings out for their first flight. Many then become confused by the town’s bright lights and fly, dazzled, into buildings; local cats get fat on this easy prey, but residents round up birds and release them.
However, since 2005 the puffin population on Heimaey – in common with all colonies across Iceland and the rest of Europe – has gone into serious decline, most likely because warming sea water has driven away the sand eels (herring fry) on which they feed. In some years adults have abandoned the young too early, while in others they haven’t even hatched their eggs. For the time being you can still see plenty of puffins on Heimaey, but unless the situation changes it’s likely that they might have almost vanished from Iceland within the next decade.