Birds of Chignik: Black-Legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake nesting

You can imagine the high-pitched clamor as a boat draws near a colony of nesting kittiwakes. The gregarious gulls cram into every available ledge, adding their own beds of mud, grass and seaweed. There the females will lay one to three eggs in hues that might range from blue to olive to brown. (Resurrection Bay, Alaska, June 22, 2013)

Fancifully named for a cry that resembles kit-ti-wake, Black-legged Kittiwakes are generally the most common gull – and at times the most common seabird – along the Chignik Coast. At an average size of 17 inches, the relatively slender kittiwake is a graceful master of the salt air, soaring and coasting effortlessly until it spies a herring or other small fish at which point it dives tern-like into the water. Because they snatch fish from near the surface, kittiwakes are the friends of fishermen and whale watchers alike; flocks of these smallish gulls crashing the ocean surface for baitfish are reliable indicators that cod, salmon, halibut or other gamefish – or whales – are pushing the small fish to the surface. Kittiwakes have an uncanny capacity for somehow knowing when whales are about to surface – cueing photographers as to where to focus.

Black-legged Kittiwake with herring

Some have described the kittiwake as a “dainty” gull, but there’s nothing dainty about that bill. Note the bright red mouth of this bird in breeding plumage. It will cram as many of these herring as it reasonably is able to into its stomach and regurgitate a good portion of them to feed its young. (Chignik Bay, Alaska, June 28, 2020)

With the exception of breeding season, these are birds of the ocean, seldom venturing inland. While they may follow fishing boats and other vessels in search of fish that might be disoriented in the wake, kittiwakes will not be found at garbage dumps as are some other gulls. In addition to diving from the air to catch fish, kittiwakes sometimes sit on the surface and catch prey.

Black-legged Kittiwakes Chignik Bay

Following a morning of feeding, a flock of kittiwakes rests on Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. (July 28, 2020).

Black-legged Kittiwake flight

Look for distinctive black wingtips, a dark eye, an all yellow bill, angular, somewhat tern-like wings, and a more slender profile than that of most other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake nonbreeding plumage Kenai Fjords

The dark splotch on the back of the head is indicative of a nonbreeding kittiwake. Juveniles will also have this splotch as well as a dark collar, a distinctive dark pattern on their wings, and a dark bill. (Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, August 2, 2009)

As the climate continues to warm and overfishing throughout the world persists, kittiwakes are a species to keep a a concerned eye on. Although their populations worldwide are in the millions, steep declines have been observed in recent years.

Black-legged Kittiwake Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Order: Charadriiformes
Rissa: From Rita, the Icelandic name for this bird
tridactyla: Ancient Greek tridaktulos – three-toed. The kittiwake’s rear toe is reduced in size, giving the appearance of just three toes.

Status at Chignik Lake: Abundant in Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay, particularly in summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional in Chignik Lagoon

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring & Summer; Uncommon in Fall; Rare in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

4 thoughts on “Birds of Chignik: Black-Legged Kittiwake

    • My suspicion is that warming oceans has meant less upwelling, which in turn means less nutrient mixing, which in tern means fewer small fish. Add that to overfished herring stocks, and seabird declines are, I think, predictable. Sad indeed.

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