Want nesting petrels or puffins? Get rid of invasive mammals from their colonies!

It’s long been known that nesting seabirds and mammals don’t mix well. That’s why most species choose islands free of rodents and carnivores to nest. Smaller seabirds and those that nest down burrows are particularly vulnerable. And, if mammals get to those otherwise safe seabird colonies, you can expect the pretty rapid disappearance of the birds – they are either killed and eaten or they just don’t even try and nest. Unwanted species like this are called invasive and you can read all about this well studied issue through some titles below.

Birds On The Edge has covered several successful projects to remove unwanted mammals from seabird sites around the British Isles in Lundy Island, the Isles of Scilly, Calf of Man and the Shiant Isles. In Jersey we believe that mammals currently prevent breeding of storm petrel (they breed in good numbers in Alderney) and Manx shearwater and severely suppress our tiny Atlantic puffin population.

Storm petrel chick calling on the Shiant Isles from RSPB

A storm petrel chick has been recorded calling on the Shiant Isles for the very first time. This is an important step for the Shiant Isles Recovery Project as it’s the first known breeding of these seabirds on the islands. The EU LIFE+ funded project played an artificial call of an adult storm petrel outside the suspected burrow nest site to record the chick’s reply call and confirm its presence.

The project, a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson family, the custodians of the islands, has been working over the last four years to make these islands, five miles off the coast of Harris, a safer place for Scotland’s globally threatened seabirds to breed. Island restoration projects such as this one are a key part of helping Scotland’s struggling seabird populations develop resilience to ensure their long term survival.

Storm petrels were not able to breed successfully at the Shiants because of their vulnerability to predation from the islands’ population of invasive non-native black rats. These were eradicated over the winter of 2015/16 and the islands were officially declared free of rats earlier this year.

Following the eradication, the project has been working to attract storm petrels to breed on the islands as it has ideal habitat for their nests in the many areas of boulders around the islands. These birds are little bigger than sparrows and only come to land in summer to breed. Scotland’s internationally important population currently nests at only a few offshore islands because of the presence of ground predators at other potential sites.

During the summer of 2017, calling storm petrels were recorded on the Shiants for the first time.

Dr Charlie Main, Senior Project Manager for the Shiant Isles Recovery Project said: “It’s fantastic that this storm petrel chick has been recorded on the Shiants. After the adult was recorded last year we thought it highly likely that they were breeding so to have this confirmed now is great for the project and for the species in Scotland. It’s also another vital step for making these islands a safer place for Scotland’s internationally important seabirds, many of which are struggling to cope with the impact of climate change and a lack of suitable secure breeding sites.

“We’ve strong hopes for the future that more storm petrels will breed here and a colony will be established. Three other calling adults were recorded this summer suggesting that there may have been more breeding attempts. This one chick is incredibly special to everyone who has been involved in the project since 2014; it means that all the work we’ve been doing to make and keep these islands free of invasive predators is paying off. It also shows just how quickly island restoration can make a difference to seabirds which is really positive for future projects like this one.”

And in Jersey?

In 2017, Kirsty Swinnerton, with Piers Sangan, undertook a preliminary review of the conditions available for nesting seabirds on Jersey’s north coast for Birds On The Edge. Kirsty’s report is now available here.

The recent establishment of the Jersey National Park and the acquisition of land at Plémont by the National Trust for Jersey has created some unique opportunities for seabird and habitat restoration. Historically, the north-west coast from La Tête de Plémont to Douët de la Mer supported 200-300 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffin but which have dwindled today to less than 10 pairs at most. The decline has probably been a result of an overall decline in the species’ southern range combined with the impacts of invasive species on Jersey including the brown rat, feral polecat/ferret, European hedgehog, European rabbit, and free ranging/feral cats. In addition, domestic dogs and agricultural stock (sheep and cows) could also prevent the re-establishment of puffins if not carefully managed at seabird nesting sites.

The report provides an overview of existing seabird recovery tools proven to re-establish breeding seabird colonies around the world. The primary focus is on the control of invasive vertebrates to increase the size and distribution of breeding colonies and reproductive success, and on hands-on species recovery techniques used to encourage seabirds to recolonise the area. However, during the study, it became apparent that much of the potential seabird recovery area does not support suitable habitat for puffins or other ground-nesting seabirds. The sites are choked with dense stands of bracken, and this may be the primary factor currently limiting colony growth of puffins and other burrow-nesting seabirds.

To understand more fully the impacts and interactions of invasive species, lack of suitable breeding habitat, and human disturbance on puffin colony re-establishment, the study recommended a pilot project combining species recovery techniques with research and monitoring. It further recommends initial small steps to maximise opportunities for feedback into recovery project development and the development of Species Action Plans for puffins and other seabirds by working groups in order to guide recovery efforts to include local seabird experts and stakeholders, and ensure best practices.

Download Kirsty’s full report Options for the recovery of nesting seabirds on Jersey, Channel Islands

Further reading on invasive mammals and seabirds:

Invasive mammal eradication on islands results in substantial conservation gains (2016)

Invasive predators and global biodiversity loss (2016)

Underlying impacts of invasive cats on islands: not only a question of predation (2014)

Severity of the Effects of Invasive Rats on Seabirds: A Global Review (2008)

Influences on recovery of seabirds on islands where invasive predators have been eradicated,with a focus on Procellariiformes (2016)

What is a “cough”?: A study into childrens’ awareness of Jersey’s chough project

By Catherine Firth

Public awareness is essential if a conservation project is to succeed, particularly with species reintroductions. There was initial concern from the public when the idea of reintroducing choughs to Jersey was mentioned. Crows and magpies, close relatives of choughs, are considered pests by a lot of Islanders and can be controlled under Jersey law in order to protect agricultural produce. Choughs are highly specialised feeders only eating insects you tend to find in soil or animal dung.

A chough eating a dung beetle in Jersey. Photo by Liz Corry.

Public understanding and acceptance of choughs was, therefore, needed to ensure success.  In addition, support for the choughs should lead to support for the wider Birds On The Edge project. In turn attracting funding and resources such as public volunteers.

It has now been five years since the first choughs were released into Jersey. We wanted to find out if the Jersey public were aware and what they thought of the species. Two studies were conducted this summer by visiting graduate students; one focused on children, the other on adults.

I focused on children as they are a key demographic group at Jersey Zoo.  By engaging children in conservation education, they can be inspired to make well informed decisions affecting sustainability in the future, and in this case help to protect the red-billed choughs in Jersey.

To conduct the study, I visited eleven of Jersey’s primary schools with a questionnaire for the children to complete before and after an educational presentation on the  choughs and  Birds On The Edge. Being a Nottinghamshire lass, navigating the back roads of Jersey on a rusty borrowed bike was a challenge in itself!  But after a lot of wrong turns and frantic pedalling up and down hills, I manged to interview 16 teachers and 330 children across the Island. Teachers were generally very enthusiastic about including their classes in the study and the children seemed excited to learn about a new mysterious animal.

Reintroduced choughs and sheep in Jersey have been working together to improve the Island’s biodiversity. Photo by Liz Corry.

The results showed that only a very small percentage of the children interviewed were aware of the red-billed choughs in Jersey.  A proportion of the children guessed that it was a bird, but hardly any knew that choughs were living on the same island as them.  In fact, I had a lot of children reading their questionnaire and asking me “what is a cough?” accompanied by some fantastic drawings of what the children believed the choughs to look like including sloths, hedgehogs, monkeys and even a unicorn!  Likewise, most teachers confessed that they did not know about the project.

After the educational presentation, the results showed a huge increase in knowledge and understanding both of the choughs as a species and its history in Jersey. In their post-taught questionnaires, many children mentioned how the choughs became locally extinct, the habitat and resource needs of the choughs and what Birds On The Edge is doing to help. In addition, after the visits, there was some evidence of children sharing their new found knowledge of the red-billed choughs with other parties. This included two boys attending the chough keeper talk at Jersey Zoo, given that day by the Head of Birds, and practically presenting it for him!

There were other cases of children telling their parents and one child even identifying a chough on a family walk in St John!  This is very encouraging news, demonstrating how children can act as a catalyst for change by sharing their knowledge to influence their friends’ and family’s actions which affect conservation matters and help protect the choughs.

Moving forward, it would be fantastic to do more in-school workshops. Only a small percentage of the children in Jersey took part in the study but it showed how children can be massive assets for increasing awareness. It would also be great for teachers to include the choughs in more of their own lessons; a fantastic example of animals and their habitats which is a part of the Year’s 3, 4, 5 and 6 science curriculums.  However,  teachers had concerns about the time available to them to teach their classes about the choughs (particularly Year 6 teachers who face the pressure of SATs). To overcome this, we could provide schools with more resources, for instance red-billed chough reading comprehension resources: infiltrating classes without directly teaching about choughs whilst remaining focussed on the children’s upcoming exams.

As part of my workshops the children created posters to inform the public of Jersey all about the red-billed chough population, all completed posters were entered into a competition and were judged by a member of the Jersey Zoo education team. Grouville Primary School had the winning poster and the class had the opportunity to visit the choughs at Sorel.

The winning poster designed by a group of children at Grouville Primary School. Photo by Catherine Firth.

All entries were fantastic and can be seen here.  A big thank you to all the children who took part and the teachers who sent in all the entries!  Everyone at the Zoo particularly enjoyed this poster from Grouville:

Grouville children are clearly cut out for careers in conservation! Photo by Catherine Firth.

If only conservation were that easy!

Catherine Firth carried out this research for her MSc in Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation at Nottingham Trent University. She is currently working as a Conservation Knowledge intern at Jersey Zoo.

 

Birds in the Channel Islands: annual update

For several years now we have compiled a combined list of all birds recorded in the Channel Islands thanks to the recorders from Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. Each year we’ve seen the lists grow longer and the order the species are listed in keep changing. Today we launch the updated list, updated to the end of 2017 (the Islands don’t review any year’s birds until after the next one starts). Download the list here.

The updated list includes four (well, five) new species, three of which, excitingly, were recorded on two islands each: marsh sandpiper (Alderney and Jersey), (American) royal tern (Guernsey and Alderney) and Iberian chiffchaff (Alderney and Jersey). In fact, the royal tern became quite a celebrity in Guernsey, Alderney and even in Sussex. The tern went just about everywhere. Except Jersey that is. Editor’s note its been around in 2018. And still not been to Jersey!

The other obvious feature for regular readers of this or any other bird list is the changes to the order, relationships and even the birds’ scientific names. Many of us grew up with long held understanding of the order we put the birds in (start with divers and end with crows) and how they were related (divers and grebes, herons and storks). However, new technologies have made it much easier to look closely at every species and get a much better idea of who’s who and where they sit in the order. Wildfowl are first, and not just because they’re very cool but because they and the gamebirds are not that closely related to every other bird. And hawks and falcons aren’t related? No, and strangely that split should have been obvious before.

The list actually includes one, or two, other new species. That goose formerly known as the bean goose has become two species: taiga bean goose and tundra bean goose. Luckily for the list compilers, the Islands’ ornithologists had in recent years recorded which of the two bean geese, then considered the lower rank of subspecies, were being seen. The split, and upgrade to full species status, wasn’t hard to fit in. If everything was always so easy. Our other new bird was a Caspian gull. This eastern version of the herring gull was once considered just herring gull until analysis found that it was quite distinct. Only unlike the geese it doesn’t always look distinct and takes a real enthusiast to pick one out of the flock. Luckily this one’s finder and photographer not only knows his gulls but got a little assist in that it was ringed!

And the totals? Well, overall we’ve recorded 376 species with Jersey still edging in front with 335. So enjoy the new list, tick off your sightings and try to fill the gaps in each Island’s list. And play ‘what will be Alderney’s 300th species’ (I’m going with little bunting). Why not check out the gaps in the list and try to fill them (we’d recommend seawatching in Sark first). But remember, if you visit the islands please send in your records to the relevant recorder – they’re all there on the list. 

A Working List of the Birds of the Channel Islands (updated to December 2017) can be downloaded here

 

 

Birds eat 400 to 500 million tons of insects annually

Along with spiders, insectivorous birds play a vital role in consuming insects that would otherwise destroy forests or crops.

From ScienceDaily

Birds around the world eat 400 to 500 million metric tonnes of beetles, flies, ants, moths, aphids, grasshoppers, crickets and other anthropods per year. These numbers have been calculated in a study led by Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel and published in The Science of Nature, highlights the important role birds play in keeping plant-eating insect populations under control.

Nyffeler and his colleagues based their figures on 103 studies that highlighted the volume of prey that insect-eating birds consume in seven of the world’s major ecological communities known as biomes. According to their estimations, this amounts to between 400 and 500 million tonnes of insects per year but is most likely to be on the lower end of the range. Their calculations are supported by a large number of experimental studies conducted by many different research teams in a variety of habitats in different parts of the world.

“The global population of insectivorous birds annually consumes as much energy as a megacity the size of New York. They get this energy by capturing billions of potentially harmful herbivorous insects and other arthropods,” says Nyffeler.

Forest-dwelling birds consume around 75 per cent of the insects eaten in total by birds which make up about 300 million tonnes of insects per year. About 100 million tonnes are eaten by birds in savanna areas, grasslands and croplands, and those living in the deserts and Arctic tundra. Birds actively hunt insects especially during the breeding season, when they need protein-rich prey to feed to their nestlings.

Further, the researchers estimated that insectivorous birds together only have a biomass of about three million tonnes. Nyffeler says the comparatively low value for the global biomass of wild birds can be partially explained through their very low production efficiency. This means that respiration takes a lot of energy and only leaves about one to two percent to be converted into biomass.

“The estimates presented in this paper emphasize the ecological and economic importance of insectivorous birds in suppressing potentially harmful insect pests on a global scale — especially in forested areas,” explains Nyffeler, who says that this is especially so for tropical, temperate and boreal forest ecosystems.

“Only a few other predator groups such as spiders and entomophagous insects (including in particular predaceous ants) can keep up with the insectivorous birds in their capacity to suppress plant-eating insect populations on a global scale,” he adds.

A study from 2017 which Nyffeler also led showed that spiders consume between 400 and 800 million tonnes of insects each year. Other predator groups like bats, primates, shrews, hedgehogs, frogs, salamanders, and lizards seem to be valuable yet less effective natural enemies of plant-eating insects. He says their influence seems to be more biome-specific rather than on a worldwide scale. For instance, lizards help to suppress insects on tropical islands, but less so on a broader scale.

“Birds are an endangered class of animals because they are heavily threatened by factors such as afforestation, intensification of agriculture, spread of systemic pesticides, predation by domestic cats, collisions with human-made structures, light pollution and climate change. If these global threats cannot soon be resolved, we must fear that the vital ecosystem services that birds provide — such as the suppression of insect pests — will be lost,” says Nyffeler.

Read the full paper Insectivorous birds consume an estimated 400–500 million tons of prey annually here

Painted lady’s roundtrip migratory flight is the longest recorded in butterflies

Painted lady. Photo by Mick DrydenFrom ScienceDaily

The painted lady butterfly is a migratory species in Europe, and common visitor to the Channel Islands, previously known to migrate from Europe to the Afrotropics during the autumn. Butterflies are obviously much harder to track on migration than birds and the fate of this butterfly species and its offspring remained unknown. Butterfly migration can be very different to that in birds where a bird like the swallow moves between, often very distant but well demarcated, summer and winter areas. The best known butterfly migration is perhaps that of the monarch in North America where despite there being well known and well demarcated summer and winter areas, generations of monarchs will never see the winter areas but are essential in the species life cycle (see the fascinating story of the monarch here).

Researchers were now able to demonstrate that painted lady butterflies return from the Afrotropical region to recolonise the Mediterranean in early spring, travelling an annual distance of 12,000 km across the Sahara Desert.

While the Palearctic-African migratory circuit is typically associated with birds, scientists from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), a joint research centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), in Barcelona, Spain, found that the painted lady Vanessa cardui endures annual trans-Saharan circuits like some birds do.

This butterfly species travels 12,000 km and crosses the Sahara Desert twice to seasonally exploit resources and favourable climates on both sides of the desert. Few species are known to perform annual long-range trans-Saharan circuits, and that of the painted lady is the longest migratory flight known in butterflies to date.

In a previously published study, the researchers demonstrated that painted lady butterflies migrate from Europe to tropical Africa by the end of summer, crossing the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara Desert.

The fate of these migrants and that of their offspring remained unknown. “Our hypothesis was that the species initiates a reverse northward migration towards Europe in spring, thus completing a regular migratory cycle,” states Roger Vila, one of the researchers.

Painted lady (2). Photo by Mick Dryden

The answer is in the wings

With the aim of confirming this hypothesis, they studied the natal origin of the butterflies that reached the Mediterranean region in early spring. To do so, they analysed the stable hydrogen isotopes of the butterflies sampled in Morocco, Andalusia and Catalonia in Spain, Crete, Egypt and Israel.

An isotope is a form of a chemical element whose atomic nucleus contains a different number of neutrons compared to protons in the nucleus. In water, the proportion of hydrogen and its stable isotope depends on the geographical location. When absorbing water, this proportion is maintained in plants; it later remains in the caterpillars that feed on these plants, and, eventually, in adult butterflies.

By analysing the hydrogen stable isotopes found in the wings of adult butterflies, the researchers could determine where they had developed as caterpillars.

“It is difficult to study the movement of insects by means of observations, marking or radio tracking, since there are millions of individuals and they are very small. This is why finding out where a butterfly grew up before undergoing the metamorphosis by means of stable isotope analysis turns out to be extremely useful. It feels like magic,” says Gerard Talavera, who led the research.

The results show a major proportion of specimens stay in the Afrotropics during winter and that those recolonising the Mediterranean are most probably their offspring. This scenario closes the loop for the Palearctic-African migratory system of Vanessa cardui and shows that the annual distance travelled by the successive generations may reach about 12,000 km, including crossing of the Sahara Desert twice.

Whether the painted lady does regular migratory circuits similar to those of the monarch butterfly in North America was a matter of scientific debate. This research reveals the parallelisms in such a unique evolutionary adaptation.

Access the paper Round-trip across the Sahara: Afrotropical Painted Lady butterflies recolonize the Mediterranean in early spring here

Painted lady (3). Photo by Mick Dryden

Channel Islands Bat Conference 2018

Male Nathusius pipistrelle with ring 2From Annyctalus Ecology

The 2018 Channel Islands Bat Workshop is to be held in Guernsey on the 18th and 19th August 2018 with an optional extra night of trapping on the 17th August.

Processing kitThere will be a mixture of theory and practical workshops during the day and a research trapping session during the evening of the 18th August. The programme is still being finalised but includes bat identification, sound analysis, tree inspection and survey, use of IR and thermal cameras.

There is a very limited pool of skilled Harp Trapbat workers across the Channel Islands and consequently there is very limited knowledge of what bat species are present and their status across the islands. In Jersey we have discovered four new bat species for the island in the last three years, since we started to use advanced survey techniques and there is the potential for the same to happen in Guernsey! Species previously recorded in Guernsey are common, soprano and Nathusius pipistrelle, grey and brown long-eared bats, Natterer’s bat and greater horseshoe bat.

CI Bat Conference 2018

Tickets for the event are £35 (plus Eventbrite booking fee) and this includes all workshop sessions, refreshments and lunch on the 18th and 19th. Travel and accommodation are not included. Book tickets here

Information about Guernsey can be found here

Surveyors with mist net

Shaping positive engagements with urban birds

Robin (2). Photo by Mick DrydenFrom BTO

Some bird species provide cultural services, being aesthetically pleasing and having behaviours that people find interesting to watch. Others provide disservices (e.g. gulls, pigeons and corvids) negative for well-being. By documenting how the abundance and richness of species in these two groups correlates with human population density it was apparent that socio-economically deprived areas support low ratios of birds to people, particularly of cultural service species. These results inform management of green space, and provision of feeding and nesting sites, to promote positive interactions between birds and people within urbanised landscapes.

Herring gull (3). Photo by Mick Dryden

Working in collaboration with the University of Exeter, and funded by NERC, researchers carried out extensive bird surveys within an urban area, centred on the towns of Milton Keynes, Luton and Bedford, as part of a wider project investigating urban ecosystem services. These provided measures of the abundance and richness of bird species within both the cultural services (35 species) and disservices (nine species) groups. The research team was able to look at the human population by using data from the 2011 National Census, and to assess socio-economic status by using information published by the Office of National Statistics. Since bird diversity is strongly associated with the structure and availability of urban green space, the team also had to factor in the green space present within the study area.

Analyses revealed that the abundance of cultural service species increased with human population density but peaked at c.1,100 people per 500m x 500m grid tile. The abundance also increased with the proportion of urban green space. Interestingly, the species richness of cultural service birds decreased with human population density but increased with percentage green space. There was a positive linear relationship between the abundance and richness of cultural disservice species and both human population density and the availability of green space.

When the researchers mapped how the abundance of service and disservice birds co-varied with human population density, they found that the two groups of birds showed distinctly different spatial patterns. Service species were most abundant in areas of medium housing density – the suburbs – while disservice birds were most abundant in areas of dense housing, such as those around urban centres.

Skylark (3). Photo by Mick Dryden

While these different patterns are not a direct consequence of human population density per se, they probably result from spatial differences in urban form, the pattern and management of urban green space, levels of disturbance and the availability of resources, all of which are known to vary along socio-economic gradients. This underlines that people living in different parts of the urban landscape are likely to experience different relationships with wild birds, with the human communities in socially deprived areas exposed to more species with negative behaviours than wealthier communities. A consequence of this is that the increased frequency of negative interactions experienced by these people is likely to shape their connection with nature and support for the conservation of the natural world in a negative manner.

The study identifies opportunities to deliver management approaches to counter these unfavourable relationships. Investment in urban green space and its management for cultural service birds is one obvious option, but there are also opportunities at the householder level, through practices such as wildlife gardening. Such householder level approaches can be of wider benefit because their beneficial effects are likely to increase the abundance and richness of cultural service birds in neighbouring gardens, meaning that the actions of a small number of people can provide health benefits for the wider community.

Download the paper Covariation in urban birds providing cultural services or disservices and people here

Syngamus, Sorel, and sh*t: insights into a student placement

By Elin Cunningham

IMG_5656

Hi, I’m Elin, the chough student (and chief breaker of Jersey cars – four so far!). I’m here on a six-month placement with Durrell working with the re-introduced choughs. I spend a couple of days in the Bird Department of the Zoo too, making friends with teals and hornbills, which balances everything out nicely.

I’m enrolled on the BSc Bioveterinary Science course at Harper Adams University. Each student has to do a placement year in industry; I spent the first half in South Africa trying not to get volunteers squashed by elephants, but alas I left the sun and the noisy lions for a quieter time in Jersey (I was not expecting the snow which made me question my life decisions a bit; but it’s all fine now).

The first of four to suffer the Cunningham curse. Photo by Elin Cunningham.

I have to complete an honours research project for my degree, and the opportunity of working at the Zoo with the choughs was perfect for this. As a person who stresses an unhealthy amount, being able to collect data and write my project up whilst I’m in Jersey is the perfect solution to relieve final year pressures of university life. Also it means I can hide inside on the computer on rainy days instead of chasing choughs and not feel bad about it.

I decided to focus my research on the issue of parasites in the choughs. The biggest threat to the Jersey wild-born chicks last year was Syngamus trachea as Lil’ Wheezy will tell you (read the report here). Syngamus trachea (also known as gapeworm) is a parasitic nematode that lives in the trachea and bronchi of birds. The eggs of the nematode develop in insects. Birds unknowingly ingest the nematode when they feed on infected insects. Since choughs are specialist invertebrates feeders they are highly likely to harbour the parasite; I’m very proud of my lifecycle map which should explain everything nicely! Below is a simplified image. The full pdf I created can be found here.

syngamus life cycle_basic_EFC

Syngamus has been reported in wild and captive choughs across the UK, but it is incredibly hard to treat in wild birds. Daily monitoring of behaviour and parasites in the population is a perfect way to understand the sub-clinical levels before they manifest as physical symptoms in the birds.

Using the digital microscope at the Zoo’s lab to look for parasites in poo. Photo by Kayleigh Meek.

I take a daily sample of faeces (poo to the unintiated) from the birds after they have eaten at the aviary (if you see me running around Sorel with a blue pot, no I haven’t lost my marbles…) and analyse them in the Zoo laboratory. I use what’s called a McMaster slide to count the parasite eggs under the microscope after I’ve mixed the poo with a saturated sugar solution and filtered it.

A x50 view of a syngamus ova (the circles are air bubbles). Photo by Elin Cunningham.

I’m doing the same thing to the choughs in the zoo, as without eating loads of insects contaminated from the wild they shouldn’t have any parasites. Hopefully this will give a good idea of when the problem times are for certain parasites, and when the choughs should be watched for clinical signs. This can be mapped against other data such as temperature and rainfall to hopefully find triggers for the emergence of parasites.

Preparing the McMaster slides. Photo by Kayleigh Meek.

I finish the research in July and will have until May 2019 to write and submit it. Gulp. I’ll be sure to post an update on my findings. So far, I have found Coccidia and cestodes (tapeworms) in the samples as well as a tiny number of Syngamus. The levels of these parasites aren’t of any clinical significance to warrant treatment.

A x50 view of a cestode ova (the bits in the background are urates). Photo by Elin Cunningham.

There is a worldwide problem with antimicrobial and anthelmintic (wormer) resistance. Blanket treating every chough on the basis of a parasite present in a faecal sample is only going to encourage that resistance. Combining laboratory analysis with observations of physical symptoms improves efficiency and reduces the potential for resistance.  I did a bunch of research on this last year in university for those who are interested in worming and resistance.

Sheep and choughs at Sorel sharing parasites. Photo by Liz Corry.

You can find me making friends with the sheep at Sorel most afternoons. I have found loads of ruminant parasite eggs, proving that as the birds pick through the faeces of other animals for bugs, they can pick up parasite eggs. These are all specific to ruminants and won’t affect the birds at all so they just pass straight through. It’s a good relationship: the choughs pick through the sheep droppings for tasty invertebrates, and pinch bits of wool to line their nests with. I’m not sure the sheep see the benefit but I made friends with one who wanted ear scratches a lot, so there’s one positive.

Sometimes the excitement in the lab gets too much when I find a whole female parasite containing eggs (I’m constantly kept in check by the lab manager Ann and the other students who don’t find 8mm long sheep parasites nearly as exciting as I do). Farmers treating stock with high doses of anthelmintics have contributed inadvertently to a decrease in chough numbers across the UK, as the levels of insects and larvae for the choughs to feed on decreases with anthelmintic use. Luckily the farmers in chough areas are more aware of this now.

Finally, with all the faecal data collected, I’m also hoping to map any trends in excretion patterns, such as time of year, weather, and important times such as egg laying and fledging. This may highlight times of the year the birds are more susceptible and warrant change in management practices. I will write again at the end of my placement to let you know the results. If the research is good enough and I ask really nicely it may be published for the world to read, but I’ll give a copy to whoever wants it regardless!

A nematode found in chough faeces from Birds On The Edge on Vimeo.

 

Brighter future for seabirds as Shiants declared rat free

Shiant Isles 2018. Photo by Ian Buxton (1)From Rare Bird Alert and Ian Buxton

The Shiant Isles have been officially declared rat-free, thanks to a four-year partnership project to restore them as a secure haven for nesting seabirds. A month-long intensive monitoring check in February found no sign of rats. This means that none has been recorded there for two years, the internationally agreed criterion for rat-free status.

The EU LIFE+ funded Shiants seabird recovery project started in 2014 and is a partnership between the Nicolson family, custodians of the islands for three generations, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland. It has benefited from the help of many volunteers, and significant private donations.

Ian Buxton and puffin. Shiant Isles 2009Jersey ornithologist and bird ringer, Ian Buxton, first visited the Shiant Isles in 1977, returning in 1980. Since then Ian has made a further five trips during the last 10 years, until this year, his visits have been for two weeks during the summer to survey and monitor the breeding seabirds. In 2009 Ian retrapped a puffin he had ringed there in 1977. Ian’s most recent visit was this February, for four weeks to assist in the completion of the rat eradication programme.

Over the last four years the recovery project has focused on making the islands a safe place for seabirds to raise their chicks by removing the invasive, non-native black rats that were found there. It has been a huge success and played an important role in developing future island restoration and biosecurity work in the UK.

Another key part of the project is a programme of research monitoring the response of the ecosystem to the removal of rats. It is anticipated that seabirds such as puffins, razorbills, and guillemots will see improved breeding successes which could eventually support population increases in these long lived seabirds breeding on the Shiants. It is hoped that Manx shearwaters and storm petrels will begin to nest on the islands as well.

Shiants 2018. Photo by Ian Buxton (3)An operation to eradicate the rats was carried out over the winter of 2015/16, led by a New Zealand-based company Wildlife Management International Limited (WMIL), with the help of fifteen volunteers. This stage was incredibly challenging due to the rugged terrain and steep cliffs that make up the islands, and the Hebridean weather conditions including severe storms. Since then regular monitoring for signs of rats has been carried out with none recorded.

As well as the seabirds currently found on the islands, the Shiants offer suitable nesting habitat for European storm petrels and Manx shearwaters, two species of seabirds that are not generally found on islands with rats. Over the last two summers, the project has been working to encourage the storm petrels and Manx shearwaters to nest on the islands. The calling storm petrels, recorded on the islands last summer for the first time, gave a strong sign that the Shiants were free of rats ahead of this recent check.

Storm petrel (3). Photo by Mick Dryden

In order to ensure that the islands remain free of rats, and other mammalian predators, visitors are being asked to follow simple biosecurity measures to help keep the islands rat free. This includes checking boats and all kit for signs of rats prior to departing for the Shiants, and looking out for signs of them when on the islands. Local boat operators along with SNH and RSPB Scotland staff have been trained in biosecurity measures by the project.

Dr Charlie Main, Senior Project Manager for the Shiant Isles Recovery Project said: “This is an absolutely fantastic moment for the Shiant Isles and everyone involved in the project is delighted that they are now officially rat free. With so many of Scotland’s seabird populations in decline it’s vital that we do all we can to help them. Making these islands a secure place for them to breed is really important.

“Over the next few years we’re really looking forward to seeing the full impact of the islands’ restoration flourish with the seabirds enjoying improved breeding successes, and other species beginning to breed there as well. We’ll also continue to work with the local community to ensure this special place remains free of rats. This project has paved the way for more island restorations to take place around Scotland and give our threatened seabirds the best possible chance for the future.”

Andy Douse, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) ornithologist, said: “It’s wonderful news that this project has helped to protect the internationally important seabird colony on the Shiant Islands. The partnership between RSPB Scotland, WMIL, the Nicolson family and SNH has been a great success, particularly considering the complexity of the project, and we’d like to thank everyone involved. It was a great team effort, and we can now take the knowledge gained from this project into other work to protect Scotland’s special species and habitats.”

Tom Nicolson said: “”Obviously this is a tremendous story of success on so many levels. When the idea was presented to us six years ago, the pure logistics of the project seemed hugely ambitious. Now, knowing that new species are beginning to thrive on the islands, so soon after the project has finished, there are no limits to what the Shiants could become over the next five, ten, twenty years.

“It has been an immense pleasure working with such a talented and dedicated group of people from the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage – everyone involved should be thoroughly proud of themselves.”

Read more about the work of the Shiant Isles Recovery Project

Shiants 2018. Photo by Ian Buxton (4)

Feed the birds, but be aware of risks – especially if you feed the gulls in Jersey!

Blue tit (2). Photo by Mick DrydenFrom The BBC

Scientists are warning of the risks of wild birds spreading diseases when they gather at feeders in gardens. Experts led by the Zoological Society of London say people should continue to feed birds, especially in winter, but should be aware of the risks.

A newly published review of 25 years’ worth of data has identified emerging threats to garden birds. Finches, doves and pigeons are vulnerable to a parasite infection and form of bird pox is becoming more common, causing warty-like lumps on the bodies of great tits and other birds while other disease threats, such as salmonella, appear to be declining. If birds look sick, food should be withdrawn temporarily, the authors say.

Chaffinch 2. Photo by Mick Dryden

“Our study shows how three of the most common diseases that affect British garden birds have changed both dramatically and unpredictably over the past decade, both in terms of the species they affect and their patterns of occurrence,” said Dr Becki Lawson from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Common signs that a wild bird is ill include unusually fluffed-up plumage and lethargy. Diseases can be spread through droppings or regurgitated food around bird feeders.

Finding out more about the changing pattern of diseases will help to ensure that garden birds can be fed safely, say the researchers. ZSL, working with experts from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), say people who notice sick birds should:

  • take practical steps to minimise risks
  • report your observations to the Garden Wildlife Health Project
  • seek advice from a vet
  • withdraw food for a while to let birds disperse over a wider area
  • Feed birds in moderation, clean bird feeders regularly, and rotate feeding sites.

Co-researcher Kate Risely from the BTO (BTO News) said anyone who feeds wild birds should be aware of their responsibilities for preventing disease.

She told BBC News: “Be very vigilant – enjoy feeding the birds but educate yourself about what the risks are and what to do if you see signs of disease.”

It was important to continue to feed wild birds, especially in winter, when they need lots of food to survive, she said.

The review found that patterns of infection in wild birds are changing. This may be influenced by wild birds congregating at bird feeders and coming into contact with species they don’t encounter naturally in the wild.

Download the full review Health hazards to wild birds and risk factors associated with anthropogenic food provisioning here

Meanwhile, in Jersey

Herring gull (2). Photo by Mick DrydenChanges to a law to try to reduce problems with seagulls and other wild birds are now in place (see update here). Under the Statutory Nuisances (Jersey) Regulations 2017, it’s against the law to feed wild birds or other creatures in a way that means they become a nuisance or harmful to health. Some birds and rodents carry diseases which can be harmful to human health.

Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said (BBC 13 March 1256):

  • Don’t scatter food on the ground where it is an easy source of food for rodents
  • Bird tables can be accessible to rodents. Don’t overstock them or provide large quantities or unsuitable foods
  • Use bird feeders with a catch tray to reduce debris falling on the ground
  • Site your feeders with care. Suspending them from a metal wire is the only way to be certain rodents won’t get into them
  • Ideally, place a small amount of food in feeders daily to ensure they are emptied daily
  • Don’t use your garden as a dump for unwanted food waste, the birds may not want it but rats and mice probably will
  • Seagulls are protected under the Jersey wildlife law and can only be moved by licensed pest controllers.

The Department said it had taken the action as some birds and rodents carry diseases that can be “very harmful to human health” and gulls were beginning to build their nests and are attracted to places with easily available food.

Anyone found to be feeding (the gulls) illegally would be served with an abatement notice to either stop or restrict their activity. If ignored it would be an offence and the person responsible could be prosecuted.

Herring gull. Photo by Mick Dryden