The Burning Man of Birding: Inside Iceland’s Puffin Festival

For decades Icelanders have celebrated the Atlantic Puffin even while they've served it up on plates. But some traditions can't last forever.

Let’s just get this out of the way: No, it does not taste like chicken. Soaked in salt water, smoked with wood chips and dried sheep dung, then boiled for two hours in a sweet malt beverage before being refrigerated and finally served, bone-in and cold, alongside a packet of butter, smoked puffin tastes briny and a bit fishy and musky-sweet in the manner of mesquite barbecue. In life, an Atlantic Puffin stands just 10 inches tall, its wings stubby and narrow; when its tiny torso is served in a paper tray, it’s difficult even to recognize as having belonged to a bird. It looks vaguely insectoid, its wings all but meatless, thin bones curving out like antennae. The breast meat is a deep mahogany and pulls apart fibrous-but-tender, like the flesh of a medium-ripe peach.

The venue that sells this ostensible delicacy is a center-pole big top tent erected in a long-extinct volcanic crater on Heimaey, the largest island in an archipelago called Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, seven miles off Iceland’s southern coast. The crater valley is on the outskirts of the Westmans’ only town—itself called Vestmannaeyjar, population 4,400ish—and is surrounded by steep, green cliffs. On their seaward-facing slopes, hidden in the short grass and soft volcanic soil, are some 100,000 puffin burrows, a fraction of the 1.1 million burrows found in more than 20 colonies scattered across the Westmans’ 18 islands. From May until September, about 20 percent of the world’s Atlantic Puffins—some 830,000 nesting pairs—breed on the archipelago, along with similarly impressive numbers of murres, guillemots, fulmars, gannets, Razorbills, and kittiwakes.

But the puffin in my tray didn’t come from the Westmans. It was harvested 225 miles away, off Iceland’s northern coast, then imported to Vestmannaeyjar to be smoked and eaten during a 141-year-old festival called, in its anglicized form, Thjodhatid (pronounced thoth-ha-TEETH). The word literally means “people’s feast,” and for most of its history, that feast’s main dish has been smoked puffin, served alongside pastries, lamb, flatcakes, and other  delectables in some 300 white tents that locals erect in the valley each year. This tent city is Thjodhatid’s base camp, and as recently as a decade ago you couldn’t poke your head into a stranger’s tent (which is encouraged) without being handed a plate of smoked puffin and a strong drink to wash it down.

Charred and Feathered

These days, though, the only place to reliably find smoked puffin at Thjodhatid is in the concession tent, where, alongside cheeseburgers and chicken fingers, it’s sold for 1,500 krona, or about $12, per bird. That’s three times what it cost 20 years ago, making one little puffin an expensive snack; it’d take three birds to make a modest meal. So it isn’t a popular menu item—the concession tent has stocked just 600 birds for a three-day fest that regularly draws 16,000 people. Still, the puffin has its devotees.

“I ate it twice yesterday,” declares Anna Kristin Sigurdardottir, the concession employee who rings me up. “And I’ll eat it again tomorrow. I look forward to it all year.”

“People here used to eat it year-round,” adds Kristina Goremykina, Sigurdardottir’s coworker. But that was before it got expensive, back when Westman islanders still hunted puffins, before they started noticing alarmingly fewer young birds. Now that it’s imported from up north, smoked puffin is only a special treat.

So what happened? Goremykina tosses a butter packet into a puffin tray and shrugs. “They all flew away or something,” she says.

The Westman Islands’ puffins haven’t flown away; they’ve stopped breeding successfully. Since 2003 Atlantic Puffin colonies here have experienced what Erpur Snaer Hansen, director of ecological research for the Vestmannaeyjar-based South Iceland Nature Center, characterizes as “breeding failure, basically.” For more than a decade, chick production in the Westmans has been virtually nil, with fewer adults breeding and only a scatter of chicks surviving to fledge (most of them dangerously thin). The result is a puffin population that’s gradually aging away: Precious few puffins arriving in the Westmans each year are younger than 10 years old. While puffins can live (and breed) for more than 30 years, their average lifespan is about 16. Already the islands have seen breeding pairs drop by as much as 15 percent since the late 1990s.

I arrive at Hansen’s home in Vestmannaeyjar the day before Thjodhatid, in late July. It’s toward the end of Hansen’s field season, a time when the 49-year-old biologist likes to blow off steam. His family hosts a tent at the festival each year (though they don’t eat puffin), and in the Thjodhatid spirit of hospitality and excess, Hansen begins plying me with drink within minutes of welcoming me.

Over 20-year-old port, I hear about the “puffin rally,” a cross-country road trip Hansen takes each summer, monitoring puffin burrows at 12 different colonies across Iceland. In June he and his colleagues inspect at least 40 burrows at each site, snaking a camera down the winding, four- to-six-foot tunnels to check whether each is occupied and, if so, whether its occupants have an egg. Hansen’s team uses an infrared camera mounted to what’s basically a drain snake—a custom-made device inspired by a plumber friend’s invention.

In July Hansen and company return to each colony to see whether the eggs have hatched, to assess chicks’ health, and to photograph adults carrying “food loads.” Under normal circumstances, puffins with new chicks head to sea several times a day, returning to the burrow with cargoes of small fish. It’s the classic postcard puffin shot: a close-up of that mime-white face, that melancholy eye, that splashy lobster-claw of a beak, with limp fish ends dangling out both sides like a silver mustache.

In southern and western Iceland, those dangling ends have historically belonged to sand eels, a cylindrical fish generally known to Americans as sand lances. In the Westmans, Hansen says, their relationship to puffins is “like the hare and the lynx”—a primary prey to the near-exclusion of any other species. And for 12 years, on the heels of gradually climbing sea surface temperatures, sand eels have gone missing from surrounding waters.

Well, not missing exactly, Hansen says, now pouring us tumblers of a peaty Scotch. Sand eel numbers have surged in Iceland’s northern waters, where puffin populations once similarly relied on cold-loving capelin. The capelin, too, have shifted northward—but puffin populations in northern Iceland are stable, feeding on the sand eels that have flourished in the capelin’s wake.

Around the Westmans, however, no suitable prey has thrived in the sand eels’ place. And while adolescent puffins might shop around for an alternate breeding ground, once adults have chosen a colony, they’re hardwired to return to it. In other words, the Westmans’ breeding-age puffins can’t just up and move to better fishing grounds, and it’s a rare day when the puffin-rally photographer captures a returning adult with much of anything in its beak.

Icelanders love festivals, and considering the country has just 329,000 residents (dramatically outnumbered by 7 million to 8 million Atlantic Puffins), they sure seem to throw a lot of them. A handful of high-profile music and art fairs go down the same weekend as Thjodhatid. In November, Reykjavik’s famed Iceland Airwaves fest has long attracted music industry VIPs. Of late, the Icelandic version of the international All Tomorrow’s Parties festival has been one of hipsterdom’s hottest tickets.

Thjodhatid dwarfs them all. It dates to 1874, when storms kept Westman islanders from attending a mainland celebration of the millennial anniversary of Icelandic settlement. So the islanders threw their own party, which has since evolved into a gonzo celebration of Icelandic and Westmans culture, with three distinct phases.

During the day, Thjodhatid is a family funfair, with ziplines and puppet shows for kids. Come evening—which lasts from roughly 7 p.m. until midnight, since there are 18 hours of daylight here in midsummer—the adults join in, wining and dining in the white tents and gathering in the steep natural amphitheater for Icelandic pop bands and fervent sing-alongs to folk songs and patriotic anthems. Then, at midnight each night, comes a different grand spectacle: an enormous bonfire on Friday, four stories of wooden pallets throwing heat across the whole valley; fireworks on Saturday that thunder off the crater walls; and on Sunday, following a climactic sing-along, a ceremony with 141 flares arranged around the crater’s rim and simultaneously lit, creating a gargantuan ring of fire. Midnight at Thjodhatid makes the Super Bowl halftime show look like a kiddie party with sparklers.

Overnight, the carousing intensifies, with more drinking and singing and feasting in the come-one-come-all tents. Many celebrants are costumed, so you might find yourself in the small hours toasting a caped superhero or being serenaded by men in bunny suits. Other revelers wear PVC fishing bibs—a salute to Vestmannaeyjar’s maritime culture but also practical protective wear should you lose your footing on the steep, muddy slopes of the concert area.

Insofar as it celebrates the Westmans’ culture, Thjodhatid also celebrates seabirds. At the festival’s entrance hangs a huge banner with a giant puffin wearing a crown of fire. The opening ceremony involves an elegant demonstration of spranga, a locally beloved sport of rope-swinging and rappelling that’s rooted in the practice of collecting seabirds’ eggs from cliffside colonies. Each year’s Thjodhatid gets its own theme song, several of which lyrically invoke puffins and other birds. One I hear emanating from several tents is “I Brekkunni” (or “In the Slopes”), which jauntily declares: “With romance and smoked puffins, I set off to meet my friends!”

And so back to those smoked puffins. Historically, puffin hunting in the Westmans has meant standing at the edge of a cliff, swinging a long-handled net called a hafur to catch birds as they flit about. This method overwhelmingly captures non-breeding adolescents, since breeding puffins tend not to flit, instead flying directly in and out of burrows as they deliver and seek food. With a hafur net, a single hunter could once easily bag several hundred puffins a day. Hunters kept a few dozen, then gave the rest to the local hunting club, which sold the birds—to tourist restaurants in Reykjavik, say, or to families for Thjodhatid—and used the proceeds to maintain stately hunting lodges on the Westmans’ wild islands.

It was hunters who, in the early 2000s, first noticed a dramatic decline in young puffins and petitioned the local government to recruit a specialist. Hansen’s position was funded in response in 2007. He started by photographing birds, aging them by their bills and realizing that several years’ worth of adolescents were essentially missing from the population. Hansen earned the hunters’ ire when he subsequently called for a puffin-hunting ban. “They were a little angry with me,” he says. “Some didn’t believe what we were saying. It was really tough.”

But spooked by their empty nets, hunters soon came around. Today puffin hunting in the Westmans is allowed on just three days in August—and catches are so low that few hunters even bother.

For Hansen, one benefit of the Westmans’ hunting legacy is the harvest record, which dates to 1880. Since the catch has always consisted chiefly of adolescents, harvest numbers are a reliable proxy for chick production. Plot them alongside sea surface temperature records and inferred trends in sand eel abundance, and a pattern emerges: Puffin chick production is strongest during cool phases of a natural oceanic temperature cycle called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO). But during the AMO’s warm phases, sand eel abundance withers and chick production suffers. Hansen suspects that warm winters speed up the sand eels’ metabolisms, so that the weakened fish don’t survive to become next summer’s prey. Higher ocean temps might also disturb sand eels’ planktonic food chain, and they face competition and predation from mackerel that frequent southern Iceland’s waters during warm periods.

A full AMO cycle is roughly 20 to 40 years of cool followed by 20 to 40 years of warm. The current warm phase began in the mid-1990s, and some predict the AMO could shift back to cool as early as the mid-2020s—unless climate change intervenes.

Hansen is among many scientists concerned that a linear warming trend may be overtaking the cyclical AMO. “If you look at the temperature record for the North Atlantic,” says Morten Frederiksen of Denmark’s Aarhus University, who studies seabird adaptations to marine habitat changes, “at least for the last 30 or 40 years, you’ll see an upward trend that is not explained by those cycles.”

What’s more, says Tycho Anker-Nilssen of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, substantial breeding failure is also occurring in the Faroe Islands and Norway’s Rost archipelago, which together host another 15 percent or so of the Atlantic’s puffins, and where populations rely on prey other than sand eels. Since warming sea surface temperatures are the common denominator, says Anker-Nilssen, “it is likely that larger-scale climate variability and change is the key driver.”

So what if climate change warms the North Atlantic to the point where even cool AMO phases are still too warm for sand eels to thrive in the Westmans? “That’s exactly what we’re super worried about,” Hansen says. “That it’s going to level off, and that means we’ve seen a shift northwards. And this place is done.”

Puffins are inescapable around downtown Vestmannaeyjar. Everywhere you look, the bird appears like a totem: on murals, on road signs, wearing a bamboo hat and advertising Chinese takeout. Puffin bric-a-brac shops abound, as do fliers for puffin tours.

Vestmannaeyjar even has its own puffin celebrity in Toti, a charismatic rescue bird who draws visitors to the island’s natural history museum. Famous enough to warrant his own segment on Icelandair’s in-flight tourism video, Toti was brought in four years ago after fledging too late to join the migration to open-sea wintering grounds. It’s a late-summer tradition in Vestmannaeyjar for children to roam the streets, gathering fledglings that emerge disoriented from burrows and head for the lights of town. Toti’s caretaker, Viktoria Pettypiece, is among those who measure and weigh the wayward chicks (collecting data for Hansen) before releasing them to the sea. Twenty years ago, she says, kids would bring in 1,200 to 2,000 puffins a year. In recent years it’s often dipped below 100.

Pettypiece, who once ran a gallery selling puffin paraphernalia, wonders how the breeding collapse might affect the island’s image. “I think it’d be really hard for tourism,” she says. “Most people who come here come to see puffins—even if it’s the wrong time of year.”

“I believe it might affect the number of visitors a bit,” agrees Indiana Audunsdottir, co-owner of a popular waterfront restaurant called Slippurinn, “especially if we keep pushing the idea about puffins as part of the islands’ identity.” Slippurinn has earned accolades for its commitment to local sourcing and traditional Icelandic fare—but the restaurant doesn’t serve smoked puffin.

“It’s sad, but traditions have to end when traditions have to end,” says Audunsdottir. Of course, she adds, stocking a restaurant with puffins is different than simply hunting or buying a few to take home. She laughs sheepishly. “I tried some the other day, and I was like, mmm! So I am a complete hypocrite.”

A few blocks away, in the chic dining room at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar, the special Thjodhatid menu does indeed feature plates of smoked, thinly sliced puffin. “Like carpaccio,” says hotel owner Magnus Bragason. “Just to give a taste.”

Until he bought the hotel four years ago, Bragason was the Westmans’ go-to puffin smoker, but he was proud when hunters effectively gave up their hafur nets, since the prospect of wholesale population collapse has him spooked. “I think it would be very bad for our culture,” he says. “I’m very happy that we are not killing them, and I’m not sure if we’ll start again.”

Still, Bragason misses the tradition, and his family is among those who bought some imported puffins to eat at home during Thjodhatid. Last year, before his son went on a student exchange to Maine, his host family asked over Skype about his favorite food. “Smoked puffin!” declared Bragason’s son, without hesitation.

“ ‘Oh, my god!’ ” Bragason laughs, remembering the host family’s chagrin. It was hard for them to understand, he says. “People here love puffins, even if we eat them.”

A hazily remembered (thankfully recorded) 3 a.m. scene from Thjodhatid: I’ve just emerged from a particularly boisterous tent, decorated inside with homemade (ironic?) Donald Trump campaign signs. A “Trump 2016” button is pinned to my vest. Inside, I was fed beer and pastries and made to pose with a cardboard cutout of the Donald. I’m relieved to have escaped.

Outside, a retired fisherman named Grimur Juliusson is telling me in spotty English how, with the Westmans hunt curtailed, imported puffins are too expensive to serve in the tents. I ask him: Are islanders saddened by the puffins’ breeding collapse?

“Ja,” he nods, “because the puffins is part of the island. He is our . . .” Juliusson hunts for words, then says slowly, “The puffins is the same as you and me.”

I am touched by this sentiment. Then an eavesdropping neighbor chimes in. This puffin situation has happened before, he insists — we’ll all be eating smoked puffin again soon. “Nature,” he admonishes, “is a cycle. Nature is not like a straight line.”

It’s a common view around the Westmans, but Hansen is less confident. The day after the festival, around dusk, he leads me to one of his monitoring sites, a busy puffin colony on a rounded, windswept peninsula. Westman islanders have a saying when they’re feeling run-down—“I feel like it’s the Monday after Thjodhatid”—and Hansen and I are prime specimens. Whether it’s the hangover or the stirring sight of a thousand puffins dotting the cliffs, Hansen is reflective. I recount the exchange outside the Trump tent.

“They’re saying this because they believe it’s going to come back,” he says, “but they have no clue if that’s going to happen. Nobody does. It’s wishful thinking.”

We watch a pair of puffins “billing”—rubbing their absurd beaks together in courtship. Puffins are silent above ground, and the only sounds we hear are the crying of gulls and the crashing of waves.

The twilight of puffin hunting and eating in the Westmans is a small victory for conservation. Islanders are doing what they can in the face of a warming ocean: preserving potential breeders and hoping for the best. But what’s poignant about a Thjodhatid without smoked puffin is the reminder it provides that climate change doesn’t affect only the natural world—or, say, where we build our houses. It’s going to mess with our identities. It’s going to change the meals we share and the songs we sing.

The puffins of the Westmans won’t disappear soon and may never vanish completely. Even in the worst-case climate scenario, today’s mature birds will keep returning without much breeding success, and island visitors will see what Hansen calls “shadows of the past.” But today’s immense colonies may indeed dissolve, and if they do, they’ll take some of the freewheeling, open-armed Thjodhatid spirit along with them.

When Hansen and I leave the colony, it is every bit as dusky as when we arrived. In Iceland, the sun sets very slowly.