Chough report: July 2014

Choughs at the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry

July was yet another action packed month in which the goal of re-establishing a sustainable wild chough population in Jersey moved another step closer to being a reality.

Winners announced for Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards Jersey 2014

Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards 2014The Durrell chough chicks entered their first competition this month. Not a beauty pageant, we are still working on their talent skills, but a conservation award to help fund their post-release monitoring.

Insurance Corporation of the Channel Islands holds an annual competition to recognize the efforts of local conservation projects and award prize money to fund continued work.

The chicks faced stiff competition from several amazing projects representing a range of local fauna and flora from bioluminescent marine worms to grass snakes and reed beds. Insurance Corporation Jersey manager and chair of the judging panel, Natasha Lucock, says that the quality of entries this year was higher than ever.

“It’s great to see so many people taking an interest in Jersey’s green spaces and making such huge efforts to preserve the life that can be found there.”

I am pleased to say that the chicks won the Peter Walpole’s People’s Choice Award, as voted for by fans of the Insurance Corporation Facebook page.

Winners receiving their awards

Winners of the Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards 2014. Photo (c) Insurance Corporation

“Over 450 people viewed and voted for their favorite videos of the various projects on our Facebook page and we were delighted to present Durrell with £500 as the people’s choice winners named in honour of our chairman and conservation awards founder, Peter Walpole,” added Natasha.

The money will buy radio transmitters for the chicks to monitor their movements post-release.

We should be able to locate any chick that roams out of sight. Combining their daily movements with geographical information databases we can say which habitat and local areas they prefer to forage in and roost and then feed this into future land management plans.

The Inspiration Award of £500 went to Robert Ward for his efforts in studying and conserving the local grass snake and slow-worm population. Robert is on Jersey conducting research for his PhD with DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology), which will be running until October 2016, seeks to determine the population of both species along with investigating their movements and habitat.

More information about the different projects and Insurance Corporation can be found on their Facebook page

Durrell chicks make preparations for take off

Caûvette and Dingle

Caûvette and Dingle. Photo by Liz Corry

Chickay, Bean, Caûvette, and Dingle were measured up and kitted out in preparation for their first flight outside of the aviary. The chicks had leg rings and tail mounted radio-transmitters fitted by the keepers. They were happily feeding and playing afterwards and don’t seem hampered in any way by the extra equipment.

Measurements of wing and tarsus lengths were recorded to add to an existing European database. Whilst not 100% accurate these measurements can be used to determine sex when DNA analysis is not available.

Their behavioural training has progressed well. They respond to the whistle and fly down to target boards to feed. At first Caûvette seemed to be apprehensive about flying through open hatches. The other three would glide through, but Caûvette seems to bail at the last-minute and fly up to the shelf above. For whatever reason, confidence or acquired skill, she has improved. All this made it look promising for the chicks’ first release.

Maiden voyage of Durrell’s hand-reared chicks

It was imperative to get the chicks flying out with the adults as soon as possible this month. At two months of age they are eager to learn and the adults are the perfect teachers. There was an added pressure of knowing that an import of new choughs on the 24th July would mean all birds inside the aviary would go on a thirty-day quarantine lock-down. If a release was delayed until September the chicks would be older and maybe more complacent.

First release of Durrell chicks

Durrell chicks stretching their wings for the first time outside of the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry

On the 8th July the Durrell chicks took their first venture into the wilds of Sorel. The hatches were opened late afternoon and the chicks were given 30 minutes of free time. It proved more successful than anyone could imagine. The chicks ventured outside although not very far. Sticking closely to the roof of the aviary they took several small circular flights. When the adults appeared from the direction of Sorel point the chicks became very animated, but still stayed close to the aviary. Mainly because the adults were doing the same thing.

chough chicks and adults flying

Flying with the adults above the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry

When it was time to call them back the adults were still at or even in the aviary. Instead of trying to scare them out we decided to use them as lures and the chicks would hopefully learn by example. The adults heard the whistle, spotted the keeper, and flew to the target boards inside the aviary for food. The chicks followed, although not instantly.

Knowing how the adults now react to hatches being closed by keepers, there was a good chance they would fly out or worse some would get shut in the aviary. The chicks being naive to such a thing might stay eating or fly out reacting to the panic of the adults.

What actually happened was that the adults all flew out as soon as the keeper approached from the front. The chicks remained eating whilst watching the adults leave. Hatches were locked and the chicks stayed safely inside for the night. The adults were unfazed by the whole affair as they returned straight away on the whistle for bonus insects.

Famous four flying over Mourier Valley

Max observing the four chicks as they fly around Mourier Valley. Photo by Liz Corry

Ten releases happened in total over two weeks in July. Free time ranged from 30 minutes to 5 hours and there was only one night when one chick stayed out on the roof all night. They avoided several aerial attacks from juvenile peregrines learning their own trade. They have now learnt to fly inside the aviary under shelter when the peregrines are around. The adult choughs were present each time and no doubt the chicks learnt what to do from the adults reactions. The adults have not been injured by the peregrine encounters despite physical contact and always seek the aviary for shelter. Fortunately for them these are young peregrine practicing to hunt. Things could be dramatically different when they no longer need to practice.

Peregrines in training at Sorel

Peregrines in training at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry

If the challenge of predator encounters was not enough the Durrell chicks’ ‘playtime’ outside has led to an increase in syngamus and coccidia levels in their faeces. The symptoms are repetitive sneezing and wheezing. This is not unexpected as these naturally occur in the wild and the physical demands of first time wild flight will weaken birds making them more susceptible. All four chicks were immediately put on a course of baycox and ivomec due for completion the first week in August. Within days the chicks appeared healthier, but they still need to complete the course.

Changing of the guard

Student Pierre Rauscher

Ex-student Pierre Rauscher. Photo by Liz Corry

We sadly bid farewell to one of our students at the start of the month. Pierre’s three month placement on the project had come to an end.

Pierre’s first day was when we first started releasing the adults locked in overwinter. He saw the Durrell pairs lay eggs and was able to experience the highs and lows of chick rearing.

It only seemed fitting then for his last day to be the day we gave the chicks their first taste of life in the wild. Pierre enjoyed his time with the choughs and the Bird department, but has said he will not miss the wind up at Sorel! Having been blown backwards on the cliff path whilst tracking birds in May I can understand why he said that.

New student Max Benatar

Harriet Clark with new student Max Benatar. Photo by Liz Corry

The very next day we welcomed Max Benatar to the team. Max is a student at the University of Zeppelin, Germany. Thrown in at the deep end, Max was given a crash course in radio-tracking before manning his post on the cliffs for the second day of the chick release. Fortunately for him the birds behaved like a dream.

Our other student, Adam, has shown him the ropes when it comes to the behavioral observations and both have received training in basic husbandry skills at the aviary.

Now you see them now you don’t

The sheep at Sorel have been have been updating their summer wardrobe. Aaron and Sam have been busy shearing the flock which is very laborious as it involved herding sheep from both sides of the valley and the cliff faces.

Sheered sheep at Sorel

The sheep at Sorel with their summer coats. Photo by Liz Corry

They have been using the aviary field to hold and process who they can. Inevitably the odd one will evade capture so it took several days. When the sheep are in field the gates have to be locked to prevent accidental escapes. This might be confusing to the regular visitor, but hopefully they understand the need for the restriction.

The flock is now back out roaming between Sorel and Devil’s hole. Looking slightly darker than before (their top coat is beige, but underneath its brown). Of course with strong summer sun we are having the sheep are seeking refuge. So don’t be surprised if you hear bracken or a gorse bush bleating at you and not a sheep in sight!

Sorel aviary maintenance

Yet more DIY work was needed at the aviary this month. The joins in the plywood roofing panels which had been filled with all-weather sealant in the spring have once again become exposed. The intense heat beating down on the wood really tested the brand name’s claim and unfortunately it failed. So a new approach was taken and now the roof should now stop the chough’s food from getting wet….if Jersey ever escapes the drought.

The release wires continue to be replaced with tougher galvanized steel wire. We have been waiting on a delivery to the island since we bought out a certain chain store’s stock last month. A few more ‘training perches’ have been added to the outside of the aviary to help the chicks when they exit the aviary. It provides them with a few extra options to sit and catch their breath. Choughs don’t perch in trees and ground level exposes a bird to potential threats from mammal predators or mischievous dogs off leads.

We are now looking at ways to improve the release hatch design and efficiency of opening and locking. Although fitting anything at this stage might be hampered by having ten birds locked in the aviary.

Wildlife park chough update

Gianna on enrichment log

Gianna finding insects hidden in an enrichment log. Photo by Liz Corry

Funding has been found to replace the old netting on the display aviary and modify the buidling. Hopefully this will make the aviary more appealing for both the choughs and the visitors. In preparation for the work the two females housed in the aviary, Gianna and Issy, have been moved off-show.

Once the work is completed the breeding pairs and the two single females will be flocked together in the display aviary as they would do in the wild.

Sadly there have been no further sightings of Arthur. David Woolcock, the red-billed chough studbook holder, is looking at options for Durrell to acquire a new breeding male and return our holdings to three breeding pairs.

 Paradise Park’s chicks boost Jersey’s chough population by 50%

With the exception of our Italian female, all our choughs are from, or descendants of, Paradise Park’s captive population. Genetically these are North Welsh birds not Cornish just to confuse people. This year Paradise Park successfully parent-reared eight choughs and there was even a case of one female becoming a foster mum.

Choughs bred at Paradise Park

Chough chicks and parents in their flocking aviary at Paradise Park, Cornwall. Photo by Liz Corry

Ali and Ray explaining their flocking aviary setup

Ali and Ray explaining their flocking aviary setup. Photo by Liz Corry

Paradise Park very generously agreed to send six of the eight chicks to Jersey to take part in the release program. Having been parent-reared the hope is that they will pass on the skills they learned from their parents to the Durrell chicks.

In return the Durrell chicks will guide them through the behavioural training, hopefully tell them the keepers are trustworthy people, and generally ease the transition phase from captive to released birds.

The chicks were caught up and put into crates by Paradise Park staff Olly Frost and David Woolcock. They were then driven to Perranporth airport to meet Lee Durrell and Colin Stevenson. Lee had very kindly offered to fly them back to Jersey on her plane with Colin piloting. A potential eight hour van journey via a ferry was swiftly cut down to 55 minutes with the choughs arriving in Jersey by lunchtime on the 24th July.

Flying into land at Jersey

Flying into land at Jersey. Photo by Liz Corry

They were driven in convoy up to the aviary at Sorel by Colin and students Adam and Max. There they were met by Durrell’s vet team to examine them and take blood samples for health screening. The Durrell chicks were very excited to hear the first ‘foreign’ chough call. However the presence of six people, one holding a syringe, quickly dampened their excitement. The free-flying adults outside did not appear bothered by the new arrivals they simply wanted their afternoon feed before returning to the fields.

The new arrivals had to spend a week isolated in section 1A of the aviary whilst awaiting the results of the blood tests. If clear they can be mixed with the other four in section 2. All choughs inside the aviary are under quarantine conditions as soon as the first Paradise Park chick left its crate. As such they must remain locked inside until given the all clear.

This seemed to prove frustrating to the Durrell chicks at first. Having recently been given the opportunity to fly free for several hours they seemed annoyed and confused as to why they were being separated from the adults. The new arrivals also took a keen interest in the adults. For the first few days the new chicks would hide in the shelter boxes but leap out whenever they heard the calls of the adults arriving at the aviary.

View from inside keeper porch

View from inside keeper porch. Photo by Liz Corry

Interestingly there was not much interaction between the two groups of chicks. This can only be taken as a good thing as the two groups feed next to each other without any fighting or bullying.

The two groups are due to mix next month. Max and Adam will continue with behavioral observations to assess how well the groups integrate and results will be published in next month’s report.

A wild Cornish chough chick

A wild Cornish chough. Photo by Liz Corry

Liz Corry and Harriet Clark traveled to Cornwall three days before the import. A day was spent behind the scenes at Paradise Park kindly shown around by Alison and Ray Hales.Followed by a 36 hour chough hunt to see wild choughs and learn how the RSPB are working to protect this species and their habitat.

Claire Mucklow, RSPB Cornwall chough project manager, and Nicola Shanks, chough project officer, generously gave up their morning to chauffer Durrell staff across fields and cliff tops. Fourteen choughs were counted at one roost site, accounting for almost half of the Cornish population.

A report on the trip to Cornwall including a guided tour by the RSPB of wild Cornish chough habitat will feature on this website very soon! For more news about the wild choughs in Cornwall click here.

Family of Cornish choughs

Family of Cornish choughs. Photo by Liz Corry

2 thoughts on “Chough report: July 2014

  1. Congratulations on winning the Peter Walpole’s People’s Choice Award, and it sounds like all is going really well!

  2. Thank you Liz, for another excellent update it is great to know how the project is developing, great photos too.