New­cas­tle’s ur­ban kit­ti­wakes

Images of kit­ti­wakes get­ting caught in build­ing nets made head­lines this sum­mer,shin­ing the spot­light on the north-east’s unique ur­ban colony of these marine gulls.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Richard Smyth Photos An­drew Ma­son

Why seabirds nest­ing on Ty­ne­side are ruf­fling feath­ers

The kit­ti­wakes of the Tyne Bridge ar­rived in New­cas­tle and Gateshead’s quay­side district in the 1960s, drift­ing up­river from foothold colonies at South Shields, where the river opens to the North Sea. The quay­side was a for­lorn place then: New­cas­tle was near­ing the end of its in­dus­trial hey­day and the Tyne’s years as a key man­u­fac­tur­ing and trade artery al­most at an end. These neat white gulls, usu­ally cliff-nesters, made homes on the run­down Gateshead build­ings and on the iconic par­a­bolic arch of the steel-framed road bridge. Since then, the quay­side be­neath the kit­ti­wakes’ nests has un­der­gone a re­gen­er­a­tion pro­gramme ush­er­ing in a new fo­cus on cul­ture, leisure and tourism. The Baltic Con­tem­po­rary Arts Cen­tre – for­merly the Baltic flour mill – and the Sage Gateshead mu­sic cen­tre have brought cut­ting-edge cul­ture to the postin­dus­trial Ty­ne­side land­scape.

The kit­ti­wakes are still here – per­haps 2,500 of them, all along the Tyne – but not ev­ery­one is happy, and some quay­side build­ings have been cov­ered in anti-bird net­ting. This sum­mer the dis­tress­ing sight of kit­ti­wakes – of­ten ju­ve­niles, hand­somely marked in black and white – trapped or dead in loops of sag­ging net­ting went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia. A pe­ti­tion swiftly fol­lowed, the is­sue was de­bated in news ar­ti­cles and pas­sions ran high. The fire brigade was even called out to res­cue tan­gled birds.

Nest­ing 15km or so from the coast, these kit­ti­wakes con­sti­tute the far­thest-in­land colony of the species, which has a huge cir­cum­po­lar range. All around the quay­side each spring and sum­mer, the birds crowd onto ledges, call­ing ‘kitti-waaa, kitti-waaa’ and whiten­ing the metal gird­ers and stonework with their guano.

“The build­ings repli­cate the ledges that they would use on a cliff, and the Tyne pro­vides great ac­cess down the river and out to sea,” says Helen Quayle of the RSPB. “As far as kit­ti­wakes are con­cerned, the bridge is a cliff, but in a dif­fer­ent set­ting. It looks quite dif­fer­ent to us, but it pro­vides most of the same fea­tures.”

Helen is part of the Tyne Kit­ti­wakes Part­ner­ship, a coali­tion of con­ser­va­tion­ists and coun­cil author­i­ties that have taken up the kit­ti­wakes’ cause. “We try to work to­gether to raise aware­ness and safe­guard the nest sites,” she ex­plains. “And to in­crease our un­der­stand­ing – mon­i­tor­ing has been tak­ing place for 25 years now.”

Con­ser­va­tion threat

In 2017, the International Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN) up­graded the sta­tus of the black-legged kit­ti­wake from Least Con­cern to Vul­ner­a­ble on its ‘Red

The build­ings repli­cate ledges on a cliff and the Tyne pro­vides ac­cess down­river and out to sea.

List’. Num­bers have plum­meted, pos­si­bly as a re­sult of de­clin­ing avail­abil­ity of sandeels, the birds’ main prey. Some kit­ti­wake colonies, es­pe­cially on Scot­tish is­lands, have col­lapsed; the pop­u­la­tion along Eng­land’s east coast how­ever, seems to be hold­ing steady. In fact the Tyne colony is grow­ing.

An ur­ban habi­tat

“How big the colony can get is ob­vi­ously lim­ited by how many ledges there are in the city,” says Derek Hil­ton-Brown, an ecol­o­gist at New­cas­tle City Coun­cil. “Kit­ti­wakes are not keen to go much fur­ther into the city or much fur­ther up­stream. They seem al­most to have reached the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of the build­ings.”

Ur­ban wildlife, from foxes to ring-necked para­keets, has a peren­nial prob­lem: when it gets too suc­cess­ful, its habi­tat – pre­vi­ously so rich in op­por­tu­nity – turns hos­tile. Kit­ti­wakes are no ex­cep­tion. In New­cas­tle and Gateshead, the in­ter­ests of the colony have be­gun to butt up against the in­ter­ests of the hu­man pop­u­la­tion. The yaw­ping noise, the spat­ter­ing ex­cre­ment: for many, these things are a price worth pay­ing for shar­ing the city with these graceful birds. But for oth­ers, it’s a call to arms.

“They’re a tricky sub­ject, kit­ti­wakes,” Derek ad­mits. “They’re like Mar­mite – you either hate them or love them. Many busi­nesses on the quay­side aren’t keen on kit­ti­wakes. They’re noisy, they’re messy, they’re smelly… but then so are most of the area’s stag and hen nights, and no­body turns those away.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, some busi­nesses have taken steps to de­ter the kit­ti­wakes. One is the ap­pli­ca­tion of ‘fire gel’, which to the UV vi­sion of kit­ti­wakes, pi­geons and other birds re­sem­bles flames. “Birds will com­pletely desert a habi­tat, even one they have been us­ing for years,” claims the prod­uct’s advertising blurb. Its ef­fects, how­ever, wear off af­ter two or three years. A less high-tech so­lu­tion is to string up net­ting across po­ten­tial nest sites. This is where the trouble in New­cas­tle be­gan.

“The prob­lem with net­ting is, on a tall build­ing, it’s hard to main­tain,” says Helen Quayle. “When it be­comes slack or worn it’s more likely that birds may try to nest and they can get tan­gled in it.” The text of the pe­ti­tion against the net­ting, launched with the back­ing of Chris Pack­ham and oth­ers, noted: “Whilst the the­o­ret­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the net­ting has been to pro­tect build­ings, sig­nif­i­cantly more dam­age has been done by the in­stal­la­tion of the nets than was ever caused by the birds them­selves.”

“There’s not much we can re­ally do to stop peo­ple do­ing it,” Derek ad­mits. “Ef­fec­tively, it’s pro­tect­ing their build­ing – there can be a lot of dam­age from bird muck and stuff. The main is­sue is pro­tect­ing door­ways, and peo­ple com­ing in and out.”

The coun­cil, to­gether with the Tyne Kit­ti­wake Part­ner­ship, works hard to en­cour­age a more pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards the Tyne birds. One com­mon (and dam­ag­ing) mis­con­cep­tion is that kit­ti­wakes will fol­low the lead of her­ring- and lesser black-backed gulls and be­come wa­ter­front ma­raud­ers, plun­der­ing waste-bins, steal­ing

The in­ter­ests of the colony have be­gun to butt up against those of hu­mans.

chips, ter­ror­is­ing prom­e­naders. In fact, the Tyne kit­ti­wakes be­have much as kit­ti­wakes have al­ways done – the sand-eel is their food, and their feed­ing grounds are the Dog­ger re­gion of the North Sea rather than the Biffa wheelie-bin round the back of the Clay­ton Street Chippy.

Seasonal vis­i­tors

What is also worth re­mem­ber­ing is that the kit­ti­wakes here are a seasonal phe­nom­e­non. “Peo­ple think they’re here all year round,” says Derek. “But there’s a good few months when it’s quiet and peace­ful.” Out­side the March–Au­gust breed­ing sea­son this most pelagic of gulls is once again skim­ming the wave-tops of the open ocean. Many in New­cas­tle and Gateshead do see the kit­ti­wakes in a pos­i­tive light. “My re­sponse to the kit­ti­wakes is one of awe and unan­swered ques­tions,” en­thuses lo­cal nat­u­ral­ist James Com­mon. “Why are these birds here? What makes the Tyne suit­able for them? The kit­ti­wakes are a fa­mil­iar part of life in the city and bring a touch of the ‘wild’ into the cen­tre. To me, the sight, sound and smell of the colony evokes re­mote, in­ac­ces­si­ble places, such as the Farne Is­lands.”

Can there, re­al­is­ti­cally, be peace be­tween ur­ban kit­ti­wakes and the hu­mans who live among their noisy colonies? Ev­i­dence from else­where sug­gests there can. Pho­tog­ra­pher An­drew Ma­son trav­elled to the Lo­foten Is­lands, an ar­chi­pel­ago off the Nor­way coast, and saw how the lives of kit­ti­wakes there are en­meshed with those of lo­cal peo­ple.

“There are ur­ban kit­ti­wake colonies through­out Lo­foten,” he says. “You find them on build­ings in small coastal vil­lages, as well as on the sur­round­ing cliffs. The birds are equally happy nest­ing on tra­di­tional red-and-yel­low painted wooden build­ings and the more in­dus­trial build­ings in har­bours. There are even nests on win­dows in the cen­tre of vil­lages.”

An­drew ac­knowl­edges that these fish­ing vil­lages are a far cry from the newly gen­tri­fied New­cas­tle-Gateshead quay­side – in­deed, he be­lieves that Lo­foten’s his­toric fish­ing cul­ture has nour­ished a bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of seabirds like the kit­ti­wake.

There are still lessons to be learned here. “Busi­nesses in north-east Eng­land could start to pro­mote the kit­ti­wakes as an in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant breed­ing colony,” he sug­gests. “By en­gag­ing peo­ple and help­ing them to un­der­stand how im­por­tant the Tyne colony is, this could help to al­le­vi­ate the angst.”

Even those who re­main hos­tile to­wards the quay­side kit­ti­wakes should per­haps ap­pre­ci­ate that decades of coloni­sa­tion can’t be un­done by a snap of the coun­cil’s fin­gers. “If you were to dis­place birds off the Tyne Bridge, say, then that’s more than 1,300 birds that would be look­ing for a new home in the city,” says Helen Quayle. “They’re ur­ban-nest­ing birds. They’re not sud­denly go­ing to nest on cliffs – this is their home.”

“De­vel­op­ers and build­ing own­ers are quick to say: ‘Get it all net­ted’,” adds Derek Hil­ton-Brown. “But they don’t re­alise that that’s just dis­plac­ing the prob­lem. Where do the birds go? If you’re go­ing to try to move them to an­other site, you’d need plenty of time, sev­eral years… it’d be a grad­ual thing.”

The Tyne kit­ti­wakes aren’t there to cause trouble, or, for that mat­ter, to draw in eco-tourists or ex­cite ur­ban bird­watch­ers. They’ve found a place that fits their way of liv­ing, and they’re mak­ing the best of it, in­dif­fer­ent, by and large, to the hu­mans bustling be­neath. But it would be a shame if we were to re­turn their in­dif­fer­ence: these are won­der­ful birds, del­i­cately built but fiercely re­silient, their colonies as vivid and full of rau­cous life as any sea­port city.

FIND OUT MORE Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety of Northum­bria:­tiv­i­ties/con­ser­va­tion-re­search/tyne-kit­ti­wakes

They’ve found a place that fits their way of liv­ing and they’re mak­ing the best of it.

From the kit­ti­wake’s per­spec­tive, a tall ur­ban tower block has many of the same fea­tures as a shore­line cliff face.

Above: The fate of kit­ti­wakes who found them­selves en­tan­gled in net­ting used to pro­tect build­ings prompted out­rage on so­cial me­dia. Some birds were res­cued by fire­fight­ers, how­ever many oth­ers were not so lucky.

Kit­ti­wake colonies have made them­selves at home amidst dis­used build­ings on the Nor­we­gian ar­chi­pel­ago of Lo­foten.

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