Spring is here and seabirds are returning to their nests in the Channel Islands. This year there are increasing opportunities to watch these birds from wherever you are through nest cameras and video links.
Puffins on Burhou
The Alderney Wildlife Trust plans to have several webcams that stream 24 hours a day. This year again two cameras are focused on Burhou’s Atlantic puffin colony but viewers can often see storm-petrels, gulls and even the occasional rabbit!
The AWT webcams are available for everyone to watch and can be found on the LIVE Website. You can also keep up to date on all the activity and see the latest highlight clips on the LIVE Facebookpage. Highlights from previous years can be seen on the websites too (this is one below).
In 2015 there will hopefully be two further cameras keeping us up to date with our seabirds.
Shag nest on Jethou
The seabird web camera was installed on Jethou on 17th March 2015. This was only possible with the support of Jethou Island staff who transported the equipment over to the island including camera, solar panel, car battery, support structure and weights. The south-west coast of Jethou Island was chosen for the site to install the camera as shags were known have nested in this area before. A suitable shag nest in the early stages of construction was chosen (no eggs yet) and installation was carried out by two seabird volunteers in 1½ hours. The exact positioning of the web camera may require adjusting but the first image of an adult bird on the nest was taken that day. The development and plans of this seabird camera can be seen here
The Jethou camera does not yet provide a live feed but takes an image every five minutes. However, the IT gurus put together a YouTube film (see example below) of each day’s clips joined together as a short film which can be accessed here. If possible, a live web camera may be installed in future – if sponsorship can be arranged.
If the Jethou camera continues to be as successful as it appears to be so far, plans will be developed for a similar web camera on the Humps, the small islets off the north coast of Herm, which also are an important seabird breeding area. Everyone is very grateful for the continued support of Jethou Island in this and other seabird initiatives.
This year AWT will be reinstalling Gannetcam, which was trialled in 2014. If all goes to plan this camera will give an insight into the dramatic lifecycle of Alderney’s largest breeding seabird, the northern gannet. In the meantime you can watch videos of previous years activities (below) at the gannet nests (and other local wildlife) here
February, normally a relatively quiet time in the chough calendar, quickly became action packed. It started with the first snow of the season, the first ever for the chicks.
The choughs searched out snow-free ground to probe in this month (they obviously didn’t look behind the gorse!). Photo by Harriet Clark.
It quickly became apparent that the field staff were more excited by this than the birds. All the choughs cared about was finding food.
In the wild, choughs don’t tend to fare too well if the ground freezes because the surface is too hard to probe. There wasn’t much snow in Jersey, but enough for the choughs to start looking for exposed ground.
Even if the birds can dig below the surface, ground temperatures are not particularly favourable to the insect communities. This was evident when the pitfall traps were collected in by the students. Most were empty to the dismay of the sheep who obviously thought they might be full of food.
Naturally the choughs became more dependent on the supplementary food we have been giving them. The fact that no individuals have died over winter due to starvation is in part a testament to how post-release care is important for a successful re-introduction.
Chickay getting stuck in to her aviary feed. Photo by Liz Corry.
Knowing that we want to release more choughs this year and the next, we have started to prepare ourselves, and the choughs, for what happens if there is too much competition in the aviary at feed time or if the original cohort disperse further afield.
Food stands in the aviary field reduce competition for food in the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.
We continue to use the external food stands in the field to create multiple feeding sites, thus reducing competition.
Especially from the bold, hand-reared chicks who zoom to the bowls first.
Whilst we might have the odd magpie attempt to masquerade as a choughs to get free food we have not had any problems with other species taking food.
Song thrushes arrived back at Sorel this month and spent most of the time in the aviary field filling up on insects. Photo by Liz Corry.
The dozen or so song thrushes who visited the aviary field this month did take a shine to the food stands. I’m guessing their interest was in any spillage underneath.
Or maybe the sheep ‘fertilizer’ has created an insect hotspot which meant they favoured that field over others!
We have started taking portable target boards out onto the grazed headland to get the choughs used to feeding elsewhere. We might get individuals or pairs dispersing far away from the aviary and we want to guarantee we can get the supplemental food to them if they don’t return to the aviary.
Initially we treated it as a test. Have they just become accustomed to being fed in the same places each day or would they recognise a target board at a completely different location? Their corvid intelligence shone through and they eagerly flew to the targets wherever we put them. So far we have only tried relatively close to the aviary. As their success in finding the targets continues we will try further afield.
In the wild, the chough breeding season kicks off at the end of February or early March if the weather is mild. Breeding pairs are gathering materials and building their nests to rear their brood over the following three months if successful. Some of our original choughs released in 2013 are now sexually mature and we have two pairings with potential to breed. Over the next few months we will be following Green and his partner Blue very carefully along with White and his partner Mauve.
To aid in this, as mentioned in January’s report, we have added a radio transmitter to Green, the oldest male in the group. By doing this we were quite surprised to find out that he has been roosting in the quarry buildings. From our observations the previous few months we have always seen White and Mauve fly to the quarry at night and Green and Blue hang around the aviary.
Some of the structures in the quarry that the choughs like to hang out on at weekends. Photo by Liz Corry.
It might be that this move to the quarry is recent. Although what we fear is that the pair have tricked us and quietly sneaked out seconds before everyone else has gone to roost. Visibility at dusk is poor as you can imagine and we watch from a distance to avoid disturbing them. The only guarantee is if we can hear their transmitters beeping away in our headphones. It also helps having ‘spies’, otherwise known as quarry workers, who keep you informed on how many choughs are waiting for them when they start work at 6am.
We were told that four had roosted in the quarry the day we started radio-tracking Green. Presumably the fourth bird is Green’s partner. If not, I think someone needs to break the news to Blue!
Ronez Quarry have been a huge support throughout this project and this month was no exception. They provided funding to build nest-boxes for our inexperienced choughs who might want to nest along the north coast but could be looking for boxes, just like the ones they were reared in, rather than natural crevices. This could be the case for the first year of breeding. Then, as they build in confidence and experience, they will happily use natural sites.
Since we have birds roosting in the quarry already we suspect that they might try to nest on the rock face or in the buildings. If the latter we need to provide them with somewhere safe and sheltered from the dusty working environment.
Glyn Young, Durrell, and quarry site manager Kirsten DuHeaume in Ronez quarry. Photo by Liz Corry
We spent a couple of days surveying the quarry for potential nest sites with manager Kirsten DuHeaume, and foreman Kevin Gray. We also had to consider which sites were feasible from a health and safety perspective.
Blasting rock for quarrying purposes can leave hidden fractures in surrounding rock faces. What might seem stable from the outside is actually far less when it comes to working on it.
Some buildings which looked suitable could not be reached to place the box high enough for a chough to consider using it. We managed, however, to find a few suitable sites and the rest of our boxes were distributed along the north coast.
Ronez kindly provided the use of their machinery as well as their staff to operate it. Not only that, but they paid for Tony Cross to come over from Wales to advise and assist with fitting the boxes. Within seconds and with precision and skill, Kevin Le Herrissier designed a couple of steel supports to aid in fixing the boxes in place. Tony assisted in positioning the boxes and adding handfuls of gravel, the equivalent of ‘soft-furnishings’.
Kevin Le Herrissier and Tony Cross preparing a nest box. Photo by Liz Corry
The boxes, designed by Tony Cross, were built off-site by two volunteers, John and Mo, who work in Durrell’s Maintenance Department and, thanks to Steve Luce, by La Moye Prison. The prison have previously built nest-boxes for other projects but this time it feels more poignant since La Moye was the last recorded breeding site for wild choughs in Jersey.
Due to the sensitivity of the choughs and to safeguard their survival we will not be disclosing to the public the exact locations of the nest-boxes or any natural sites they use. Licences are required in the UK, just to take photos at chough nests as a certain level of legal protection is needed to deter egg-poaching.
Tony Cross watching the choughs for cllues as to where they might nest. Photo by Liz Corry
Of course the choughs are free to choose where they go and sometimes, as with the quarry, it can become quite obvious.
For now, here are a few photos to give you an idea of what we got up to. Needless to say don’t try this at home unless you are equipped with a fully operational Tony Cross. We also had help from our project partners in the form of National Trust ranger, Neil Harvey, and the States of Jersey’s principal ecologist John Pinel, an experienced climber.
I must also add that we have permission from the landowners to erect these nest-boxes. A requirement for anyone wanting to put up a nest-box.
Tony and his colleague Adrienne normally have to risk life and limb abseiling over cliff edges to erect nest-boxes for choughs.
This time Ronez lent a ‘helping hand’….
Kevin assisted in fixing the boxes. With steel brackets and bolts into the rock I don’t think we will have any problems with boxes falling down!
Some boxes just need to be dug into the top of the cliff edge.
Others can be a bit trickier….
…which is where the extra bodies came in useful. Much to the ‘delight’ of Neil!
and always of course under the supervision of the choughs.
In fact I started to get a bit paranoid by their stalking. Hopefully it meant that by the end of the day they had made a mental note of all the box locations.
Preparing for the breeding season in the Wildlife Park
Preparations for the breeding season have also been underway at the Wildlife Park. Once again we hope to hand-rear and parent chicks from our captive-breeding pairs which can then be used in this year’s soft release.
Two breeding pairs have been moved to their off-show aviaries. Gwinny has stayed paired with the same young male as last year. True to the Celtic legend Tristan and Iseult have reunited and, no pressure here, but since they have produced eggs together in the past we have huge expectations for this pair.
At the start of February we imported a new male from Paradise Park. Denzel, named by his previous keepers, moved into our quarantine enclosure where he must remain until he has been given the ok from our vets. We are hoping he will pair up with our single female to make a third couple.
The nest cameras have been switched on and all the birds have now changed to their breeding diet which means more protein is added to the menu. We will have to wait until March to find out if the pairs decide to build nests.
Gianna, meanwhile, is waiting patiently for when they do in case we need to call on her services as a foster mum. We are still at the very early stages of her training. She is starting to allo-preen staff now: a sign of a pair-bonding in the bird world. She might not reach the stage this year in which we are confident with her foster-rearing abilities. However, we would certainly like to think she can aid the breeding programme in the future.
How are Jersey’s garden birds faring? Not all that well it seems. The results of this year’s Great Garden Bird Watch show some genuine causes for concern in our bird populations. Don’t forget, the majority of the bird species that are recorded during this survey are those that have adapted well to people and, we had assumed, to our modern way of life. These are generally the birds that we feed and enjoy to have around us.
The good news this year is that at least the weather over the count weekend was better than in 2014. This year we received 315 completed survey forms and although the weather was still pretty poor it could only have been better than last year’s gales.
House sparrow. Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015
The Top 10 bird species recorded was pretty consistent with previous years’ counts. Again house sparrow topped the poll, recorded at 225 of the households that reported. With 1,637 sparrows counted, that’s 5.2 sparrows per garden in the survey. House sparrow has declined alarmingly in Jersey over the last 25 years and this is reflected in our 14 years of garden counts. However, despite the overall decline since 2002 there may be some cause for optimism as the last few years have shown a slight increase in numbers. St Saviour, St Helier and St Lawrence have the most sparrows which suggests that in Jersey at least sparrows can still be found in a town.
Starling. Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015
Chaffinch was the second most recorded species, spread nicely across the Island, and starling the third with most reported from St Saviour and St Brelade. We have dealt before on overall reductions in starling numbers and that this can be further seen in the survey since 2002 is a stark reminder of just what is happening to this formerly abundant bird. Following the starling in the Top 10 were blackbird, wood pigeon, great tit, magpie, blue tit, collared dove and…….herring gull. Robin only came in 11th which may be a surprise. However, at least the robin population appears relatively stable with an average of 1.2 per garden.
Greenfinch. Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015
Great tit (blue) and blue tit (red). Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015
What of the other ‘typical’ garden birds? Well, both great and blue tit numbers show slow declines while the blackbird population does look pretty stable (1.9 birds per reporting household in 2015) despite them having such a good year in the UK. This might suggest that, while big numbers of blackbirds fly into Jersey in winter, these immigrants don’t turn up in our gardens. Sadly, greenfinch numbers are, as predicted, very poor with now around one quarter of the number recorded per garden compared to 2002. The only consolation we can see in the trend of the greenfinch is that it may have levelled off and that it seems that those that do live here don’t go into gardens in winter as much as they once did.
Wood pigeon. Jersey Garden Bird Watch 2002-2015
Are any of our garden birds actually doing ok? Well, while you might not be surprised that magpie numbers stay the same year on year (around 1.5 per garden) only really wood pigeon and blackcap have gone up in numbers. Neither should be a surprise, the pigeons are rather obvious (and they can be bullies) and their increases much noted and the blackcap’s change in wintering habits widely reported. So, all in all, it’s not really very good. We do still have quite a few birds in our gardens, which is nice, but overall they may not be faring very well. And what does that say about our lives that the birds in our gardens are declining?
As in previous years we are excited to see what comes out in the ‘others’ columns of the report sheets when they come in. That red squirrels are widely recorded, although most seem to be in St Brelade and St Lawrence, is not a big surprise but it’s nice to hear too of toads and newts. This year several early bees made it onto the forms as well as marsh harriers, including three in a hedge in one site, buzzards, a very bold little egret and a grey wagtail that was the first recorded by the house owners in 46 years of occupancy. We even had three cirl buntings reported. But that was from Grouville where all our cirl buntings are!
Once again, as organisers on behalf of Action for Wildlife, Birds On The Edge and the JEP we are very grateful to everyone who sends in their counts. Here’s hoping for further improvements in the weather during next year’s count and for better news about all our birds!
A new research study, conducted on six farms across East Anglia, has recommended a new agri-environment management option that could help in the recovery of UK turtle dove populations.
The study, carried out by the RSPB, found that cultivating grown seed with a mix of plant species in the autumn creates a habitat rich in seed that is easily accessible – ideal for turtle doves, which feed on seeds present on, or close to, the ground. The authors also suggest that light cultivation or cutting during spring would better prevent the plots from becoming too overgrown and, therefore, unsuitable for turtle doves.
UK turtle dove populations have fallen 88% since 1995, with one cause for this decline thought to be the lack of seed from arable plants, which historically formed the bulk of turtle dove diet during the breeding season, resulting in a much shorter breeding season with fewer nesting attempts.
This latest research into the management of bespoke seed mixes to provide food for turtle doves, (published in the Journal for Nature Conservation), is under consideration as a part of a modified version of the nectar flower mix option under the UK’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme and could be pivotal in providing food for turtle doves on farmland across the UK.
Patrick Barker, an arable farmer in Westhorpe, Suffolk, who took part in the study, said: “It’s been great to be involved in this research and to find out how we can give turtle doves a hand. What was particularly striking was that the areas they prefer don’t look as you’d expect. For example, we learned that bare patches on the ground amongst the vegetation give them space to land and move around.
“I hope that our work here will encourage other farmers to do the same, and that this will help turtle doves return to the countryside.”
This new management option is part of a wider ‘turtle dove package’, deployed within the Higher Level Stewardship scheme agreements on farms supporting turtle doves (or with turtle doves nearby), which seeks to provide foraging habitat in proximity to nesting turtle doves. The other options in this package include cultivated margins, fallows that promote seeding plants, and scrub and hedgerow management for nesting. The options a farmer selects will depend on local land characteristics and farming practices.
Tony Morris, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science said: “This research helps our understanding of how to provide food for turtle doves on farmland where the original sources of seed food have long since vanished but without unduly disrupting modern agriculture.
“Agri-environment schemes offer the best and perhaps last hope for this iconic species. We’re hopeful that, together with farmers and our partners in Operation Turtle Dove; we can reverse the decline of this bird and secure its long-term future in Britain.”
Jenny Dunn, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: “The results of this research show that it is possible to create a ‘farmed’ habitat structure similar to that used by turtle doves historically – an area with a patchy structure containing both seed-rich plants and bare ground to allow turtle doves to access the seed.
Testing bespoke management of foraging habitat for European Turtle Doves Streptopelia turturabstract can be read here
By Stuart Croft: Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer, RSPB
The programme to increase numbers of cirl buntings in the south-west of England and especially the translocation of chicks from Devon to Cornwall was a major inspiration in the establishment of Birds On The Edge. Not so long ago cirl bunting was an easy bird to find in Jersey and with so few in England we were regularly asked to show tourists our (then) big four – cirl bunting, serin, short-toed treecreeper and Dartford warbler. The disappearance of our serins and cirls coincided it seemed with dramatic changes in the fortunes of the cirl bunting in England. We then needed to speak to the English for tips on recovering the bunting population. The cirl bunting, meanwhile reappeared and, despite its tenuous foothold back in Jersey, is once again on the Island. Stuart and the RSPB kindly allowed Birds On The Edge to repost this piece previously published on the RSPB Community blog site
The Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project – a partnership project between the RSPB, Natural England (NE), the National Trust and Paignton Zoo, with assistance from the Zoological Society of London – began in 2006. The aim of the project is to re-establish a self-sustaining population of cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula in south Cornwall, by taking chicks (under license from NE) from nests in healthy populations in south Devon, and translocating them to the site in south Cornwall. Here they have been hand-reared by aviculturalists from Paignton Zoo, and released into an area of suitable farmland habitat. Though reintroductions of other bird species, as well as other forms of wildlife, have been successfully undertaken in the UK and further afield, the reintroduction of a small, song bird like the cirl bunting had not been attempted before in Europe.
The first batch of young birds was released in 2006, and releases continued for a total of six years, until 2011. Throughout the project all the birds have been monitored by the field team – a process aided by the fact that all the hand-reared birds have been fitted with a unique combination of coloured leg-rings. This has allowed a great deal of information to be acquired relating to many aspects of the birds’ life histories, e.g. their seasonal movements, habitat selection, breeding ecology and longevity.
We have learnt that, just like in Devon, the Cornish birds do not wander far, choosing to settle in an area that, crucially, contains all their year-round requirements i.e. weedy stubbles to forage for seeds in the winter, thick hedgerows where nests can be located away from disturbance and extensive grasslands rich in variety and abundance of insects to feed chicks in the summer. Thanks to the willingness of the local farming community to adopt Environmental Stewardship, in the form of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), more of this preferred habitat mosaic exists on the peninsula than it did just a few years ago.
During the breeding season pairs are usually faithful, though we have recorded several instances of polygyny – one male breeding with two (even three!) females simultaneously – whilst ‘divorce’ – with partners from a pair splitting and re-pairing with different partners – is novel behaviour that has been recorded. Though cirl buntings are relatively short-lived, with 2-3 years being typical, the oldest known colour-ringed bird so far, died just one month short of his fifth birthday. We are hopeful that there are still a few remaining ringed individuals that stand a chance of exceeding that lifespan.
Following the first recorded breeding of the reintroduced birds in 2007, the population has been steadily increasing, both as a result of further releases, and due to productivity in the breeding population. Despite some poor summers, which have limited breeding success, the population exceeded its target level of 30 pairs in 2012, with 44 pairs recorded. However, the exceptionally wet summer of that year resulted in very low productivity, resulting in a decline in the population the following year. Fortunately, the following two summers have been a vast improvement and the population has responded well. Last year 39 pairs raised well over 100 fledged young – the highest number in any year by far – and we are optimistic that 50 breeding pairs is a realistic possibility this year – a great milestone to reach in the tenth year of the project and one step further forward in establishing this bird back in the Cornish landscape.
The success so far shown from this project is a great example of team work – where various different individuals and organisations have worked collaboratively. We would like to thank all those who have supported the project over the years, in particular the farmers who have given us access to their land, which has enabled us to monitor the expanding population – without their support this project would not have worked.
The current state of Jersey’s butterfly species and how the Island can continue to conserve them to honour its international environmental agreements will be presented at the annual Jersey Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (JBMS) conference next week.
The Jersey Butterfly Monitoring Scheme is a Department of the Environment initiative set up in 2004 to provide information at a local level on changes in the abundance of butterfly species. Approximately 20 volunteers make a weekly count of butterflies at thirty-five locations across the Island. Butterflies are an indicator of the general health of the countryside so this information helps the department monitor the Island’s ecosystems.
Susan Clarke (Wessex Environment Associates) is a self-employed zoologist, specialising in butterflies. She will be demonstrating how anyone can have fun with their own butterfly mark-release-recapture project and the sort of information you can collect in your back garden.
Paul Chambers (States of Jersey, Department of the Environment) about the state of Jersey’s butterflies based on a full ten-year analysis of the JBMS data between 2004 and 2013.
Other speakers will include other JBMS members who will be talking about their work and results during the 2014 monitoring season.
This year’s meeting is timed to coincide with the release of a major report by the Department of the Environment called The State of Butterflies in Jersey. This report is based on an analysis of the results of the JBMS’s first ten years of monitoring and provides detailed information on the conservation status of all Jersey’s butterflies and their habitats. More information about this report will be released in due course.
The event takes place on Saturday 14th March 2015, between 10 am and 3.15 pm at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Trinity. It’s FREE and open to anyone with an interest in local natural history, whatever their level of expertise. If you would like to attend please contact Paul Chambers on (01534) 441630 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details or to reserve a place.
Further information on the Jersey Butterfly Monitoring Scheme can be found here
Choughs sifting through dead bracken in search of insects. Photo by Jennifer Garbutt
January was another relatively quiet month for the choughs, partly due to the many wet and windy days on the north coast. The team continued with the radio-tracking study as usual, but often found the birds weathering the storm in the shelter of the aviary or quarry buildings. Therefore, occasions when the birds were found foraging in a new field or section of cliff were met with glee by the tracking team. Whilst the birds did not travel any further afield this month, they continued finding new areas to investigate, including the dirt bike track, dry stone walls and the edges of ploughed agricultural fields close to the coast.
New student Daniel practising colour ring re-sighting as the choughs probe in the aviary field. Photo by Harriet Clark.
The start of the New Year saw us welcoming a new member to the chough team, Daniel Loveard. Daniel is an environmental conservation student at Bangor University, and is spending his placement year gaining practical experience in bird conservation and developing his field skills. Just weeks before arriving in Jersey he was volunteering on a parrot conservation project in the Caribbean, so the wintery conditions at Sorel were undoubtedly a bit of a shock! He spent his first few days learning how to radio-track and identify the individual birds by their colour rings. This was particularly tricky when there is the added challenge of trying to hold your binoculars steady in the wind! Details and information on how to apply for a placement on the chough project can be found here.
In December the flock of Manx loaghtan sheep at Sorel were confined to the aviary field due to several of the younger sheep falling ill. Fortunately the flock recovered well, and the older stock was released back onto the north coast in January. Since then the sheep seem to have grown quite attached to the tracking team, greeting them as they arrive in the morning, following them as they radio track the choughs, and showing great interest in the contents of the insect pitfall traps!
Daniel and companions radio tracking the choughs. Photo by Harriet Clark
The sheep certainly provide company during long days up on the cliff tops, but more importantly play a vital role in the Birds On The Edge project, as they help open up scrub landscape and increase biodiversity. Their extensive grazing determines the structure and floral composition of the vegetation, so we are very grateful to local botanist Anne Haden for carrying out surveys across the site to record the diversity of plants present. Anne maps the plants found at the eight randomly selected pitfall trap sites, and submits her records to the Jersey Biodiversity Centre. A personal favourite so far is the unassuming looking but aptly named Sheep Sorrel!
Handsome Green; the mud stains on his beak are evidence of many hours spent probing for insects. Photo by Jennifer Garbutt.
Towards the end of the month we fitted one of the oldest birds with a new radio transmitter. All of the birds carried transmitters before they were released in 2014; however, the sub-adult group moulted in June losing their transmitters in the process. We did not see a need to reattach them once their tail feathers had grown back, as the group was relatively predictable in their movements and returned to the aviary on a daily basis allowing us to easily keep an eye on them. However, with spring approaching, the oldest pairs may break away from the group and start looking for nesting territories.
Choughs reach sexual maturity at three-four years old, so four year old Green is the male most likely to set up a territory and there appears to be a strong pair bond between him and four year old female Blue. So, with high hopes for the breeding season, we decided to fit Green with a radio transmitter, enabling us to closely monitor the pair’s behaviour and track their movements. On a dry but very cold day, armed with plenty of hand warmers, we caught Green up in the aviary and fitted him with a new transmitter. This also provided us with the first opportunity to check his condition in the hand since he was released eight months ago and obtain a blood sample to screen for any potential health issues. He appeared the picture of health and is maintaining his weight well. We also replaced his colour ring which had faded, making identifying him at a distance or in poor light considerably easier. Fingers crossed we will have some nesting activity to monitor in the coming months!
Feeling cold? A bit hungry? Then you can probably empathise with the thousands of small birds out there struggling to survive the winter. You probably put some food too in your garden to help them, and it’s a good thing you did, for at a time when their calorie requirements increase in order to keep warm, it is also a time when there is less food available in the form of insects, seeds and fruits.
So, that’s good for your robins, blackbirds, blue tits and the sparrows (the last of which unfortunately are on the Jersey Red List and need all the help they can get). But, what about the other birds that won’t come to your garden, the ones traditionally associated with farmland?
Farmland birds such as the skylark, linnet and meadow pipit are suffering amongst the steepest declines of all birds across Europe, and their continuing survival is in jeopardy due to lack of food in the agricultural land they inhabit. In the past, spilt grain from less effective machinery, stubble fields left until the spring and land rotation would have kept them going, but these features are not so common in modern farming. Even without their traditional food sources, these birds won’t, however, unfortunately, be venturing into a garden to take advantage of your generosity.
In order to help these birds survive the winter, conservationists work with farmers to plant winter bird crops, and aim to provide the birds with seeds and cereals from November until March-April, when invertebrates and other natural sources of food start to re-appear (read more here and here). But even then, a bad combination of a long winter and a cold spring might leave a ‘hungry gap’, when birds struggle to find food anywhere.
In Jersey, this ‘hungry gap’ really lives up to its dreadful name and occurs as early as February, as even the most co-operative, wildlife-loving farmer that has grown winter bird crops, needs to plough his fields in the New Year to plant potatoes. This means that all the resources for the birds disappear suddenly and at the worst of times – about now. Its around now too that many other fields around the Island disappear under polythene offering even less hope in these fields for birds to find much-needed food.
So, how do you feed the birds out in the farmland? The solution is to feed them yourself, by hand, like you would do in your garden but on a much larger scale. This involves pouring big quantities of food at a designated site, at regular intervals throughout the winter. The type of food we use is typically a high-energy, husk-free mixture of seeds and grains in quantities varying between 20-60kg, put down once or twice a week, usually by a dry track next to a suitable hedge.
Birds On The Edge has been pioneering farmland feeding stations in the Island for the last two years and learning how to best manage them. Last year we implemented a feeding station at the conservation area of Sorel, and this year we have tried them at another three sites with positive results.
These feeding stations are located at existing conservation sites with winter crops, so that the birds don’t have to travel far to find the new food when the fields are ploughed. We start feeding in early January before ploughing so that birds get used to feeding from the site, and will put out food then until mid to late-April. We move the spot where the food is put down regularly, to prevent build up of grain that may attract pests. However, so far, all the food has disappeared within a couple of days.
Farmland feeding stations have been tried and tested in England with positive results, and farmers get subsidies from Natural England to manage stations on their land. Here the Jersey Ecology Fund sponsored our very own ‘Operation Hungry Gap’ in 2014, and a private donor recently funded it for 2015. The other difference between here and England is that, whilst farmers usually put down grain from the back of their pick-ups or tractors, here we do it by hand and shoulder!
This might seem like a last-resort solution, but as farmland birds continue to decline across Europe and the Channel Islands, any measure that can help them make it through the winter could mean the difference between starving to death or surviving to see another spring full of possibilities.
The full report on the 2014 Operation Hungry Gap can be downloadedhere