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Nest building kittiwakes

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) gathering nest material on 28 May 2020. Scarborough UK

Over the last few weeks, kittiwakes – or Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) to give them their full name – have been very busy building their nests here in Scarborough, north Yorkshire.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) gathering nest material on 28 May 2020. Scarborough.

There has been a constant stream of kittiwakes flying to and fro between their nests and the harbour at low tide. They come to collect mud and seaweed, and travel back to their nests, both in the town and on the cliffs, carrying their precious cargoes.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) gathering nest material on 14 May 2020. Scarborough

Some birds are rather optimistic in terms of what they can carry, and some of these heavier loads get dropped, so the odd little patches of seaweed are appearing on the roads and pavements near the harbour and on Marine drive.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) carrying a heavy load of nest material on 29 May 2020. Scarborough.

The gathering of nesting material is quite a social activity, and there were hundreds of kittiwakes gathering seaweed in the harbour a few weeks ago (below)

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) gathering nest material on 14 May 2020. Scarborough.

The gathering of mud, and especially seaweed, takes some skill, and kittiwakes probably take time to learn the art of gathering the right kind and size of material. Some were tugging at huge chunks (below).

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) 12 May gathering nest material on 12 May 2020. Scarborough

Others were clearly fascinated by large lumps of kelp which were probably to big for them to handle!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) gathering nest material on 12 May 2020. Scarborough

The nest platform is made of mud, which the birds gather first (below).

Black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) gathering mud and seaweed on 14 May 2020. Scarborough.

Some of the birds get quite dirty collecting the mud but clean themselves in the in-coming tide (below).

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) washing off some mud in the harbour on 12 May. Scarborough

Nests are built up using a mix of grasses and seaweeds. The nests soon get white-washed with kittiwake poo!

Kittiwakes nesting on roof ledge near the harbour, Scarborough 29 May 2020

The upper part of the nest may be built up with a variety of ‘found materials’ as artists would say, including a range of flotsam and jetsam from around the harbour. The nests are often topped with grass, which must provide a nice comfy layer on which to lay the eggs (below). Notice how they have built up the nests above the spikes! Clever little birds.

Kittiwakes on the Grand hotel, Scarborough

Some of the kittiwakes gathering nesting material in the harbour took off and headed back to the town, particularly to the Valley Bridge, where many hundreds nest. Safe and sound above the road below!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) on Valley Bridge 17 May 2020. Scarborough

Others headed off to their residences on the Grand hotel! (below)

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) on the Grand Hotel 17 May 2020. Scarborough

But the majority of kittiwakes returned to their traditional nest sites on the cliffs (below).

Kittiwakes nesting on Castle cliffs, Scarborough.

It has been intensely pleasurable to watch these busy birds going about their lives, especially during lockdown. A reminder, if one were needed, that their wild lives carry on regardless of what is happening in ours. Kittiwakes certainly have their own challenges, but they are a joy to watch and I feel blessed to live in a town where I can hear their chattering calls each year.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) taking a break from gathering nest material on 12 May 2020. Scarborough


Coulson, J. (2011). The kittiwake. A&C Black.

rcannon992 View All

I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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