Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes are ocean-wandering members of the gull family, and many people believe they are never seen on the mainland, let alone nesting there.

Resembling the common gull or a small herring gull, the kittiwake breeds on the Pembrokeshire bird-sanctuary islands and on offshore stacks and there is no mistaking its raucous cry on the sheer cliff nesting sites it shares with guillemots and razorbills on Skomer Island. The cry is so primeval that sixty years ago, before the days of television, a radio producer used recordings made at the nesting sites to represent the cries of pterodactyls in a popular serialisation of Conan Doyle’s dramatic story ‘Lost World.’ Its Latin name is Rissa Tridactyla, or three-toed gull.

Visitors to Skomer in early spring, when the island is an artist’s pallette of beautiful bluebells, are intrigued by the shuttle service of kittiwakes, flying back and fore across the island ferrying beakfuls of mud from the central pond to their cliff ledge nesting sites to make a safe place for their eggs. They also carry thrift and grass to the site and use the mud to cement it down, apparently spitting some form of moisture on it with their open beak, before paddling it down with their feet. There is very little space on the ledges, the birds packed so close together, and the air is filled with the strident hubbub of their cries. Nearly a thousand pairs pack the sheer wall of The Wick, their voices making a thunderous din which drowns the growling calls of their neighbours the guillemots and razorbills. 

The kittiwake is about 39-cms long and its wing span measures 108-cms. Its British population is around 370,000 pairs and it lays two eggs and rears only one brood. Its small yellow bill, dark eye and black legs distinguiish it from other seabirds, and it keeps its white plumage pristine clean, despite the crush on the nesting ledges.

In winter it spends its time at sea, fishing for small fish, sand-eels, shrimps and worms. They breed on Skomer between May and August and while on the ledges are very vulnerable to attack by the marauding Black-backs and Herring Gulls, who will go so far as to try and prize the sitting kittiwake off the nest to grab and devour the egg or chick. Great black-backed gulls, the great bullies of the seabird community, will gulp a chick down whole. 

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