flying puffin with fish in beak, in Iceland

Puffins and Hay Carts in Ingólfshöfði

We journeyed through marshlands to a cliff teaming with puffins, roosting under the summer sun…

When we booked the puffin tour, I had no idea what was in store for us. I remember reading something about a hay cart to a place called Ingólfshöfði (it’s impossible to pronounce), where there would be puffins roosting in the summer, and that was pretty much it. I was mostly excited because I only know about hay carts from Lord of the Rings (Gandalf arrives to the Shire driving a hay cart in the first movie). I liked the sound of riding in one.

The hay cart that brought to us to the puffin grounds – the mountain in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull – the infamous volcano that disrupted air traffic in 2010

On the day of the activity, we visited the Glacier Lagoon first. After our visit to the Lagoon, it was about an hour drive to the pick up point. We got out at the small carpark – a slab of asphalt in a vast open field covered with long grass. There was nothing around us except a small wooden hut and what looked like a teepee (which turned out to be a latrine). We were the first visitors to arrive to the pick up point, and there were no signs advertising anything related to the puffin tour we had booked, making us doubt whether we were at the right place. But at the right place we were.

Our first encounter with the puffins – they seemed to be as inquisitive as we were, at least this little fellow was

After a short wait, the hay cart arrived. It was really a large wooden box on wheels drawn by what looked like a repurposed tractor. It was a slow and bumpy ride, and after ten minutes, I started to wonder why we had to use this type of transport – soon I had my answer, for the cart entered marshland that extended for quite some distance all around Ingólfshöfði. Even a regular four wheel drive would have problems going through for the land was incredibly bumpy. The cart was a good way to transport quite a lot of people across this type of land – and also, it was a novelty.

The puffins congregate in groups on the cliffs of Ingólfshöfði, seemingly enjoying each other’s company

Soon, we reached Ingólfshöfði, the small headland on the southern coast of Iceland. Ingólfshöfði itself is interesting geologically. It’s a piece of rocky land that sticks out from the black sandy beach, fine sand giving way slowly to hard rock. I suppose it’s all hard rock underneath, the winds just made a dune over it.

The puffins of Ingólfshöfði are not afraid of humans, for better or worse, and one can get really quite up close an personal with these adorable creatures

We stopped at the foot of this dune and were told to climb to the top. It’s quite a climb actually, we worked up a sweat by the time we got to the top. But nothing a regular person couldn’t handle. At the top, it was puffin paradise. Actually, there was another bird, the skua – a fairly aggressive and large brown bird. The skua were everywhere the puffins were not. It seemed like each had their preferred roosting ground.

They seem to prefer these steep cliffsides for their nests, unaccessible to all but the best of flyers, which puffins undoubtedly are

The skua preferred flatter land, and gave each other a lot of space, the puffins favoured the rocky crags in the cliff face of the headland and the grassy bits just off the cliff edge. I suppose that’s because of they way they hunt (both birds eat mainly fish).

The puffins like to “dive” off the edge, aiming straight for the water to grab fish they see glinting in the surface. I guess waiting for the right wind currents and jumping off a cliff edge is an energy efficient way of taking off.

A puffin returning to the the cliffs, with a catch in his beak

The size of the puffins definitely caught me by surprise. I’d always imagined them to be about just slightly under a foot tall, but they are much smaller, with an average height of ten inches. They’re pretty small alright, and so very cute. The entire colony preferred a small stretch of cliff which all of them congregated on. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, most of them nesting and fishing, taking care of the season’s newly hatched puffins. From where you’re standing, on the plateau above their nests, you can’t see the burrows. At least I didn’t think it was possible to, without risking your life. Also, the puffins won’t go into their burrows if they feel like you’re watching them. This is beacause thet don’t want to reveal the location of their hatchlings.

Their short wings may not provide much lift, but allow for great manoeuvrability and also enable them to swim underwater with a flying technique

The puffins have really cute personalities, and aren’t afraid of humans. They don’t take off if you come towards them slowly, and we were able to catch them exhibiting their natural behaviours, even despite there being quite a number of humans around (although this number is limited too).

A proud hunter posed here for us with her plentiful bounty

I asked the guide where the puffins go in winter and she said they went out onto the Atlantic ocean. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, so asked if there were islands in ocean they could spend some time at. She told me that the birds did not need land – they simply sat and slept on the water. I suppose they must be as safe there as anywhere – there aren’t a lot of predators on the ocean’s surface where the water’s really deep. There’s simply not enough food in those vast stretches of ocean to support a great number of marine life, so the puffins can float about unmolested all winter.

The puffins often appear to hurl themselves off the cliffs into the abyss below – well, they actually sort of do, catching the right air currents

One of the other visitors found a few broken egg shells on the grass. The guide told us they were three different shells, the smallest one belonged to the puffin (no surprise there, it’s probably the smallest of all the regular species of birds on Ingólfshöfði), the largest to the rua. I can’t remember which bird the third shell belonged to. She told us that it was a tradition in the area to come out and collect such eggs for food. The younger generation no longer do it (I’m not sure if it’s legal anymore), but when she was young, her grandmother would bring eggs back home and eat the one raw. Sometimes it could be quite disgusting, like when the egg was found to have a chick in it.

The ruas of Ingólfshöfði are not as trusting of humans as the puffins are and will aggressively defend their territory, particularly if they are guarding their youngs

On our way back, we had to walk though aggressive rua land. They kept on circling above us, sometimes diving down as if to peck our heads off. Our guide told us we were absolutely not to hit them with our walking sticks but to duck, cover our heads and keep walking.

I really enjoyed our visit to Ingólfshöfði. I loved everything about it. The haycart ride, the walk up, and then back down, the stunning black sand dunes and of course, the lovely, adorable puffins. It was a wonder and privillege to be in such a strange and otherworldly place where other creatures dominated.

The area where the black sands of Ingólfshöfði give way to the rocks is truly otherworldly, but then doesn’t the same apply to so many places in Iceland