A slight, medium-sized, pelagic gull with a flight pattern that is more elegant (and more Tern-like) than other gulls. Kittiwakes have a fine bill, rounded head and neck, elegant narrow body and relatively long wings. Adults are characterised by their conspicuous black wing tips that stand out from otherwise ashy-grey upper wings, giving the impression that the wing tips have been dipped in black paint. Other distinguishing features are a yellow bill and short black legs.
Juvenile kittiwakes come into their adult plumage via a series of regular moults. This means that identification of juvenile birds can be difficult, as the unmistakeable black wing tip can be missing, often replaced by a black zig-zag across the entire wingspan.
In winter, kittiwakes live far out to sea but start to re-occupy nesting sites as early as February around Scotland’s coasts. Kittiwakes are the only gulls that dive and swim underwater. They can dive or dip just below the surface to catch prey of marine invertebrates, sand-eels, plankton, and fish.
Kittiwake colonies can be very noisy, with the commonest call a repeated ‘kitt-i-waa-aake’ often ending with a laugh ‘ha-ha-ha’.
- Length 38-42cm
- Wingspan 93-110cm
- Weight 330–450g
Classified in the UK as a Red List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (2015 update). It has fallen from the Amber List to a species now needing urgent action.
The main threat to kittiwakes is change in food supply. In colonies where sand-eel makes up most of the Kittiwake’s diet, a reduction in sand-eel numbers can lead to low hatching success rates, starvation of chicks or kittiwakes not breeding at all. In the North Sea, sand-eels have also been heavily over-fished for commercial use as animal feed and fertiliser. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable to food shortages as they take prey only when it occurs at, or near the sea surface, unlike true diving species such as auks, which have access to a greater variety of prey in the water column.
The kittiwake is a common and widespread breeding bird in Scotland with the largest and most numerous colonies found along North Sea coasts, around Orkney and Shetland, and off north-west Scotland. Most breeding birds leave Scotland in winter, but significant numbers can still be seen in coastal areas.
In the 1980s, the Scottish population of Kittiwakes declined dramatically, though the geographical pattern was far from uniform. A decline of nearly 70% in Shetland was coupled with an increase in Argyll, Angus and Dundee in the same period. These regional variations are thought to be closely linked to decreased food availability in spring and summer, which can lead to the complete collapse of breeding colonies.
When to see
late April – late August (breeding season)
- The kittiwake is one of the first British birds to be added to the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, meaning it is facing global extinction.