Ian’s Newsletter 02/17/2009
If, like me, you were a birdwatcher in the British Isles in the 1960s, you would have been been familiar with the Kittiwake, a delightful small gull usually seen at its dense nesting colonies on steep cliffs, and named after its call. You may also have wondered why, as British birdwatchers became less insular, the name was later qualified by the description “Black-legged”. This was done somewhat reluctantly, naturally, and my 1999 Collins Bird Guide still calls it (Black-legged) Kittiwake. Anyway, or as they say now, whatever, here is the reason: the Red-legged Kittiwake.
This was one of my must-see birds on St Paul Island in the Bering Sea on my trip to Alaska last June. Although not nearly as common as its Black-legged relative, it wasn’t hard to find. The red legs were a poor field mark, however, as the birds were either sitting on water, sitting on nests or flying past with their legs tucked snugly and sensibly into their vent feathers. With a little practice, it wasn’t hard to distinguish them by their darker wings and wing-linings, shorter, rather stubby bills and slightly smaller size, as in the photo of the Red-legged Kittiwake on the left sitting on its nest beside its similarly-occupied relative.
In fact red legs became an obsession, so that on the last morning seeing them became my only goal in life, and I set up my camera on a cliff-top with an incubating Red-legged Kittiwake in the sights and waited patiently. Eventually, I was rewarded and a rather stiff bird got up to stretch its legs and check its single egg, as in the second photo. After that, of course, the Kittiwakes came out to play and I saw red legs everywhere both on birds in flight and perched showily on rocks, third photo.
The Red-legged Kittiwake breeds at only 6 sites in the Bering Sea, the most important of which is St George, near St Paul, with 60% of the estimated world population of 100,000 pairs. It has more specialized feeding habits than the Black-legged, feeding mainly on squid and small fish. Its population is declining, breeding success is poor and it is classed as vulnerable. Commercial trawling is though to be responsible. It’s call is described as a high, falsetto, repeated ‘suWEEEr’, quite different from the ‘kitt-i-waake’ of the Black-legged. Maybe it should be renamed and we can go back to simple “Kittiwake”. Recent website revisions: Thrushes (
); Old World Flycatchers (
); Fringillid Finches (
) and Estrildid Finches (
). Best wishes, Ian — Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd, 454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818 Phone: +61-7 4751 3115 Preferred Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website:
“On the cliff he dwells and lodges, Upon the rocky crag, an inaccessible place. (Job 39:28 NASB)
This verse applied to the Eagle, but it is also applicable to the Kittiwakes.