A closer look at British wildlife
Join Rebecca for insight into one of Wild Intrigue’s favourite species, through her words and beautiful artwork.
Kittiwakes are medium-sized gulls, slightly larger than black-headed gulls and similar in appearance to common gulls but with a forked tail and black legs. They have a slender, lemon yellow bill and triangular black wing tips. Adult plumage is mostly white with a pale grey back, while juveniles have a black ‘W’ pattern on their backs that shows in flight. Their distinctive call sounds like their name: “kitty-way-ake”. A kittiwake’s diet consists of many different foods including fish, crustaceans, invertebrates, plants, grasses and seeds, although as scavengers they will follow boats for scraps and make use of every opportunity! They also plunge-dive for food. In flight, their stiff wingbeats are similar to those of a tern.
Kittiwakes have a strong pair bond and nest in large groups on rocky cliffs when on the coast but also on buildings and piers in urban areas. They choose seemingly precarious locations to prevent their eggs from being predated. Nests are carefully built from a mound of mud and vegetation with a deep hollow inside. A brood of usually two eggs are laid from May to June, incubated by both parents. When they hatch, the chicks are fed with regurgitated food from the adults. Most gull chicks leave their nests early because on the ground they could be at risk of predation. Kittiwake chicks instinctively stay put – if they were to wander along the narrow cliff or concrete ledge they would fall. Chicks eventually fledge at around six weeks. After the breeding season finishes in July or August, the kittiwakes disperse from their colonies and return to the open sea.
In the 1960s, kittiwakes adopted the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle as an urban roost, building their nests on the ledges of Gateshead’s quayside buildings. At around 15km from the coast, these birds are situated further inland than any other kittiwakes in the world! However, the cliff-like nature of tall buildings, with access to the sea via the River Tyne, makes Newcastle a suitable environment for them.
Unfortunately, kittiwakes are currently facing a number of threats, so much so that in 2017 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed their status on the ‘Red List’ from Least Concern to Vulnerable. Kittiwakes are dependent on sandeels, especially during the breeding season, but overfishing and climate change have caused a reduction in this important food source.
There are other problems for the Tyne colonies. While many people are happy to share the city with breeding seabirds, some business and property owners are not as welcoming. In 2018 there was a public outcry when netting installed to prevent kittiwakes from nesting ended up trapping and occasionally killing the birds.
Once nesting has begun, it is difficult to remove dangerous netting without dislodging any nests built nearby. As a result, the RSPB, RSPCA, Newcastle City Council and the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership are collaborating with business owners to remove dangerous netting and make the buildings safe before the breeding season in spring. With more awareness and guidance through this collaboration, it is hoped that kittiwakes can coexist alongside people to boost their numbers and maximise their breeding success in the future.
Unfortunately our Kittiwakes & Doughnuts Mini Expeds have been cancelled this year, but we’ll be back again next season!
In the mean time why not tune in to Durham Wildlife Trust’s LIVE Kittiwake Cam on the BALTIC, you can watch it HERE (don’t forget to turn your sound on!)