Kittiwake colonies disappearing

Kittiwake populations are on the decline - especially in northern Scotland. Photo: Andy Hay/RSPB Images
Kittiwake populations are on the decline - especially in northern Scotland. Photo: Andy Hay/RSPB Images

ALTHOUGH one of the world’s most abundant seabirds, kittiwakes are declining at an alarming rate.

And early reports of seabird breeding performance indicate continuing problems for Scotland’s internationally important kittiewake population with one breeding colony now extinct – and others predicted to disappear within three years.

Doug Gilbert, RSPB Scotland Head of Reserves Ecology, commented: “It now appears undeniable that the declines in kittiwakes and other seabirds are being driven by changes in the marine environment related to climate change.
“The food chain of the North Sea is being profoundly affected, and seabirds, at the top of the chain, are suffering.

“Everyone with an interest in our seas and their health should be paying attention to this.”

Kittiwake numbers have more than halved since the mid 1980s across the UK, and the Scottish breeding population has declined by almost two-thirds.

Some of the steepest declines have been in the far north of Scotland, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where around one-fifth of the UK population return to breed each year.

Counts by RSPB Scotland and the Join Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) of Orkney’s ‘seabird cities’ revealed a staggering 82% decline in breeding pairs of kittiwakes in just over a decade.

Populations on the Orkney mainland feel from nearly 11,000 pairs in 2000 to under 2,000 this year; and at Mull Head the once bustling cliffs were empty as kittiwakes failed to return to the colony to breed.

The cliffs at Costa Head and Birsay held less than 200 breeding pairs, while three other colonies hung on by a thread with fewer than 90 nests each, indicating possible local extinction within the next three years.

“The counts this year are deeply shocking, especially the loss of kittiwakes at Mull Head,” continued Doug Gilbert. “We know that kittiwakes in other parts of Orkney are equally affected, and to think of Orkney without thriving colonies of these fantastic birds is a sad prospect.”

He added: “Seabirds remain largely unprotected at sea and have been marginalised in the identification of new Marine Protected Areas – this obvious gap needs to be filled if Scotland is going to prove it is serious about protecting threatened wildlife.”