Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla
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General Comments Of the remarkable 19 species of gulls on the North Carolina list (though two are only Provisional), the Black-legged Kittiwake is one of just two (along with the Sabine's) essentially pelagic ones, whereby a birder must typically take a boat trip to see it. It is difficult to state its "historical" numbers in our waters, as very few pelagic trips were taken prior to the 1970's, and even until a few years ago, often only a single winter trip was made each year to the cold waters off the Outer Banks, where most of the birds occur. The species was found on the majority of such trips until about 2005, but the species has been more difficult to find in the past several winters. Even so, it is a species that an observer would expect to see at least one or two in midwinter off the northern coast, and less likely farther south. Though there have been inland records for many if not most states to our north and west (including Tennessee, with at least five records), it was not until Fall 2015 that the species was finally found inland in North Carolina, with photographic records from both the Piedmont and the mountains.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
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Coastal Plain Winter resident offshore; strongly declining. From the late 1990's to about 2005, generally fairly common in winter off the northern half of the coast (Cape Hatteras northward), and uncommon southward off the coast. Since 2005, typically uncommon from Cape Hatteras northward, and rare to very uncommon southward. Rarely seen from shore, and mainly from that cape northward; birds can at times be seen resting on beaches or tidal pools (but most of these are probably sick or oiled). One record for the Tidewater zone, of an immature seen in northeastern Pamlico on 30 Apr 1982 [Chat 46:120 link]; however, there are no farther inland records. Mainly late Oct to the end of Mar, with peak counts presumably in late Jan to mid-Feb. Oddly, there are six reports of the species from the coast (Oregon Inlet to Cape Hatteras) from 14-30 May! Most of these, seen by a variety of experienced observers, are apparently birds seen from shore, in a very late northbound migration. Peak counts: 111, off Oregon Inlet, 24 Jan 1998; 90, off Hatteras Inlet, 28 Jan 1996.
Piedmont Accidental: an immature was seen and photographed at Beaverdam Reservoir (Wake) on 29 Nov 2015* [Chat 80:15 link], [Chat 80:37 link].
Mountains Accidental: an immature was seen and photographed at Lake Julian (Buncombe) on the remarkably early date on 11 Sep 2015* [Chat 80:14 link], [Chat 80:37 link].
Finding Tips If you take a pelagic trip from Cape Hatteras northward during the winter, you now have about a 50% chance of seeing a kittiwake; however, this percentage seems to be declining every winter. There are numerous pelagic trip reports from south of that Cape, but south of Morehead City, kittiwakes would likely be missed more often than seen. Kittiwakes are normally seen over colder water inshore of the Gulf Stream. If you are unwilling to go offshore in winter, your best chance is to stand watch at Cape Hatteras or Cape Lookout, especially during easterly winds. A number of records of birds along the coast are of oiled birds.
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Attribution LeGrand[2016-06-02], LeGrand[2016-06-01], LeGrand[2013-08-15]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NA Maps
(source NatureServe)

View NatureServe distribution maps for Rissa tridactyla