SEAGULLS are not a family of birds you would instinctively associate with landlocked Ryedale but they are undoubtably among our easier-to-see species.

The main reason for this unexpected phenomenon is their adaptability. Over the past few thousand years, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, gulls have taken advantage of human-created landscapes and moved inland.

Outside the breeding season they are just as likely to be seen eating worms and insect larvae on newly-ploughed fields or scavenging waste food dumped on landfill sites as they are to be spotted perched on a sea-cliff.

They can’t help being drawn to water though and often roost on inland rivers and lakes – Castle Howard and Wycombe Lakes often have large flocks of them, especially in winter, and if the Vale of Pickering rivers burst their banks, gulls are often the first birds to be seen bobbing around in the flooded fields.

Although they often congregate together, there are usually a few different species of gull in these flocks; herring gulls are usually the most abundant, with smaller numbers of black-headed gulls, common gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and sometimes the odd great black-backed gull. Their names are very little help in identification by the way. Not only is “seagull” a misnomer but most herring gulls have never seen any live fish in their lives, a black-headed gull’s hood is brown and even then only in the summer, common gulls aren’t (common that is) and a lesser black-backed gull actually has dark grey wings.

Just to complicate the issue, the juveniles of all these species are coloured brown all over until they start to mature. Even so, birdwatchers can get very excited by these birds, especially when foreign vagrants turn up, like glaucous and Iceland gulls from the Arctic and Mediterranean and yellow-legged gulls from warmer climes.

There is, however, one member of the family that never surrendered its loyalty to the sea. Kittiwakes are truly oceanic birds, only visiting land at all between March and August when they nest on sea-cliffs across the North Atlantic. No self-respecting kittiwake would ever deliberately venture inland to us in Ryedale but they are not far away, nesting as they do in their thousands all along the North Yorkshire coast.

The largest colonies are at Flamborough Head but much more accessible to view are those that breed in Scarborough - Castle Cliff is covered with them and they have recently, controversially, started to nest on some buildings in the town.

Kittiwakes are fairly easy to identify; they never stray far from the sea and look pretty much like a small and “clean” version of a herring gull. They have two absolute defining characteristics though - this is the only British gull with completely black wingtips and, just for once, the bird’s name is accurate as it’s call is a loud and distinctive “kitt-eeee-wake!”

It is perhaps surprising that this small and relatively unknown gull is not just the most abundant of its family in Britain but the commonest in the world.

All is not well though – globally kittiwake numbers are dropping dramatically with the UK losing over half of its breeding birds since the 1980s. What is puzzling though is that this decline is not an even one. Losses from the Northern Scottish populations of St Kilda, Shetland and Orkney have been catastrophic whereas here in Yorkshire things haven’t been quite so bad.

Scientists are only just beginning to get their heads around the probable causes of the problem, which they know is linked to food supply. Kittiwakes depend on sand eels which are over-fished in some places and have moved away from other areas as sea temperatures have risen or currents shifted due to climate change. The situation is complex but let’s hope it’s not a permanent one because I for one would hate to lose our only real seagull from Yorkshire.