28/03/2014
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Kittiwakes on the Tyne

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Walk along the paved promenades either side of the modern revitalised Newcastle/Gateshead Quayside and in the main it's a fairly sterile environment for wildlife. The waterfront bars and restaurants peppered between the big visitor attractions of The Baltic Art Gallery and The Sage music centre contain little in the way of 'habitat' and the river is constrained by its tight quay walls into a single, often uninspiring, flow to its lower reaches.

Walk the same stretches at the heart of the city in spring and early summer and you might be a little surprised at the calls rising above the traffic and city noise. Tear your eyes from the big curves of the Tyne Bridge or The Sage and focus in on the source of the noise and you'll find it's one more often seen from a trip to Northumberland's Farne Islands to the north.

Next year will mark 50 years of successful urban breeding for the Kittiwake on the River Tyne. Over the last five decades this pelagic seabird has established a colony that can rightfully lay claim to be the furthest inland breeding colony of Kittiwakes in the world. In a straight line it's 13km to the sea; follow the course of the river and it's nearer 15km.

Despite the distance and regular evictions over the decades, as old quayside building followed old quayside building into waterfront apartments and offices for city lawyers, the colony took advantage of man-made ledges wherever it could, eventually turning to the disused former Baltic Flour Mill (now the Baltic Art Gallery) and the iconic Tyne Bridge where the epicentre of the current colony resides.

Not far short of 500 pairs in 2012, the colony is thriving and has slowly spread to handy ledges on other buildings winding up from the Quayside. Sadly not everyone appreciates the subtle lemon-billed, black-legged beauty of these ocean wanderers, and back in 2011 a consultant's report commissioned by the City Council suggested they were 'not compatible with the aspiration for an outstanding urban waterfront environment'. This understandably brought an outcry from many who recognise the unique value and atmosphere this special seabird brings to the city.

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Following on from this publicity and keen to try and present the positives of living alongside the Kittiwakes, Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club commissioned a local young film-maker Cain Scrimgeour to make a short promotional film about the Kittiwakes in the Tyne in 2013. The film had its premiere in March 2014 in the Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle, with many key decision-makers in the local authority and business community invited, just as the first adults begin to return for the 2014 breeding season. It's hoped that this film will help change the perceptions of these brilliant gulls among planners and the business community and ensure they continue to have a place in the heart of Newcastle Quayside for the next 50 years and beyond.

Cain Scrimgeour (cainscimgeour.co.uk) is a wildlife photographer and film-maker from the North-east of England, who recently won the RTS northern region 'Promotion or Commercial' category, and was Highly Commended in the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2013.

Cain, talking about the challenges faced with filming the Kittiwakes in an urban environment, said: "You can get some stunning views of the birds on the Tyne, but they're just as challenging to film as their cliff-nesting counterparts. Buildings replace the sea cliffs, and gaining different angles on the nesting Kittiwakes is extremely difficult. The only solution is to lean, precariously, over the edge of the Tyne Bridge, something I can relate to after filming up on the high Aberdeenshire sea cliffs of Troup Head.

The other main challenge is people; hundreds of people come and go along the quayside, and countless cars pass over the Tyne Bridge. The Tyne Bridge itself isn't as static as you would imagine, with every car creating a bit of bounce, so you resort to filming pieces in between the main through flow of traffic. I lost count of the number of people who asked me which celebrity I was waiting for."

Written by: Alan Tilmouth

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