We measured the breeding performance, body condition, time budgets and foraging ranges of Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla at Sumburgh Head, Shetland, in two years of contrasting food availability. Kittiwakes in Shetland generally feed their young almost entirely on sandeels, and fisheries data indicated that stocks of sandeels in Shetland waters were at least ten times higher in 1991 than in 1990. Fledging success of Kittiwakes was nil in 1990 and 68% of eggs laid in 1991, although clutch-size and hatching success were no different between years. Post-hatching foraging trips in 1991 were of comparable duration to those recorded at other colonies in conditions of good food supply (2–3 h), while trips recorded during incubation or post-hatching in 1990 were approximately three times longer on average than at corresponding stages of the breeding season in 1991. Radio-tracking data indicated that adults generally stayed within 5 km of the colony in 1991 but flew more than 40 km from the colony on each trip in 1990. Eggs were apparently not left unattended in either year, despite the fact that this required adults to incubate for periods in excess of 44 h in 1990. The extent to which adults were able to increase trip durations, foraging ranges and incubation shift lengths between years, while maintaining hatching success, indicates the degree to which Kittiwakes are normally buffered against adverse feeding conditions during incubation. Reduced nest attendance and lower body-condition of adults post-hatching in 1990, in conjunction with complete post-hatching breeding failure, indicate that adults were beyond the limits of their buffering capacity during chick-rearing in 1990.