While there are many places in the UK to see the “clowns of the sea”, the RSPB Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head regions are among the best locations to see puffins in Yorkshire. This spectacular part of the British coast is not only a summer seasonal home to the adorable birds, but to over half a million other seabirds as well. In other words, be prepared for an exhilarating wildlife experience.
Each year during the summer, parts of the British coastline see thousands of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) come ashore to nest. With their vibrant orange beaks and feet, these charismatic little birds have been nicknamed the clowns of the sea.
Discover everything you need to know about these cute little birds and how to spot and photograph puffins in Yorkshire.
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Puffins in the UK
These iconic birds are perhaps the easiest of all the seabirds to identify. With their feathered tuxedo and pale round cheeks contrasting with their brightly coloured bills and orange legs, these small birds are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. Their comical appearance reminds me of a cross between a parrot and a penguin, with seemingly just as much character! It’s not unsurprising that they’re often referred to as “sea parrots”.
Puffins spend most of the year out at sea, with a wide range throughout the North Atlantic Ocean. However, each year between April and July, over a million puffins return to the islands and cliff tops along the coast of the British Isles to breed. During this time, the British Isles is home to around 10% of the world’s puffins.
Whenever possible, puffins will dig a nesting burrow in the soil using their bills and feet. However, they will sometimes make use of Manx shearwater or rabbit burrows. In places where burrowing isn’t possible, the puffins nest under boulders or within cracks and crevices in the cliffs. They typically return to the same burrow each year and pair with the same partner.
Where to see puffins in the UK and Ireland
Yorkshire provides one of the few places to see puffins in the UK on the mainland and the only place on mainland England. Due to this, a visit here doesn’t require a boat trip or too much planning in advance. However, there are many other wonderful places to see puffins in the UK and Ireland besides Yorkshire.
As these are mostly on islands or in remote locations, you’ll need to book boat passages ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Although it is worth noting that it is also not uncommon for bad weather to prevent sea crossings.
- The Farne Islands, Northumberland
- Coquet Island, Northumberland
- St Kilda
- Craigleith Island
- Isle of May National Nature Reserve
- Orkney Islands
- John O’Groats (surrounding coastline)
- Cape Wrath
- Fair Isle
- Shetland Islands
- Staffa Island
- Inner Hebrides
- Bullers of Buchan
- Fowlsheugh RSPB
- Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
- Skokholm Island
- South Stack, Anglesey
- Burhou, Channel Islands
- Herm (east/south coast)
- Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland
- Great Saltee
- Cliffs of Moher, County Clare
- Horn Head, County Donegal
- Puffin Island, County Kerry
When to See Puffins in Yorkshire
The puffins arrive in Yorkshire, and elsewhere in the UK, between late March and early April for the breeding season, and leave late July to mid-August. While puffins can be seen at any time during these months, the ideal time to see puffins in Yorkshire is in June and July.
By this time, the young puffin chick, called a puffling, will have hatched and the parents are busy heading back and forth between the nest and the sea collecting fish for their young. Accordingly, this is when the birds are most active and you have the best chance of spotting them outside of the burrow. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a puffling! During this time you may also spot non-breeding adults checking out nest holes for the next year!
Best Places to See Puffins in Yorkshire
It is estimated that there are around 500 pairs of puffins that breed along the North Yorkshire coast each year. What is unique about this colony, is that they can be viewed from mainland England. There are two main areas that the puffins can be found along the Yorkshire coast; the RSPB Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head.
Along with puffins, there are over half a million seabirds that nest along the coast between Filey and Flamborough Head, including razorbills, guillemots, gannets, and gulls. Wildflowers also bloom along the chalk grassland atop the cliffs, attracting many species of butterflies, moths, and other birds. Having visited the North Yorkshire coast in the winter too, I can attest to the fact that it is a spectacular part of the country at any time of the year. However, it is truly remarkable during the summer with its seasonal visitors.
The puffins here mostly nest in the crevices of the chalk cliffs and it’s easy to miss them among the overwhelming number of guillemot and razorbills, which are both also black and white in colour. Make sure you pack a good pair of binoculars or rent some from the RSPB visitor centre, and a camera with a decent zoom to make the most of your puffin spotting experience! And keep your eye out for specks of orange, it is the puffin’s bills and feet amongst the sea of black and white that give them away!
Puffins at Bempton Cliffs
RSPB Bempton Cliffs provide six well-maintained viewing platforms from which you can spot puffins, as well as the many other species of seabird that nest here. From the RSPB car park, these vary from a 5 minute to 30 minute walk. However, you can expect the walk to take much longer as you stop and watch the birds along the way!
The six viewpoints can be viewed on the map below. The Grandstand and Mosey Downgate are both fully paved and accessible for wheelchair users. However, access to the other viewpoints is over grassy, bumpy and often narrow trails so is more challenging for those with any mobility issues.
All the viewpoints are fenced so provide a safe area if visiting with kids. You will also find information at the viewpoints, as well as a treasure trail along the way for kids to complete. Just ask at the visitor centre for more information on how to get involved.
The RSPB has toilets, a cafe, and a gift shop as well as plenty of information. It’s well worth stopping in before visiting the cliffs to find out where puffins have recently been spotted. The staff are extremely knowledgable and happy to help.
On our first visit, we arrived at around 4:45pm on a Sunday and the car park was almost full, however, the trails were still surprisingly quiet. There was the occasional group at the viewpoints, but if anything this added to the experience as we each pointed out puffins to each other as we spotted them! On our second visit, we got there at 8:30am on a Monday and both the car park and trails were mostly empty.
Entrance to the RSPB Bempton Cliffs is £6 per adult. On neither visit were we asked to pay this fee, however, the RSPB does a fantastic job to protect our bird species and provide a wonderful way to see puffins in Yorkshire so we made sure we left a donation, as well as bought a few puffin souvenirs from the gift shop!
Of course, your experience is likely to be different to mine based on when you visit and which birds are around. However, I have detailed the puffins I saw at each viewpoint to hopefully provide you with some insight as to where to spot the puffins! We did notice when we visited the next day that we could find puffins in pretty much all the same spots as the day before. As they often nest in the same place each year, hopefully you may be able to spot them here too!
This was the first viewpoint we stopped at and we were incredibly excited to start spotting puffins. But the only puffin I spotted flew by in a little orange flash and disappeared behind a ridge! We did see plenty of other seabirds, as well as a kestrel sat in the grass.
Mosey Downgate Viewpoint
Wahoooooo! We spotted our first puffin… and our second… and fifth. Binoculars or a decent zoom lens were definitely required, but tucked into the cliff face were a few little puffins that we watched come and go for a while. Then, just as we were leaving, a lovely person pointed out another cute puffin sat majestically amongst a patch of daisies on the cliff edge.
Bartlett Nab Viewpoint
Bartlett Nab offers beautiful views back along the coast and hundreds of gannets, guillemots, and razorbills. However, we only spotted a couple of puffins here, that quickly took off. I’m sure there may have been more but all the birds felt a bit further away at this viewpoint.
Jubilee Corner Viewpoint
This is the final viewpoint heading north and while it offers two different level viewpoints, again, the couple of puffins we spotted were a lot further away. However, the closest puffin we saw was between Bartlett Nab and Jubilee Corner, a welcome reminder to keep your eyes open along all the trails! The little puffin was perched perfectly on a little jut of rock, framed by daisies, and contributed to perhaps my favourite puffin photo!
It was also one of the best spots for spotting gannets as they soared just above head along this part of the trail. As much as I loved the puffins, the gannets are such majestic birds and with their massive 2m (6ft) wingspan it’s hard not to be impressed by their size and beauty.
New Roll-Up Viewpoint
Towering 400ft (122m) above sea level, at New Roll-Up you can really get a sense of the size of the cliffs and appreciate their grandeur. The birds are all quite far away and we didn’t spot any puffins, but I loved being able to see just how many little dots speckled the side of the cliff face. It really gave me an idea of just how many thousands of birds I could see!
Staple Newk Viewpoint
We only spotted two little puffins here, however, this was another amazing viewpoint for the gannets. Perched at the top of the cliff, they were nested very close to the viewpoint so we were able to get a really good view of them and their fluffy chicks!
Puffins at Flamborough Head
Managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Flamborough Head is arguably the best place to see puffins in Yorkshire. While the RSPB Bempton Cliffs provide wonderful viewing platforms, informative boards, nature trails, and accessibility, if you are capable of walking the cliff tops at Flamborough Head, you’re likely to spot even more puffins! This was where we saw the most puffins during our visit to Yorkshire, which seemed a common experience from locals we spoke with.
Not only did we see more puffins at Flamborough Head, but it also provides a wilder experience. The area is steep and hilly in places and the ground is uneven. There are no fences or paths here so ensure you use some common sense and don’t venture too close to the cliff edges. The cliffs here are chalk and are susceptible to erosion.
After chatting with a lovely man in the RSPB visitor centre, he recommended heading to North Landing and walking towards Breill Newk, as that was his favourite spot to see puffins in Yorkshire – and he was so right! From the North Landing car park, head south and keep your eyes open! We spotted seven on the cliff near the beach, the most we’d seen in any one spot.
As we continued south, we saw lots of little puffins, along with the guillemots, bobbing around in the water below! But the excitement had only just begun…
Between North Landing and Breill Newk, we came across a cliff with over 20 puffins on it! It was easily my favourite place, we sat on the grass atop the cliff and watched the puffins come and go for a good half hour. Many people walked straight past this spot (except the ones we stopped to show them the puffins – we wanted to share the experience with everyone!). I’ve tried to drop a pin on Google Maps as close to the spot as possible, so this is where I sat watching them, looking across to the cliff to the northwest. Many of the other cliffs had a few puffins too, but none of them quite compared to this one!
You can continue your walk all the way along the coast towards Flamborough Head Lighthouse. The total walk there and back from North Landing is around 4.5 miles and is a beautiful stretch of the coast. As well as puffins, keep your eyes open for porpoises and seals along the way as it’s not uncommon to spot them in the water. We spotted quite a few seals around Flamborough Head and Selwicks Bay on our first visit.
RSPB Puffin and Gannet Cruise Aboard the Yorkshire Belle
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to experience the RSPB Puffin and Gannet Cruise as it was fully booked when we visited. The RSPB runs 3-hour cruises on the Yorkshire Belle from Bridlington harbour to Bempton Cliffs with onboard commentary. During the cruise, you will sail along the bottom of the towering chalk cliffs and witness the seabirds soaring above.
Other Wildlife in Yorkshire
While puffins may be the main draw for visiting Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head, they are far from the whole show. With around half a million seabirds calling this area home during the summer, it is one of the UK’s top wildlife spectacles and birdwatching experiences. You will also see plenty of gannets, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, herring gulls and shags.
The grassland and scrub at the top of the cliffs are also home to a variety of farmland birds including barn owls, peregrines, tree sparrows, linnets, whitethroats, skylarks, corn buntings, and meadow pipits. A range of butterflies can also be spotted amongst the long grass or on the pathway, as well as day-flying moths.
Don’t forget to also look out to sea, where you may spot harbour porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional whale! Seals are also common around Flamborough Head.
How to Photograph Puffins in Yorkshire
There are entire blogs dedicated to wildlife and bird photography, so rather than a comprehensive guide to photographing birds, this will provide you with a couple of pointers to help you capture the best possible puffin photos!
If you get very lucky, you may spot a puffin at the top of a cliff nearby. However, it is more likely that you will see them at a distance and will need a decent zoom lens to capture any useable images. If you have a camera body with changeable lens, I would consider hiring a large zoom lens for it if you don’t own one.
All of the photos I took in this blog were taken with the Sony 200-600mm lens on a Sony a7riii body, and most of the photos were taken fully zoomed in at 600mm. As I don’t typically photograph wildlife, I hired this lens from Lenses for Hire who provided a fantastic service (not sponsored – just a very happy customer!). To understand what that zoom range can do, the below images show the same puffin and location at a focal length of 600mm, 400mm and 200mm.
For even more perspective, your iPhone zoomed in will only reach an equivalent of about 52mm. The images below show the same location, the one on the left photographed on an iPhone and the other on my Sony a7riii zoomed in to 600mm. You can see that even at 600mm, the puffin is still small! This isn’t to discourage you, but rather set realistic expectations for what you’re likely to see and be able to photograph.
The settings you use are going to depend on whether the bird is in flight or stationary, but either way you’re going to want a fast shutter speed. As well as freezing fast movement, you need a fast shutter speed to compensate for any camera shake when zoomed in so much. As a rule of thumb, you want a shutter speed to match the focal length. For example, shooting with a 600mm focal length the minimum shutter speed advised would be 1/600.
Nearly all my photos were taken with a shutter speed of 1/1200 or faster. This meant I was always prepared for if the bird suddenly moved or took flight. Admittedly, it would have worked with a slower shutter speed for some of the birds that were holding still. However I feared I’d forget to change my settings and miss a shot!
The next setting to take into consideration is your aperture. You’ll most likely want this as wide as possible to create depth of field and bokeh (the nice blurry background you see below). This will be the lowest f-number on your camera. For me this was f5.6-6.3 on the 200-600mm lens.
Finally, I’d recommend setting your ISO to auto and allowing your camera to control this. Your exposure will be frequently changing depending on whether you’re shooting into the shadows or an exposed part of the cliff, and this way your photos should all be well exposed.
Fun Puffin Facts
How many types of puffins are there?
There are four species of puffin around the world, belonging to the family of auks. However, only one species visits us here in the UK, and that is the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). The other three species of puffin are the Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, and Rhinoceros Auklet.
How many puffins live in the UK?
There are believed to be 580,000 pairs of Atlantic puffin that breed in the UK during the spring and summer. This is estimated to be around 10% of the global population of puffins.
How big are puffins?
Puffins are small seabirds measuring only around 25-30cm in length. They have a wingspan of 47-63cm and weigh only 320-480g, the equivalent of a can of fizzy drink.
What do puffins eat?
A puffin’s diet consists mostly of small fish such as sand eels, herring and hake. They also occasionally eat small crustaceans and marine invertebrates during the winter.
A puffin is one of only a few birds able to hold several fish in its bill at a time. Its rough tongue holds the fish against backward facing spines on the palate while it opens its beak to catch more fish. In the UK, it is common to see a puffin with 5-20 fish in its bill. However, the record is 61 sand eels and a rockling!
Can puffins fly?
Yes, puffins are very good flyers. They can reach speeds of up to 55mph (88kmph) while flapping their wings up to 400 times a minute.
Can puffins swim?
Yes, as well as being good at flying, puffins are also excellent swimmers. In the water, puffins use their webbed feet as rudders and their wings to propel themselves in a flying motion beneath the surface. They can dive to depths of 60m below water and typically stay underwater for around 30 seconds.
How long do puffins live for?
Puffins live for 20-25 years in the wild.
When is the puffin breeding season?
Atlantic puffins breed during spring and summer, gathering in large colonies on the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean. Each year, they lay a single egg which the female incubates for 36-45 days, while the male goes out to sea to fish for his family. They typically mate with the same bird throughout their lifetimes.
What is a baby puffin called?
I think baby puffins may just have the cutest name out there; baby puffins are known as pufflings. Yes, pufflings.
Once hatched, pufflings remain below ground in their burrows for 34-60 days before fledging. They normally leave the nest under the cover of darkness to keep safe from predators. They then remain at sea for 5-6 years before they reach breeding age.
Where do puffins go over the winter?
Once the breeding season is over, puffins return to sea. Their departure is usually well synchronised with all the birds leaving within a few days of each other. They spend the autumn and winter out at sea, resting on the waves when not swimming. They have a huge range over winter, from the eastern coast of Canada and the USA to the western coast of Europe.
In the winter, the puffin’s beak changes colour to a dull grey. In fact, puffins look so different in their winter plummage that it was originally thought that they were two distinct species.
Are puffins endangered?
In 2015, puffins were added to the Red List of UK Birds of Conservation Concern after being listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. It was included in this list after seeing a rapid and ongoing population decline.
They are particularly vulnerable to adverse environmental changes due to only laying one egg per year and having their breeding population concentrated to a small number of sites. On top of this, a shortage in fish due to climate change and the introduction of predatory mammals in some areas, have added to their decline.
Equipment for Photographing Puffins in Yorkshire
While it is possible to capture some great photos nowadays with smartphones, for the best possible photos you may want to consider a few key pieces of photography gear:
- Camera: You will want a camera with manual settings. We use the Sony a7riii and have been in love with it ever since the first photo we took with it. However, for beginners you may wish to consider an entry level DSLR.
- Telephoto Lens: To capture photos of puffins you will need a zoom, or telephoto, lens. I used the Sony 200-600mm lens which I rented for the week. As zoom lenses tend to be expensive, renting a lens is a great option.
- Tripod: Telephoto lenses typically are very heavy and shake from hand holding will be more prevalent. You will ideally want a tripod that can support the weight of the lens. However, I managed many of the photos handheld or with my Manfrotto Be Free tripod.
- Binoculars: A pair of binoculars are helpful for spotting puffins amongst the thousands of other seabirds. It’s hard to photograph something you can’t see!!
Things to Do Near Yorkshire
The North Yorkshire coast is a spectacular part of the country with plenty to see and do. While the White Cliffs of Dover may be more famed, the white chalk cliffs along the Yorkshire coast are arguably just as beautiful and provide ample possiblity for long walks, as well as various sandy beaches for a dip!
For avid hikers, the Cleveland Way National Trail provides several options for day hikes or multi-day hikes. The entire trail is 109 miles (175km), starting in Filey and heading along the coast through Whitby and Saltburn, before passing through the North York Moors National Park to Helmsley. However, you can choose just to walk a shorter part of the trail.
If you get lucky with the weather during your visit, there are many beautiful beaches in Yorkshire, many of which are sandy. From Bridlington to Scarborough and Whitby, and plenty in between, you’ll find plenty of options for a relaxed beach day!
Dotted along the coast, there are plenty of villages and towns that are worth visiting. One of my favourites is Whitby. From the famous Whitby Abbey ruins to golden sand beaches, narrow cobbled streets, a bustling harbour, a cliff-top graveyard and spectacular coastal views, this idyllic former fishing town is just bursting with character. Along the coast, you’ll also discover some of the prettiest English villages that you can visit as a day trip or as part of a bigger Yorkshire road trip.
It is also absolutely worth setting aside some time to explore the stunning city of York. Founded in 71AD by the Romans, York is England’s oldest city. With nearly 2000 years of history, you’ll discover plenty of things to do in York. From exploring Roman ruins to Viking villages, medieval streets and gothic structures, to chocolate tasting, afternoon teas, and cosy pubs – this charming city truly has it all.
Where to Stay to See Puffins in Yorkshire
I’d recommend staying in the town of Bridlington. It is only 15-20 minutes drive from Bridlington to RSPB Bempton Cliffs or Flamborough Head, making it the ideal location. There are also more options here from b&bs to hotels than other places nearby, although it is not a huge town so you may need to book in advance to guarantee accommodation.
If you’re unable to get accommodation in Bridlington or prefer a more central base to explore the coast, Scarborough is another good option. It is a longer drive, taking about 45 minutes to reach RSPB Bempton Cliffs or Flamborough Head from Scarborough. However, as you’re further north along the coast, you will have a shorter drive to other destinations such as Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Runswick Bay, Staithes and Sandsend.
We stayed at Manor Court Hotel in Bridlington as it was recommended by a family friend and we loved our stay here. We stayed in an executive twin/double room and the room was huge, the bed was comfortable, the staff were incredibly welcoming and the food was delicious (oh and they have a great gin selection in the bar!). The only slight negative was the shower, which we agreed wasn’t very powerful, took a long time to get hot then got scorching! It wasn’t a huge issue and hasn’t stopped my dad from rebooking to stay there again later in the year!
Check here for current prices and availability.
Below you will find more regional guides that you might find useful:
- Best Things to Do in Whitby
- Best Things to Do in York
- Flamborough Head Photography Guide
- Prettiest Villages in England
- Scotland Road Trip Itinerary
For those interested in photography, you may find our Learning Photography guides helpful too. We cover lots of different topics, from basics to advanced!
Final thoughts on Puffins in Yorkshire
As a huge animal lover, getting to see the puffins in Yorkshire was an absolute dream come true for me. While there may be other locations in the UK that provide larger colonies and better opportunities to see puffins up close, I loved the flexibility of being able to head to the cliffs whenever we felt like without rigid boat schedules to stick to and a lot of advanced planning.
It was magical to be able to see these adorable, enchanting birds in the wild, amidst so many other beautiful species. I definitely won’t forget my first puffin experience any time soon and hope you all get to have just as an incredible experience. I can’t wait to visit again in the future, and hopefully spot some puffins with fish in their bills… that’s one photo that still eludes me!
As always, please leave a comment if you notice anything missing from this blog, or if you just have something nice to say!