Kittiwakes come to shore

April 23, 2020

Out on the beach, I threw handfuls of bread and expected gulls to swoop. The gulls weren’t interested. This is Britain’s eastern tip, in Lowestoft, and the gulls are the fifteen inch long kittiwakes. They eat small fish not bread, and are here to breed.

And this is new. Kittiwakes spend the winters out at sea and only come to land to nest. Previous breeding pairs I’ve seen have been on cliff faces much further north of here. They tuck onto the smallest ledge where they somehow balance their batch of two or three eggs. Now those sea cliffs are being abandoned, and colonies on remote islands are empty. With climate change, seas are growing stormier. And they are warming too, which drives such fish as caplin to colder waters further north. Kittiwake love caplin, but the fish are now remote from their traditional nesting grounds.

Which is why I now meet them in Lowestoft. A former fishing town, seeking to renew itself with wind turbines, much of Lowestoft’s seafront buildings are abandoned. Kittiwakes claim every window ledge, slice of guttering, chimney pot, and extractor fan. A wooden pier reaches into the sea, and from March to September it is rimmed with kittiwakes. We watch them settle, a youngster from the previous batch still with its parents, opening its beak to display to them its red mouth.

On the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list kittiwakes are declared a vulnerable species. In some areas their populations have plummeted by ninety per cent. Their breeding in these new urban cliffs of our abandoned buildings is fairly successful. Councils come along in the Autumn and clean up the white mess from their nests that thickens the paving below. A house owner has written a timely sign for his front window. ‘Please be aware the Kittiwakes are not randomly pooping. They are helping with social distancing.’

Kittiwakes are so graceful in flight. This is good practice at welcoming climate change exiles to our shores.

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