Svalbard: The Kittiwake’s cliff

11 10 2013

Tucked away in a large crevasse along the jagged coast of the main island Spitzbergen, is an extremely impressive colony of breeding black-legged kittiwakes.  These petit and very pretty birds appear gull-like, which probably makes you think ‘a little dull-like’.  I certainly did, until we reached the cliffs, settled in and actually had a chance to watch these beautiful birds go about their day-to-day.

Viewing the cliff is quite an intimate affair- you climb over a ridge and (very carefully) work your way down until you are basically in the colony, on a small grassy patch that is unused by the birds.  From there you can find yourself only a few meters away from the birds, and the photographic opportunities are endless.  Every lens was put to work, from the widest angle to the big zooms – it was fantastic!  The birds simply ignore you and carry on with their day, which is ideal for photography. 

A real highlight was seeing the newly hatched chicks in the nest.  For the most part they were well covered by their parents, but every now and again, a little fellow would pop its head out from beneath its mother and have a look at the world.  This was a dangerous game as the always-present glaucus gulls were keeping an eye out for a quick meal.  While we were at the cliffs, it seemed that the kittwakes had the gulls under control, as none of the youngsters were snatched.

The cliffs were shared with a small colony of brunnich’s guillemots, which seemed to enjoy the peace away from the main colony (see: Svalbard: Unbelievable scenes).  Together they seemed to have a great place to nest, coupled with a great view and plenty of food.

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Hot property

3 04 2012

Location is key in the real estate game. Every year, a flock of lesser-masked weavers heads back to the same tree, to rebuild their weathered empire.
The males (with the black faces) work frantically to build a new and suitable nest for the lady of their dreams (well, that year’s dreams anyway), which she will hopefully approve of, and not rip apart – literally (if our gentleman friend does an unsuitable job, she will break the nest apart, forcing him to start again).
This is tiresome work, and as is the case in every community, there are those that are not too keen to get stuck in and work for their ladies affection. This group of individuals steal ready-made nests, and show off their stolen goods to their ladies, with a sad story of how hard they had to work for her!

While this is not great for the builder of the nest, it is great fun for photographers! The trick is trying to pick the right nest out of the hundred or so to focus on before the action starts, because these little birds end their squabbles very quickly, often just as you get your lens focused.
I had to stop trying to photograph them for a while, and work out where the hottest property was. Somewhere in the middle of the tree, perfectly positioned over the water, I found a small group of nests that were attracting a lot of attention. The nest had not only been completed, but already had a female living inside. These unruly males were not just trying to steal the nest, but the female as well! She decided she had had enough of all the commotion, stepped outside, and simply removed the problem.

While all this is going on, the birds are contending with two other enemies. The first, and most difficult to sort out, is the much larger Diedericks Cuckoo. This brood parasite, waits for the owners of the nest to be distracted enough to quickly slip into the nest, and lay their eggs. Interestingly, when their egg hatches, (always before the weavers eggs hatch), the day old chick instinctively knows to break the other egg, or once the weavers egg hatches, the bigger cuckoo chick pushes the weavers chick out the nest. The adult weavers have not worked this little snippet of information out yet, and raise the cuckoo chick as their own. Bizarre.
The other enemy fighting them on a more passive front is in fact the very reason their nests are so successful. They build their nest high off the ground, right on the end of the smaller branches, most often above water. The entrance to the nest is below the nest, facing the ground, which helps keep other predators like snakes and goshawks out. The catch is, when the chick starts getting adventurous in the nest, they often fall out. If they survive the fall, which the near fledglings often do, they are then easy targets for the other predators.

One day, quite suddenly, the noise disappears, the nests are empty, and the birds are gone. Next year though, they will be back, fighting for the hottest property in the tree.