Puffin Safari

Never Did I Think It Would Be So Difficult

Never Did I Think It Would Be So Difficult

On one hand, I saw literally thousand of puffins. On the other hand, I had no idea they were such agile little buggers. They hang out along the tops of cliffs, where they create burrows in the topsoil to serve as nests. If you try to approach them, there is a good chance the soil will collapse into one of their burrows, sending you catapulting over the edge.

Icelanders eat puffins. They catch them by dangling on a rope from the top of the cliff and catching the puffins with a net that looks something like a lacrosse stick. But I was not interested in eating any puffins—although I had the chance—because, well, I started to admire these clownfaced little birds.

The above photo, and the cropped and heavily manipulated photo below is taken from the above picture, just so that you can get a close-up view of a real live wild puffin (Fratercula arctica).

Close-Up from the Top Photo

Close-Up from the Top Photo

All in all, I saw puffins on Lundey Island in Faxaflói Bay, on the Westman Islands (by the thousands), and on Vigur Island on Isafjarðardjúp fjord. The above photo was taken on Vigur, where the wind and rain kept the puffins from venturing into its teeth. The pictures were taken with the maximum telephoto setting on my Nikon CoolPix s630. I had to work fast, because the puffins would dart around quickly, and it took several seconds between pictures for my camera to reset.

It’s not like Argentina, where Martine and I paid a visit to several hundred thousand Magellanic penguins, who just stood by quizzically wondering whether we were good to eat, or what. That enabled me to get lots of close-ups, because they weren’t exactly flying off.

Because Martine was not with me on this trip, I wanted to at least get some good puffin pictures to show her. We had looked for puffins in Scotland in 1998, but we were too early. I looked for them in Heimaey in 2001, but I was too late.

I guess the puffins, in the end, were easier to photograph than moose. They weren’t quite so shy, they were around in great abundance—but you had to act fast.

Off to Iceland

Hey, I Can’t Kick!

Hey, I Can’t Kick!

I’m off to Iceland early tomorrow morning. Because the medications I have to take with me outweigh even a fairly heavy laptop, I will not be blogging during my trip. I’ll be back around July 10.

Iceland 2001: Returning to Heimaey

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

It was difficult getting to Heimaey back in 2001. I had two choices: Either I could take a gut-wrenching 3½-hour ferry ride across the stormy North Atlantic from Þorláshöfn (famous for seasickness) or I could fly there. Now there is a cheaper choice: I could take the ferry from Landeyjahöfn, which is only a 30-minute ferry ride. Back then, I took a ruinously expensive day trip by flying Flugfélag Íslands from Reykavík. Below is a picture of the prop plane I took on that occasion.

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The main reason I’m going to Heimaey is the same reason I decided to go in August 2001, namely to see puffins. I was just a tad late, as I could see the white spots of puffins leaving the bird cliffs for their flight to the British Isles. Here is a picture of the puffins vacating their nests for the flight over the North Atlantic:


The Little White Spots Are Puffins

This time I did my research and timed my visit right. There should be something like two-three million of the little birds feeding their young when I get there.

I will be staying at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar for two nights, so I should have plenty of time to see the bird life on the island, as well as the volcano show and little natural history museum. There also used to be a fish cannery museum, but I no longer see it mentioned in the lists of sights to visit. Nonetheless, I plan to have plenty of fish, as Heimaey is the busiest fishing port in Iceland. That’s why the Icelanders were so frantic about saving the harbor in 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted.

New Land

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Geologically speaking, the Westmann Islands south of Iceland are brand spanking new. The most recent island in the group, Surtsey, suddenly rose up from the sea during a volcanic eruption in November 1963. Even fifty years later, access to the island is restricted to scientists and naturalists. Even Heimaey, the “Home Island” of the group, was enlarged by the world’s youngest volcano, Eldfell, which came into existence in January 1973, forcing the evacuation of the island.

As the result of a miraculous save by the Icelanders, who pumped cold seawater on the advancing lava forcing it to form an ever-higher berm that prevented the town from being more than one-third inundated. (The story is ably told by John McPhee in his book The Control of Nature.) On the other hand, two square kilometers of new land were created on the east side of the island.

The only fatality from Eldfell was a druggie who broke into an apothecary and was overcome by the fumes.

I will be spending three days and two nights on Heimaey in June. I plan to visit the Storhofdi Peninsula and photograph the puffins that congregate on the cliffs there.


I Book the World’s Youngest Volcano

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

I had been there on a day trip from Reykjavik twelve years ago. Because I was afraid of seasickness on the three-hour ferry from Þorlákshöfn, which was famous for rough seas, I flew from the small Reykjavik airport. Several years ago, the Eimskip Line opened a new ferry port at Landeyjahöfn, which is only a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Westmann Islands. This time, I’ll take the ferry, fortified with Dramamine.

Heimaey (literally “The Home Island”) is a beautiful town flanked by two volcanoes, Eldfell (on the left) and the extinct Helgafell (right). Until January 23, 1973, Eldfell didn’t exist. What was a suburban development suddenly turned overnight into a volcano, forcing the evacuation of the entire island. While lava destroyed some 400 homes, the ingenious Icelanders found a way of forcing the lava to form a berm by endlessly pumping cold seawater on its leading edge. The story is told by John McPhee in his book, The Control of Nature.

I had a difficult time booking a room in Heimaey on my original desired dates. Then, just for the heck of it, I decided to hang around a few extra days along the Suðurland, or South Coast, of Iceland (at Hvolsvöllur and Höfn) and try for a few days later. Bingo! I got into the best accommodation on the island. My guess is that there was a local event, like a soccer game or a festival, that drew a crowd on the original dates.

Why do I want to go to the Westmann Islands again? First of all, it is drop-dead beautiful, a major fishing port, and the place where I am most likely to be able to photograph puffins:



I am told the island’s southernmost peninsula has the world’s largest concentration of the picturesque seabirds at a place called Störhofði.

Puffins and I go way back. I tried to find them in Scotland in September 1998, but they hadn’t arrived there yet. Then I went to Heimaey late in August 2001, but they had all just left.

Martine would love to see them, but I’ll just have to take a load of pictures so that she could enjoy them vicariously.

Looking For Bullwinkle

Martine at Manchester/Boston Airport with Moose Sculpture

Wildlife tourism tends to be a bit tricky, because most wildlife is not terribly interested in interacting with humans. We had no problem seeing the Magellanic penguins in Argentina last November, mainly because penguins by nature just look at us quizzically until we make a threatening move toward them. And then the beaks come into play. We easily saw over 100,000 of the cute avians at their Punta Tombo mating grounds in coastal Chubut province.

On the other hand, we have had no luck with puffins or moose. We went to Orkney in Scotland to see the puffins in 1997, but they weren’t there yet. Then I went by myself to their Vestmannaeyjar Islands breeding grounds in September 2001, but they were just leaving.

Moose are a different matter altogether. They do not migrate, which I suppose is a blessing as they are so very large (nine feet or so). One could see them if one gets up early enough or late enough. The problem is that we always look for them around noon, when they are safely ensconced in their forest fastness digesting their last meal. At the B&B we were staying at in Chéticamp, Nova Scotia, a whole moose family walked past the picture window of the dining room around 7 am the day before we arrived. But they did not stage a repeat performance the next two days, even though I was up early looking for them, having been pledged to wake Martine up if I saw any. Nothing doing!

In 2008, we had visited a wildlife park at Shubenacadie in Nova Scotia, where there was (allegedly) a moose in an enclosure. If he was there, he was hiding around the back of the pen, where we were not allowed to walk because (supposedly) they were working on the walkway. So once again, nothing doing.

We actually did see a moose two years ago at Glacier National Park in Montana, but it was from the rear and from about a quarter of a mile away. It had just drunk some water from Fishercap Lake and was headed back into the woods. I photographed the beast with my 7X zoom:

Distant View of Moose

Well, there’s always next year!