Daniel Turner first became enamoured with the kittiwake when he was a teenager growing up in North Shields in the 1970s, where the North Sea meets the River Tyne.
“I would cross the Tyne on the Shields ferry and on the way I would also observe some of the plant life of the limestone grassland at the clifftops,” he remembers.
He’d visit the birds’ nests and watch almost 5,000 pairs of kittiwakes, taking photographs of them flying around among the fulmars, cormorants and herring gulls.
The black-legged kittiwake is a gull that divides its time between the Atlantic and the coastline. “They’re not like other gulls,” says Paul Buskin, an ornithologist who leads the community group Kittiwakes upon the Tyne. “They’re a soft, gentle gull and they won’t eat your fish and chips.”
Kittiwake fans come on the ferry in the summer from as far afield as the Netherlands to get to know the birds at the annual Kittiwakes and Doughnuts event.
Turner, 64, has been recording the kittiwakes across Tyneside for 27 years, and has travelled abroad to conferences and written extensively on the bird for books and scientific papers, dipping into his savings because his pension doesn’t cover the cost.
The kittiwake is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list as a vulnerable species and the UK’s kittiwake population has fallen by 60% since 1986. But in North Shields, they’re bucking the trend – an anomaly that’s a source of amazement and pride to Turner, who thinks that other gulls might be following the group back to North Shields when they return from their winter out at sea. “We’re attracting new birds on the Tyne – maybe they tagged on to the groups because they looked more promising,” he says.
Most kittiwakes in Tyneside can be found in Gateshead and Newcastle. The colony on the River Tyne in North Shields, around one and a half miles from the sea, has been there since 1949. The kittiwakes in this part of the UK nest farther inland than the species does anywhere else in the world.
“It’s a world first that they live inland, and North Shields is where the story began. These kittiwakes are part of the local heritage,” says Buskin.
The kittiwakes are due to arrive in the next couple of weeks and will be looking for their tried and tested spots to nest and raise their young. Vanessa Amaral-Rogers of the RSPB says: “The Tyne kittiwakes are particularly special as some of them travel farther inland to our towns and cities where, instead of cliffs and rock ledges, human-built ledges on buildings and bridges provide suitable places to nest.”
But the group’s usual nesting place in North Shields, on a ledge on a riverside residential building called Ferry Mews, has been covered with netting by a landlord concerned about his tenants.
This group of kittiwakes is resilient – they’re only in this spot because they were displaced from the warehouse next door when it was converted into apartments 30 years ago.
Their situation isn’t unusual. All kittiwakes in Tyneside have a tough time when they fly back after the winter. Over the years, they’ve returned to find their nesting spots covered with deterrents such as nets, spikes and paint, or to find that buildings have been demolished.
Landlords put up the deterrents in an attempt to stop the birds damaging the brickwork, but Buskin says he’s never seen kittiwakes do any harm. “Deterrents don’t stop birds nesting, it just moves them on to another location,” he says. “So why bother with deterrents?”
Some kittiwakes try to nest on the anti-bird netting and can get stuck, injured or even die. “In that case, a lot of people will see them in pain. They don’t get rescued straight away,” Buskin says.
Turner calls the new net in North Shields the “big whammy”. The landlord isn’t breaking the law because he installed the netting on the ledge in winter, when the birds weren’t nesting. Even so, Turner launched a petition on change.org calling for the netting to be removed, which was signed by more than 7,000 people in the 10 days that it was open.
But the netting remains. Phil Scott, head of environment, housing and leisure at North Tyneside Council, said: “As there are no legal powers available to the council to enforce the removal of this netting, we are currently working, alongside the Tyne Kittiwake Partnership, to explore a resolution that might suit all parties.”
With no time to spare, Turner is working on a plan to install ledges near Ferry Mews in the hope the kittiwakes will nest there instead. The three adjacent 8ft marine plywood ledges would run along the riverside terrace, flush with the river.
He hopes to fundraise for the cost of the ledges, if the tenants of the building give it the green light. He also hopes a few fisherman friends will install them, since the job can only be done from a boat. If he doesn’t get permission, he will be left to see what the kittiwakes come up with when they start flying in.
“They’ll sit around a bit wondering what’s going on, they might try to nest around the edges of the netting and get stuck in it, or they might try the ledge on top of the building or guttering. They’ll try to do something,” he says.
About half of the birds might be able to nest elsewhere on the building, but the group will be split up. They usually nest together in a cluster, Turner says. The other half might look for a nesting spot farther up the river towards Newcastle or Gateshead, or back down the coast to Tynemouth or Marsden.
The birds that struggle to find somewhere in North Shields this spring might tag on to another colony next year and travel elsewhere. They could go as far as France, Turner says, where some of the Tyne’s ringed birds have previously been spotted. He desperately hopes this doesn’t happen.
“I don’t want to lose them at that site on the river, they have such a long association there it’ll be a shame to lose that link in North Shields,” he says.
If the netting doesn’t displace the birds entirely, Turner has bigger plans. The ferry landing, currently right next to the Ferry Mews building, is moving half a mile west in a few years’ time. Turner hopes some of its structure will be left behind, and that he can get permission to install a ledge there for the birds.
“The only thing local residents could complain about then is the noise, but they might be interested in observing the kittiwake. They’d have a great view,” he says.