The Kittiwake is an attractive, short-legged gull that breeds on rocky cliffs along the UK’s coastline. These birds disperse each winter to forage out over the open ocean.
Juvenile Kittiwake in-flight
Kittiwake in natural habitat
Three Kittiwakes resting on top of an ice-berg
Family:Gulls and terns
38cm to 41cm
95cm to 110cm
300g to 500g
The breeding Kittiwake has a grey back, pure white head and underparts, dark eyes and a yellow bill. They have black wingtips and short black legs and feet. Their feet are webbed, and the hind toe is much reduced. This missing digit explains their scientific epithet, which means three-toed.
Non-breeding adult Kittiwakes of both sexes develop dark markings around the face and head. The top of the head and back of the neck are greyish, and there are darker marks on the nape and around the eyes.
Females and males have the same plumages at all stages of their lifecycles and are best distinguished by behavioural differences and size measurements.
Juveniles Kittiwakes (known as Tarrocks in northern Scotland) have a black tail tip and a distinctive black W-shaped marking across their wings and back when seen in flight. At rest, they show a black bar across each wing and a black collar and bill.
Kittiwakes are most easily confused with the Common Gull. However, Common Gulls have longer, yellow legs and show white wing tips in flight.
Kittiwake resting in natural habitat
Kittiwakes have a total body length of 38 to 41 centimetres. Females are slightly shorter on average.
These stocky gulls weigh 300 to 500 grams. Males are approximately ten percent heavier than females.
Kittiwakes have a wingspan of 95 to 110 centimetres. Males have slightly longer wings than females.
Kittiwake perching on cliff edge
The typical Kittiwake call is a nasal three-noted ‘ki-ti-WAKE’. They produce a variety of other gull-like calls when greeting each other at the nest, before leaving the nest, and in alarm.
Kittiwakes feed predominantly on small fish like sand eels and herring. They also take smaller numbers of invertebrates like squid and krill. These birds catch their prey from the surface or dive to depths up to about a meter.
These birds do not feed on scraps or visit rubbish dumps like other gull species, although they occasionally feed on carrion, land animals like earthworms, and vegetable matter like grain.
Kittiwake chicks eat small marine fish like sprats and sand eels. Both parents provide food, already softened in the crop. The young birds take the fish from their parent's throats.
Kittiwake feeding chicks at nest
Kittiwakes are only associated with temperate and Arctic marine environments. These birds spend the winter in oceanic waters out at sea but breed at the coast on sea cliffs and some artificial structures like bridges. They forage near the shore or over the continental shelf in the breeding season.
The Kittiwake has a disjointed breeding range around the coast of the United Kingdom. They are most widespread in the northeast and southwest. Elsewhere the species has a scattered breeding range in coastal areas of Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and New England.
Kittiwakes live on the coast and out to sea, so you’re unlikely to spot them around freshwater bodies and rubbish tips like some other UK gull species. These birds are comfortable on the water and in the air and stay far out to sea in the non-breeding season. The breeding season is spent between coastal waters and the rocky cliffs where they nest.
Kittiwake taking from water
Kittiwakes are common gulls in the United Kingdom, although their population is in a worrying decline. Their numbers have decreased drastically, and their range has contracted by about ten percent since the 1970s. There were an estimated 205,000 breeding pairs in the UK in 2015.
Seabird colonies between Yorkshire and Orkney, and on the northwest coast of Scotland, are the best place to look for Kittiwakes in the breeding season from February to August. However, you might see them along the coast until autumn or scan for them with your scope or binoculars from high viewpoints in the winter.
Kittiwake colony by the coast
Wild Kittiwakes can live for over 28 years, although their typical lifespan is estimated to be about 12 years. They are a long-lived species and attain sexual maturity only after four years.
Kittiwakes are vulnerable to a variety of other bird species at each stage of their lives. Peregrine Falcons and Skuas may hunt adult birds, and their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to other gulls and Ravens. Mammals rarely hunt them, although foxes may take adults, eggs, or nestlings from accessible nest sites.
Kittiwakes are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The Kittiwake is not formally endangered. The species is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ due to rapid and continuing declines and has a red conservation status in the UK.
Kittiwake gathering nesting materials
Kittiwakes usually nest in colonies on sea cliffs. They use the same colonies year after year, and the number of pairs varies between a few dozen and several thousand. The male chooses a spot on a ledge and attracts a female to the nest site.
The ledge is usually very narrow, and the nest they build from mud and vegetation often overhangs its edge. Some Kittiwakes nest in rather unusual places. The colony on the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle is remarkable for being so far inland.
Most Kittiwakes nest between April and August in the United Kingdom. However, their timing varies between colonies, with birds at higher latitudes nesting later in the season.
Kittiwakes lay a single brood of one to three grey and brown speckled eggs, each measuring approximately 57 millimetres long and 41 millimetres at their widest.
Kittiwakes are monogamous during the nesting season but do not necessarily mate for life. Pairs often reunite for consecutive years, although divorce is common.
Kittiwake sitting on nest
Kittiwake at nest with chicks
Kittiwakes exhibit various aggressive behaviours at the nesting colony. They fight by grasping each other’s bills and wrestling, sometimes tumbling to the water below. These birds are not aggressive towards humans and never attempt to steal food.
Kittiwakes sleep on cliffs, beaches, and at their nests during the breeding season. They are mostly diurnal, although they also forage at night. In the non-breeding season, these remarkable birds spend most of their time in flight and even sleep in the air when far out to sea.
Kittiwake's being aggressive near nest site
Kittiwakes are migratory across most of their range, although their movements are not fully understood. These birds return to the United Kingdom to nest each year but disperse out to sea to forage in the non-breeding season.
Kittiwakes are native to the United Kingdom. These wide-ranging birds have not been introduced outside of their native range.
Kittiwake in-flight over fields
Seagull is a common term for any number of gulls and does not refer to one particular species. In that sense, you could call a Kittiwake a seagull, although their common name is far more descriptive.
Kittiwakes take their quaint name from their typical nasal ‘ki-ti-WAKE’ call. They are noisy birds during the breeding season when large colonies gather to nest on sea cliffs.
Estimates put the breeding population of Kittiwakes in the United Kingdom at approximately 205,000 pairs in 2015. However, their population has been declining in recent decades, and this trend is likely to reflect in future surveys.
Named in honour of the French naturalist and ornithologist, Jean Victor Audouin (1797 – 1841) the Audouin’s gull is one of the world’s rarest and is limited in the main to regions within and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Until fairly recently yellow-legged gulls were considered a subspecies of the caspian gull or the herring gull. In 2007, the British Ornithologists’ Union first listed it as a distinct species with key differences in appearance and distribution range from similar-looking gulls.
Sandwich terns are migratory seabirds that breed at large nesting colonies along the warm-water coasts of Europe, parts of the south-eastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Patagonia in South America. Their distinctive yellow-tipped bill and shaggy black crest make them relatively unmistakable alongside similar seabird species.
Roseate terns have a wide distribution range, and are found on six continents around the world. However, numbers have declined dramatically in some regions, leading to conservation concerns over the long-term survival of the species.
Despite its name, the Mediterranean gull is not limited to coastal waters of southern Europe, and is widespread on the Atlantic and Black Sea coasts, as well as in coastal regions and inland reservoirs of England and Wales.
A tiny, but feisty, seabird, the little tern undertakes epic annual migrations of up to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) between breeding grounds along the UK coast to winter territories in West Africa. Further east, little tern populations complete similar journeys from China and Japan to Australia each year.
Little gulls are small, tern-sized seabirds that breed mainly in Central Asia, but are occasionally reported as vagrant breeders in North America and may be seen in passage around coastal areas of the UK, and rarely reach the United States and Canada.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of many attractive ‘white-headed-gulls’ from the Larus genus. Common in the UK throughout the year, these migratory seabirds also visit the eastern half of the United States each winter.
Iceland Gulls breed exclusively along the rocky coastlines of north-east Canada to Greenland. Winter migration south occurs, with temporary visitors arriving along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and to coastal areas across north-western Europe.
A familiar bird of the coast, the bold and long-lived Herring Gull is a fascinating seabird in decline.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-backed Gull is the world’s largest gull and one formidable seabird. This impressive species lives and breeds along Northern Hemisphere shores on both sides of the Atlantic.
A large, pale gull species, the Glaucous gull breeds across the Arctic, where it hunts for fish, birds and small mammals and scavenges for carrion. Known for their intolerance of sharing a food source with other birds, Glaucous gulls can be physically aggressive as well as highly vocal when approached.
Terns are water birds from the family Sternidae and are expert fish catchers. There are generally considered to be forty five separate species of terns worldwide. Generally smaller than gulls but with long tails, thin bodies and short legs, they are long distance migrants.
There are four sub-species of the common gull with the European variant being the nominate. The other three are the Russian, Kamchatka and American, which are all predominantly confined to the geographical region attributed by their name. There are subtle differences in plumage and overall size of bird between sub-species.
The title of Black-headed Gull is rather a misnomer for this bird as its head is not black but a dark brown colour and only in adult birds during the breeding season. It is not present during the winter months or in other plumages. Unlike many gulls it is not restricted to coastal regions and is widespread inland in both rural and urban areas.
The Black Tern is a small, graceful seabird that nests far from the ocean. These birds switch between radically different habitats in the breeding and non-breeding seasons, but habitat loss inland has caused their numbers to plummet since the mid-1900s.
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