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Sightings of Kittiwakes a Rare Seasonal Treat for Birders

Vern Laux

There is a medium-sized gull that spends the winter in considerable numbers along the edges of the Continental shelf well over a hundred miles out to sea. Occasionally they occur in near-shore waters and they are occasionally abundant in winter in Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound. This pelagic gull is very long-winged and flies differently than its inshore relatives. It is quite at home on the storm-roiled waters of the North Atlantic in mid-winter, unlike so many other creatures, particularly anyone reading this. 

Yet this small bird is superbly adapted to life in this extremely harsh environment. Hurricane force winds and mountainous seas are a part of its daily life, no big deal. They seem completely at ease, coasting on stiff wings in a ferocious storm, mid-ocean in the middle of the winter. The only time they come to land is to breed, which is accomplished on remote offshore islands, nesting on steep cliffs.

The species is the black-legged kittiwake and this species inhabits both the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans. They are tough little birds. There is another species of kittiwake called the red-legged kittiwake that is rare and local in the North Pacific Ocean, nesting in a couple of places in the Bering Sea.

Kittiwakes are exceedingly graceful, exceptionally hardy and hard for anyone to forget who has encountered them. Check out the name of many an ocean going sailboat or yacht. It is a favorite name of many a deep-water vessel. It is the rare harbor at northern latitudes that does not have a boat named “Kittiwake”.

Occasionally, during the fall and particularly the winter months, kittiwakes can be found in the tamer, inshore waters around the Cape and Islands. They are attracted by an abundance of small fish, a favorite food. Just as terns help locate feeding schools of game fish for fisherman in the summer months, kittiwakes perform the same function for birders scanning the waters in winter for uncommon and rare birds.

Patrolling the waters, flying in their distinctive rather stiff winged manner, they often “point” out groups of feeding alcids. These alcids, puffins are alcids, invariably turnout to be razorbills, a chunky, football-sized black and white alcid that is at times common inshore in the winter. The problem for birders is that these birds, all the alcids, but mostly razorbills in our region, are superbly adapted to life on and especially underwater.

When feeding they fly around under water like a small penguin and surface only fleetingly to breathe. This is where the kittiwakes provide a double benefit. The first is that one gets to watch these graceful and beautifully marked gulls. The second is that if there are feeding alcids underwater, these sharp-eyed gulls will find and stay with them.

If it is a calm day with little wind they often alight on the water’s surface. Kittiwakes are an exceptionally pretty gull with distinctive markings, including, a little black mark on the hind neck and black triangular slashes across the wingtips.   

The best time to see both these species is after periods of prolonged strong winds from an easterly direction which has been frequent of late. The longer and harder it blows, the greater the number of birds that will enter Cape Cod Bay and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.  Get out to a headland and scan the ocean at first light. Often one can see hundreds of razorbills and dozens of kittiwakes under these circumstances.