Guest post by Nik Shelton in our media team

The kittiwake is a species we often talk about when we are asked about how climate affects wildlife.

Last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report covered that very issue and again we highlighted the kittiwake when talking to the media about climate and wildlife. They have declined rapidly - by as much as 68% in Scotland since 1986.

Before writing this post I asked around colleagues to try and unearth some pictures of kittiwake colonies in Scotland at their height in the 1980s. This proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined, and I found photos hard to locate.

In retrospect this shouldn’t have been unexpected – these cliffs were thronging with kittiwakes year after year - building nests on precarious ledges, creating a chorus of shrieks and turning the rocks white with their droppings. They had always been there. Before the era where everything we see is quickly snapped on a handy pocket device and instantly uploaded for all the world to see, perhaps no-one felt there was any urgency in recording a wildlife spectacle that was always going to be there.

From 19th Century America there are reports of passenger pigeon flocks billions-strong, a mile wide and so long they took several hours to pass overhead. Branches would break under the sheer weight of birds as up to 90 pairs nested in a single tree.

Although photographers were busy recording the rapidly growing nation, none felt the need to point their cameras as these astonishing flocks of birds. They were just too common-place – not unusual or interesting enough to waste a photographic plate on. Martha – the species’ endling – died in Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago this year.

I did, however find two photos from kittiwake colonies in the past which could be compared with similar photos taken more recently. These were taken at Row Head on Orkney in the 1990s and then again 2013, and also on the nearby Island of Papa Westray in the 1980s and then again in 2009.


Row Head on Orkney in the 1990s and then again 2013

Papa Westray in the 1980s and then again in 2009

Please excuse the quality of the earlier photos – but take a close look at these images and you will see stark visual evidence of the decline of a species.

So why are they declining, and why did we not see this coming? Well the answer is not easy and it has taken a lot of work by scientists to get to the bottom of it. This useful blog by my colleague Matthew Carroll – much more scientifically knowledgeable than me – explains what we believe is happening to kittiwakes in northern Scotland and the rest of the UK and where our research is taking us. If you want to dive deeper into the science behind kittiwake declines then head here.

In short, it looks like rising sea temperatures and other changes to the marine environment are affecting populations of sand eels – not in fact eels, but small silver-grey fish which kittiwakes depend on for food during the breeding season, when energetic demands are vast.

We need to continue our scientific research to better understand this relationship, we need to mitigate the future impacts of climate change through appropriately placed renewable energies, but most importantly for the kittiwake, we need to help it adapt to the changes by recovering the degraded seas that exist around many of our seabird colonies.

The impact of climate change on species is often unclear and sometimes by the time we are able to pin it down, it’s already too late. Costa Rica’s golden toad is believed by many to be the first extinction due to climate change when changes in atmospheric conditions in its cloud forest home meant a disease it carried became more virulent and wiped out the population.

The golden toad was well photographed before its demise – so at least we have these images as echoes of a lost species.

Kittiwakes still hang on in northern Scotland despite the major decline – if you have any pictures of colonies on Orkney or Shetland when they were at their peak two or more decades ago then please email them to me at nik.shelton@rspb.org.uk. We would like to build up a gallery of images which we can use to show people the impact climate change is having on our seabirds and our seas.

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