By Liz Corry
November. The time of year the field team finally succumb to the ‘great’ British weather, unpack their thermals, wrap up in woolly garments, and pretty much live in waterproofs round the clock.
Unless it is November 2015. In which case we also need sunglasses, factor 15, and the agility skills of a border collie to be able to escape our woolly confinements when the sun comes out and the wind vanishes.
There have been days when the team have had to abandon tracking for health and safety reasons. Jersey’s Met Office issued several weather warnings this month with gale force winds reaching above 50mph. Visibility has been poor due to the constant drizzle and mist spreading across from sea to shore. Sorel Point lighthouse might not be as majestic as Corbiere, but it still serves its purpose as an aid for navigation for getting back to our cars! Yet other days have been t-shirt weather (until the sun goes down and hyperthermia sets in). The choughs have been equally unpredictable in their behaviour as a result of the weather leading to four very eventful weeks.
At the start of the month Ormer showed signs of having a gapeworm infection. Not surprising since Dusty was treated for it the week before.
We caught up Ormer exactly the same way as we did for Dusty and injected him with a wormer. Once again the medication was quick to act and within a day Ormer was his normal self.
With that mini-drama dealt with the team turned their attention to trying to understand why the choughs were spending so much time these days on the west side of Mourier Valley. Watching them endlessly fly around for fun gives you one clue.
They also like to shelter in the Devil’s Hole and look for insects where the soil layer is exposed on the rock face. Anyone familiar with this area will appreciate the leg work needed for the radio-trackers to head down to the hole to pick up a signal only to have to walk back up when the birds switch to the headland minutes later!
Is there a better bounty of insects to be found at Devils Hole compared to Sorel? After watching Noir feeding on a beetle by a clump of gorse the other day it seems hard to believe the rock face has better to offer. Thanks to Piers Sangan and the Insects of the Channel Islands Facebook Group for identifying Noir‘s choice of snack as being a minotaur beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus).
The choughs’ jollies on the other side of the valley came to an abrupt halt mid-November when the gales returned and the wind chill factor was Baltic. The birds were struggling to stay grounded and any flight required brute strength and persistence.
One morning whilst the group were over at Devils Hole we noticed Bean and Dusty sat on the rock face not moving whilst everyone was searching for food. At the 11am aviary feed there were twenty-one birds feeding in the aviary. Dusty was missing. Jen returned to Devils Hole to find Dusty sat in the same place looking miserable. We assumed that for whatever reason he didn’t have enough strength to battle the gales across to the aviary with everyone else.
Jen took over a target board and placed it on the headland opposite the rock face. She placed a bowl of food on the target, blew the whistle, and called Dusty to the food. To her surprise he not only responded, but shot up in the air and over to the aviary. This behaviour appeared promising; however he never actually went in to feed and disappeared shortly after…along with Bean. By the afternoon aviary feed Dusty was still missing. Bean materialised in the field next to the aviary and just sat crouched down looking miserable whilst everyone else ate. We tried taking the food closer, but she flew to the nearest rabbit hole and sat in it sheltering from the wind. Bean had made it back into the aviary by roost time but there was no sign of Dusty.
The next day Dusty was spotted back at Devils Hole sat on the cliff face whilst the rest of the group were flying around. Bean was still looking miserable and not eating very much throughout the day. The weather was still horrendous and wasn’t set to change for a few days.
With Bean’s condition deteriorating we decided to lock her in one section of the aviary so she could have respite from the cold wind and a food bowl all to herself. We knew she had lost weight. It wasn’t until we had her in the hand that it became apparent just how thin she was.
Feacal samples were submitted to the lab. Ultimately all she needed was a bit of TLC and a hearty meal. We increased the amount for food for all the birds as clearly they were having to burn a lot of calories to fly in the wind and stay warm. Once Bean was reunited with the group they stayed close together, including Dusty, and remained on the Sorel side of the valley. Until the next day!
Just as our stress levels were being lowered Lee and Noir went off the radar. This was obviously worrying what with Dusty and Bean’s fiasco and the bad weather continuing. Jen and Nicci tracked a group of choughs flying from the quarry and off west beyond Devils Hole early morning. Whilst trying to work out who was left behind a report came in of a sighting at Les Landes Racecourse again. Jen jumped in the car and went off to investigate.
Typically the group had left the area and disbanded. Eleven choughs had been at Les Landes with nine of those last seen heading off down the west coast over L’Étacq.
Calmly assuming that the birds would return for their 11am aviary feed as they always do Jen returned to Sorel. They did indeed return, but Lee and Noir were still missing and absent at roost.
A search began the next day covering the areas were the group had been spotted.
Applying artistic license, some of the following photos were taken using filters to emphasise how bad the weather was without risking the camera’s longevity.
The search lasted all morning.
Just before giving up one last place was checked. Edit that. Double checked. From Ronez loop road the radio antennae was directed towards the quarry. The faintest of beeps emitted from the receiver! Cutting a 26 hour story short…Lee and Noir had somehow found themselves in the workshop building at the bottom of the quarry. Where they perched affected whether the signal was being blocked or not. Mixed feelings (from both parties) of confusion, relief, embarrassment, and glee when tracker and choughs were reunited .
The only question now was how to get them out. It took a few attempts at target feeding and another night in the building to think about it.
The next morning the weather was the complete opposite; sunny, calm, dry(ish). The rest of the flock decided to spend the day at Ronez, something they haven’t done in a long time. This probably helped as the two in the building could hear them calling. Lee plucked up the courage to leave by 10am.
Noir took a bit more encouragement. This time when I visited her she started wing-begging when I spoke to her and offered food. Yes I talked to her. No I didn’t expect her to talk back, although in her own way she did. Still unsure about flying down and out of the entrance I blew the whistle to attract the other choughs. A very loud White and his partner Mauve flew in from the back entrance and chatted to Noir for a minute before all three left the building and re-joined the flock.
By the afternoon feed all 22 choughs were back together and eating at the aviary.
And that is how our November came to a close.
What could possibly happen in December?
One thing that did go as planned this month was the move of the choughs at Durrell back into their flocking aviary on display at the park.
The repair work to the netting was completed last month. There is still a bit of DIY to do and it needs a bit of replanting after the digging required for the new structural supports.
The important thing is that the birds are together, as they would be in the wild. They get to have a mental break from the breeding season. And the prima donna Gianna gets to see her public.