Backing the bird colony living life on the ledge

Should they stay or should they go? Environment Editor Tony Henderson talks to the North’s kittiwake expert.

Dr John Coulson, who has researched kittiwakes for 50 years
Dr John Coulson, who has researched kittiwakes for 50 years

Should they stay or should they go? Environment Editor Tony Henderson talks to the North’s kittiwake expert.

FOR decades Dr John Coulson has kept a log on the Tyne of the behaviour of the rivers’s nesting kittiwakes. Having studied the Tyne’s kittiwakes for 58 years, he is in a prime position to deliver a verdict on the current controversy over proposals to move the nesting birds from the Tyne Bridge.

Newcastle City Council and the city development company 1NG paid £5,000 to put together a report that claims the birds are putting off businesses and visitors.

A Quayside regeneration study made for the city development company reads: “Our consultations have revealed growing concern about the environmental impact of kittiwake nesting sites including the Tyne Bridge and the Guildhall.

“In the spring and summer of 2010, it was clear that the mess and smell caused by the birds is simply not compatible with the aspiration to create an outstanding urban waterfront.“

It calls for “creative thinking” to encourage the kittiwakes to move to a less sensitive site.

There have been counter claims that the birds are themselves a visitor attraction and are a world-first for Newcastle and Gateshead as the Tyne is the most inland nesting colony of kittiwakes in the world.

Its nearest competitor is a colony on cliffs a mile inland in Greenland.

Dr Coulson, author of a book on kittiwakes that will be published later this year, was a reader in ecology at Durham University.

He warns that moving the birds from the Tyne Bridge is likely to merely transfer what is a perceived problem to other buildings nearby.

If the birds are shifted, he suggests the building of an artificial, ledged riverside nesting “cliff” cantilevered over the river to solve the problem of bird droppings.

With the addition of a hide and observation platform, the cliff could double as an educational resource for school parties and a visitor draw.

“It would cost money but then it also costs money to clean the streets of droppings,” he says.

The kittiwakes’ liking for the Tyne has its origins in the establishment of a coastal nesting colony at Marsden Bay in South Shields in 1930-31.

Since then the Tyne kittiwakes’ story has been one of ups and downs.

By the 1990s the Marsden colony had grown to around 5,000 breeding pairs.

But in 1998 the colony was hit by what Dr Coulson calls “a huge mortality”.

Over two years 13,000 birds died, mostly when they flew out to sea to find food.

“There were rafts of dead birds four miles out. Birds were dying before they could get back to the colony,” said Dr Coulson.

One theory is that the birds were killed by toxic algae fuelled by the then practice of dumping sewage at sea.

Marsden now numbers just under 3,000 pairs, which is about 10% of the kittiwake population in England.

But some birds had begun exploring nesting sites inland and in 1949 set up a colony on a riverside warehouse near North Shields ferry landing.

“To kittiwakes, riverside buildings with narrow ledges are just another cliff,” says Dr Coulson, who lives in Shincliffe at Durham.

In 1953 he started studying the North Shields colony of around 80 to 100 pairs and ringing chicks.

Dr Coulson carried out pioneering studies of the lives of the North Shields birds.

For the first time the divorce rates of kittiwakes were examined, with Dr Coulson finding that birds were more likely to part if they had failed to breed successfully the previous year.

He also found that birds at the centre of the colony bred better than those on the edge.

Another finding was that 20% of the colony was made up of birds hatched on the site but 80% were new incomers.

“Birds were having a look at different colonies and picking one, and it meant that some were choosing to come to North Shields,” said Dr Coulson.

Birds ringed at North Shields turned up in Sweden, the Outer Hebrides, France and Heligoland, off the German coast.

Incoming birds arrived from Norway, Dunbar and the Farne Islands.

When the birds were moved in 1990, when the warehouse was converted into flats, ledges were built for them on the nearby lifeboat station. But most moved to the cliffs at Tynemouth.

In 1965 kittiwakes had drifted further upriver, nesting on a Gateshead sheet metal factory near the Tyne Bridge and a flour mill near Dunston Staithes. Both were demolished and the birds moved to sheds on Newcastle Quayside and the Baltic Flour Mill. When the sheds were cleared, more birds switched to the Baltic, where numbers reached 300 pairs.

Dr Coulson also studied the Baltic birds and discovered that they were catching food for their chicks not from the river but out at sea.

He believes that one of the reasons the inland location is favoured is that it is sheltered, compared to the wind-lashed coast.

Others colonised the former CWS warehouse in Newcastle, but they were evicted when it was converted into the Malmaison Hotel.

When the birds were moved on from the Baltic, a nesting tower was built, but 75% of the flour mill birds chose to switch to riverside buildings such as Newcastle Guildhall, which is now home to 30 pairs.

As some building owners discouraged nesting, kittiwakes opted for the Tyne Bridge and its towers around four years ago, and 60 pairs are now in residence.

They also proved to be very adaptable, nesting on top of spikes that had been placed on ledges on the Guildhall.

Birds have also returned to the Baltic, cementing their nests on a long sloping ledge.

Dr Coulson says: “If the birds are evicted from the Tyne Bridge then consideration must be given to where they are going to go.

“It is pretty certain they will try somewhere else in the vicinity. It is likely they will go to other buildings, presumably causing annoyance to some owners.

“The problem is that if netting is put up, people complain when they see birds caught and dangling by their legs and the fire brigade is called out.

“Getting rid of the birds altogether from the area would be wrong, It is an exceptional site.

“A lot of people go to see the kittiwakes. People like their call and the way they fly.

“Many people are pleased to see otters back on the Tyne and say it is wonderful to also see the kittiwakes. “

Dr Coulson, who points out that big starling roosts were largely tolerated in Newcastle, feels there could be a case to move birds from a special building like the Guildhall but that they are unlikely to spoil the Tyne Bridge, which with its many and curved girders, would pose logistical eviction problems.

At Lowestoft in Suffolk, an artificial cliff has been built to accommodate kittiwakes displaced by the demolition of their nesting building.

But with the first of the Tyne birds back on their nest yesterday, Dr Coulson says that it is too late for any evictions this year.

This, he says, gives time for an informed debate and decision before next year’s nesting season.

Getting rid of the birds altogether from the area would be wrong, It is an exceptional site. A lot of people go to see the kittiwakes

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer