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Pastel Skies and Kittiwake Cries

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

My Wild Life: February '22


In February, tingling signals of spring are hidden everywhere, and the bitter winter breeze breathes and blows Black Legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) across the Atlantic ocean to their breeding grounds.

The Kittiwake is a dainty gull that nests in teeming cliffs amongst Auks and Northern Fulmars in the arctic, subarctic and northern temperate regions. Above they are pale grey with inky black wingtips with snowy white undersides, golden bills and a sharp red eye ring and distinguishing black legs.


Their return to the cliffs fills me with happiness and anticipation for the summer months, and my eyes welled with joy! I tend to keep a watchful eye over the colony, monitoring their recolonisation and counting as each bird is reunited with its breeding partner, feeding information like this back to the BTO throughout the season.


One of my favourite moments when spending time with the colony is on arrival. When approaching the brow of the clifftop, you are hit by a soundwave of eponymous wailing cries from the Kittiwakes! These cries are the reason for the traditional belief that the birds were in fact the souls of children who had drowned at sea.


Their cry “kitteee-waa-aaake!” is a repetitive onomatopoeia of their name, called by pair members as a pair-greeting or when other adults land at a nest. Each year, it becomes the soundtrack to my summer.


In February, the Kittiwake colony is a sensory indulgence, as along with their iconic cry (and their smell!) is their characteristic behaviour. “Choking” displays are performed as the breeding season begins as a form of courtship. Male birds will extend their neck, bringing their bill to their breast and repeatedly flicking it skyward, as though they were trying to swallow prey too large. It is also an intense time for male birds to protect their nest from rivals, with conflict occurring regularly. Kittiwakes will attack one another by grasping bills and twisting their opponent, a fight like no other gull.


As Spring progresses, the establishment and maintenance of pair bonds between the Kittiwakes will continue, with male and female birds greeting one another with nodding, head-bobbing and neck-crossing until it is time to breed.


Until then, I will continue to enjoy each sky-bursting sunset upon the clifftop, a symphony of colour that sings us all to sleep.




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