The first kittiwake chicks have begun to hatch at Seaford’s Splash Point, indicating a successful year for this important seabird colony.

Kittiwakes, who get their name from their unusual ‘kitti-waaark’ call, are a gentle looking, medium-sized gull with black wing tips, who only come to shore once a year to breed. The East Sussex cliff-top colony, made up of around 1100 pairs this year, has become increasing significant in recent years as kittiwakes struggle to breed in strongholds along the coast of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

Kittiwakes were once almost extinct in the UK - young kittiwakes were hunted in Victorian times and their pretty wings were used to decorate hats!

Adult’s pair for life and faithfully return to the same nesting ledge each year, which is usually at the same site where they themselves were born.

Young Kittiwakes take a long time to mature. Laying eggs and raising young on a precarious narrow cliff ledge in the middle of a bustling colony of hundreds of birds is a skilled job, and many Kittiwakes will not return to breed until they are three, four or even five years old. They may come back and observe the colony in action the year before, effectively undertaking an ‘apprenticeship’.

Kittiwakes first bred in Sussex on the white chalk cliffs at Newhaven in 1976. There is an old Sussex name for them, the Cackereer, which again is taken from the call, giving us circumstantial evidence that they bred here before. Numbers increased quickly to over 1000 pairs, with most of the colony relocating to Splash Point at Seaford.

The Seaford colony usually supports around 700-800 pairs, however 2010 saw only 650 pairs, although this was still about a quarter of all the kittiwakes breeding between Lincolnshire and Dorset. Fortunately last year (and this year), numbers improved and over 1000 nests were recorded.

The largest northern colonies are found in Scotland, in Orkney, Caithness and Shetland. There are large colonies in northern England, at Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head on the east coast, and a small colony on Skomer Island off the west coast of Wales.
 
Because of concern about declines in population, the Kittiwake is on the Amber list of UK Birds of Conservation Concern. Around the UK, kittiwakes have suffered declines of between 30-80% depending on the numbers present at any given colony.

Unfortunately, in 2006, an estimated 200 chicks were found dead at the base of the cliffs or in the sea at Seaford. Test results showed that the likely reason was starvation, although the record July temperatures are thought to have also stressed the chicks.

There have been some disastrous breeding seasons in many northern colonies since 2000, with some monitored sites failing to raise a single chick in some years. Likely reasons for the problems include a lack of Sand eels on which to feed their chicks, and a lack of young Herring, important for bringing the adults into breeding condition.

The adult birds are having to spend more time away from their eggs and chicks to find food and many are just giving up their breeding attempts. In addition, climate change is thought to be increasing sea temperatures, shifting sea currents and hence pushing fish shoals further north away from the UK.

Kittiwakes are true seabirds - they live predominantly on small fish caught out on the open seas, and outside the breeding season lead an oceanic life. When they leave Splash Point, they fly as far away as the coast of Canada on the north Atlantic, and will not return to land until the following breeding season.

So, if you haven't yet seen the Cakereer at Seaford, come along to the RSPB's Date with Nature project there. You can enjoy Splash Point’s kittiwake colony with the RSPB on several dates between 28 June and 5 August. Binoculars and telescopes will be provided, giving close-up views of the kittiwakes as they raise young.

Kittiwakes at Seaford, by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)