Seeing Puffins On The Isle Of May

Puffins On The Isle Of May
Puffins On The Isle Of May

The Isle Of May is a little sliver of an island, just one mile (one and a half kilometres) long, located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland.

Because of the seabirds that nest there, the island is designated a European Special Protection Area.

It may seem obvious, but it is worth stating what this means.

It means is that no development can take place on the island and scientists have unrestricted access to measure the breeding success and examine the habits of the seabirds on the island.

This is very important, because what scientists find out here can be used as evidence to prevent abuses of nature here and elsewhere.

But the island is not only a European Special Protection Area. Because of the seals that come on land to bask and the underwater reefs around the island, it is also designated a Special Area of Conservation.

So that is double protection for the island as a refuge and a haven for wildlife.

We Visit The Island

North Berwick is a small town on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, about an hour east of Edinburgh.

It is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre which organises trips to the Isle Of May and to Bass Rock.

The Isle Of May is more accessible than the Bass Rock in uncertain weather because although they both lie in the Firth Of Forth, Bass Rock is a massive rock that juts out of the sea with sheer cliffs on all sides.

So while landing on the Isle Of May on a given day might be dicey because of the uncertain weather, landing on Bass Rock is much more problematic.

That’s why we opted to visit the Isle Of May this past June.

Still, one day we would like to visit Bass Rock, too.

A Glorious Day For A Visit To The Isle Of May

We were so lucky with the weather. The sun was shining and the sea looked calm. The signs were good for a successful trip!

We set off from North Berwick, heading out in a small motorised rubber dingy with a dozen people on board.

As we whipped along with the wind in our faces, the bright yellow wet weather gear we were all wearing marked us off as adventurers of the first order (kind of).

We passed Bass Rock and continued, on and on.

The 10 mile (15km) journey seemed to go on for hours and our liitle dinghy felt very small in the middle of a lot of water.

Location Map Of The Isle Of May
Location Map Of The Isle Of May

Fog In The Firth And Seabirds On The Horizon

Then the fog came down – and our destination became a pale smudge in the distance.

Meanwhile, we saw seabirds flying dead straight and low over the water – guillemots and razorbills – and I hoped again that this low-lying lump of rock would hold puffins.

The Isle Of May In The Fog
The Isle Of May In The Fog

We swung around the south east corner of the isand and puttered slowly up a narrow channel to the landing stage.

Artic terns, with black caps and bright red beaks, hovered just overhead. I was too stunned at the sight of them – so beautiful and so close – to have the presence of mind to get my camera out of its bag.

The Gauntlet Of Terns

The terns’ breeding colony occupies the more or less level ground near the landing stage on the island, and we had to walk up the path that cuts through the colony.

The warden explained that terns dive-bomb intruders, and he instructed us in how to protect ourselves as we walked.

He said we should hold our arms, a bag, or perhaps a camera tripod – whatever we were carrying – over our heads as we walked, to prevent being pecked by dive-bombing terns.

And pecked and harassed we were. A tern pecked my hand and around me I could hear little yelps and shouts as other members of the party wilted under the attacks.

And then we were through and up to the rest area where we took off our wet weather gear.

Then up to the rocky coastline on the far side of the island.

Would We See Puffins?

I had read about the falling numbers of puffins over the past few years – both in the Farne Islands in Northumberland and also further north here in Scotland.

The falling numbers are due to a one-percent increase in the temperature of the waters around the coast.

This has led to a decrease in algae and plankton, which has led to the sand eels that are the puffins’ staple food moving further north where the waters are cooler.

In turn this means that the puffins have to travel further to catch the sand eels. The result is that they feed their chicks less and so fewer survive to aldulthood.

But whatever the fall in numbers, there are thousands of puffins still on the island.

Puffin On The Isle Of May
Puffin On The Isle Of May

Looking out over the cliffs we saw thousands of seabirds – guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, and shags.

Guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes prefer to nest on small rocky ledges on the cliff face, whereas puffins like to nest on the level grassy ground, with their young hidden down burrows in the sandy soil.

While puffins can excavate their own burrows, the burrows on the island have generally been excavated by rabbits, and there are lots of rabbits on the island.

The bottom line is that the puffins were near us and we were near the puffins. Sheer heaven!

Puffins Resting Between Trips Out To Sea
Puffins Resting Between Trips Out To Sea

Quillcards Ecards

We have put four of our photographs of puffins in our main ecard site at Quillcards – in the Birds category of the Natural World theme.

At the present time, you will also see them in the Recently Added section of the main site at Quillcards.

Information About The Isle Of May

To see the precise location of the Isle Of May, put the following reference into Google Maps:

56° 11′ 4.68″ N, 2° 33′ 17.93″ W

The Scots are very aware of the beauty of their country, and the Isle of May is owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage – a public body that is part of the Scottish Government with responsibility for Scotland’s natural heritage.

Finally, our trip was organised by the wonderful Scottish Seabird Centre located at North Berwick.

The Centre also runs trips to Bass Rock, and now that we are accomplished adventurers, we shall endeavor to make a trip there also.


  1. says

    Oh, how wonderful to see these darlings in real life!

    There’s a similar island, not too far from here … Machias Seal Island. One could go there, but it’s a little complicated.

    • David Bennett says

      Haha, just replied to your comment on and asked you whether you have puffins in Canada! Now I know you do. :-)

  2. David Bennett says

    Yes, they are so disarming – they melt everyone who sees them.

    I learned just yesterday that baby puffins are called pufflings :-)

  3. says

    I am envious!! I have seen Puffins before but that was when I was really small and we spotted them where we hadn’t expected to see them, Pembrokeshire I think but it was way back!! Great photos, sounds like you had a wonderful trip there and for the weather to be kind to you too.

    • David Bennett says

      It’s quite a trip for you, but I can’t recommend the Isle Of May too highly, Nick. It will give you such a buzz!

      I am keen to visit Bass Rock.

      How about the Farne Islands – just a bit nearer. I want to take a trip to the Farne Islands on Billy Shiel’s boat. Check it out here.

  4. says

    I just need a bit of spare time really to get some more “adventure time” in, this past year has been crazy! Bass rock and Farne, yes both appeal massively – my wife and I are planning on exploring more of the UK next year rather than going abroad to one of our usual places.

    • David Bennett says

      It’s always the way, isn’t it – being drawn to places abroad and skipping places close to home in this sceptered isle. 😉

  5. says

    I love puffins :-) The Isle of May, and the journey there, sounds stunning; and your photos are beautiful.
    I think there are still a few puffins close to where I live in Cornwall (The Rumps) – but I believe there used to be many more.
    I read recently that the heavy rain we’ve experienced in the UK over the past few weeks has adversely affected breeding puffins because in some areas their burrows have been flooded – all very sad. With luck they’ll bounce back from yet another setback.

    • David Bennett says

      That’s sad about the nests being flooded out. But good that you and so many people love puffins and care about their well-being :-)

  6. says

    Great post, lovely photos. Glad you got to see some puffins and weren’t pecked to death by the terns.

    It’s scary the affect increasing temperatures are having on wildlife all over the world.

    This year we’ve been looking at a possible trip to the Arctic to see the polar bears; sadly its not going to happen (Going to see the Grizzlies in Alaska instead), which is worrying because they seem to be having increasing difficulty finding food with the shortening period of frozen ice.

    • David Bennett says

      Thank you for your comment, Sam,

      Yes, diminishing sea ice and also flame retardant chemicals released when old computers are burned in places as far away as India – travelling around the globe and affecting the bears’ ability to reproduce.

      What a world, eh?

  7. says

    Great shots! I’ve always wanted to see Puffins in Maine (where I went to university), but my travels back there have never seem to take me to the right place at the right time. Last time I was up there, we saw a Mink and heard the Loons every night, but those were the highlights regarding fauna. A friend and I have been talking about going to Iceland sometime (I think it is only 4 hours or so from the Eastern U.S.) so hopefully we’ll get that scheduled one of these years so we can see the Puffins there. I understand they have the largest colonies.

    • David Bennett says

      Hey, Heidi,
      Good to hear from you. We have Loons, or Great Northern Divers as they are called here in the UK.

      I always thought ‘Loon’ was such a crazy name (pun intended) :-)

      Iceland has so much going for it and I hope you get to go there. It’s somewhere that has been on my wish list for a while.

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