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black-legged kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake

Famous for building precarious nests on the sheerest of cliffs

What you need to know about the Black-legged Kittiwake

Our Expert Says… "These kittiwakes choose the most inaccessible, narrow and sloping ledges to lay their eggs away from the reach of all predators. Although they have to construct the nest such that the eggs won't roll off the cliff, the lack of predation means they only need to expend the energy required to lay two eggs, unlike most other gulls who lay three or more."

The black-legged kittiwake is a vulnerable species of coastal seabird. Although its current numbers are estimated at around 15,000,000 individuals it has been in constant decline, with numbers thought to be down 40% since 1970.

Found in the arctic and subarctic regions of Europe and North America, the black-legged kittiwake grows to around 38cm (15”) long with a wingspan of about 1m (40”). They have a white body and head with a gray back and wings and a yellow bill, and of course black legs.

Black-legged kittiwakes nest in large colonies on cliffs, and they can use even sheer faces as they can nest on the smallest of ledges and crevices. The birds work as a pair to make a nest using mud and other materials that will prevent the eggs from rolling out of the sometimes precarious sites they choose. Unlike most gulls, they only lay 2 eggs. Their breeding season starts in June and is usually complete by August.

Kittiwakes are fish-eaters, although they are not divers. They forage at the surface, either by swimming or by catching prey in flight. Outside the breeding season, they spend their entire time out at sea and thus have a wide foraging range. They are flocking birds, and it’s rare to see them on their own, even outside of the breeding colonies.

Black-legged Kittiwake: Pictures & Videos

Black-legged kittiwake

Spots where the Black-legged Kittiwake can be observed

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Exploring the pack ice

The highlight of many Svalbard cruises is to explore the pack ice, and the best conditions occur when there is an obvious edge to pack ice to sail past, or calm seas where some ships go into the loose pack ice.

It is a unique and unforgettable experience to explore the pack ice ‘at the top of the World’. Seabirds feed along the edge, that can also be good for Harp Seals, and whales. The highlight is to spot a bear. Sometimes they are at a distance, sometimes a few hundred metres away, sometimes they come right up to the ship. What is crucial is to bring binoculars to enjoy and observe the Polar Bear in the heart of their realm, the pack ice, whatever the distance.

Sometimes a bear is seen quickly, sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it takes most of the day. Other times two days can be spent exploring the pack without seeing a bear. It is important to patient, enjoy the whole experience, with a bear sighting being the icing on … the pack ice! Conditions can change quickly. Mists often come in to reduce visibility. Currents can spread out the ice into widely scattered pack, making bear sightings less likely. Strong winds and a swell can mean keeping further away from the pack ice edge.   In the early season the whole northern coast is in the grip of the pack, plus fast ice in the deeper parts of the fjords on the western side. Ships explore the ice edge to the NW of Spitsbergen at this time, with more options as the ice retreats north. As the pack ice retreats north it gradually ‘unzips’ from west to east, clearing the coast of northern Spitsbergen first, then the northern end of Hinlopenstretet, (enabling circumnavigations of Spitsbergen, exactly when varying from season to season), then the northern coast of Nordaustlandet and Sjuøyane.

Some years the ice edge can end up a long way to the north, enabling a circumnavigation of the whole archipelago, even to reach remote Kvitøya. Other years, pack ice remains along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet, caught up among the offshore islands. This prevents a circumnavigation of the archipelago, but the areas of drifting pack ice around and places like Lagøya and Sjuøyane can be superb for ship cruising and even Zodiac cruise amongst the pack.

Our trips to spot the Black-legged Kittiwake

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