Following the very successful Inter-Island Meeting, Birds On The Edge invited Vic Froome to contribute with news of concerns facing birds and the environment in the Bailiwick of Guernsey and to highlight the important Channel Islands conservation work being undertaken in the ‘northern isles’.
In his first posting here, Vic highlights some of his favourite groups of birds and habitats in the Bailiwick and the challenges his islands face.
Marine birds and other wildlife
Gannets have been studied on the Alderney colonies of Ortac and the Garden Rocks (Les Etacs) since 1947, the longest regular annual ringing of this species in the British Isles. The gannet population is currently estimated at more than 7,500 pairs and, while still increasing, is not without its constant threats, notably through discarded plastic, ropes and netting that often leads to horrible deaths in the colony.
Gulls too have been studied around our coasts for years and a new ringing station on Guernsey’s Refuse Tip has been in place for six years in association with the North Thames Gull Group (the London canon ringing group), and us Islanders. Large plastic, numbered, rings are fitted on the gulls that one can read by eye, binoculars, or telescopes. To date, 7,000 herring gulls, 3,000 lesser black-backed and 400 great black-backed gulls have been ringed.
100,000 gull sightings have been returned to Paul Veron making this a quite stunning project in the Channel Islands or anywhere.
On Alderney’s Burhou, nesting lesser black-backed gulls have been studied too for 20 years. This year this island has more than 1,300 pairs of lesser black-backeds, as well as good numbers of storm petrels and puffins. Shags and cormorants are also studied around our Islands, but it can be quite a messy job!
Sark, Herm, Jethou, and their islets, have puffin, razorbill, guillemot, fulmars, all the Channel Islands’ gull species and the only known colony of little egrets in the Bailiwick. The guillemot colony may even be increasing.
Rats are, unsurprisingly, present and represent a major threat to our seabird colonies. Following the success of rat eradication projects in the Isles of Scilly and on Lundy, we are now looking into a brown rat reduction plan. This problem is now so acute that some of the major islets are bare of breeding species, and we are sure that those well hidden species which nest in burrows are suffering as well.
One of my favourite birds is the kittiwake: they look magnificent when out in the big seas. This gull is synonymous with our oceans, but their food source is becoming worryingly depleted and declines in this delicate gull are being recorded throughout our area. Until recently easy to see, this lovely bird is now extinct as a breeding species in the Channel Islands.
Our seas around us have migration under the water as well with important numbers of cetaceans and fish. Dolphins, minke whales, seals, basking sharks, catfish and mullet are just a few we host.
The intertidal zone
Brent geese come back to our Islands for the autumn, winter and spring seasons. A major part of the diet of these geese is eel grass. Eel grass beds, like seaweeds, hold a habitat/world all of their own at high tides and many species live and breed here – a true paradise on their own.
Our Islands’ foreshore and intertidal zones have to be protected as they are so special. But, even locally, knowledge of these areas is poor and they are little studied or given publicity to educate the general public, government, and the media. Our Ramsar areas must be constantly researched and updated to alert us of any changes that are happening. We need much better information about our all our marine habitats before future electric generation plans come to fruition.
We, in Guernsey, have carried out 40 years of monthly beach wader counts for the BTO and collected a tremendous amount of scientific data. For me, these birds look beautiful, but sadly, through constant disturbance of many kinds, many species that we were famous for in Guernsey, winter visitors and breeding populations alike, are now EXTINCT, and we feel impotent to do anything about it.
Another problem of our coasts is “RECLAMATION” – this is often simply tarmac, where wildlife used to be. Now we see turnstones running around our harbours on tarmac where once they had beaches. We still have some shingle banks for now, special places that are very effective for coastal protection and breeding and feeding birds, flowers and other plants. These banks are a habitat of their own, and we have them here: let’s love them, and look after them.
It is 45 years since DDT and other insecticides were sprayed all over the world but only now are we getting many of our raptors back. Peregrine, marsh harrier, buzzard, sparrowhawk and long-eared owl are nesting again in Guernsey. All we need now is to get our farming practices sorted to allow/encourage our winter visitors to come back: short-eared owls, merlins and hen harriers. Ground feeding birds will come too.
Our Island home
Let’s clean up our act and reduce waste: stop it from hitting our shores and littering our land. What more can we do to help our nature? Plant wild flowers in our gardens that have pollen, attract butterflies and give us, colours and seeds. Let’s plant fruit trees, wild and propagated. Let’s dig ponds for our birds, frogs and newts. You will be amazed at how much enjoyment you will get, and your “tick list” will go through the roof!
Swifts are another bird that is suffering, this time it’s because of “OUR” clean and tidy lifestyle. They need places to nest and places to feed. Remember, those wildflowers you plant will attract insects and what do swift, swallows, and house martins eat? Those insects!
In August 2012 Birds On The Edge was delighted to announce the return to Jersey of a much missed resident, the cirl bunting. Unlike the chough, these songbirds came back without any assistance. That they are still here, perhaps, is, however, the result of a lot of hard work and dedication (see report from October 2012).
In July last year, we reported that the bunting pair had successfully raised at least one chick. So, are they still living here in Jersey? Are they hanging on?
The pair and another bird presumed to be their fledged chick were seen regularly at their east coast haunts into the winter. Often at the seed put out in special feeders by Richard Perchard (following advice from the RSPB Cirl Bunting Project) aimed at helping the buntings get through the winter when, through changes in land use, they might struggle. The feeders are topped up and cleaned every third day, or more frequently in bad weather.
While the eastern birds remained in the territory we were very surprised to find two males at Noirmont on 26th of October last year. These two, unexplained, males stayed around at Noirmont well into November before disappearing.
Cirl buntings are, at least in the UK, typified as being highly sedentary. Many only move a few kilometres in their whole life. While other populations in Europe are very migratory, all are dispersive – that is individuals may wander, often lengthy distances, away from the breeding areas. Dispersal like this is well known in most birds and often follows successful breeding seasons when numbers are high, or when food supplies may be low. Migrant birds have set breeding and wintering areas and, while they may look very much at home, are unlikely to be looking for somewhere new to breed (think of all those contented brent geese, they never hang around in spring). Dispersive birds, on the other hand, may well be looking for a new home and this is how most species spread out around the world. It’s how birds take up home on an island like ours.
We don’t know where the birds at Noirmont were from just like we don’t know where the breeding pair in the east came from. On 2nd January this year, a female was watched at one of the feeders and both she and a male were seen feeding there a week later. The pair was monitored, but not too closely for fear of disturbing these vulnerable birds, throughout the spring and everything looked good. Three birds were seen in July not very far from the pair. Another pair, another chick? Well, a definite chick was seen at the well-known site a few days later adding to the possibility of two pairs. In August it was confirmed that there were two pairs and both had young. Fourteen birds (four adults and 10 juveniles) were counted across the whole site on the 14th! Nine birds were seen again on 13th October.
Richard has seen up to three ‘pairs’ at the feeders this month but it is possible that these ‘pairs’ may include sibling juveniles sticking together.
Exactly how many buntings there are in Jersey remains a bit of mystery, but they are surviving and even thriving it seems. We could try to catch and mark them but this might easily upset these nervous birds and stop the recolonisation in its tracks. Disturbing them through visiting the site too often might also cause the birds to leave. What the increase does mean is that Richard might have to put more food out to help the growing flock through the winter!
Interestingly, a juvenile cirl bunting was seen at Noirmont on 20th October. One of ours leaving us, a new one coming in or one just passing through? Check up on the Jersey Birds website to see if any more turn up.
To celebrate the arrival of many migrant and wintering birds, we would like to invite you to a birdwatching promenade by the conservation fields near Sorel.
We hope to see and admire the many species that have been arriving on the Island and are flocking to the bird crops. We have planted these crops to provide food for the birds over the winter and at the moment they are attracting a wealth of migrant and wintering birds. Join us in this walk to find them and participate in a discussion about the conservation efforts being carried out to save birds and other wildlife in Jersey.
Featuring: A variety of species such as meadow pipit, linnet, chaffinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, song thrush, and even some elusive ones such as stonechat, skylark and Dartford warbler.
Statistics released today by the UK Government show alarming declines in birds across all habitats.
The report, Wild bird populations in the UK, 1970-2013, shows that overall, breeding bird populations in the UK have declined compared with 40 years ago. In 2013, the all-species index was 12 per cent below its 1970 level, and there was a small but significant decline of five per cent from 2007 to 2012. However, trends vary between individual bird species, between habitat types and between groups of species that share the same habitat type.
By 2013, the UK breeding farmland bird index had fallen by 55 per cent to a level less than half that of 1970. The largest declines in farmland bird populations occurred between the late seventies and the early nineties, but there has been a statistically significant on-going decline of ten per cent between 2007 and 2012.
In 2013, the UK breeding woodland bird index was 28 per cent lower than its 1970 level. The greatest decline in the series occurred from the early eighties until the mid-nineties, after which the trend stabilised.
In 2013, the UK breeding water and wetland bird index was 17 per cent lower than its 1975 level. There was a significant decline in the smoothed index of 12 per cent in the short term between 2007 and 2012.
Seabird populations in the UK have fallen by 24 per cent since 1986; this is the lowest level recorded. Most of the decline has occurred since 2003; there has been a decline of nine per cent in the short term since 2008.
In the winter of 2012-13, the wintering waterbird index in the UK was almost double its 1975-76 level (up 95 per cent). The index peaked in the late 1990s and has declined since, with the smoothed index falling by almost five per cent between 2006-07 and 2011-12.
At the end of August the aviary quarantine restrictions were lifted and the birds there were poised ready for release. On 1st September the release hatches were opened at 17:00 allowing the chicks to have 30 minutes access outside.
Release hatches opened for the chicks. Photo by Liz Corry
The hand-reared chicks were the first to leave. Already having experienced the joys of ‘free-flying’ they headed straight to the cliffs to join the adults. Not wanting to be left behind, the parent-reared chicks followed.
Having never flown outside of an aviary before, their flight was noticeably sluggish compared to the hand-reared chicks. This changed very quickly once they got used to using the air currents.
Grace and Helier seemed a little confused by the situation and didn’t fly out of the aviary straight away. They watched the others flying around and both groups called back and forth. Grace and Helier eventually ventured out once the other chicks returned to the aviary for a respite.
The chicks were obviously very excited about being on the other side of the aviary netting. Hard to say if the adults felt the same? One could infer that feelings were mixed from the fact that three decided to fly off to Sorel Point once the chicks arrived.
The chicks started to follow them flying a couple of hundred feet high in the sky, but decided to turn back and returned on their own accord to the aviary. Eight of the chicks went inside and their keeper locked them in at 17:30. Considering Grace’s reluctance to leaving the aviary she was one of the last to return.
Grace and Jean remained outside. It was not clear whether this was out of choice or because they could not work out how to get back in. The team called them down to the outside target-boards to encourage them in. It worked for Grace, but Jean remained outside preferring to stay on the roof.
Adults and chicks hanging out at the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry
The adults reappeared at the aviary. Possibly responding to hearing the call for food. This seemed to encourage Jean away from the roof down to the release hatches where the adults were. She calmly landed on the shelf and walked inside the aviary looking for food.
The team were then faced with an unusual problem in that the adults were sat either above the hatches, or on them as was the case for Mauve. This hasn’t happened before.
Normally the adults fly off as soon as they see someone make an attempt to reach the hatch wires. They were probably waiting for their last supplementary feed of the day. The hatches had to be closed, which caused the adults to take to the air, but at the same time their keeper called them back for food and they happily returned to feed. That meant that the last chick was locked in for the night at 18:45. Cutting it a bit fine before roost time yet still this was a very successful first day.
Chickay out of the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry
The next few days proved even more successful with all the chicks going out, flying around and exploring the cliffs, feeding in the grazed fields and returning to the aviary to be locked in before roost. Each day the time of release was brought forward by one hour.
There was only one close encounter with a peregrine during this soft-release. The peregrine had swooped down on a mixed flock of pigeons, crows, and gulls feeding in the conservation fields. It had claimed one victim, but dropped it before reaching the aviary. It then spotted the flock of choughs by the cliffs and flew at them. Luckily it missed. When they fled to the aviary it gave up and flew off empty ‘handed’ out to Sorel Point.
The rest of the soft release was fairly uneventful in the drama stakes. There was a visit by a short-eared owl on two occasions. The quarry’s blasting sirens rang loud and clear during one release. The birds showed no reaction; the team did find it a little surreal though.
An interesting turn of events, however, was the adults’ reaction to having access to the aviary again. They loved it. So much so that by the end of the week it was getting quite difficult trying to get the adults out of the aviary at lock-in time. We ended up leaving them in on Day 7. There was no real concern over fighting or stress within the group, yet the team were still relieved to see everyone ok the next morning. We locked them all in again on the 8th night. On the morning of Day 9 the group was called for food in the aviary first thing then the hatches were opened. They have stayed open ever since.
The trial release programme in 2013 had less than a dozen release days spread over a six-week period and then had to be postponed because of bad weather and an injured bird. When these birds were let out again in April it took twenty-five release days over a six-week period before we could confidently let them out full-time. For the group of ten chicks it took one week! Obviously the chicks had an advantage of having other choughs out at Sorel as role models, yet no one would have predicted the process to happen quite so quickly.
In some respects that is the easy part over with. We now need to monitor these birds closely, ensure that they have enough food over the winter, and have all their needs catered for when next year’s breeding season rolls around.
Please feel free to send in any of your sightings or encounters to the website. We always appreciate extra eyes on the ground (or air!) and we are very keen to hear how the residents of Jersey are taking to their new neighbours.
Dawn til Dusk
Radio-tracking at dawn. Photo by Liz Corry
Once the chicks had 24-hour access outside, our radio-tracking study got underway. We follow one bird per tracking session recording location, behaviour, and proximity to other choughs. We alternate the focal bird so as not to bias observations. Since we are recording proximity we are, in effect, checking up on all 16 birds per session.
There are six tracking sessions per day starting at 07:30. The last session of the day is set at 19:00 to give us an idea about roost site selection. Obviously, as the days get shorter, this late session will become redundant.
Both sunrise and sunset can be quite spectacular at Sorel and shed interesting light on chough behaviour. For the first week or so of living at liberty the choughs would be enjoying breakfast either at the aviary (provided by the team) or on the grazed land probing for wild insects. We then started to notice the birds flying around Mourier Valley and only returning to the aviary when we blew the whistle for food. We decided to stop providing them with breakfast as they were obviously beginning to explore and learn where other sources of food were.
Probing holes in the ground where the choughs have breakfast. Photo by Liz Corry
Next thing we knew, they are shooting out of the aviary at the crack of dawn and feeding over at Devil’s Hole before meandering back to Sorel for lunch and an afternoon hang-out. We have also watched them take several flights over to Crabbé and over Rouge Nez. We have never observed them land, but we are sure it won’t be long before they start investigating the short grass at the gun range.
Sunset checks can be frustrating because the choughs’ behaviour can vary each day. Some nights they want to head to their roost site before sunset. Sometimes they can be probing for food right up until the last slither of light.
The adults returned to roost at the aviary the first night we left the hatches open for the chicks. It is a lot harder to know where the adults roost now they have moulted their transmitters. We have to spend a good thirty to forty minutes before sunset watching them to see where they go.
We are now seeing our external roost-boxes being used more. Not surprising with sixteen birds competing for a roost spot. Fortunately Sorel is quite quiet at roost time with most tourists and dog walkers having headed home meaning that the birds can settle down for the night at the aviary and not be scared away.
Hello and Goodbyes
Max and Adam sadly had to say goodbye to us this month. Max returned to University in Germany to continue his studies. Adam finally bowed out after six months on the project, having initially volunteered for three! Both have been an immense help on the project and have, we are sure, learnt a lot in the process. A special thank you must be given to Adam who stood in when Harriet and I went to Cornwall in July. Not to mention the endless search effort for the missing birds in April and being the one to find Yellow’s signal 9km away from the aviary! Adam’s time on the project is documented on our website, shortly to be followed by Max’s story.
New student Will Campbell joined the project in September. Photo by Harriet Clark.
Will Campbell, our new graduate student from Jersey, shadowed Adam in his last week and was thrown straight into radio-tracking the chicks. The success with the chick release meant that Will missed the entire soft-release, but he has been following them ever since. Will had the added pressure of being the only student during most of September. We are hoping he will rise to the challenge and not do a runner like Yellow and Cerise!
Bean loses it!
Bean’s radio transmitter fell off this month. Photo by Liz Corry
….her transmitter that is. All the choughs were accounted for on the morning of the 27th, yet Bean’s transmitter was silent. The team eventually found the signal emitting from the roof of one of the quarry store-sheds by the offices. The transmitter has not yet been recovered and we are waiting for one of the gulls who sits on the roof to kindly dislodge it for us. Thankfully, Bean is quite a communal chick and hangs out with the others so she has been easy to follow. It does make it a little bit more difficult when they are flying as we cannot see the leg rings. We used to be able distinguish adults from chicks by presence of the tail transmitter.
Not to be upstaged, exactly a week later, Caûvette’s transmitter started playing up. At first it was just the pitch that had altered then very quickly the battery died. We have contacted the manufacturer to try and understand why this would have happened so soon. Normal battery life for this model is nine months. With the transmitter still attached to the bird it is a little difficult to diagnose. Hopefully the other eight will hold out over the next six months and stay attached to the birds.
Ménage a trois
Green preening Blue much to the apparant disapproval of Mauve. Photo by Liz Corry
The intriguing trio of Green, Mauve, and Blue continues. On the whole, Green spends more time with his new interest, Blue, than his old partner Mauve. Yet still they feed together and Green will preen both as they stand together in their sordid triangle. We think Mauve might be starting to take offence (finally) and has been seen alone on occasion several hundreds of metres apart from the rest of the group.
This behaviour started on the morning of the 15th when Mauve didn’t show for breakfast and returned to the group and the aviary four hours later. There was no sight or sound from her in between. Maybe at the start of the breeding season, as hormones start playing their part, Mauve’s stubbornness will shine through and she will win back her ‘man’. That or she will pair-up with a younger chough and we will have two potential breeding pairs to look out for.
Back at the park
All of Durrell’s captive choughs have been moved off-show whilst their aviary awaits major repair work. Gianna loves the attention she is getting from Academy staff watching her from their offices and from the Security staff who walk past every day.
Tristan has been demonstrating unusual behaviour suggestive of breathing issues. However, after inspection in the hand and faecal and blood testing, no conclusive diagnosis could be made. He is on an anti-inflammatory drug and will continue to be monitored carefully by keepers.
Our study into what the choughs are eating in the wild got into full swing this month. Will is working on an invertebrate key based on previous studies specific to Le Don Paton. Faecal samples are starting to be picked apart in the lab to first separate into animal, plant, mineral, and then to genus level. We will be setting out pitfall traps to help ascertain what is available at this time of year and to help with our identification of faecal finds. We hope to extend the invertebrate survey to study monthly and seasonal variations in prey availability.
The excitement of sheep faeces. Photo by Liz Corry
Choughs don’t just eat insects in the ground. Our choughs have taken a great interest in sheep faeces. We know that in the UK choughs probe cattle dung for larvae but we were quite surprised at how much can be found in smaller sheep faeces. And we were completely taken aback when we watched our choughs playing with the poo! Caûvette, for example, was seen on her back, legs kicking in the air, tossing a piece of poo around with her bill. And, no, she wasn’t stuck!
Chough drinking from the sheep’s water trough. Photo by Liz Corry.
An unexpected benefit of having the sheep around is that the choughs have learnt to drink from the water bowser left out for the sheep. We provide them with two sources of fresh water at the aviary, cleaned out every day.
Understandably then it is a little bit insulting to the team when the choughs choose the water pans left out, green with algae. We have started scrubbing out the pans to keep the water clean.
Hopefully the choughs are sensible and drink from these because they are shallow. There have been a couple of reports in the past where UK choughs have fallen into horse troughs and drowned because the sides are too steep and slippery to get out of.
The choughs unexpectedly talking refuge in trees. Photo by Liz Corry
The birds have also been in the hawthorns by the aviary picking at the berries and the bark. We have found pellets containing undigested seeds suggesting that they are eating the fruit.
Presumably when they are pecking at the bark they are looking for woodlice and other such invertebrates. At the same time choughs are highly inquisitive and could just be investigating.
Chickay and friends investigate the new camera on their food stand. Photo by Liz Corry
It should be pointed out that choughs are classed as a non-perching bird. You don’t normally find choughs in trees. Choughs do like high vantage points and these trees are the best option within close proximity to the aviary field. Consider it a Jersey adaptation
We would like to use next-generation sequencing to look more closely at the question of prey selection by released choughs. This would feed into answering (no pun intended) how much the choughs are reliant on our provision of food throughout the year. This sort of genetics study requires funding and institutional support potentially incorporated into an MRes or PhD.
Choughs weighing themselves during lunch. Photo by Liz Corry
With the choughs flying free it is more important than ever to know how well they are adapting to finding food in the wild, how necessary the supplementary feed is, and to monitor their general body condition. We do this by checking their weights each day and their physical appearance at feeding times.
Now we have sixteen birds flying to one weighing scale it is very difficult to get daily weights from every individual. To compound the problem certain individuals, not naming names… Dingle, Chickay, and Caûvette…head straight for the scales and push off anyone else who tries to feed. We will be looking to purchase a second set of specialist scales (approximate cost £200) to allow simultaneous weighing. This might not solve the problem, but will certainly alleviate it.
We have tried to continue the behavioural observations to see how group cohesion prior to release, affects behaviour post-release. The obvious obstacle to continuing observations is that the birds are no longer confined to the aviary. Thankfully with the way choughs flock together at this time of year we can focus on feeding sites and simply adapt the methodology.
Skills are put to the test trying to spot and identify all sixteen choughs out at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry
What we can’t manipulate though is the choughs’ penchant for rabbit holes. The terrain at the feeding sites often means that the birds’ leg rings are hidden. Or, in the case of a rabbit hole, the whole chough can be blocked from view. The birds also tend to spend only a few minutes feeding in one area. With the two issues combined, and our other project commitments, we end up only getting 10 to 15 minutes of observations once or twice a day. We may have to discontinue this study unless we can outsource to a student intern who can focus solely on this research.
Paradise Park visit Jersey
Ali and Ray Hales came over to Jersey to watch their parent-reared chicks take to the skies. They missed the first few days when the chicks were having limited time outside but then very quickly five hours became ten hours and on the day Ali and Ray returned home the chicks were given full access outside. Photos from their time here can be found on their website here.
Joe Thompson, Paradise Park, gets a fly past from the chough chicks. Photo by Liz Corry
Ali was so impressed by the choughs’ progress that she immediately started arranging visits for her keepers. Fortunately parrot keeper Joe Thompson is also a pilot! This meant Paradise Park staff could visit Jersey in a day without disrupting their staffing rota too much. The first trip was made on the 23rd after two postponed dates through bad weather.
Joe along with Adam Pollard and Olly Frost, who are responsible for Paradise Park’s choughs, had a whirlwind three and a half hour tour of Sorel and the Wildlife Park.
I think it is safe to say they were suitably impressed with seeing their birds flying around the cliffs. Sadly, bad flying weather and reduced daylight hours have now meant any further trips from Cornwall are postponed until next spring.
An annual butterfly transect was setup this year at Sorel and carried out by project staff. The survey runs from April to September counting butterflies on a weekly basis. The transect is a new addition to the Jersey Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (JBMS) run by the States of Jersey Department of the Environment. The overall scheme started in 2004 and uses the same methodology as the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. The scheme is financed by the States of Jersey, but is almost entirely based on volunteer recorders.
Four common butterfly species found at Sorel. Photos by Liz Corry
We are hoping the results will not only inform people about what can be found at Sorel, but show how the conservation crops can benefit butterflies. Data collected this year will be submitted to the States and results published later this year.
Durrell’s Overseas Team came over to Jersey between 8th and 13th of September for the annual Conservation Forum. After several days of intensive management planning and workshops they were ‘rewarded’ with a trip to Jersey’s International Air Show. A fleeting visit to the not so secret viewpoint at Noirmont to watch the Red Arrows, followed by a close up view of the Lancaster bomber, and finished off with a sunset tour of Sorel.
Our own aerial display team didn’t disappoint and flew over-head, dramatically dive-bombed the cliffs, then obediently returned to the aviary. The visitors were suitably impressed, especially considering last time they were here involved peering into a rain-soaked quarry looking for a lone chough. Many on the team have experience with re-introductions and restoration projects around the world and have advised with the chough project.
We were hoping for the ultimate photo opportunity of Red Arrows and red-billed choughs in one frame. However, on hearing the approaching engines the choughs understandably headed straight for the aviary.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No its just Durrell’s Overseas team. Photo by Nik Cole
Jersey Airport is, as we have highlighted before, close to being the last site for breeding skylarks in the Channel Islands. One or two pairs still breed on the Blanche Banques but even at the Airport numbers are steadily declining.
On Wednesday, 18th June, we conducted our annual survey of the skylarks and meadow pipits at the Airport. This year’s survey was as hard a slog as ever. It is surprising how big an area we cover up and down each side of the runway, but it’s the walk through the longish grass, even when dry, that slows us down the most. The grass is left long deliberately so as to discourage birds like gulls, pigeons and crows from trying to forage or roost there and become a life-threatening hazard to the planes, their crew and passengers. Grass too long, on the other hand, can become a fire risk which would itself then be a major hazard. To get it just right, the Airport has to manage the grass sward very carefully. This, luckily, doesn’t seem to discourage the highly threatened skylark, a bird not considered to represent a risk.
Once again we received security clearance before we entered the grass area and we donned our high-visibility jackets. We always carry radios to keep in contact with the tower and we sit out incoming or departed planes. That’s another reason for going when the grass is dry!
The skylark team this year, again the stalwarts Tony Paintin, Hester Whitehead and Glyn Young, walked the grassy areas of the airport either side of the runway excluding a couple of sensitive areas that the team cannot enter for fear of upsetting some pretty sensitive equipment.
Skylarks are never very easy to count as some birds can stay put in the grass while others fly up and sing at us. We walk out in a line and record each lark and pipit. Whatever the failings in our technique are though, having used the same methodology since 2006, trends become obvious.
This year, the best we can say is that things haven’t got any worse. We counted 26 larks, for the second consecutive year. Fewer birds were singing but maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that as only four were singing on our highest count (in 2011).
So, as we do each year, we look forward to next year’s count to see if things might have improved. 2014 has been a good year, seemingly, for many breeding songbirds.
Once again we are indebted to the airport authorities for allowing us to count the birds and for helping with security clearance and for providing radios and high-visibility vests etc.
The impressive State of the UK’s Birds 2014 was published today. The theme of this year’s annual report is migrant birds, a group showing some of the most dramatic population changes in the last few decades.
This includes species like cuckoo which breed in the UK but spend the winter in Africa, as well as the large numbers of waders and wildfowl that breed further north, but spend their winters on UK and Channel Island coasts and wetlands.
For the summer migrants, where a species spends the winter has a strong influence on its trend. Almost three-quarters (73%) of migrants such as nightingale and wood warbler that cross the Sahara to winter in the tropical humid zone in West and Central Africa are in decline. In contrast, 56% of species such as chiffchaff that winter mainly in southern Europe and northern Africa are increasing.
Populations of migrants such as sedge warbler that winter in the arid Sahelian zone of Africa are currently relatively stable, although this group has shown massive declines during earlier droughts in this area. These patterns are highlighted by a new migrant indicator (in the report). For the winter visitors from the north, the picture is less clear. Although a few species, especially from the Arctic, show declines, the majority of sub-arctic and temperate breeders are stable with 33% to 40% increasing.
The importance of volunteer data
Once again, volunteer data continue to provide most of the information used to update the trends reported for the UK, the two key examples being the 2,500 participants in the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), respectively. Both these surveys are undertaken in Jersey, data supplied to the BTO. The BBS trends highlight six species with severe declines since 1995 including one of serious local concern: turtle dove.
Counts by volunteers at more than 2,200 wetland sites at monthly intervals for WeBS provide the information to report on wintering population trends in 46 species or races of waterbirds including ducks, geese, swans, waders, grebes, rails and cormorants. After two decades of increase, the wintering waterbird indicator (in the report) has been declining over the last decade, particularly among species such as turnstone and purple sandpiper characteristic of the non-estuarine coasts.
These and other data will also be used in the latest update of the UK Government’s wild bird indicators. These revealed continuing declines in wetland and waterways birds as well as in seabirds, but no change in already depleted numbers of farmland birds. Woodland species, however, had a relatively good year in 2012.
Scarce and rare breeding species
This year, the report includes a summary of trends in scarce and rare breeding species, drawn mainly from the annual reports of the Rare Breeding Bird Panel and the Statutory Conservation Agencies & RSPB Annual Breeding Birds Scheme (SCARABBS programme) of periodic surveys. The results are extremely varied, with marked increases in some very rare species in the UK such as common crane and in raptors such as red kite, white-tailed eagle and hobby, matched by severe declines in a diverse group of species such as ring ouzel, black redstart, golden oriole, common scoter and black grouse. The table also reveals gaps in knowledge for difficult to survey species such as hawfinch, water rail and short-eared owl, and identifies recent colonists such as great white egret and little bittern whose trends we may soon be able to follow.
State of the UK’s Birds is produced by a coalition of three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – the RSPB, BTO and the WWT – and the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies.
Since the start of my degree, I have always known that I wanted to become a conservation biologist. In early 2014, I realised I needed to gain field-based experience in this area to complement my knowledge. That’s where Durrell came along. Being Jersey born, I had always hoped to work for Durrell in some form so imagine my surprise when I noticed the red-billed chough re-introduction student placement advertisement! It was a dream come true, an entry level project that would allow me to work with Durrell in the field and gain the necessary skills I would need for my later career. Fast forward five months and I have achieved everything I had hoped for, have made new friends (both chough and human) and have even been allowed to name one of the new choughs which is an honour in itself!
Almost as soon as I had been accepted onto the project, I was thrown into the action. I first met Liz and the eight adult choughs (green, mauve, blue, black, red, cerise, yellow and white) on a sunny but windy Sunday afternoon and only two weeks later I helped with their first release of the season. Standing on the hill now aptly named Mount Dallas by the team in honour of the amount of hours I have spent there tracking choughs from it. I was amazed by the heights the eight birds rose to and the acrobatic displays that they seemed to be able to perform with such ease. Getting them to come back inside the aviary proved to be a problem and by the end of my first full day on the job, one bird had returned home while five were roosting in the nearby quarry and the other two (yellow and cerise) had travelled further afield.
A search of the nearby area for these missing two gave us no clue of their whereabouts so Liz sent myself and Pierre (my fellow student) on countless searches across Jersey armed with our trusty radio receivers and maps taken straight from the phonebook (they are the only ones with all the road names!). Over the next few weeks Pierre and I travelled the length and breadth of the island, both on foot and in my car searching every cliff path and exposed hill we could find, ever hopeful that if we somehow managed to find the missing birds we would be able to return to Durrell as heroes.
Only once did we come close to finding the missing two choughs. It was an uneventful Friday and Liz and I had spent the whole day searching the west of the island with no luck. As dusk approached we decided to end our search at Noirmont Point, only to find that our radio receivers were picking up a signal for one of the birds (cerise). The signal itself was coming from one of the many bays in between Belcroute Bay and Noirmont. Unfortunately, the high tide and the presence of large areas of private land prevented us from searching further. Over the weekend we were able to get slightly closer but then the signal had disappeared never to be heard again. A frustrating end to what was such a hopeful chance.
Soon a month had come and gone and the arrival of four chicks back at the Wildlife Park soon meant that Pierre, Harriet, Liz and I had more work on our hands! I was lucky enough to have been one of the first staff members to see one of the newly hatched chicks having coincidently arrived back from lunch at the perfect time! I was always extremely busy during this time as I would spend my mornings searching for the missing adults, my lunchtime helping staff feed the chicks and my afternoons helping to release the other six adults. As the chicks grew and our searches for the missing choughs grew more and more desperate, my day soon became re-organised. By early June we were spending most of our time back at Sorel “chick-proofing” the aviary by building countless roost boxes and by laying rat proof mesh under the floor.
The chicks moved into to their new home at Sorel in mid-June, by this time the six adults had established themselves in the surrounding area and only relied on us for food. However, they did still spend a great deal of time at the aviary. This meant that a new stage of my placement could start.
One of the main questions the team had at this time was how the adult choughs would react to the new presence of the chicks at the aviary. To test this, I helped Harriet to develop a series of observations that would allow us to watch both the adults and chicks from a nearby field and witness any interactions that may take place. We decided to try and do three one-hour long observations each day: one in the morning, one over lunch (when both the adults and chicks were fed) and one in the afternoon. These observations have continued over summer and the team are still performing them now. One of the great things about being around the birds for such long periods of time is that you begin to recognise and appreciate their individual personalities. I am still amazed by certain birds’ apparent greediness and it still makes me laugh when I see the chicks playing with pieces of wool.
By July, the chicks had matured enough to begin their own series of releases and experience the outside world for the first time. Although these birds were only let out a few times they took to the skies in a manner similar to the adults before them; flying high and testing how far they could test their limits. July also brought me a fresh and exciting challenge as Liz and Harriet had to collect six further chicks from Paradise Park in Cornwall, leaving me and the new student Max alone with the birds for the first time. I had spent the weeks prior to this learning how to feed and train the birds correctly but nevertheless I was still terrified when the dates rolled around. In the end, it was far less stressful then I had anticipated and with the help of everyone in the Bird and Conservation Departments I managed to go three days without harming a single chough!
Looking back so much has changed since I first started this placement. I have learnt so much in my brief time with the choughs and I have really enjoyed every minute of my time with both the choughs and the team from Durrell. If anyone were to ask me if I would do this placement again I would not hesitate to agree and sign up again.