March was a bitter-sweet month in the chough project. We start with the sad news of Jean’s mystery disappearance. On a sodden, gale-force Sunday morning when the clock chimes echoed the start of British Summer Time, but nothing else did, only fifteen choughs could be counted at Sorel. Visibility was poor, but the radio tracker was very decisive in telling me that Jean’s signal had vanished. After several hours searching the coastline from Bonne Nuit to Crabbé, two feeds at the aviary without her showing up, and one brief stop in the pub with an open fire to catch some sort of reprieve from the elements, the outlook for Jean was grim.
Having said that, I was still quite hopeful. Perhaps the merciless weather had separated her from the group and she was sheltering in a crevice or somewhere blocking the radio signal.
They have experienced wetter days yet rarely a day when they struggle to fly back into the aviary, opting instead to land on the shelving and cautiously side-step through the hatches.
Jean, named after the Parish they all reside in, was the juvenile we treated last year for sudden blindness in one eye (see October 2014 report). Maybe this put her at a disadvantage although for the past six months there has been nothing to suggest this was the case.
The search area was extended to include known peregrine hang outs. If she was ‘sheltering’ in a peregrine stomach we should at least find the discarded feathers with transmitter attached still beeping away. Alas the radio receiver just crackled away with white noise.
It is difficult to speculate as to what happened without any clues. The remaining fifteen are behaving as normal (perhaps too normal!) and all appear in good health. Well, at least they were after she went missing.
Further news from Sorel
We had a minor scare earlier on the 15th when Blue flew to the aviary with her right leg hanging down. Harriet had noticed her limping slightly the day before, but now she was clearly affected by it. I called the group into the aviary for food and shut the hatches. This was the first time the group has been locked in together overnight since October. No one appeared to object and the next morning Blue was caught up and driven to the Veterinary Centre at Durrell to have x-rays taken.
When we caught her up we noticed she was thin and the scales confirmed she had lost about 20 grams in weight. It was also clear that there was dried blood on her metal leg ring. We drove her to the Vet Centre where she was anaesthetised and checked over. The metal ring was adhered to the leg, so we cleaned it up and then used specialised ring-removing pliers to take the ring off. Underneath the ring the leg looked remarkably good, with a little swelling and some abrasions to the skin. X-rays were taken.
These showed a little bit of bony reaction under where the ring had been but no other causes for the lameness. We took advantage of her being in the Vet Centre to give her a full check over and took blood samples. Whilst anaesthetised she was given both an anti-biotic and an anti-inflammatory drug by injection to reduce the risk of infection and to ease the pain and swelling.
Once she recovered from the anaesthetic we took her back into the aviary at Sorel. She was locked into one of the back sections so we could continue with her 5-day course of medication given in food. The rest of the birds were given access back outside with the hope that her partner Green would stay close by. The mesh walls allow him to pass food to her and roost almost side by side if he so wished. The thing is, he didn’t!!
The first night Green roosted in his same spot in the quarry. The next day he was hanging around with Red, a lone female who normally roosts with the juveniles. Then came the ultimate insult to Blue, yet outstanding news for the project, Green and Red started showing signs that they wanted to nest. At first activity levels were sporadic: maybe a handful of sightings of a chough carrying a twig over the space of a week. Their breeding instinct had kicked in, but maybe they weren’t too sure what they were supposed to do having never bred before.
Red has never had much luck when it comes to relationships. She was originally paired with Orange, the male who died in the quarry during the trial release. When White arrived in December 2013 she tried to take him under her wing, so to speak, but that failed.
When we moved the hand-reared chicks into the aviary last summer she would often appear at feed times watching what we were doing very closely. On occasion it looked like she was trying to feed the chicks through the mesh. She seems very broody in her nature and a little bit soft-hearted. Her manoeuvre with Green, whilst quite bold, is understandable at this time of year.
We decided to discharge Blue from the ‘hospital wing’ a little early as she was not taking her medication and clearly not liking being separated. I opened her hatches at the lunchtime feed and spent the afternoon observing her integration back into the group. She more or less went to find Green straight away and of course met Red too. The threesome seemed to be harmonious in flight and stayed together all afternoon. Occasionally the other adults would fly in and join them, but never for long periods. The discord seemed to be when Green and Red landed. Red would see off Blue if she tried to search for food near the pair. It seemed like Blue would need to resign herself to a life without Green.
Until the next morning, that was, when Green and Blue were flying around together and Red was with the juveniles looking a little sullen. Red roosted back at the aviary and Green and Blue returned to the quarry. Normality resumed. For now anyway.
The other pair with potential to breed this year is White and his partner Mauve. White is now carrying twigs around which is really exciting news.
None of the pairs have shown much interest in the nest-boxes we put up. Jennifer however did watch the juveniles foraging around one of the sites and spotted Bean investigate inside the nest-box. This is great news for the future as the juveniles are recognising the boxes and will remember that there are sites out there suitable for nesting.
News from the Wildlife Park
Back at the Wildlife Park the breeding pairs have been busy building their nests. Tristan and Iseult show the most promise now they are back together. They made a perfect nest within a couple of weeks and we now eagerly await eggs. Gwinny is trying to make her nest. However, her young fella seems to object to her choices of twig and removes them. By the end of the month an agreement had been made and the structure of a nest was there.
The first clutch of eggs laid by these two pairs will be partially incubated by the females and then removed for keepers to continue and hopefully hand-rear. The pairs should try to lay a second clutch and we will let them rear that clutch. All offspring will become enrolled in the 2015 soft release ‘squadron’ preparing for take-off this summer.
One other chough busily building a nest is Gianna, our foster-mum-in-training. When she was with the Italian vet students who rescued her, she had attempted to make a nest, but wasn’t really given the right set up and was still quite young. We provided her with a nest-box and started her off with some twigs.
I don’t think any of us was prepared for the speed in which Gianna built her nest and for her excitement in doing so. It became very difficult to distinguish whether she was preening my hair or looking for material to line the nest. Normally they use wool or horse hair. I feel like this should be taken as an insult.
Back at Sorel
Other newsworthy events this month include Dingle losing his transmitter in amongst the gorse and the battery on Egg’s transmitter appears to have run out. We expect the other transmitters to wind down in the next month or so before the birds begin their annual moult. Dingle and Egg tend to stick close together, along with the other youngsters. Hopefully we will still be able to keep a close eye on them.
Dan’s time as a student on the project came to an end this month. It is amazing how time flies when counting sheep and tracking choughs. He moves to Wales next month to monitor osprey nests and hang out with the choughs on Anglesey. We wish him all the best and are in no way jealous that he might get to see osprey chicks up close and personal.
If anyone is wondering how the eclipse affected the choughs this month….it didn’t! However, we did see some stunning scenes around the chough release site this month. Here are just a few examples….