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1 May 2020

Creature feature: kittiwake

Written by Ciaran Hatsell, Ranger, St Abb’s Head NNR
A kittiwake sits on a nest made from twigs and grass, shaped into a bowl. An egg and a feather can be seen in the nest, which is balanced on a rocky ledge. The kittiwake looks like a small gull with a yellow beak.
A kittiwake guards an egg in its cup-shaped nest.
The kittiwake is a delicate yet gregarious seabird. These charismatic gulls breed on precarious ledges, their nests made of dried grass, mud and guano.

These ‘kind-faced’ gulls are the heart and soul of any seabird colony. Creating a cacophony on the cliff edges, they bring real atmosphere to the places they inhabit for those few short months in the summer.

For people who’ve been fortunate to live or work on seabird colonies in recent history, the tale of the decline of the kittiwake will be all too familiar. Here at St Abb’s Head, they’ve undergone a 76% decline since the peak count of nesting pairs back in 1989, falling from 19,066 pairs to just 4,651 pairs in 2019. This is a massive decline and a very worrying trend indeed – the lack of their raucous calls makes the decline all that more tangible. The trend is following a similar pattern in many other colonies, with some places in Shetland and the Western Isles seeing huge losses of kittiwake colonies and facing potential localised extinction of this bird as a breeding species.

A kittiwake stands on a rock covered in yellow lichen, against a bright blue sky. It is a young bird as it still has black patches on its white head and neck. It also has a black beak.
A juvenile having just fledged from the nest

We tend to view seabirds as biological indicators of the health of our marine ecosystems. If they’re struggling, then there must be a problem. But what is the main problem? Why have species like the gannet seen huge increases in their population during the same period? The answer lies in how they find food.

Kittiwakes are surface feeders, able to catch their prey of small fish only in the upper metre or so of the sea. Other seabirds, like auks and gannets, can dive deep into the sea, enabling them to exploit different food sources. Kittiwakes feed almost exclusively on small fish (ideally sand eels). Due to their specialising, when this food source isn’t available, they either have to travel very long distances to find it or simply starve. Having to go out on long foraging trips is not a healthy strategy for a nesting seabird. Ideally, they’ll find food as close to the colony as possible, minimising the energy expended, and bring it back for the chicks. If the adults have to fly hundreds of miles to get food, the chicks will also be left unattended in nests, leaving them vulnerable to predators and extreme weather events.

A very fluffy kittiwake chick sits in a nest made of twigs and straw. It is next to another egg, which has a small hole at the top and a beak just visible.
A recently hatched chick and another on the way

Although some birds have now famously migrated to nesting sites inland, such as Newcastle, they’re still tied to the ocean, flying along the rivers and back out to sea to forage for food. The buildings in coastal towns and cities resemble natural cliff ledges. However, while they seem to cope with the extra foraging distance, their presence isn’t always a welcome one, as their guano makes a mess of buildings, roads and cars.

Wherever they breed, kittiwakes are only present at breeding ledges for a short time in the summer, as with many of our seabirds. They then head out into the Atlantic during the winter, foraging for food as far away as Greenland and Canada!

Whatever the future may hold for this brilliant seabird, it’s never been more important to monitor their populations and do what we can to protect the oceans, before it’s too late.

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