The Tyne Kittiwakes

At first glance, the Quayside area of Newcastle upon Tyne doesn’t look like a ideal habitat for many animals. In a landscape dominated by the gargantuan concrete pillars and steel curves of the Tyne Bridge, and the glass waves of the Sage Centre, you’d be excused for thinking the most interesting wildlife present may be a few town pigeons, and maybe the occasional rat.

A closer look reveals signs that something else is not just living there, but positively thriving. Scan the columns of the Tyne Bridge, and you notice every nook and cranny is filled with shabby piles of sticks. There is a faint fishy odour emanating from white streaks of droppings, sprayed down the side of the Bridge, and spattered on the pavements surrounding it. Above the roar of the traffic trundling over the Bridge, a distinct call can be hear. “Kitti-wake, Kitti-wake, Kitti-wake”…

Looking up, there’s a constant flurry of activity. Adult Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) sweep back and forwards to their nests, bringing food to their screeching chicks. While gulls aren’t necessarily an uncommon sight in a lot of the UK’s towns and cities, this particular colony is incredibly unusual. The Kittiwake is almost exclusively a coastal dweller, usually found nesting on rugged cliff faces, not the sills and ledges of urban buildings.

Despite this, every year for over half a century now an ever increasing colony has come to the centre of Newcastle to breed, building their nests on the Tyne Bridge and a few of the buildings around it. Situated over 10km (6miles) from the nearest coastline, the Quayside Colony is in fact the most inland colony of Kittiwakes anywhere in the world.

The Newcastle Colony now consists of in excess of 500 pairs of Kittwakes. The birds generally start to arrive in March, having spent the winter at sea, and depart around August, when they’ve finished raising their young. Male kittiwakes will generally try and return to the same nesting site each year. 

Unlike some other gulls, Kittiwakes aren’t scavengers, feeding on a diet consisting mainly of fish, shrimps and marine worms. Despite the proximity of the nesting sites to the River Tyne, the adult birds return to the sea to collect food, making trips that  have been shown by satellite tracking to cover over 100 miles.

…THE MESS AND SMELL CAUSED BY THE BIRDS IS SIMPLY NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE ASPIRATION TO CREATE AN OUTSTANDING URBAN WATERFRONT

Perhaps inevitably, the Kittiwakes aren’t universally welcomed by their human neighbours. The quote above comes from a study commissioned by Newcastle City Council into the regeneration of the Quayside area.

Several buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Tyne Bridge are covered with netting and spikes, to try and prevent Kittiwakes from landing and nesting there. In 2016 rows of spikes were installed on the Bridge itself by an unknown party, presumably in an attempt to deter the birds, but were promptly removed by the local council.

The previous year, Gainford Hotels, who own a hotel located in the shadow of Bridge, applied for planning permission to install spike, netting, and even a special electric shock system called Avishock on three sides of one of the Tyne Bridge towers, to try and deter the birds.

The complaints about mess and smell are perhaps not totally unjustified. As can be seen from the image of the Guildhall building (r), which is situated next to the Bridge and is also used as a nesting site, the birds do produce a large amount of droppings, and they certainly do have a very pungent, fishy smell.

However, due maybe to the uniqueness of the location of the colony, combined with the Kittiwake’s appearance on the UK Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, which is due to a dramatic decline in their population in parts of the UK, the birds do have their supporters.

In 2012 a group of organisations including the RSPB, Northumberland and Durham Wildlife Trusts, Newcastle University, the Natural History Society of Northumbria, and several local Councils formed the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership, which works to safeguard the population.

The Gainford Hotels planning application received around 1,000 objections, and was later withdrawn.

Part of the colony, based slightly downstream of the Tyne Bridge, on the side of the old Baltic Flour Mill, is even featured on a live video stream, set up by the Durham Wildlife Trust with the help of  a £10,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

For now, it seems the Kittiwakes are safe as part of the fabric of the Newcastle Quayside. 

To them, the buildings form just another cliff face, no different from those 50 miles up the coast on the Farne Islands, where thousands of their coastal cousins, such as the ones pictured here, have chosen to nest.