Stop Press – meet Dusty the chough!

By Liz Corry

We have an apology to make to our faithful readers. We have not been entirely honest with you over the past month. In May we reported that there were two nests in the quarry and that Mauve and White’s nest had not produced any chicks. What we didn’t tell you is that, in the same week of visiting their nest, we also took a sneak peek into Green and Blue’s nest.

Looking at potential chough nest sites in the quarry. Photo by Liz Corry

Looking at potential chough nest sites in the quarry. Photo by Liz Corry

On 12th May we were taken to the nest site by Matthew Sharpe, (then Assistant Quarry Manager) of Ronez quarry. The position of the nest and its careful concealment meant that there was no way we could see into it.

We knew from the female’s daily routine that she was incubating. Not wanting to disturb her we patiently waited. The incubation period is about 19 days from the last egg being laid. We could only guess a start date for laying and allowed a couple of days error either side. Add to that a few more days post-hatch so we don’t spook mum and risk the nest being abandoned.

We had a long wait.

Accessing the nest required a scissor lift or cherry picker to be brought into the quarry. Site foreman Kevin Gray very kindly and efficiently juggled their work schedule to allow their pre-made plans to hire in the machinery to coinincide with our availability to check the nest.

On the 29th, with hard hat, high vis, safety specs, and a 1001 butterflies in the stomach I went up to find out exactly what Green and Blue had been up to over the past three weeks.

P1550366

Green and Blue’s nest. Photo by Liz Corry

The first thing I saw was a very cleverly constructed nest, exactly how you woud expect a wild chough pair to build one.

Watchful parents. Photo by Liz Corry

Watchful parents. Photo by Liz Corry

Very proud of Green and Blue, who were watching on from above, my journey upwards in the cherry picker continued (at a comical pace) until I was level with the top of the nest.

It was a very proud moment as I gingerly peered in and said hello to a little naked chough chick.

The first sighting of Green and Blue's chick. Photo by Liz Corry

The first sighting of Green and Blue’s chick. Photo by Liz Corry

From our experience with the captive choughs at the Wildlife Park we judged the chick to be about 4-5 days old. It is slightly tricky to judge as you are comparing hand-fed to parent-fed chicks housed in different conditions. However, the lack of emerging pin-feathers allowed for fairly accurate dating. All chough chicks hatch with a bit of ‘fluff’ on them, as can be seen in the photo above, but these are not the feathers.

Whilst this might seem like the perfect time to celebrate we had to be cautious. It takes about 42 days from hatch to the point of flying. In the last week or so before that flight the chick will be ‘bouldering’ around. This could be quite a tricky feat in an active quarry building especially when the nest is built on an overhanging steel girdle. There were potential hazards inside not to mention those outside. What if something happened to the parent(s)? Will there be adequate food for a chick?

Harriet with the free-living choughs waiting for their supplementary feed. Photo by Liz Corry

Harriet with the free-living choughs waiting for their supplementary feed. Photo by Liz Corry

The latter was easy to control. Our supplementary feeding at the aviary meant the parents knew when and where to get food for the chick even if wild supplies dried up (quite literally as the weather gets hotter and the ground becomes harder). We can’t control what happens to the parents when they are out and about. We simply monitor their behaviour and look out for any signs of problems. Ronez helped where they could by keeping an eye on the parents and nest in the quarry.

Even lunchtimes became occupied with nest watches. Photo by Liz Corry.

Even lunchtimes became occupied with nest watches. Photo by Liz Corry.

When the chick was approxiately three-weeks old we paid another visit to the nest. This time to give the chick leg rings, take morphometric measurements, and get a blood sample for sexing. This is the best age to do this as the chicks are almost fully grown but not at risk of jumping out of the nest in panic. Licensed ringer Dave Buxton accompanied myself and Harriet into the quarry. This time Ronez had arranged the use of a scissior lift. We knew from the parents’ behaviour that they had still been taking food to the nest and as soon as we were underneath we could hear the chick calling away.

Once again with parents watching, I went up to the nest, this time to remove the chick so we could process it on the ground in a calm and safe environment. It was amazing to see the size difference between our hand-reared chick and this one. This chick was 70g heavier! We felt shamed as surrogate parents, but it is to be expected as chough parents are bound to be better feeders.

Dusty being ringed at Ronez Quarry. 16-6-2015. Photo by Liz Corry (8)

David Buxton rings Dusty at Ronez Quarry. 16-6-2015. Photo by Liz Corry

We will not know the sex until the DNA results come back from the lab, although we have started placing in-house bets based on weight and leg length. Regardless, the team at Ronez have already taken this chick to heart and proudly named it Dusty.

Dusty was returned to the nest as soon as possible and we quickly left the area so the parents could return to see that their chick was fine. Quarry staff fitted a hammock-style tarpauline underneath the nest to act as a safety net in case the chick was to fall out. Each day they would check the site at the start and end of their working day to make sure Dusty was ok.

Dusty being ringed at Ronez Quarry. 16-6-2015. Photo by Liz Corry (11)

Then on 2nd July I received an urgent text message from Harriet to call her as soon as I could. Two days after we lost our foster chick ‘Special K’ on the operating table I naturally feared the worst.

After a quick chat, and strict instructions never to leave me hanging like that again, my fear subsided and I rushed over to Sorel. Dusty was out!

Without us knowing, Dusty had left the nest-building and moved to the tallest building it could find. The parents were the give-away as they flew to feed it and then spent several hours trying to coax Dusty back down so they could roost in the safety and familiar home of the ‘crusher’ (that is the actual working name of the building!).

Like all toddlers Dusty was intent on ignoring its parents and stayed put. It will probably take a week or so of short practice flights before Dusty spreads its wings further. We fully expect Green and Blue to bring Dusty to the aviary and teach it about the supplementary food as well as how to probe for wild insects. We will be there every step of the way and as ever will keep you posted on its progress…we promise.

Thank you to everyone at Ronez whose support throughout the project has helped tremendously. We would also like to thank Paradise Park, all our colleagues in the Birds On The Edge project and all of the students and volunteers over the last two years as without them Green and Blue would not be flying free and have the resources they need to successfully breed in the wild. This is the first successful breeding attempt by choughs in the Channel Islands since the 1920s. With the continued help of the team and the people of Jersey we hope we can truely see the red-billed chough return to its full glory in the years to come.

15 thoughts on “Stop Press – meet Dusty the chough!

  1. This is tremendous news, a great success and an useful model for similar proposed reintroductions such as the Hawaiian Crow.

  2. Congratulations guys, what a milestone! And well done to all staff and volunteers involved in the project (and Green and Blue of course) for making this happen. Here’s to Dusty and hopefully a long and fruitful breeding career!

  3. I’m sure I saw a chough in the fields, north of St Mary – I thought I ‘must be seeing things!’ – great news – welcome home choughs 🙂

  4. Excellent news! Wasn’t expecting a breeding success so soon, i.e. this year but there you are. Must make up in part for the sad loss of Gianna’s chick.

  5. What a wonderful success story! Great to hear the Ronez guys were drawn into the drama and were so keen to use their kit to help keep Dusty safe! Well done all, what dedication from everyone, including devoted parents Green and Blue. I’m sure Dusty will have a successful future!

Leave a Reply to Chris S Cancel reply