Image: Kittiwake and chicks, Martin Jones-Gill

This week, I’m delving into the world of kittiwake monitoring! This is carried out in a pretty similar way to the herring gull monitoring I do here, but this time I’m watching just one fixed spot. My plot is on our Bartlett Nab viewpoint and here I am keeping an eye on 53 AON (apparently occupied nests) that I’ve marked up on a photograph of the cliff face.

Since May I’ve been heading out weekly to keep tabs on my kittiwake. Spending so much time with them, I’m really getting to know my nests, and some might even say that I’m getting pretty attached. I think I’ve even managed to talk to myself a few times whilst I’ve been out there but spotting your first chick is a super exciting moment!

When I’m out on the cliffs I’ll have my useful bits of kit with me, so this includes my weather writer folder with plot photographs and recording sheets, as well as my binoculars. As my plot at Bartlett is so close to the viewpoint, I often don’t need to take a telescope with me, but it can be super useful for those nests lower down or in trickier spaces.

Kittiwake will breed on the sheer cliffs here by building small circular nest structures out of things like mud, grass and seaweed. The nest is built on rock shelves or ledges and is added to year on year. The nest building will normally start about three weeks before the first eggs are laid, when mud is collected from wet areas of the cliff top or from nearby fields. This collection of mud can often be a really social event, so you might sometimes find lots of kittiwake flying inland or higher up the cliff early on in the breeding season.

Kittiwake will lay between 1-3 eggs a year, much more commonly 2. These are rather buffish, spotted and blotched in various shades of brown. Once the eggs are laid, they’ll be incubated for a period of 4 weeks and after hatching, chicks will typically fledge after about 5 weeks.

Kittiwake have a typical lifespan of 12 years, however the oldest known bird recorded was 28! Being such a long-lived species, the effects of consistently low productivity to show within the last five years is cause for concern. Unfortunately, the UK population has declined by around 50% in the last 25 years. Due to this, the species has been identified as a conservation priority and is a red listed species. Our colony is internationally important and represents more than 3% of the UK and more than 10% of the UK and Ireland breeding population, so long term monitoring here is really important for understanding population trends.

Due to the way they feed (shallow plunge-diving to take prey several metres from the sea surface), kittiwake are really good indicators of the health of the sea. Many of our seabirds rely on sandeels as a food source; a small, shoaling fish living in the North Sea which is great for growing chicks. The availability of sandeels is affected by climate change and fishing, which means less food for our seabirds and in turn the chicks they are trying to raise. 44 chicks from the area I’m monitoring have successfully hatched and survived (so far), but an increasing number of nests are being recorded as losing eggs and young.

When we’re monitoring our kittiwake, we’re hoping that our colony shows a mean productivity rate of around 0.80 chicks per pair, which has been identified as the required rate to maintain a stable population. However, we have found that our rate is around 0.60 chicks per pair which is a cause for concern.

 

Head over to our Facebook and Twitter pages to join me for a quick look around as I head out to monitor my kittiwake. I’ll be sharing updates on chicks later in the month, so keep your eyes peeled for more!

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