Kittiwakes learning to fly

We are coming to end of the Kittiwake nesting season here in Scarborough. There are still some chicks on the nests with their parents, but most have fledged and are learning the joys of flying!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile 31 July 20

Kittiwake chicks spend about 41-42 days (average fledging period) sitting on their nests, being fed by their dutiful parents. They will not have moved far from where they hatched out of an egg. For those that nest in towns, they have often sat on a little ledge above bustling streets, waiting for their next meal (below).

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) chicks on a window ledge in Scarborough on 17 July 2020

The only exercise the chicks will have got is by flapping their wings, whilst facing inwards and hanging onto to their ledge or nest with their curved claws (Coulson, 2011). It has to be said, for such an elegant bird, they are not at their most beautiful at this stage!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) chicks on a window ledge in Scarborough on 5 July 2020

According to Kittiwake expert John C. Coulson, they must be at least 36 days old before they can sustain flight, but even then they return to the nest after a brief period. They are also only fed at the nest, so if they want to keep being fed by their parents, they cannot sit somewhere else. Once the juvenile bird leaves the nest for good and breaks the bond with its parents, it must forage for itself. That must be quite a daunting prospect, and I wonder to what extent they learn by accompanying other birds on feeding trips?

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult flying on 9 Aug 2020

However, even after the young birds start flying, they return to their nest site for a while, and do not leave their parents for about 10 days after their first flight. They might sit for a while, like this newly fledged bid (below) contemplating their new life?

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile 29 July 20

One place where Kittiwakes nest in numbers is under the Victorian Spa Bridge in Scarborough (below). This robust structure gives them safe nesting sites with easy access to the sea (below).

Spa Bridge Scarborough

This was the view from the bridge on a bright and windy day on 31 July 2020 (below).

View from the Spa Bridge Scarborough on 31 July 2020.

Although Kittiwakes must have a very strong instinct, and a genetic ability to fly, they must have to go through a learning period to be as accomplished as their parents, who have spent numerous years cross-crossing the oceans on their winter voyages.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult flying on 31 July 2020

As I spent some time observing and photographing kittiwakes from the Spa bridge, it soon became clear to me that although the juveniles were flying well in the strong wind, they were nowhere near as good as their parents. In fact the adult birds would sometimes clip or bomb them slightly as they whizzed past!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile flying on 31 July 20

Were the adult birds teasing the juveniles in jest, or were they reminding them that they were at the bottom of the pecking order? Or was it one of their parents saying “get back on the nest”! Whatever it was, the newly fledged birds were not so good at turning and jinking in the air; they sometimes had to correct their orientation to the wind with a rather jerky maneuver (below).

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile flying on 31 July 2020

Do the parents teach them to fly? There must be much more going on that we can possibly know, I think. Here’s another adult flying over the beach at Scarborough, showing how it’s done!

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) adult flying on 9 Aug 2020

The juveniles are very easy to spot, on account of the striking black, W-shaped mark on their wings (below).

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile flying over the beach at Scarborough on 9 Aug 2020
Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) juvenile flying on 31 July 20

I for one adore these gulls. They are not to be confused with Herring gulls, of course, which are much larger (below) and have completely different temperaments. You will never see a Kittiwake begging for chips!

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) adult in flight

Reference

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

2 Comments

  1. Hi Ray. I would like to ask you about possible inter-specific hybridisation in butterflies namely, between Small and Essex Skippers. May I know your email address so I can send you more detail? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s