Meet the Kittiwake

Saturday 16th May comments: We continue our series of ‘meet the seabird’ and today we introduce the gentle gull of the cliffs; the Kittiwake. Kittiwakes (also known as Black-legged Kittiwakes) are generally pelagic birds of the arctic and subarctic regions and can be found all across the northern coasts of the Atlantic. Although almost exclusively coastal they do breed along the River Tyne at Newcastle/Gateshead, the furthest inland breeding colony in the world! Kittiwakes get their name from their call, a shrill ‘kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake’ (listen out for their calls when you next visit a colony).

Kittiwakes spend the winter months in waters around Greenland and some as far as the eastern seaboard of Canada. It’s an impressive migration route for this dainty gull but one undertaken annually (it’s rather surprising just how far seabirds travel away from their colonies). However they return to the North Sea from mid-March and to breeding colonies like the Isle of May. Bird will build a nest on a Cliffside from late April/early May and lay 1-2 eggs (very occasionally three) and both parents will incubate on average for 27 days. Kittiwake chicks are born precocial (the young are relatively mature and have the ability to be mobile from the moment of birth) and are downy and white in colour. This downy plumage will start to be replaced by feathering after just five days after hatching and will take approximately thirty-five days to fledgling stage. The plumage of youngsters is distinct, as it has a black bill and black ‘W’ across its back and upper wings. Chicks will come back to the nest for several weeks after hatching and will eventually follow the adults at sea where they spend the winter. Kittiwakes reach sexual maturity at around 4–5 years old. Kittiwakes eventually leave the Isle of May waters in September-October.

Over the last twenty years the British Isles has seen a 44% reduction in the population of Kittiwakes (a huge concern for conservationists) and this has been mirrored on colonies like the Isle of May. Overall 3,061 pairs nested last year, but way down on the 8,000 that once did. Despite this, they have had reasonable successful breeding seasons of recent so there may be cause for some optimism for a brighter future.

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