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!
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).
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!
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?
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?
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).
This was the view from the bridge on a bright and windy day on 31 July 2020 (below).
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.
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!
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).
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!
The juveniles are very easy to spot, on account of the striking black, W-shaped mark on their wings (below).
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!
Coulson, J. (2011). The kittiwake. A&C Black.