By Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer
We are lucky to have such a long and varied coastline here in Sussex, and it’s not just people who flock here to enjoy it. The towering chalk cliffs attract some truly special seasonal visitors who arrive here in droves from the vast open ocean.
They may not look like hardy sea-farers but Kittiwakes spend half the year wandering the Atlantic, making them the most oceanic gull in the world. They only return to the coast to breed and usually arrive here from February onwards, keen to secure the best spot on the cliff face before the busy summer season gets into full swing. Like many seabirds they nest in large and noisy colonies, easily identified by their self-proclaiming “Kittiwake” calls. Many seem to defy gravity, clinging to the tiniest of outcrops on a precipitous wall of chalk.
Male birds tend to return to the exact same spot each year and competition can be fierce, especially when natural nest sites are in short supply. The Kittiwake colony at Splash Point near Seaford is one of the last in the South East and most nest further north, where some choose the most unlikely locations. Newcastle-Gateshead Quayside is home to the most inland breeding Kittiwake population in the world, with 800 pairs nesting on the Tyne Bridge and other urban structures since the 1960s (you can watch some of them here:).
The nest itself is made of seaweed, mud, feathers and grass, which is trampled into a deep cup shape that will usually hold two eggs. Breeding takes place in May and June, and the chicks may still be in the nest during July. Unlike other gull chicks, which toddle off as soon as they can walk, Kittiwake chicks know to sit still. The nest is often on the merest suggestion of a ledge, with nothing but sheer cliff face between the tiny nestling and the pounding waves hundreds of feet below. Fledging must be truly terrifying but once on the wing they will stay out at sea for the first few years of their lives, only returning to breed when they are three to five years old.