Hidden in Plain Flight | BESIDE

Hidden in Plain Flight

The decline of earth’s most abundant gull.

Text & photos—Charles Post

Picture a northern coastline, like those that run, nook and cranny, along the High North, where some ice still remains year-round. Imagine the cacophony and chatter of thousands of nesting seabirds, the sound of wings slicing through salty air. Overhead, their angled silhouettes pepper the sky above old cabins and rorbuer, piers, cliffs, and headlands coated with cupped and mossy nests.

Now imagine all of that aerial commotion suddenly absent. Imagine the eerie silence that would follow.

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Upon my arrival at the outermost reaches of Norway’s Lofoten Islands, I became fascinated by the great tides of gulls that filled fjords with the noisy business of feeding their young. Curious about what lay before me, I began reading and discovered a tragedy underway. Scientists spanning the northern hemisphere have observed that populations of the black-legged kittiwake, a circumpolar species of gull recognized as the most abundant on earth, are declining, and in some cases spiralling toward local extinction. Even among the wild waters of the Norwegian Sea and the remote villages of northern Norway, the kittiwake, a staple of the marine ecosystem, is at risk.

Dramatic though it is, this collapse has been all but invisible to most casual observers.

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Aldo Leopold once said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” My own sensitivity to these wounds stems from my childhood adventures exploring with a net and bucket, and steadily increased till 2015, when I earned my graduate degree in food web ecology while studying at U.C. Berkeley under the esteemed ecologist Dr. Mary Power. An ecological education, whether academic or derived from living alongside nature, attunes one to the delicate networks of cause and effect beneath sublime wilderness. These days, the signs are almost always bold-faced and clear: climate change is here, and the evolving state of our natural environments tells its tale.

What does this mean for our planet in general, and the kittiwakes in particular? It means we are wading into a world increasingly defined by an ecological reshuffling of the deck.

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Environmental drivers from ocean currents and local weather to fire, loss of permafrost, and desertification are all destabilizing factors across our globe. Our planet is being redefined as physical environments change and biological processes respond.

Having conducted my graduate research on the American dipper, an aquatic songbird also affected by climate change, the tale of the kittiwake felt eerily familiar. But these dire indices of planetary health often exist out of sight simply because many aren’t able to recognize them.

Everywhere I looked, I saw kittiwakes. Their cries filled the coastal spruce forests, the headlands, harbours, and inlets. Over weeks and months spent in Norway, I befriended locals whose lives are anchored in these waters and lands. Not one of them spoke of the kittiwake’s decline. Not one hinted at alarm or a sense of impending loss. Why? Likely because kittiwakes still abound in magnificent numbers. Despite their large populations, however, what has scientists worried is a truly precipitous drop in the gull’s reproduction rate — as much as 40 per cent in three generations.

These birds are as much a part of the maritime landscape as the red rorbuer and cod drying beneath an arctic sun: so abundant it seems they couldn’t possibly disappear. They are symbols of this country, etched in stone.

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Like the bison of the Great Plains and the storied salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest, many thought their numbers were far too great for them ever to be at risk of extinction. And yet the bison have all but disappeared across their historic range. Wild salmon only remain in great numbers within a handful of remote ecosystems across the globe. Will the kittiwake continue to follow a similar path?

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø, Norway’s largest city above the Arctic Circle, recently launched a chain of “kittiwake hotels.” Traditional nesting cliffs have been increasingly abandoned, puzzling scientists who suspect multiple drivers at play, including warming oceans, shifting prey availability, and increased predation pressure from sea eagles. At the same time, researchers across Norway and the United Kingdom have observed an uptick in successful nesting sites on buildings. This prompted a project that aims to draw kittiwakes to abandoned buildings set aside for them. Early data suggests they may be onto something, as kittiwakes are arriving to nest, with some coaxing by strategically placed speakers playing their calls.

The kittiwake hotel project is a shining example of the potential we have as stewards. If we learn how to see, and know where to look, solutions to the tide of biodiversity loss abound. With so many populations of wildlife and once-wild ecosystems fading away, we must remind ourselves that this is not the time to sit idly by and wait for someone else to join the fray. So what’s stopping us?

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The well-documented but largely ignored decline of the kittiwake is a symptom of our collective distancing from nature. Even as the world’s most abundant gull is disappearing before our eyes, we are collectively slow to raise the alarm. It wasn’t long ago that our ancestors lived in close connection to the land and sea. Today, a majority of the global population gets by at a greater remove from nature than the generation before them. The connections that once reminded us that food comes from soil, sea, and forest are no longer as strong as they once were. The world’s wounds, shown to us by researchers, are signs of an unravelling of the ecological fabric that sustains us. Our willingness to listen to their urgent calls for action will determine the future we still have the chance to shape, and the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Charles Post is a Montana-based ecologist and brand consultant, award-winning filmmaker, and co-founder of The Nature Project, an organization committed to creating opportunities for underserved youth to experience nature. His passion for science stems from his studies at U.C. Berkeley, where he was advised by the esteemed ecologist Dr. Mary Power. Since then, Post has built a career bridging his ecological background and creative interests. His social media platform, creative work, and consulting opportunities aim to grow the groundswell of ecologically minded companies and people compelled to save our home planet.

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