By Liz Corry
As October drew to a close it was achingly apparent that the chough flock was down from 38 to 36 individuals. The two wild-hatched females who went missing in September had still not made an appearance, forcing us to reluctantly record them as missing presumed dead.
This is the first time we have lost wild-hatched birds post-fledging period. One can’t help feel a sense of responsibility. These individuals were known to have a nematode infection, but attempts to medicate them had failed before they went missing. All we can do now is monitor the remaining choughs to ensure the same fate doesn’t befall them.
So we did, and guess what…two of the adults started sneezing. Egg and Helier began with the ‘I’m not sneezing, just clearing my nostrils’ subtle sneeze. After a few days Egg stopped whereas Helier continued and progressively worsened.
After a few failed catch ups due to jammed hatches, intelligent corvids, and of all things Portuguese forest fires (see ‘Sepia skies’ below) Helier was finally locked in the aviary allowing her to be treated by the vet team. She was released back into the wild straight after her worming injection and appears to be much improved.
Nematodes are part of the natural ecosystem. Choughs feeding in the wild will be exposed to them and have to tolerate or succumb. This year is turning out to be the worst since the project began in terms of number of infected birds and fatalities warranting further investigation.
Having worked at Sorel for several years now you would have thought that everything that could go wrong in a catch up had done or at least been theorised and accounted for. Hinges sticking on trap doors, birds not showing up or not hungry enough to want to go inside, mountain bikers zooming past scaring the flock into the air, etcetera. Not once had we thought to account for Caribbean hurricanes and Portuguese forest fires!
On the morning of the first planned attempt to catch up Helier the skies in Jersey, and parts of the UK, were looking very ominous. Walking around Sorel it felt like someone had put a sepia filter on the world. Frustratingly my camera phone kept adding its own filter so the photos below don’t fully set the scene.
Low cloud filled the skies throughout the morning. Around lunchtime the sun made an appearance, but looked more like Mars than our beloved sun. There were no horsemen on the horizon so instead of embracing impending doom I turned to the Gods of Google.
An explanation for the near apocalyptic conditions was provided by the BBC. Remnants of Hurricane Ophelia passing over the south of England and Channel Islands were dragging dust from the Sahara and smoke from the devastating forest fires in Portugal and Spain across our skies.
I tried explaining this to a very confused flock of choughs who were clearly conflicted about what time they should go to roost. One might think this would be advantageous to someone trying to lock birds in an aviary. Nope. Instead it meant they just sat and stared at me in their perplexed state. A twenty-minute stand-off resulted in a dejected keeper walking away left to come up with a Plan B.
Plan B failed. In fact it wasn’t until Plan E was executed that we were able to lock the sick chough in the aviary. The new plan arose from the need to know who was roosting in the aviary in case we had to lock in the sick bird for longer than a day. There was a small chance she roosted in the aviary already rather than the quarry. If so, all we had to do was wait until the birds had gone to roost and quietly shut the external hatches.
Cut to the scene of a person in dark clothes vaulting a field gate at night only lit by the stars and the dim headlights from a teenager’s car (one assumes from the discarded firework packaging and soda cans found the next morning) idling at Sorel Point.
The operation provided extra information other than Helier’s roosting site. A total of twelve choughs were roosting inside the aviary including Dusty the very first wild-hatched chough and the two females who follow him.
Kevin and Bean were hanging around outside the aviary. They could have used one of the external roost spaces at the aviary or simply flown over from the quarry at first light to forage nearby. The other interesting find was the kestrel who shot out of the external roost box when I arrived in the morning to check on the choughs.
There are no photos from Operation If this doesn’t work we’re screwed. So instead here are a couple taken at Les Landes when checking for signs of choughs at sunset.
The Women’s Institute expedition to the north coast
Earlier in the year the ladies of La Moye WI had invited me to give a talk about the choughs. Several of their members were already aware of the project, but had not realised that the historic breeding sites for Jersey choughs were in fact along the coastline at La Moye.
Enthusiasm for the project continued to grow as the evening went on, fuelled by the obligatory tea and cake, and by the end of the night a trip to Sorel was penned in the diary.
After a few clashes in the calendar a small group from La Moye finally made it up to the north coast this month. Glyn walked them around the conservation fields and release site. Not all of the choughs were present, but certainly enough to make an impact and demonstrate their amazing flying skills. I sadly missed out as I was in England, but from the looks on their faces I think they enjoyed it.