Bird Fact Friday — Black-Legged Kittiwake

Adapted from pages 73-76 of Gulls Simplified

A small marine gull (larger than Bonaparte’s). Overall compact, with a squarish head, short legs, and a small, pointy, slender bill with a down-turned gape (visible line at base of bill juncture) that gives birds the suggestion of a frown. Large dark eyes on a blank face impart a gentle expression.

In flight it shows a somewhat compact and tubular body with long, narrow, boomerang-shaped wings and a tail that is narrow and long. The bird’s nimbleness in flight coupled with its wing shape and quick, stiff wing beats suggests a swift, bulky tern. On land it appears short legged, with an upright posture. Unlike most gulls, kittiwakes will dive headfirst into the water to secure prey, in the manner of terns.

The Black-Legged Kittiwake is typically 16-18 inches long, with a wingspan between 36.5-47 inches. This image shows the down-turned gape line behind a pointy, bright yellow bill, which imparts a dour expression to adults, but the dark eye against a plain white head gives the bird a gentle expression.                                    Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Black-legged Kittiwake is an Arctic and subarctic cliff-nesting breeder, commonly seen in appropriate habitats onshore near nest islands in Alaska and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Population numbers are increasing in some areas, and many birds now nest in Homer, Alaska, on the girders of small bridges connecting the Homer Spit to marina docking locations because of saturation on nearby breeding islands. It is fairly common in winter well offshore on both coasts.

Black-legged Kittiwakes are uncommonly seen on land, except on breeding cliffs and adjacent shorelines in Arctic and subarctic regions and on coastlines where tired birds come to rest on sandy beaches or rocky shorelines, especially on the Pacific coast. Offshore they commonly gather where other marine birds are foraging, most notably Northern Fulmars and alcids. Most land-based observations in the Atlantic are storm or wind related, but migration in the northwestern Pacific region allows occasional viewing from shore in fall. Black-legged Kittiwakes winter along both coasts, often very far from shore.


Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull


This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday — Franklin’s GullBird Fact Friday —The Laughing Gull >>