The red-billed chough is one of our most charismatic birds but one which is probably most familiar to those living along rugged Irish coastlines. The chough is a scarce bird associated with coastal fringes from Donegal to Wexford. Fewer than 850 breeding pairs along our coastline from Inishowen in Donegal to the Saltees in Wexford – they are very much a bird associated with western Atlantic coastal grasslands.
A member of the crow family, choughs are true invertebrate specialists with a striking and delicate decurved red bill (and matching red legs) designed to probe the top layer of short coastal grasses for insects – liking leatherjackets, spiders and, where they can get them the insects associated with cow pats. To a young chough a cow pat is like a burger! Choughs are totally harmless to livestock and farming activities and are an amazing character of our coastal skies.
Because of their dependence on short-cropped coastal grasslands such as clifftops, grazed cliffs, dunes and exposed islands, the extensively managed and relatively mild Irish coastline provides good feeding opportunities throughout the year and good nesting opportunities on our cliffs. Agricultural improvement has led to chough declines – a century ago they used to occur all around the Irish coastline, including the ‘soft’ eastern coastline from Wicklow to Antrim – they have been extinct in most coastal counties there for more than 100 years and the last remaining pair in Northern Ireland – on the cliffs of Rathlin Island in Antrim – disappeared in 2017.
We need to periodically take stock of the population, to know how they are faring, and to use this information to inform their continued conservation. Holding nearly 60% of the Northwest European population we have a legal obligation to do so.
Aside from having the distinctive red legs and red decurved bill, chough have a buoyant, butterfly-like flight and profile (a little different from other crows), shiny black plumage and a distinctive high pitched ‘cheouw’ call.
Dr Sinéad Cummins, the scientist in NPWS Science Biodiversity Section leading the project said “we are very pleased to be undertaking a national assessment of these characterful birds this year. The data gathered is very important to ensure that Ireland can meet its international obligations to protect and enhance the small and precious population of chough around the Atlantic coastline of Ireland.”
In some areas chough nest inland, away from the coast on inland cliffs, in farm buildings, bridges and abandoned houses. The Survey team would be very keen to hear about any observations people may have of these birds, especially relating to birds nesting in areas away from the coast.
World Migratory Bird Day: Join the global celebration of birds and nature on 8 May 2021!
“Sing, fly, soar – like a bird!” is the theme of this year’s World Migratory Bird Day, an annual global campaign dedicated to raising awareness of migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to conserve them.
This year the campaign will focus on the phenomena of “bird song” and “bird flight” as a way to inspire and connect people of all ages around the world in their shared desire to celebrate migratory birds and to unite in a common, global effort to protect birds and the habitats they need to survive.
The 2021 World Migratory Bird Day theme is an invitation to people everywhere to connect and re-connect with nature by actively listening to – and watching birds – wherever they are. At the same time the theme appeals to people around the world to use their own voices and creativity to express their shared appreciation of birds and nature.
Birds can be found everywhere: in cities and in the countryside; in parks and backyards, in forests and mountains, and in wetlands and along the shores. They connect all these habitats and they connect us, reminding us of our own connection to the planet, the environment, wildlife and each other. Through their seasonal movements, migratory birds are also regularly reminding us of nature’s cycles.
As global ambassadors of nature, migratory birds not only connect different places across the planet, they also re-connect people to nature and to themselves like no other animals on the planet.
In fact, billions of migratory birds have continued to sing, fly and soar between their breeding and non-breeding sites. During the pandemic, which slowed down many activities by limiting our movements, people across the world have been listening to and watching birds like never before. For many people around the world, bird song has also been a source of comfort and joy during the pandemic, connecting people to each other and to nature as they remain in place.
Scientists around the world have also been studying the impact the pandemic is having on birds and other wildlife, looking at how “the anthropause” – the so-called global shutdown in human activity resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic – has effected birds and other wildlife around the world. At the same time, scientists have also been looking at the positive health benefits of birds and nature on humans.
Clearly, the pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge for humankind. At the same time, it has also brought a whole new level of awareness and appreciation of birds and the importance of nature for our own well-being.
World Migratory Bird Day 2021 is therefore not only a celebration of birds, it is also an important moment to reflect on our own global relationship with nature and to highlight our collective desire to do more to protect birds and nature in a post-pandemic world.
Celebrated across the world on two peak days each year – on the second Saturday in May and second Saturday in October – World Migratory Bird Day is the only international awareness-raising and education program that celebrates the migration of bird species along all the major flyways of the world.
The chough pairs have been busy at their nests. Wool, horse hair and moss were being transported between Sorel and Ronez Quarry at the start of March.
The few cold snaps, where temperatures went below 4°C look to have interrupted the normal progression of things and pairs were still moving nesting material at the end of March. We think that at least one pair began incubating this month though, based on pair behaviour at the aviary. Nothing is certain. As the following will show.
It might well be the Plémont pair that have been visiting the stables at Les Landes Racecourse. A friend sent a photo of a chough on the window ledge as she was mucking out. Nest prospecting, after lining material, or just popping in to say hello? Not sure, but it started a trend that week for horse-related chough news.
I found horse hair in the Sorel aviary on Monday afternoon (26th). On Wednesday came the report from Les Landes stables and, on Thursday, I took a phone call from a lady in Trinity who wanted to report choughs nesting in her stables. She had tried calling the day before, but the Zoo switchboard experienced technical issues. If she had got through, I would have been able to witness a flurry of twig movement in the empty stables and a shouting match between three choughs!
Choughs have been moving twigs around in a stables in Trinity as evident from the mess on the floor. Photo by Liz Corry.
We already knew about Bee visiting the Zoo and roosting somewhere nearby. Three days prior to the Trinity ‘battle of the twigs’, a pair was spotted feeding by Jersey Dairy late in the afternoon and I spent two hours after work the next day staking out the area to no avail. The next day, keepers spotted three choughs over the Zoo. Then twig-ageddon.
Jersey dairy HQ where two choughs were seen feeding this month. Photo by Liz Corry.
The Royal Jersey Showground is next door to Jersey Dairy and offers more foraging habitat for choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.
These must be the three choughs involved in the Trinity stables squabble? Exactly which three remained a puzzle. At least for a couple of days. Easter Saturday, at around 8am, I got the call that the pair were back in the stables. Having just got out of the shower, I raced over with breakfast in hand to….oh wait, this was now April. I can’t tell you until the next report!
We definitely have a nest at Plémont. As do the raven pair and peregrines. Talk about unwelcome neighbours! We are a bit concerned about unintentional public disturbance and whilst you can’t physically access the nest, you can walk close to it. A few reports have included that the pair fly out to defend the site when people or dogs have approached.
Plémont, home to a pair of choughs, adjoins foraging favourites Grosnez and Les Landes. Photo by Liz Corry.
As most of Jersey’s choughs nest in the very active Ronez Quarry, you would expect them to be used to disturbance. However, two cautionary points (1) this pair has never roosted/nested in the quarry and (2) disturbance is a regular 7am-4pm at Ronez with 1-2days off a week.
All we can do is monitor the situation and evaluate at the end of the season. There isn’t any signage at Plémont to raise awareness. Then again, it might just have the same effect as a sign over a big red button that reads “do not press”.
We’ve attempted several catch-ups this month to replace missing or broken rings. The choughs are understandably vigilant during the breeding season. That being said, we succeeded a couple times resulting in a surprising revelation.
Green, the ‘forefather’ of the Jersey choughs, paired up with Pyrrho at the start of 2020. She wears an orange and white ring combo. So, this year when the female turned up with only an orange ring we thought nothing of it. That was until we managed to catch up, check the metal ring number, and discover it was Vicq!
What have we learnt from this?
Green is really unlucky having now found himself with ‘wife’ number 4 since 2015
Vicq finally stands a chance at breeding, having spent the last two years in a female pairing
Never make assumptions where choughs are involved!
The other solved mystery involved two choughs sporting only a yellow leg ring. We knew that one was Dingle as he is busy nest-building with his partner Red. The other, once caught, turned out to be Jaune so we replaced her missing cerise ring.
Tupperware party @ Sorel, 3pm
We have phased out the use of ceramic dishes for the supplemental feed. I’ve managed to find suitable sized Tupperware boxes with robust lids into which I drilled holes (16-19mm dia.). The holes allow slender chough bills to get to access the food. Spillage, aka rat food, is stopped by the lid. As too is rain, well light rain at least.
New food stations for the choughs to stop spillage and limit thieving magpies. Photo by Liz Corry.
The choughs initially ignored the Tupperware hence phasing in rather than completely switching. Once confident they were not a trap, the birds happily tucked in. The containers are screwed into the food stands for stability and easily removed for cleaning.
Release aviary modifications
We have bought aluminium sheeting from metal fabricators Raffray Ltd. They have cut and bent to shape the panels we need to attach to the aviary to stop rats climbing up and getting inside. The order arrived this month and will be fitted sometime after Easter.
Raffray’s aluminium panels have arrived for the release aviary modifications. Photo by Liz Corry.
Rewild Jersey wheels
Another modification underway this month saw the project vehicle transform to Rewild Jersey featuring an agile frog and a chough. The new signage is all thanks to the design team at Durrell and Signtech.je. Fingers crossed we don’t scratch it on the brambles driving down the Sorel track.
Speaking of amphibians, the toads returned to the chough aviary in the Zoo (also known as SORG), and spawned in the shallow pond. Pond is probably too grand a term. Not that the toads seem to mind. The chough student, who services SORG each morning, has been keeping the water levels topped up and we now have tadpoles. I’m not sure which we will be more excited to see this year, chough chicks or toadlets?
British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) Conference 2021
The choughs fought off stiff competition to secure a poster presentation slot at the 2020 BOU conference. Then Covid hit and the conference was cancelled. Not to be defeated, the entire event was transferred online via Zoom, Slack, and Twitter and held this month over three days.
For those of you on Twitter, search #BOU2021 and #chough or @Corry_Liz for the six tweet poster presentation thread. The poster itself can be viewed here:
****Please note that due to COVID-19, you will need to book a place to attend this task through Eventbright and numbers will be restricted to a total of 20.
It is also advised to bring your own tools, work gloves and a mug for refreshments****
We are delighted to be back! Join us this Sunday at Mourier Valley for new woodland maintenance with the National Trust for Jersey.
Task It is time to revisit the Mourier Valley New Woodland site after its second year of planting for a morning of tree maintenance and mulching with the National Trust for Jersey. The task will include mulching newly planted trees (to help retain water and supress weeds), weeding tree guards, removing old spirals and guards and some grassland management.
Please meet at the car park at 10am to allow us to walk over to the site and start work for 10.30am. We will finish for 1pm.
If you have any questions, or if you wish to be added to the Jersey Conservation Volunteers email list, please contact either Julia Clively (tel: 441600; email@example.com) or Jon Parkes (tel: 483193; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The site Meet at Sorel Point top public car park. Jersey phone directory Map 3, R2 and Google Maps here
Parking There is parking at Sorel Point top public car park.
Tools needed Due to COVID restrictions we are discouraging the sharing of tools and ensuring that any borrowed tools are disinfected before and after the event. With this in mind, if you have your own shovels, buckets, sickles, rakes, forks or gardening gloves, please bring them along.
Clothing needed Please dress for the weather and bear in mind how exposed the site is on the north coast. Sturdy boots are recommended as we will be working on some sloped gradients.
Children Children are welcome to attend this task as long as they are directly supervised by a parent or guardian.
Refreshments Kim will be setting up her pop up café to treat you all when work finishes at about 12.30. Please don’t forget to bring your own mug!
Birds On The Edge is delighted to announce that Jersey’s Atlantic puffins have started to arrive to their breeding cliffs on the Island’s north coast.
This small colony has comprised only four breeding pairs in the last few years, and it is hoped that at least as many will return this year. The puffins have been a bit late to arrive, with only one or two having seen so far over the past few days.
This is the most delicate time for our puffins, as they settle back in their nests and wait for their mates to arrive. Any disturbance or negative experience could put them off and make them abandon the area, sending them off to look for quieter breeding grounds elsewhere. After they have settled, the presence of boats and other watercraft near their breeding sites might disrupt or affect natural behaviours, such as incubation of the egg, fishing, or feeding their chick.
Birds On The Edge asks everyone to follow the guidelines of the Seabird Protection Zone (SPZ) between Plémont and Grève de Lecq, and avoid visiting this area by boat, kayak, paddle board or any other type of watercraft between March and July. These guidelines are already observed by boat and kayak tour operators, who avoid this area at this sensitive time, as well as by the local fishermen, who only visit the area briefly to check their pots.
The presence of watercraft in the Seabird Protection Zone is monitored during regular puffin and seabird surveys. In 2020 a steep increase of leisure craft in the SPZ was noticed in comparison with the previous year. The number of private boats and kayaks recorded per hour increased by 360%. This was believed to be a result of the travel and lockdown restrictions put in place during the pandemic. It was hoped that this year all private boat and kayak users will avoid the area completely until the breeding season is over. However, Birds On The Edge has already received reports of people on kayaks going through the SPZ over the past week.
It is worth remembering that puffins and their relatives, the razorbills, can be found all across the north coast, but as their breeding is restricted to this area, it is extremely important to give them peace and quiet in order for them to return to their nests.
The safest way to enjoy puffins is from the public footpath between Plémont and Grève de Lecq. As the Jersey puffins nest in rock crevices and between boulders below the coastal slopes, they are out of sight when in their nests. However, they spend a lot of time sitting on the water below the cliffs, and the safest way to watch them, for both puffins and people, is from the footpath between Plémont and Grève de Lecq, looking down to the water. The various vantage points, benches and bunkers along the footpath are good spots to watch puffins and other seabirds from.
The public is also invited to join one of the free ‘Puffin Watches’ that will take place at Plémont over the Easter holiday break. For further details please consult the Facebook pages of Jersey Birding Tours and Jersey Wildlife.