The best places in Britain to spot puffins

I stood on the edge of a cliff in Yorkshire, surrounded by strangers, peering into a high-powered telescope, panting and wheezing with unbridled excitement.

“Blessed, it’s her lifelong ambition,” my 21-year-old daughter explained, with all the patronizing affection of youth. “Look at her, she finally sees her first puffin ever. How cute is that?”

A wave of applause broke out over our small group, huddled on the white sea cliffs of the gloriously sunny RSPB reserve in Bempton. There was much muttering that it was indeed a terribly special moment.

For me it was especially true. For years I have missed the annual arrival of Britain’s 580,000 puffins, which land on our shores from mid-April to breed and depart in August.

I was late at the Isle of Lunga, near the Isle of Mull; too early in the Isles of Scilly. I even traveled to the Faroe Islands to see them right after the lockdown, but the birdwatching boat was canceled due to stormy weather.

This year I was determined to check these little clowns of the sea off my bucket list. Why? Just look at them.

A puffin on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

A puffin on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire: they are known as ‘clowns of the sea’ and their characterful faces are sure to bring a smile – Michael Roberts/Moment RF

Both comical and serious – brave, bright-beaked and only 10 inches tall – these little birds can live for more than twenty years and mate for life. They nest underground in burrows on islands devoid of mammalian predators; and where they do occur (including the mainland), they cling to the cliff face to breed and raise their chicks – called pufflings. Yes really.

I wasn’t the only newbie in Bempton that day. Thanks to Wild islands, Sir David Attenborough’s epic love letter to the beauty and grandeur of Britain, a new generation of visitors has turned their gaze to the rich bounty of wildlife here in Britain. And the puffins, seen on screen battling black-headed gulls trying to rob them of their sandeel catch before they could reach the safety of their burrows, made quite a star turn.

But it was the Wild islands The images of Sir David meeting them up close and personal on the Farne Islands – off the coast of Northumberland, home to around 200,000 seabirds – were particularly irresistible. Due to an outbreak of bird flu, these islands were closed to visitors last year, but fortunately this year it is ‘business as usual’.

Flocks of gannets circle overheadFlocks of gannets circle overhead

Gannets can also be seen at Bempton – Picasa

However, Bempton is always open as visitors can view the birds on designated viewing platforms at a safe distance. Although puffin numbers are relatively modest (around 500 pairs nest along the Yorkshire coast), there are plenty of other birds to keep you entertained when puffins are scarce, including gannets, primeval cormorants and exceptionally beautiful razorbills.

The more we learned about each breed, the more impressive each breed seemed.

“If you see a rugby ball flying, it’s a guillemot,” the RSPB volunteer explained. “If it looks like a flying tennis ball, it’s a puffin.”

Then – still full of pleasure and adrenaline – the puffin effect took full effect. I went a little crazy in the gift shop (I managed to limit myself to a mug, a fridge magnet and – okay then – a Christmas ornament); then I booked tickets for the RSPB boat which leaves from nearby Bridlington in the late afternoon.

Judith Woods holds toy puffins in the RSPB Bempton Cliffs gift shopJudith Woods holds toy puffins in the RSPB Bempton Cliffs gift shop

Judith Woods goes a little crazy over a puffin in the RSPB Bempton Cliffs gift shop

With a few hours to kill, we decided to return to our accommodation – the nearby cottages at High Barn – to explore the welcome basket and attempt a brief reprieve from our wildlife.

Hay loft holiday home sitting room dining room kitchenHay loft holiday home sitting room dining room kitchen

The lounge, dining room and kitchen of the hayloft

But then we discovered the owl camera. The camera was trained on a nest box where a pair of barn owls were raising their brood and was placed on an outside wall of the cottage, wired to broadcast the footage directly to a special channel on television. We were soon completely hooked. In the future, I’m not sure I want to stay somewhere where I can’t watch live as little dead rodents are torn to shreds and fed to greedy chicks while I drink my morning coffee.

Grooming barn owls on an owl cameraGrooming barn owls on an owl camera

Every holiday home should have an owl camera, says Judith Woods

But nature wasn’t done with us yet. Later, during the boat trip, a pod of eight dolphins, including a calf, joined us in an amazing feat; breaking the waves, spinning, racing and tail running for 10 glorious minutes as walkers stopped high on the cliff to watch.

“It’s almost enough to outrun the puffins,” said the awestruck captain. We nodded that it was very special indeed. But deep down I knew that nothing could ever top a circus of puffins.


Judith Woods was a guest at luxury self-catering cottage company Heritage Escapes (01262 674932; and stayed The Hayattic at High Barn in Bempton, which comes complete with its own owl camera (minimum stay three nights; from £570).

Heritage Escapes' High Barn Cottages, BemptonHeritage Escapes' High Barn Cottages, Bempton

Heritage Escapes’ High Barn Cottages offers self-catering accommodation near Bempton

Six of the best places in Britain to spot puffins

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

Together with its neighbor the island of Skokholm, Skomer has a large breeding colony of puffins, which numbered 42,500 at the last count in March. The exposed headlands and towering offshore cliffs make it a haven for all nesting birds, so visitors walk on designated paths to avoid damage to the intricate tunnels just beneath the surface. You can even stay in a three-star hostel run by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.

Tŷ Hotel in Mitford Waterfront (01646 400810; has a doubling of £100.

The Farne Islands, Northumberland

Sir David Attenborough’s favorite spot in Britain for spotting wildlife is a few miles offshore from the fishing village of Seahouses. In addition to the large population of puffins, there are also razorbills, guillemots and seals. You can visit the National Trust site or take boat trips around it.

Beadnell Towers Hotel (01665 721211; has doubled at £183.

Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland

Here you will find Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony, including hundreds of pairs of puffins. A ferry from Ballycastle takes visitors on a ten-mile journey to Rathlin, followed by a bus to the RSPB Seabird Centre, which is located near an ‘upside-down’ lighthouse, a feat of engineering where the light at the bottom cuts through the mist. .

Glass Island Boutique B&B (07800 889863; has doubled at £146.

The Isle of May, Scotland

Located in the estuary of the Firth of Forth, boat trips to the Isle of May depart from Anstruther in Fife and North Berwick in East Lothian. In early summer the cliffs are alive with the spectacular sights and sounds of seabirds and puffins entering and leaving their burrows.

The Bank in Anstruther (01333 310189; has doubled at £110.

Sumburgh Head, Shetland

With steep cliffs, a historic lighthouse and cacophonous seabird colonies, Sumburgh’s RSPB site ticks many boxes. In addition to puffins, there is also a good chance of seeing minke whales, orcas and dolphins. In winter, when the puffins are long gone, it is also the best place in Britain to see the Northern Lights.

Sumburgh Hotel (01950 460201; has a double of £140.

Flamborough Cliffs, East Yorkshire

Just a walk from Bempton Cliffs, these eroding limestone caves, holes and stacks provide the perfect backdrop for breeding puffins, razorbills, gannets and gulls. The chalk grassland is also rich in wildflowers which attract a large number of butterflies and unusual moths.

Flamborough Manor (01262 850943; has a double of £125.

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