CONSERVATION PROJECT: SEABIRDS IN KONGSFJORD
Over the centuries, low human pressure in the area has allowed species such as terns, murres, and gulls to use abandoned human structures for nesting and to become accustomed to coexisting with the few fishermen of the coastal villages. In recent years, however, new funding has been made available in northern Norway for the renovation of old structures, prompting many private individuals to restore piers and dwellings. While this is undoubtedly a merit from an urban planning perspective, it becomes a problem when the restoration affects areas that were historically selected as nesting colonies. Unfortunately, the interventions do not provide alternative nesting opportunities, and the colonies are doomed to disappear once the work is completed.
With the acquisition of Kongsfjord Guesthouse in the eponymous village of Kongsfjord, located in the northernmost municipality of mainland Norway, SKUA Nature has worked to restore the property by creating new sites for species colonization.
In the first year, we focused mainly on three species: Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), black guillemot (Cepphus grylle), and Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea).
The black-legged kittiwake is a small member of the family Laridae that lives most of its life on the open ocean, returning mainly to land for nesting. Because of its small size (37-40 cm long with a wingspan of 91-105 cm), it is one of the most skilled flyers among gulls and uses this ability to build colonies on steep cliffs above the sea.
This species is threatened worldwide due to climate change and intensive fishing. These two factors reduce the availability of their favorite prey, the Norwegian sand eel, which is a major challenge for the animals, especially during the breeding season, and makes it more difficult for the adults to get the chicks to fly.
Over the years, the black-legged kittiwake has adapted to living with humans and has begun to establish colonies on the facades of fish factories near the sea. Kongsfjord is no exception. More than 80 pairs of the species now live on the outer walls of the fish factory, which has been disused since the 1970s.
These buildings are also the subject of a restoration project of the structure and the surrounding area. Not only have we required contractors to meet colony protection standards and stop work near the nests during the breeding season, but we have also worked to make a new structure in the same harbour we own accessible to the kittiwake.
To encourage nesting of this species during the winter, several platforms about 30 cm wide were attached to the outer walls of one of the port’s warehouses, creating “rows” on the facades 2/3 m above the ground. In the first year, the black-legged kittiwakes preferred to remain in the historic nests, but already some intrepid individuals have shown interest in the new structures. In the coming years, we will increase the number of platforms by placing them at the highest points of the warehouse as well as on the piers. This solution has already been highly appreciated by the species in several Finnmark harbours.
The black guillemot is a marine bird belonging to the family Alcidae. This species (30-32 cm with a wingspan of 52-58 cm) is easily recognized by the black coloration of the body except for the large white patch on the wings and the bright red of the legs. It lives in small groups of pairs of individuals on coasts and rocky cliffs. It feeds on small fish, crustaceans, and benthic invertebrates, which it preys on by diving to depths of more than 30m.
Thanks to its varied diet and relatively easy adaptability, the black guillemot is globally listed as “low risk” according to the IUCN. It has moved closer and closer to human structures over the years, using artificial niches for nesting instead of typical rock crevices. A small group of black guillemot has been staying at Kongsfjord’s piers for years during the mating season, but only a few of them stay in the area to lay the eggs.
Our team intervened at the end of winter and placed 10 artificial nests for black guillemots (boxes of about 60×25 cm with a double staggered entrance and a small “sill”) both above and below the piers of Kongsfjord Guesthouse. The animals immediately sought out the artificial nests and by the end of the season all boxes were occupied by a pair, doubling the number of individuals in the area.
The Arctic tern is also a member of the family Laridae but is much smaller than its gull relatives. It is a medium-sized bird (about 28-39 cm long, with a wingspan of 65-75 cm) with predominantly white and gray plumage and red legs and bill. The most distinctive element is the long white, deeply forked tail, which is clearly visible when it engages in the so-called “holy spirit”. It feeds mainly on small fish, which it catches on the surface of the water thanks to its excellent flying technique, allowing it to cover enormous distances in a few months.
The Arctic tern is by far the bird that undertakes the longest migration in the animal kingdom: Between March and August it migrates to the Arctic regions, where it nests, and from September to February it winters in the Antarctic regions, having circumnavigated the entire globe. In doing so, it covers between 70 and 80 thousand kilometers each year. Considering that the average life expectancy of an Arctic tern is 25 years, it has been calculated that in its lifetime it covers a distance three times as long as the distance from the Earth to the Moon. It nests every 1/3 year on sandy beaches or on rocks. The female lays 2 to 3 eggs in small depressions directly on the ground, where they are perfectly camouflaged.
Although not yet globally endangered, it is declining and severely affected by local extinction. One of the main problems for its survival is habitat loss due to rising temperatures. In addition, rising ocean temperatures pose several threats to its survival, such as the removal of selected prey from fishing areas, the increase in violent storms along migration routes, and the shortening of the breeding season due to unfavorable environmental conditions. Experts have estimated that 20 to 50% of the population could disappear in the next few years.
Over the years, a colony of more than 50 pairs of Arctic terns and common terns had settled in the abandoned piers of Kongsfjord, finding the rotting wood the ideal place to lay their eggs, protected from most predators. Rebuilding the piers with solid wood treated against salt gradually destroyed the nesting site in the weeks before these animals arrived in the Arctic. It was therefore decided to build a tailor-made nesting site on one of the piers of Kongsfjord Guesthouse, which is close to the nesting site but still too new to be used by this species. Therefore, with the material we found on site, we built a beach of about 2.5 by 4 meters with coarse sand and small pebbles, equipped with all the necessary elements to make it as attractive as possible for this species and providing 2 “shelters” for the hatchlings.
Fortunately, the Arctic terns reached the area in 2021 in time to halt the restoration work, allowing most pairs to nest at the historic laying site.We are glad that we did not have to come to the aid of the terns this year. We are even more surprised that some pairs, although given the choice, chose the small beach as a nesting site, and so at the end of the season we counted 2 common tern nests and 3 Arctic tern nests in the designated area. This incredible news gives us hope for a successful future for the colony and gives us the right motivation to expand the area in the coming years.