Bird's eye view of Newcastle for kittiwakes

PUBLISHED: 16:51 20 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:01 20 February 2013

Bird's eye view of Newcastle for kittiwakes

Bird's eye view of Newcastle for kittiwakes

The Tyne Bridge plays host to a unique high rise colony of urban kittiwakes - but for how much longer? Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon

Mum is screaming abuse at us. We only wanted a glimpse of her baby, but shes fiercely protective, and yells at us to back off. We do, hurriedly. We didnt mean to get so close.

Strolling along the path we had paused to take in the view and found ourselves standing right next to this mother and her small baby. A step backwards and mum calms down instantly. Her personal space is pretty small.

Which is just as well. Shes perched on a ledge just inches deep, high on a precipitous granite cliff, with nothing but fresh air between her, her baby, and the hard ground some 25 metres below. Even from behind the safety of a solid cast iron barrier, staring down at the vertiginous drop-off makes our knees wobbly. Yet Mrs Kittiwake and her chick are sharing the ledge with a line of other proud parents and their offspring, all completely unfazed by the precarious positions they call home.

It might seem scary to us, but life on the ledge is just how kittiwakes like it. There arent many predators that can access their high-rise habitat, and the occasional gull that tries risks a fierce, sharp-billed counter-assault. Conventionally if youre a kittiwake these ledges are high on a sea-cliff, but were standing on the regions iconic Tyne Bridge, and the cliffs were surveying are the sheer granite faces of the massive towers that hold up its span.

Its a unique site for kittiwakes to colonise, believed to be the only example in the world of these birds nesting so far from the sea and in an urban location. As such its become a tourist attraction in its own right.

The birds are now stars of TV and radio, most recently appearing on BBCs Springwatch. With their dove-grey and white plumage and bright yellow beaks, kittiwakes are among the most attractive of gulls. But not everyone is delighted by their presence on the city quayside, and there are calls to remove them from some local businesses who regard the noise, mess and smell they create as bad for the areas image. So could the Tyne Bridge be a bridge too far for the kittiwake?

Kittiwakes have been nesting on the bridge for less than 15 years, but the river has been attracting the birds for over half a century. A nesting colony was established at Marsden Bay in South Shields back in 1930, and several thousand birds still nest there. Birds from this colony began exploring the Tyne, and in 1949 set up a colony on a riverside warehouse in North Shields. Up to 100 pairs nested here, and became the subject of a long-running research project.

Kittiwakes ventured further up river as early as 1965, when they nested on a factory in Gateshead, and a flour mill near Dunston Staithes. When these were demolished, the kittiwakes moved to the Baltic flour mill, and other nearby warehouses. Quayside redevelopment saw the birds increasingly concentrate on the Baltic, with numbers reaching 200 pairs, until the conversion of the building into an art gallery meant the nesting sites were closed off.

An alternative nesting site was provided for the birds in the form of a specially built tower, originally sited in Baltic Square, but subsequently moved a few hundred metres down river to Saltmeadows.

The artificial tower has proved successful, with as many as 100 pairs of kittiwakes nesting on it, but it hasnt dissuaded the birds from exploring other man-made structures in the area. It was in 1996 that kittiwakes first checked out the Tyne Bridge as a possible breeding site, and the following year two nests produced two chicks.

By 2000 this had increased to 82 nests. Kittiwakes have even managed to recolonise the Baltic it was these birds that featured on the recent Springwatch. And surrounding buildings, including window ledges on the Guildhall, have also been adopted for high level living. Altogether there are now around 150 nests in the Tyne Bridge area.

As the number of birds has grown, Newcastle City Councils attitude towards them has changed. Initially they were welcomed as a tourist attraction, and the Council even erected interpretative signs. But a recent report on quayside development by 1NG, the private development company which works with the council, has caused a shift in thinking.

One of the issues identified in the report was the detrimental effect the roosting kittiwakes have in respect of the cleanliness of the quayside, explains Stephen Savage, Newcastle City Councils director of regulatory services and public protection.

It suggests, if possible, that they be re-homed, possibly in a similar manner to that of the Gateshead kittiwake tower on the south bank of the river.

So far the council hasnt acted on the report. It will, says Mr Savage, be subject to further consultations with stakeholders before a decision is reached.

The Tyne kittiwakes certainly can be noisy, but whether their raucous keening is any worse than the thunder of vehicles crossing the Tyne Bridge is debatable. Their guano is undeniably unsightly and smelly, though some would argue no worse than the litter of half-eaten fast food and empty beer bottles regularly deposited by quayside party-goers.
What seems certain is that any attempt to prevent the birds nesting on the bridge will be met by resistance equally as impassioned as the views of local shopkeepers who want rid of the birds.

Martin Kerby, the RSPBs planning officer for the North East, says the birds nesting on the Tyne Bridge should be left alone: The RSPB understands the need to protect listed buildings such as the Newcastle Guildhall from damage and that kittiwakes nesting on hotels and restaurants on the Newcastle quayside may cause mess and disruption, he says. However, we believe that the kittiwakes nesting on the Tyne Bridge itself have a relatively limited impact and provide residents and visitors with a great deal of pleasure.

He accepts that it would be possible to provide a purpose-built tower as an alternative nesting site for the relatively small number of birds nesting on quayside buildings. But there would need to be several towers or a very large single structure to provide sufficient alternative nest-sites for the kittiwakes that nest on the bridge. There are limited sites available in the area for such structures and in any event the RSPB questions the need to move the Tyne Bridge birds on in the first place.

The kittiwakes do create a bit of mess but it is localised around the bridges, says Mr Kerby. Lots of urban activities that we enjoy create mess - we do not see why the mess from the kittiwakes cant be managed along with the mess from all the others. Kittiwakes are a much-loved part of the quayside, and a great link to Newcastles maritime heritage. The Hadrians Wall path passes underneath the colony, so thousands of people from throughout the world have the chance to enjoy these birds in a unique location. The return of kittiwakes in early March is a great sign for Tynesiders that spring is returning, he adds.

The kittiwake controversy is of more than just local significance. Internationally there is serious concern over the effect of several poor breeding years. A shortage of sand eels, their staple prey, appears to be the main factor in the decline, which has seen kittiwake numbers halve in Sheltand and Orkney, the main UK breeding populations.

As the North Sea kittiwake population is in dire straits, the increasing population in Newcastle should be celebrated, not treated as a problem, says Martin Kerby.

This month the last of the Tynes kittiwakes will leave their urban high rises and head out to the high seas, to spend winter out on the open ocean, many miles from land. It will be late February or March before the first birds return in search of safe nesting sites in the centre of the city. What they will find remains to be seen.

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