Sorel, choughs and sheep on Countryfile

IMG_1104Last week, particularly on Friday 15th May, we at Birds On The Edge were very honoured to spend time with the BBC’s Countryfile team while they were in the Channel Islands filming an episode for this long running, and very high profile, television programme. After a week setting up the background and discussing just what was possible, and who might perform for the cameras, we were joined by presenter Matt Baker for the choughs and the sheep to make their nationwide bows.

Screen capture Gianna feeding chickOn Friday morning, Harriet introduced Matt to Gianna and her foster baby, known so far just as K. Gianna let Matt feed her and see her baby in their nest. In the afternoon Matt and Harriet joined the team at Sorel to call in the flock of choughs and give them their afternoon feed. The birds waited patiently around the aviary while the best angles for filming were discussed and all came in on cue. They even came back for more mealworms and a re-shoot. After feeding, the birds provided some perfect crowd shots as they flew around, calling.

While the choughs were being filmed, Aaron, Euan, Mist the Dog and the Manx loaghtans waited patiently behind the cameras. They then got their turn for stardom as Aaron introduced Matt to the sheep flock and even caught one unsuspecting ewe for closer inspection. Mist watched on closely.IMG_1095

The filming ended as Matt’s co-presenter Ellie Harrison joined everyone at Sorel, coming from Plémont where she had been with the National Trust team looking at the land restoration underway at the old holiday camp site (see the NTJ Facebook site). Matt and Ellie signed off the show in front of the stunning backdrop of the Island’s north coast and Sorel Point in the sunlight. All the while watched by the choughs and the sheep.


Please watch the show on Sunday 31st May at 19.00 and again on iPlayer. In writing this we don’t know exactly which shots will be used in the final show but I’m quite sure it’ll all be good. Many thanks to the BBC’s Emily Vaughan Williams and Nick Denning and Durrell’s Rick Jones for working hard to set up our day in the spotlight and to all the Countryfile team for giving the choughs and the sheep their star turns.

GannetCam up and running

- 004alderney-wildlife-trustIn March we outlined opportunities to watch Channel Islands seabirds remotely through web cameras. We included tantalising details of future access to Alderney’s gannet colonies and even some video from previous seasons. Well, now Alderney Wildlife Trust and LIVE are pleased to update everyone as the camera on Ortac has gone live!

LIVE. Teaching Through NatureThe camera is still a very new instillation and next year we will be able to take full advantage of the supper Falsystems pan/tilt/zoom camera array.  However for 2015, AWT very much hope that GannetCam, when it is officially launched in early to mid-June alongside the Track A Gannet (TAG) project, will provide school students, teachers and the general public an unrivalled view into the world of the this spectacular seabird.

Alderney’s two northern gannet colonies (Les Etacs and Ortac) are, together, the second most southerly colonies in the world and support over 2% of the species’ population. With seven offshore wind farm sites proposed within the English Channel and tidal turbines likely to be deployed in Alderney’s waters, it is more important than ever for us to understand as much about these magnificent birds as possible.

You may notice a plastic bag has caught underneath the camera. Gannets when creating their nest will collect floating debris on the ocean. This originally would only be plant and seaweed material but with the growing problems of plastic pollution in the world’s seas we now find a lot more fishing line and plastic is being used in the nests. The plastic bag you see on camera is an example of this pollution. For more information about marine litter and AWT’s campaign against it visit their website

So please do drop in to GannetCam. There is never a dull moment in a gannet colony when the birds are at home!

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European biodiversity being lost at unacceptable rates. Again intensive agriculture is main culprit

Cirl bunting (8). Photo by Mick DrydenFrom BirdLife Europe

A landmark report published this week has shown that European biodiversity is being lost at unacceptable rates. Intensive agriculture is shown to be the main culprit while protected areas can be seen to have a positive impact for conservation

The State of Nature 2015 report shows that only a minority of European species is in favourable conservation status in most EU Member States, and that the situation is even worse for habitats. Farming related activities are the most prominent threat to biodiversity in the EU today across species, habitats, sites and ecosystems. Unsustainable fishing is a main threat to the marine environment while damage to rivers represents the main threat to fresh water habitats and species.

The state of nature in the EU. 2015_Page_01Among ecosystem types, grasslands are in the worst crisis and this situation is clearly linked to agricultural intensification. The marine environment has a particular concentration of threatened species.

Ariel Brunner, Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe, stated: “The new report shows that conservation efforts are having an impact but that the overall situation of EU biodiversity is still dire. If we do not deal urgently with some of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, agriculture in particular, we are going to miss the 2020 target, lose precious habitats and species and pay a high price as a society”.

On the positive side – added Brunner – there are clear indications that the Natura 2000 network is having a positive impact. Over 100,000 European citizens in just one week have participated to the European Commission consultation (join in here) to save Natura 2000. The findings of the State of Nature offer scientific support to these demands. Let’s hope the Commission takes both into consideration”.

The State of Nature 2015 is the first harmonized report by the European Commission on the state of the EU biodiversity, based on data reported by Member States under obligations emanating from article 12 of the Birds Directive and article 17 of the Habitats Directive.

Key findings for birds in this report are:

Fulmar (2). Photo by Mick DrydenHalf of the bird populations in EU Member States are reported as being Secure but around one sixth are regionally threatened with another sixth near threatened, declining or depleted.

Wintering bird populations appear to have fared better than breeding bird populations, although data was only available for a subset of birds, mostly waterbirds, many of which are better monitored in winter when they migrate to and congregate in Europe.

Purple heron. Photo by Mick DrydenMany bird species previously considered under serious threat are, however, increasing. These results suggest that conservation action is having a positive effect on their populations. However, a high proportion of these birds remain threatened at EU level, owing to their small and/or declining populations and/or ranges.

Overall, the most frequently reported pressures or threats for birds were changes in agriculture, followed by modification of natural systems and use of living resources (hunting, trapping, poisoning and poaching). Agricultural pressures/threats are particularly associated with grasslands or heathland and scrub ecosystems and include modification of cultivation practices and changes in grazing regimes.

On habitats

Results for the conservation status of habitats vary considerably between EU Member States. The majority indicate a low level of habitats which are ‘favourable’ and a majority of the overall assessments for habitats have an ‘unfavourable’ conservation status.

Again, the two most frequently reported pressures and threats for habitats are agriculture and modification of natural conditions (each 19 %) including through fertilization, changes in grazing by livestock, and the abandonment of pastoral systems/lack of grazing.

The full report can be read here or in ‘brochure’ form here

Please also visit this site to express your views on revision of the EU Nature Directives. The Channel Islands are not in the EU but citizens of EU countries can still express their views.

Chough report: April 2015

By Liz Corry

News from the Wildlife Park

The first clutch of the season captured on the nest camera.

The first clutch of the season captured on the nest camera.

The breeding pairs at the park laid their first eggs of the season this month. Issy waited until after the Easter Bank Holiday to start her clutch of five eggs.

As planned, keepers waited until she had been incubating the clutch for at least five days (25% of the incubation period) and then transferred them to the artificial incubator. Tristan and Issy immediately started rebuilding the nest with the intention to re-lay.

As with all artificially incubated eggs, these were weighed, measured, and then set in the incubator. Staff weighed the eggs daily to monitor weight loss and candled the eggs to check on development. After evaluating methodology and data from last year’s breeding season we decided to set the initial humidity levels lower at 30% instead of 50% to increase hatching success. This seems to have had a positive effect last year.

Sadly, four of Issy’s five eggs died very early on, potentially before staff removed them from the nest. The fifth egg (not necessarily laid in that order) survived. Not only that but it showed an almost perfect pattern of expected weight loss over its incubation period. We think this was due to the reduced humidity. The expected hatch date for the egg is May 1st.

Gwinny waited until the end of the month to start laying. She did the same last year and timed it with Issy laying her second clutch. We had hoped that this year the male having now acquainted himself with what an egg looks like, would co-operate and not throw them out. Alas, the first sign of Gwinny having an egg was a discarded one on the aviary floor when the keeper went in to feed.

Looking back at the recorded footage from the nest-camera we spotted Gwinny laying an egg at around 20.00 one evening. At 06.15 the male went in and removed the egg in his beak when Gwinny was off the nest. Watch in this nest camera video as the male removes the egg – and watch Gwinny return showing her disapproval!

We set up the cameras so we could watch from our computers at home. At 06.00 the next day Harriet woke, switched on the computer and dialled 9-9-EGG! Catherine, living the closest to the park, leapt into action and headed straight for the aviary to rescue the egg. Harriet continued to watch as the male carefully removed the egg just before Catherine arrived at 06:10! We were able to rescue one egg from Gwinny’s clutch. We do not actually know at this stage whether the egg is fertile. We will have to wait and see.

Gianna’s golden egg

After Gianna’s master class in the art of nest building last month she advanced to demonstrating how to incubate an egg!

Gianna nest building

When she finished building the nest she spent a few days moping around the aviary looking a bit lost. This period is when you expect the pair to be copulating. Gianna’s substitute partner (guess who!) spent a lot of time tickling her lower back resulting in quivering wings and tail feathers. I am not sure I can go into much more detail for readers before the watershed.

The next stage was to provide her with a dummy egg to trick her into thinking she had started laying. It worked and she laid her first slightly odd-looking egg. Nevertheless she was very proud of that egg and has been incubating it diligently ever since. This is very good training for next year if she is to become a foster mum.

Breeding pairs at Sorel

In March we witnessed the first twigs to be carried by nesting choughs out on the north coast. This month things stepped up a gear. Twigs, gorse, dried bracken, and wool were just some of the items collected by the choughs. Interestingly the two dominant males did most of the work flanked all the time by their females. In the case of White, by both his females.


Hopefully they re not flying off to Sark with that twig. Photo by Liz Corry


White feeding Mauve whilst his other female forages alongside. Photo by Liz Corry

White feeding Mauve whilst his other female forages alongside. Photo by Liz Corry

White preening one of his two females, Black. Photo by Liz Corry.

White and one of his two females, Black, taking time out to bond over a preening session. Photo by Liz Corry.

With the nests complete towards the end of the month (well at least thats what we think) the males turned their attention to courtship displays and mating.


Photo by Paul Pestana.

Watch this short video of one of the males displaying in the aviary towards two females.

For a while it seemed like April would be a very average month in the Sorel chough calendar. Then, true to form, scandal broke.

Dingle joining the other juveniles on the aviary roof. Photo by Liz Corry

Dingle joining the other juveniles on the aviary roof. Photo by Liz Corry

Dingle, our hand-reared male, didn’t come home to roost at the aviary one night. For the past month or so the juveniles and an unpaired adult, Red, spent their nights in the aviary. The 8pm radio-tracking session towards the start of the month showed that Dingle was not there. Neither was Red!

Growing up, Dingle and the other three hand-reared chicks were always very close. Dingle begs for food from them, often they cave in and feed. He might reciprocate. Chickay and Bean probably spend more time with him than little Caûvette. Mutual preening observed on a daily basis.

Maybe Red’s recent heartbreak from Green and Dingle’s ‘teenage’ hormones have led to the two forming a bond. Can it lead to something more?


Red and Dingle are now spending time together and roost away from the juveniles. Photo by Liz Corry.

Radio tracking and behavioural observations

Green dropped his transmitter on the 19th. This has very little impact on his way of life, but is extremely frustrating for the team as we can no longer distinguish between the three males in flight. Our behavioural observations are now biased towards those birds we can identify, i.e. choughs feeding on open grazed land or at the aviary. We have stopped these observations and are now focusing on nesting behaviour.


Behavioural observations in the field. Photo by Liz Corry

The radio-tracking study of the males’ home range also terminated at the end of the month due to the lack of transmitters. Despite trying to adapt we could no longer collect the required data. This will not stop us from following the choughs. It just restricts the amount of quantitative data for analysis.


Once the choughs take flight it is often difficult to tell them apart. Photo by Liz Corry


Choughs probing the sheep-grazed coastline. Photo by Paul Pestana.

Student exchange

Jen sampling gorse cupcakes. Photo by Harriet Clark.

Jen sampling gorse cupcakes. Photo by Harriet Clark.

Jennifer who joined the project in October last year, bid farewell to the choughs and Jersey this month as she returned home to the UK. Jen is the only non-resident student who has been able to commit to more than three months so far.

I’m sure that as the winter months set in at Sorel she began to regret signing up for so long.

Jen assures me that it was worth staying the course and has learnt a great deal including how gorse flower cupcakes taste! We are extremely grateful to have had Jen on our team and admire her dedication throughout.

New student Paul getting to know the choughs. Photo by Liz Corry

New student Paul getting to know the choughs. Photo by Liz Corry

Jen handed over the reins to our new student Paul Pestana.

Paul is a familiar face at Durrell having swapped telecommunications for a career in conservation several years ago.

His first step was becoming a student placement within the Bird Department before going on to study at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (University of Kent).

For the last six months Paul has been a volunteer in Mauritius working closely with the pink pigeons. The skills Paul has acquired out in the tropics are very applicable to the student placement role. With the added bonus of not having to deal with mosquitoes.

Whilst not quite up to tropical standards, the weather in Jersey improved greatly this month with the thermometer pushing 25°C – clearly challenging to both choughs and sheep (and field staff who forget sun block!).


The sheep seeking shade at Sorel (try saying that at speed). Photo by Liz Corry

The most challenging weather for staff at Sorel, however, may be when the sea fog rolls in. Breath-taking it may be, yet really really annoying when you are trying to follow birds across a 2km stretch of coastline.


Sea fog clung to the cliffs the entire day on 13th April. Photo by Liz Corry

The spate of good weather meant the juveniles had the opportunity to kick back and relax. If ever proof was needed that choughs play then this was it.

P1540154 P1540156When corvids play it releases endorphins the same way as in humans, making them feel happy. And when choughs play with wool they are actually learning; watching how the adults pick out wool to line nests.

Who knows what else they learn out at Sorel…

sheep mimic


We still have no news on the fate of Jean. We have officially declared her as deceased in the International Species Information System (ZIMS). There is though one new theory to her mystery disappearance. Alien tractor beam.


Last feed before roost. Photo by Liz Corry

Turtle doves be warned – it’s a war out there!

Turtle dove in St Ouen's Bay. Photo by Miranda CollettWe have seen in our reports on this website that the exact causes of declines in turtle doves in our part of the world are not fully established. While changes in farming practices that have reduced traditional feeding opportunities and the risk of novel diseases from related species like the collared dove are undoubtedly implicated, continuing pressure from ‘sport’ hunters on the doves’ migration routes are a major factor, if not in the decline, certainly in preventing the population from recovering.

Turtle dove distribution map

European turtle dove distribution map from Plant of Birds

The European turtle dove is not yet considered globally threatened and has a very large range but in Europe it is considered to have an unfavourable conservation status, a status that may be confused by those, probably uncertain, numbers outside of the region (species account here). In the UK, where the turtle dove population has seen a 95% decrease it is given the RED status of a species whose population or range has declined rapidly in recent years, or that has declined historically and not shown a substantial recent recovery. In Jersey is too has RED status.

Our turtle doves are migratory, visiting us for just the spring and early summer. While the exact routes that our turtle doves take are unknown, in order for them to get to and from their wintering areas south of the Sahara, most European birds must pass through narrow sea crossings, safe areas, to avoid lengths of open water. These ‘safe’ areas are anything but safe.

Jersey’s birds would most likely have gone south through France and Spain before flying across Morocco. Birds from further east in Europe go through the islands of the Mediterranean including Malta and Cyprus. These islands lie on one of the main flyways of wild bird migration (over 384 bird species have been recorded in Malta). The importance of these islands to European bird populations like that of the turtle dove mean that they should be treasured.

Turtle dove. Photo by Mick dryden

However, the large scale shooting and trapping of birds during migration through Malta and parts of Cyprus are well known to conservationists right across Europe, and to anyone who has visited. During the spring and autumn, thousands of migrating and resident birds are shot indiscriminately. Further, thousands of small songbirds are trapped to be caged or for the table. An analysis of international ringing recoveries of 75 species, from 35 countries, showed individuals that had been killed in Malta (report here). Many of these birds, like turtle doves, were rare or declining species, species that only have small numbers of young and take several years to reach sexual maturity. Birds that we and millions like us had cared for and protected during the breeding season!

The impact of hunting pressures on European bird populations can have serious repercussions on their conservation status. This hunting, much of it Illegal, is therefore an international issue that affects the breeding birds of almost all countries in Europe. Malta is an EU country and spring hunting and trapping is expressly forbidden by the Birds Directive. However, exceptions can be made and despite widescale disapproval elsewhere in Europe (see e.g. Chris Packham’s blog with videos here) it goes on.

Cyprus Base (Akrotiri and Dhekelia) is a British Overseas Territory which makes it very disappointing then that the numbers of trapped songbirds illegally killed there reached an estimated 900,000 birds in 2014 (report here) – the highest level recorded in 12 years.

Comparative figures reported for the Republic of Cyprus reveal that illegal bird trapping elsewhere on the island is still an issue (reports here), but the figures have reduced since 2002. The light of bad publicity is rightly being shone on Malta and Cyprus. Encouragingly, the Base Area authorities have recently signed up to a Cyprus Strategic Action Plan on illegal bird trapping.

Turtle dove hunting

Photo of legal turtle dove hunting from International Safari Corporation website

Law enforcement throughout the islands is a key problem as authorities are under-resourced and under-staffed. What can we do? Please support the efforts of the local bird conservationists who often work under pressures that we couldn’t start to imagine here. BirdLife Malta and BirdLife Cyprus need support from all of us so check their websites and sign up to their newsletters. Keep up to date too through Mark Avery’s blog and Birders Against Wildlife Crime.

While the Eastern Mediterranean receives much publicity for its bird hunting, it does go on in the west where turtle doves can, in places, be hunted legally under strict conditions. Hunting trips to shoot (our?) turtle doves in Spain and Morocco (here and here) are freely advertised – that’s some holiday!

Have an impact… prevent an impact

New York City at night. Photo by Paulo Barcellos Jr. From From Wikimedia Commons New York City Audobon

New York City in the USA has long been a favourite site for foreign visitors – including millions of birds. But here, as in other North American urban areas, birds face a significant danger: colliding with a building or structure. “It is estimated that some 90,000 birds die annually in New York City because of collisions with buildings,” says Susan Elbin, NYC Audubon’s director of conservation and science.

Light_Out_Hero__Credit_NASA-Earth-Observatory Photo NASA Earth ObservatoryIn the dark, and especially in foggy or rainy weather when birds fly at lower altitudes, the combination of glass and light becomes deadly. Confused by artificial lights, blinded by weather, unable to see glass, or simply exhausted by flying around the lights like moths near a flame, birds can be injured or killed. Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), the Toronto-based conservation society that Bird mortalities, Toronto. Photo by Kenneth Herdyspearheaded the lights-out movement in 1993, is succinct about the threat: “Across North America, more birds die from collisions each year than succumbed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.” A landmark study conducted by the Field Museum in Chicago showed that by turning the lights off in one building, the number of bird kills dropped by an average of 83 percent.

Growing awareness of light’s fatal attraction to birds has led to action: NYC Audubon inaugurated Lights Out New York in 2005. This year, a number of the city’s iconic buildings such as the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, 501 Lexington Avenue (formerly known as Citigroup Center), Silverstein Properties, The Time Warner Center and the Worldwide Plaza will turn off their lights from midnight to dawn during peak migration season from 1st September to 1st November.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by Mick DrydenIn downtown Chicago, about 100 buildings go dark after 11pm for six months during spring and autum migrations. That is “virtually all of the buildings downtown over 40 stories,” according to Annette Prince, director of Chicago Audubon Society’s Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. And in May, Minnesota’s governor signed a bill that requires structures owned or leased by the state to turn out the lights after midnight during spring and autumn migrations. Other bills supporting Audubon lights-out efforts have been passed or sponsored in Michigan, Massachusetts, and San Francisco.

Not only birds are saved. By following Toronto’s bird-friendly rating system, Metro Hall posted annual savings of $200,000 in energy costs.

Ovenbird_RWDSavings in terms of birds’ lives are not as easily measured. In New York City, about thirty volunteers patrol a handful of buildings in the city during migration as part of Project Safe Flight. “The monitoring and research improves our understanding of the causes behind urban bird collisions and suggests ways to prevent bird collisions from occurring,” says Elbin, adding: “The number of birds migrating in autum and spring seemed light this year since few birds were found at the 13 buildings monitored.” (One hundred and fifty eight and 65 bird kills were found, respectively.) White-throated sparrows, common yellowthroats, and ovenbirds were the most numerous species found.

Glenn Phillips, NYC Audubon’s executive director, explains that such low numbers can be misleading and are due in part to New York City’s unique architecture: “We don’t know the true scope of the problem in part because of the set backs of the buildings. With set backs, the birds may fall onto high floors, their bodies never reaching the ground. Other considerations are: predators, wind currents, and traffic. All these factors make it hard for us to collect data and monitor deaths.”

Publications on bird-window collisions can be found here

Keeping birds safe around windows – tips here

Common yellowthroat. Photo by Mick dryden