Black-legged kittiwakes, a real seagull

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

A long with ravens, crows and bald eagles, gulls undoubtedly are some of the most conspicuous bird species to be found around Juneau.

Although all gull species often are termed "seagulls" by non-birders, many of these species spend most of their time feeding and loafing on the shore along the intertidal area. Species such as the herring gull can range inland a thousand miles or more.

There is only one gull species seen regularly in the Juneau area that lives up to the moniker of "seagull" because it only occasionally comes ashore except to breed. This medium-sized gull is known as the black-legged kittiwake, and you will never find it at a fast-food restaurant parking lot or the landfill looking for a handout. The black-legged kittiwake generally eats fish and aquatic invertebrates, so it only looks for handouts near fishing boats and fish processors.

The black-legged kittiwake is a gray-backed gull that as a breeding adult has a white head, a white tail, and small black tips on its wings - often said to look as if colored by being dipped in ink.

Immature birds have a black smudge on the head behind the eye, a narrow band of black on a white tail, and a ragged line of black along the upper side of their wings. The legs of adults and immatures are black, unlike all other gulls found regularly in Juneau.

A closely related species, the red-legged kittiwake, is a slightly smaller gull found mostly in the Bering Sea, and (not surprisingly) it has red legs. The distinctive nasal calls of this species seem to roughly mimic "kitt-i-wake" at times.

Black-legged kittiwakes are found in oceans throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere and are the most numerous gull in the world. They are found in large numbers in Alaska only during the warmer months, from May to October. About one million pairs breed in colonies on cliffs along Alaska coastlines, with the nearest large colony in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Flocks of hundreds often are sighted from ferries or other vessels transiting Icy Strait outside the mouth of Glacier Bay. This productive mixing zone also is an excellent area to see other sea birds and marine mammals such as humpback whales.

Scattered small flocks of kittiwakes can be sighted during the summer in Juneau-area waters, usually well offshore. Immature kittiwakes loaf on sandbars at Eagle Beach and at the mouth of Cowee Creek in Point Bridget State Park, sometimes in numbers ranging to 1,000. Use of these two areas varies greatly from year to year, but flocks of up to 500 already have been noted this year.

Kittiwakes normally lay two eggs, with the first egg larger than the second. The larger egg hatches first and produces a more aggressive chick, which is often the only one to survive.

Some Alaska kittiwake colonies have declined in size, and studies suggest this is due to changes in forage-fish abundance or possibly increased predation. Some kittiwake chicks have been color-banded (up to three bands per leg) during some of these studies, especially those associated with impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Since 1995, banded kittiwakes have been observed more than 100 times at Eagle Beach by birders. Band codes indicate that most of these birds were originally banded in Prince William Sound, with the Shoup Bay colony outside of Valdez a major source of the sightings. It is a mystery why many immature birds from these particular colonies spend much of the summer loafing on sandbars near Juneau. Like many other summer visitors, they appear to find Juneau to their liking!

• Paul Suchanek is a birder and Juneau Audubon member.

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