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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kittiwake: A Life on the Edge

Air Date: Week of

Black-legged Kittiwake perch on basalt ledges above Grundarfjörður, Iceland’s turbulent sea on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Iceland is a volcanic country lashed by the North Atlantic. Still, Living on Earth’s explorer in residence, Mark Seth Lender finds Black-legged Kittiwake daring to nest on inhospitable cliffs, and to hunt for fish in the tumultuous waves.


CURWOOD: The sea in Boston harbor was calm and peaceful that day – but just as often the ocean can show its tough and merciless side. That’s what our explorer in residence Mark Seth Lender found, when he visited Iceland – and found Black-Legged Kittiwake daring to nest right on the cliffs, despite the wild waves lashing the shore below.

Kittiwake and Fulmar in the distance, Reyniusfjara, Iceland (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Kittiwake Nesting on an Ancient Basalt Core
Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland
© 2015 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

LENDER: Lava works its way down, steams and smokes and spits as it meets cold water. Then, wears away, retreating inland till only the core remains: Black basalt crystalized in octagons like giant’s teeth, a long wall grinning and gnashing towards an ancient sea…. While the sea grins back. Waves are its teeth its tongue spray and foam. It puts the bite like Viking iron upon the stone chafing and gnawing. Pebbles that were bed rock leap as the breakers crash, roll like rain fall into the trailing spume; husssssh as the sea flows out, wusssssh, as the sea flows in. Small and small the ocean grinds volcanoes into sand. Ashes to ash, smoke to dust. Until once more the molten rock (and the landward side puts its shoulder to the task).

Black-legged Kittiwake on Evidghedsfjorden Glacier, Greenland. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Above this maelstrom, white traces the midnight rock like paint. Kittiwake, clinging to their narrow ledges where the basalt cleaved away. Their dark eyes, their black feet joined to this black place; until they spread their wings. Swooping like reckless kites down toward the gaping hunger of the sea. Then up, and through the surge on a rollercoaster of thin air, a pleasure in the peril, what else could it be? They cannot fish when the water is angry like this and here it is angry all the time. They take a risk, the ocean reaching beyond its reach will knock them down. The fishes, coming from a line that is older (older than any of this), wisely lie beyond the turbulence. Kittiwake though they know where fish hide and where to find, instead put self (and therefore progeny) in harm’s way....

Kittiwake soar on the wind, swooping up and down in parallel with the sea’s surge, but just out of reach. Meanwhile, tasty fish lie just beneath the water’s surface. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Maybe risk is what it’s all about. And the birds are only reminding themselves: Life does not belong here. Iceland, hovering over the howling place where the Earth to its innards is split in two. The fire, patient, waiting for the break through, flexing its molten fingers until it reaches out, as the sea reaches for sea birds.

How beautiful, the way life hangs on. How brave it is to live.

CURWOOD: Writer Mark Seth Lender – and there are photos at out website, loe dot org.



More about Black-legged Kittiwake

Mark's guide in Iceland was Haukur Snorrason

You can find more information about visiting Iceland at Iceland Naturally

Nature Photo Tours provided additional support for mark's fieldwork


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