Chough report: July 2015

Jersey’s first wild chough chick in one hundred years made its maiden flight out of the nest on 2nd July. Well at least we assume that is how it made it up to the top of one of the tallest buildings in the quarry. It was a long time before we actually witnessed a ‘flight’ and even then it was best described as a choreographed fall. Or was it pushed?

Dusty with parents on the first day away from the nest building. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chough chicks spend a while walking and jumping around the nest site learning all the basics before actually taking flight. Dusty, named by Ronez quarry staff, did exactly that only in this case Dusty left the busy quarry building his parents had nested in and chose the very tall ‘climbing frame’ next door to play around on.

Dusty’s parents, Green and Blue, stayed very close to their chick for the first few days. The video below shows them training Dusty.

They would fly up and perch next to Dusty then take a short flight around the building and back trying to encourage the chick to do the same. Time after time they tried but Dusty was having none of it, which is why we are a tad suspicious of that first ‘flight’.

Parents feeding their wild born chick in the quarry. Photo by Liz Corry.

Dusty did make a few flights around the top of the building over the next few days, but didn’t have much need to go elsewhere. Why would you when your parents are bringing you food and you have one of the safest play areas a chough could want?

Green and Blue adopted a different approach to encouraging Dusty away from the buildings. Starvation.

I’m not suggesting this is an appropriate, or legal, parenting technique, but in the case of a chough it worked.

Not quite as extreme as it sounds. It simply meant the parents were spending less time with Dusty and more time foraging with the flock. They would still return with food for Dusty from either the aviary or the grazed cliff tops, just not as often. Instead of short demonstration flights around the buildings they would fly across the bay to Sorel Point.

Exactly a week after leaving the nest site, Dusty ‘s hunger to be with mum and dad (in both senses of the word) overcame its insecurities and the first flight to Sorel Point was made. Then they kept flying! All the way around to the grazed fields by the aviary to join the other thirteen choughs.

Dusty and parents coming into land at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

It wasn’t long before Dusty went to the aviary. At each supplementary feed when we called the birds to the aviary Dusty would be following eagerly begging for food of mum and dad. However, it took a long time for Dusty to pluck up the courage to actually go in the aviary. Initially it might be fair to say the optical illusion of the netting might have confused the youngster.

Dusty on the outside of the aviary begging to parents inside. Photo by Liz Corry.

Very quickly it was apparent that Dusty was wary about going inside. This was actually really encouraging to observe as it meant the chick wasn’t naïve. Having been raised by captive-bred parents in relatively close proximity to people you might think that this chick would be a little too comfortable around potential threats.

Dusty will now go in the aviary visiting the food dishes on the target boards and has even landed on the weighing scales.

Mum and Dad are still feeding on demand although you can see them trying to encourage Dusty to become more independent.

The general method being deny and ignore. It doesn’t always work and we have witnessed a few scuffles between Dad and chick.

P1610093Update from the free-living flock

The other choughs have accepted Dusty into the flock. There has not been any change in behaviour due to an additional member. Even one as noisy as Dusty.

P1600582P1600897They have started exploring new ground at Sorel looking for insects. The grazed headland is quite hard and compact at this time of year as the sun bakes the soil. The insect larvae available in the soil will be quite hard to get to. The grassy slopes leading down to the sea have looser soils and appear to be more inviting for the choughs right now.

They are still going through their moult, as shown by the chough in the flight in the photo below. They look a bit scruffy, but it isn’t stopping them from putting on their famous acrobatic flights of fancy or maneuvering away from an incoming peregrine. The latter has happened on several occasions this month as the young peregrines are out and about learning their trade.

New arrivals seeking Jersey residency

There has been one change at Sorel which effected the free-living choughs more than Dusty‘s arrival and that was the import of eight parent-reared chicks from Paradise Park. The team at the wildlife sanctuary in Cornwall have had another successful breeding season. They kindly agreed to loan Durrell eight of the eleven chicks that had successfully fledged this year (fully expecting not to see them again unless on holiday in Jersey!). Even better news was finding out that the DNA sexing results show we have four males in the group helping to address the balance out at Sorel.

Three of the parent-reared chicks with their parents at Paradise Park, Cornwall. Photo by Alison Hales.

Three of the parent-reared chicks with their parents at Paradise Park, Cornwall. Photo by Alison Hales.

Once again Lee Durrell and Colin Stephenson eagerly stepped up to offer to fly over and bring back the lucky eight. On the 16th July the three-month old chicks were caught up, crated, and driven to Perranporth airport by Ray Hales and curator David Woolcock. We made it through the very localised Cornish fog and cross winds to land around 1pm. After a brief refuelling of a bacon roll, cup of tea, and a catch up with friends, we loaded the choughs onto the plane and taxied off for our return to Jersey. An hour later we had landed and met by Dennis Moseley, Head of Operations, in the Durrell van to take the choughs on their last leg of the journey to Sorel.

Pilots Lee Durrell and Colin Stephenson alongside Liz Corry at Perranporth airfield. Photo by Ray Hales.

Pilots Lee Durrell and Colin Stephenson alongside Liz Corry at Perranporth airfield to collect the chough chicks. Photo by Ray Hales.

Once at Sorel their ordeal wasn’t over as they then had to go through their vet checks which included blood and faecal samples. The quarantine process began as soon as they entered the aviary and lasts for 30 days providing they all pass their tests. Feacal samples are submitted every seven days and tested at Durrell’s laboratory.

For the first week they were kept in section 1A separated from our hand-reared chick to allow them to settle in. We then gave them access in with our chick so they could socialise together.

Initially the parent-reared chicks were very scared as you can imagine. They quickly learnt to associate the arrival of the free-living group at the aviary with food provided by staff. We don’t know yet if they are responding to the whistle as the logistics of training the group and feeding the other sixteen at the same time is very challenging.

Throughout this the free-living choughs could still enter the aviary poly tunnel, but locked out of the shed sections (1A and 1B). This meant that the eight juveniles who normally roost in section 1 were forced to find alternative roost spots. Once the 2015 chicks have access to the entire aviary the free-living group will not be able to go inside the aviary until we start releases.

Sunset at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Sunset at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

A roost check from 19:30 until 21:00 (sunset at 20:50) confirmed that the juveniles were still sleeping at the aviary, but using the external roost boxes next to the parent-reared chicks.

It also highlighted what happens when people get too close to the aviary at the wrong time of day. The birds had already gone to roost by 19:50, spending the rest of the daylight hour to preen and tidy up. A couple approached the field gate and started to open it. This sent the birds out of their roost boxes and off to the other end of the aviary where they watched the couple closely. As the visitors got closer the choughs flight or fight response kicked in and the flew….off to the cliffs out of sight. The birds locked in the aviary started to panic flying around in a confined space.

The couple clearly meant no harm and they have every right to be in the field as there is public access. Once they left the field the birds inside calmed down and half an hour later the juveniles returned.

Whilst very frustrated that my working day had just been extended I do have to thank the mystery couple. If I had not have gone looking for the juveniles on the cliff I would not have seen the small pod of dolphins swimming across the bay!

P1610281Update on our hand-reared chick

The hand-reared chick in the release aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Last month we reported on how we moved our hand-reared chick up to the release aviary whilst still a nesting so she can fledge in the aviary and learn from the other choughs.

She had a rocky start overwhelmed by her new surroundings and the very loud gang of choughs that would descend en mass at least twice a day on the aviary. She didn’t have any other clutch mates to look to for support and became very dependent on myself and Harriet hand-feeding her.

She fledged at the start of July and started learning to feed for herself. We began weaning her off the hand-rearing diet and teaching her to fly to the target areas for food.

P1590795However we quickly started to realise we had a problem. She learnt to fly…on to our shoulders. Last year’s hand-reared chicks started doing this at a similar age. We never encouraged it, didn’t reward them with food, and in the nicest possible way shood them off. They quickly stopped and have not attempted it ever since. They have now attained a nice balance of being comfortable around staff for feeding and management purposes but at a safe distance from any ‘predation’ threat.

P1590977This chick has a unique ability to cling to your like some sort of gecko and no matter how hard you try will not leave you. She has imprinted on staff associating them with food and companionship. When the parent-reared chicks arrived she showed no interest in them. When we mixed her with them there was still no interaction. However we did have a problem of the other eight finishing off all the food. Our chick likes to feed when we are present then maybe graze a little throughout the day. When we were not there she had no food.

When we were there she would be frantically begging, following our every move, and throwing herself at the keeper door to get to us. We noticed her body weight going down each day so we increased the daily food allowance and gave extra dishes to reduce competition. When we gave the group access to the poly tunnel they had more time to explore and find food in the grass. Stress levels have been turned down a notch as a consequence. She will feed side by side with the other chicks and there is no aggression. When they react to something she will react and vice versa. There is a level of social cohesion there. Whether it is strong enough for out in the wild is a question we will face closer to the release date. We need to be confident that she will not be completely naïve when faced with a potential threat whether it be falcon, dog, human, etc.

However much her begging down our ear canals might grate and that her clingy nature means it takes at least twice as long to leave the aviary, it is a real privilege to work with a bird like her. She’s made me re-read Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson with greater appreciation.

Durrell display aviary taking shape

If our hand-reared chick is to return to the wildlife park she will get to move into the newly renovated display aviary. There is still a long list of jobs which require ticking off before the choughs can move back in, but the netting at supporting uprights are now in place. Once it is ready Gianna and the other six birds currently off-show to the public can also move back in.

Changing of the guard

Paul Pestana completed his three month placement on the project at the end of June. He extended his time so he could be there when Dusty fledged. Paul is hoping to continue working in conservation, this time in New Zealand a country with lots of experience at re-introductions and restoration work. In the meantime he is off to Kyrgyzstan on holiday! We have set him the challenge of finding a chough and sending back a photo (its not impossible they are resident there).

P1590419Before Paul left he spent a couple of weeks helping our new student Erin O’Brien settle in. Erin is returning to Jersey after completing her degree at the University of Exeter. Like Paul, Erin will spend three months with us and help with the release of this year’s chicks.