Chough report: August 2021

Just in case their calls were not loud enough. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Breeding season roundup

Don’t let the sound of a begging youngster fool you. The 2021 chicks are now fully independent. They just like to try their hand (or wing) once in a while with their parents.

Four youngsters have survived. This is a disappointing number although four is better than none. Thankfully, each from a different family which helps a little to spread the genetics around. Speaking of which, their DNA sexing results came in at the start of August. We have one male and three females. They all have names now too:

Rocky, breaking gender conformity with his bright pink leg ring, is the offspring of Dusty and Chickay.

Rémi, as reported last month, is wild-hatched Minty and Rey‘s first chick. She might be a St Ouen parishioner, but certainly isn’t seen as an outsider by the St John residents. 

Wally Jnr. shares a lot of characteristics with her mother Wally when she was a fledgling at the aviary. There may have been a Kevin Jnr. but we never managed to sample the second chick before it perished.

Monvie is Bo and Flieur‘s girl who sports a mauve over yellow ring. Her name is taken from the Jèrriais greeting Man vyi meaning my old mate/friend (if addressing a woman it is Ma vielle). Its pronounced a little like you are saying ‘mauvey’ which helps to remember her leg ring colour. Learn more about the language at L’Office du Jèrriais.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the body of the missing fifth chick was found by Ronez Quarry staff on the 16th. We ringed it on 30th June so we knew it was Dusty’s and now know it was male. Judging from the state of the body he had died when we first reported it absent from the feed.

Two breeding pairs at Sorel resting in the rocky shade. Photo by Liz Corry.

Not all of the breeding pairs survived the season. We lost a male resulting in a ‘divorce’ of another pair and the re-joining of old flames. It also looks like we have lost the female who roosted and tried building a nest in Trinity. She has not been seen anywhere since early summer. 

All being well, we will have two new pairings attempt to nest in 2022 bringing it to eleven pairs. The same as in 2021 despite our losses.

West is best

View of Grosnez with the other Channel Islands on the horizon. Photo by Liz Corry.

The choughs still preferred to hang out on the north west coast in August. Who could blame them with the views.

Cliffs from Grosnez to Plémont are frequently visited by choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

Not to mention the ‘playground’ that is Les Landes with the racecourse, stables, paddocks, rooftops, and scattered WW2 German-made structures.

As long as they keep out of the way of the occasional model aircraft and, more permanent, resident peregrines!

This peregrine at Grosnez might be more familiar with choughs than I would like. Photo by Liz Corry.

Food for thought

From March to July this year we had a student placement working on the project. Riccardo rose to the challenge of re-establishing our breeding colony of mealworms for the supplemental feed.

We have never really had enough continuity and/or success to fully rely on in-house production. We buy in 1.5kg-2kg of mealworms per week from the UK to supplement the choughs’ diet. We get a discount since it comes with the bulk order for Jersey Zoo’s residents. Yet this still equates to hundreds of pounds a year.

Thanks to Riccardo’s efforts we might be making a breakthrough. After a month of breeding we have produced about 500g of mealworms. Not enough to cancel the UK order, but it should keep our costs down.

There is potential to expand the operation…providing a certain DIY store continues to stock our ‘high-tech’ housing facility aka drawers.

Mealworm breeding setup for the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.

It’s a delicate balance of temperature, humidity, and the right amount of nutrients appropriate for each of the four life stages. Fingers crossed; we can continue Riccardo’s good work now he has returned home to Italy.

Next time you see an advert for ITV’s I’m a Celebrity….just think about the effort and expense that goes into raising mealworms. And then the waste!

Chough report: July 2021

By Liz Corry

Plémont success

Last month we reported our first successful rearing of young from a wild-hatched pair. Three chicks in the Plémont nest followed by the subsequent fledging of two.

Then, like a high street in lockdown, it went eerily quiet.

There was no sign of the third chick out and about. The Plémont cliffs are not very forgiving at high tide for a young bouldering chough. Easy to imagine it not surviving. Yet also hard to determine since we weren’t seeing any members of the Plémont family.

When Minty and Rey, the parents, eventually appeared at the feed they showed no interest in any of the juveniles. Observations were further hampered by the lack of choughs at the feed. We had to put in the extra mileage, literally, to travel in search of choughs or wait until the evening when they start heading home to roost.

A roost check at Plémont provided no answers just a stunning sunset.

The only info we had was from a member of the public who had photographed Minty and Rey with one unringed juvenile at the Pinnacle on the northwest coast. This was taken in June before we had managed to ring any of this year’s young.

The first Jersey juvenile from wild-hatched choughs. Photo by Anthony Morin.

Four weeks of not knowing then suddenly we had our answer. Reviews of camera trap photos set at the aviary showed Minty passing food to a chick. A chick we had ringed on 14th July and had seen at the feed every day since! Until that last week in July we had never witnessed Minty or Rey show any interest in the youngster.

Maybe that is their parenting style? The young chough is fairly robust, gets on with things, is confident around the aviary and within the flock. They raised her well.

We have named her Rémi which means ‘the first ones’ in Gaulish. Rather apt for the first true Jersey chough resulting from the reintroduction.

Family hierarchy: Rey. Minty, and Rémi. Photo by Liz Corry.

Five ‘gold’ rings

With much effort, we continued to try and trap unringed juveniles in the aviary. As already mentioned, the birds were not hanging around Sorel as much as in previous years. Leftover supplemental food and their preference of sites such as Grosnez, Les Landes, and L’Étacq implied they had resources elsewhere.

When choughs were present at the aviary they were, and still are, not as confident about going inside. No doubt for multiple reasons although strong influences will be the peregrines hunting above the aviary field and the overgrown vegetation potentially harbouring threats.

We switched tactics to try catching later in the day, around 7pm, by which point choughs roosting at Sorel or Ronez would be foraging closer to home. This worked on two occasions allowing us to ring, measure, and sample two juveniles.

By the close of July there were no more unringed choughs to be found. In total we had ringed five chicks all with a yellow ring to represent 2021 and a second unique colour. Sadly, that meant some youngsters had perished.

The yellow ring represents 2021, the bird’s year of hatch. Photo by Liz Corry.

2021 Breeding Season summary

Of the ten nests we knew about, only 50% survived to fledge a chick or more. We accounted for twelve fledged chicks yet only four still alive.

There is a slim chance a fifth chick, ringed pale blue over yellow, is simply playing an unintentional game of hide and seek with us. Seven adults are consistently absent at the afternoon feed. A few of those have been spotted along the coastline from Grosnez to Le Pulec. Is the missing chick with them? A task for August will be monitoring this northwest corner and determine the whereabouts of the pairs.

Wally Jnr. keeping close to her parents at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

There was an eleventh pairing in spring who were busy collecting nesting material in Trinity. As first timers we did not hold out much hope. It appears they did not even make it to the egg laying stage. No nest was found. Lots of false hope through seeing them steal twigs from pigeon nests. No actual Trinity chough nest.

This may or may not be related to the disappearance of the female. Then this month, the male was seen with a different female over in… guess where…Grosnez.

Tracking down choughs at Grosnez. Photo by Liz Corry.

Pinel was starting to worry us until we found him at Grosnez. Photo by Liz Corry.

Green fingers

We are carrying out several ‘gardening’ tasks around the aviary to create a less imposing surrounding for choughs, open up some foraging opportunities for them, and allow us to see when operating the hatches from the adjacent field. It should also mean less cover for feral ferrets to hide in and less attractive areas for rats.

Where are the sheep when you need them?! Photo by Liz Corry.

This meant a lot of grass strimming and removal of bracken. Hedgehogs, slow worms, and green lizards inhabit the embankment, so care is required. I also discovered a bumblebee nest and several ant nests; the latter a favourite of wild choughs.

Slow worm and an ant nest uncovered at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

In amongst the bracken there are shrubs the National Trust planted about ten years ago. Each year we try and help these out by removing the vegetation suppressing them like the delightfully named sticky willy. I’ve left the aromatic wormwood…how do we feel about a Birds On The Edge branded absinthe? We could raise a glass to toast the wild Jersey choughs!

Wormwood Artemisia absinthium, is one of many herbaceous plants found at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

Celebrating a record-breaking year for Cornish choughs

From Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society (CBWPS) with particular thanks to Hilary Mitchell. Photos are by Lynn Colliver and CBWPS

Celebrations this summer as the population of chough in Kernow (Cornwall) is finally bouncing back after over two decades of conservation efforts. Every year their numbers have grown, but this year has been exceptional. They are now well on their way to becoming a healthy and resilient population.  

In 2021, 23 pairs of Cornish chough bred successfully, raising a record breaking 66 young. A huge achievement for a bird once extinct in Kernow, but even greater against a backdrop of decreasing chough populations elsewhere in the UK. Not all the young will survive to adulthood and raise families themselves, but the higher the number of fledglings that survive each year the more robust the birds become against extinction in the future. 

Recolonisation has expanded in 2021 with several more pairs between Godrevy and Newquay. The furthest north remains Padstow with no choughs beyond the Camel Estuary. As far as we know…. This year also saw some co-parenting with two males (brothers) paired with the same female, the trio going on to fledge three chicks. The county’s oldest males (aged 15 and 16) also bred successfully again, raising four chicks each. Two 12-year old females also reared young (one with the 15-year old male). 

It has taken decades of close partnership work to get Kernow’s choughs back to this positive result. From the conservation expertise of the RSPB; to the passion of Kernow’s nature-friendly farmers and land managers who have brought back grazing to the cliffs; the vital funding for this land management from Natural England; the collaboration of conservation organisations like The National Trust; and the dedication of volunteers who monitor the birds to make this a conservation success story.   

The National Trust manage key areas of Cornwall’s coastline, which the chough call home and now manage a team of volunteers that monitor the chough on their land. Kate Evans, National Trust Senior Visitor Experience Officer, said: “We are thrilled to see numbers of Cornish chough increase year on year. It’s with thanks to the passionate volunteers who give their time and who are dedicated to monitoring choughs, that we are able to build a picture of this growing chough population”. 

The return of the chough to Kernow has been no small feat. It has only been achievable through close partnership work and the support of an amazing team of volunteers. The growing success of the Cornish chough is also testament to the hard work of nature-friendly farmers and landowners who provide the right homes for Kernow’s choughs to survive and thrive.  

Jenny Parker, RSPB Cornwall Reserves Warden, said: “We want to thank everyone involved in surveying and providing the conditions for chough to flourish.  Our volunteers play a pivotal role locating and verifying chough nest sites every spring and all around the Cornish coast, this information is then relayed to landowners, who with our help and guidance can help chough thrive.”  

Nicola Shanks, RSPB volunteer, added: “It has taken a while, but finally the tide has turned for chough in Kernow. With continued good land management and the protection of safe nest and roost spots, it will ensure their future here and their spread up the coast into Devon and beyond”. 

However, the next chapter of the Cornish chough’s story is in all of our hands – if you see chough in Cornwall please email your sightings to our newest partner the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society (CBWPS) at: choughs@cbwps.org.uk.  

Hilary Mitchell, CBWPS volunteer, said: “We couldn’t do it without all the people that report their sightings to us, thanks to each and every one of them”.  

CBWPS will continue to play a key role collating chough records and informing all partners of their whereabouts as we move into a new chapter of the Cornish Choughs remarkable recovery.  

Restoring the chough to Kent

From Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust

Choughs were once an iconic species on the White Cliffs of Dover. Kent Wildlife Trust along with partners, the Wildwood Trust, English Heritage and Paradise Park, are bringing an aviary of choughs to Dover Castle for the public to experience a forgotten history.

Learn all about the choughs’ rich, but perhaps forgotten, Kentish heritage embedded in legends such as the murder of Thomas Becket, and immortalised at Shakespeare Cliff in King Lear.

These iconic birds, which are part of the crow family, fell victim to intensive farming practices and historical persecution, leading to widespread extinction with only small populations surviving in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man (and Jersey).

Can you imagine seeing a chough flying over the White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in over 200 years?

The Dover Castle aviary is the first step in the vision to reintroduce choughs to Kent. Dover’s chalk grasslands and white cliffs provide nest sites and rich diversity of insects on which choughs feed.  We want to create a Wilder Kent by restoring this charismatic but threatened bird, with its glossy black plumage, red legs and bright red beak.

Thomas Becket, King Henry, Canterbury and the chough 

Many will know the story of the murder of Thomas Becket, last year marked 850 years since his dramatic murder, but you may be less familiar with a mythical connection to the chough.

It is rumoured that as Thomas lay dying, a crow flew down and by paddling in his blood it acquired a startling red beak and feet, transforming into a chough.

There was a huge public reaction to Thomas’s death. Pilgrims began to arrive at Canterbury Cathedral from across Europe and King Henry II received many high-status visitors. 

Henry invested in Dover Castle, creating the great tower keep as a fitting venue, suitable for important travellers on their way to Canterbury, and making it truly ‘fit for a king’. 

Sometime after his death, Thomas was attributed a coat of arms featuring three choughs, which first appears about 100 years later in Canterbury Cathedral, and, in the 14th century, the City of Canterbury adopted a coat of arms with three choughs and a royal lion. But no one really knows why the chough became associated with Thomas, other than the legend of the blooded crow. Whatever its origin, the chough has a long history in heraldry in glass, sculpture, coats of arms, flags, and even pub signs!

Dover Castle

Kent Wildlife Trust, Wildwood Trust and English Heritage will unveil a brand new chough aviary at Dover Castle this month. Visitors will now be able to get up close to four young red-billed choughs, who will be living at the aviary, and learn more about their cultural and ecological significance in Kent.

The choughs living in the aviary hatched earlier this year at Wildwood Trust, as part of a breeding programme to help reverse falling numbers of the chough population across the UK. A dedicated team of keepers from Wildwood have spent the past three months rearing and training the choughs in preparation for their move to the castle.

 

Chough report – June 2021

A chough sunbathing in June’s mini heatwave. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

June. The month chough chicks leave the nest and, after a long wait, the month I leave Jersey to see family and friends. That being said I still have a lot to write about despite having half of June off.

Plémont celebrations

I was on staycation for the first week in June. Naturally that meant a visit to Plémont to check on the nest. Coffee, cake, and chough chicks. Perfect holiday setup. By this stage the chicks were large enough to be seen and loud enough to hear from Sorel! OK, maybe not, but they certainly were not inconspicuous whenever the parents returned with food.

Two weeks later one brave chick started bouldering outside of the nest clinging to the cliff face making mum and dad work even harder. This coincided with my trip back to England. Typical!

Paul Pestana, ex-Durrell and onetime student on the chough project, kept me updated with their activities. The current student, Riccardo, did his best to keep track of them too. Every time he went it was either raining (and therefore the birds were sheltering out of sight) or the family were off gadding about. It’s almost as if the choughs were playing a game with us. 

Paul spotted two of the three chicks out by the 20th and up at the headland near the main car park. These are the first chicks whose parents are both wild-hatched. Genuine Jersey choughs! 

Fingers crossed all three chicks continue to avoid peregrine and black-backed gulls and find enough food to survive into July. At least they have their parents to follow around for several weeks before becoming independent.

Ronez nests fledge

Plémont was one of the last nests to fledge. The first of the eight surviving nests in Ronez Quarry began fledging at the start of June. The youngsters could be seen outside of their respective nest buildings practicing flying and building confidence. The chicks had to compete to be heard over the noise from several black-backed gull and dozens of herring gull nests.

Prize for spotting the four choughs in this photo! Photo by Liz Corry.

Kevin and Wally’s chicks made their first appearance at the supplemental feed on the 7th shortly followed by Dusty’s three chicks on the 10th.

A recently fledged chough with her mum Chickay arrived at the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.

As reported last month, we knew Dusty and Chickay had three chicks in the nest and it was really pleasing to see all three fledge. The other nests remained a mystery until fledging because our plans to ring chicks in the nest had to be cancelled twice. On one occasion we postponed due to the force 9 gales blowing around the bottom quarry. Not the best time to be up a ladder!

On the 16th, Bo and Flieur arrived with three chicks in tow. The following day Trevor and Noirmont arrived with two chicks and Lee and Caûvette  were next with one chick. So far, the other three pairs have failed to show with chicks.

Kevin and Wally were the first to bring their fledged chicks to Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

One pair have good reason. We believe the male is missing presumed dead and his partner, Pyrrho, has re-paired with Green whose brood died last month. The other two pairs, nesting in boxes, should have fledged chicks by now so it appears the chick(s) perished before making it over to Sorel.

Icho seems to have been unlucky this year unless her chicks are late bloomers. Photo by Liz Corry.

As the month came to a close, we had accessioned twenty chicks. Eleven of which had joined the flock at the supplemental feed.

Expectant offspring at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Ringing chicks at the aviary

Once fledged, the young will remain with their parents for several weeks following them around begging for food. They gradually learn to become independent, growing in confidence every day. You can see this happening in real time when you visit the supplemental feed site: at first, they sit on the roof of the aviary expecting their parents to go get the extra food. It takes about a week before they start getting confident enough to venture inside. A few weeks later and they race their parents to get to the food.

To be inside or not to be inside, that is the chough chick dilemma when they first arrive at the feeding site. Photo by Liz Corry.

For us, this means we have to bide our time before we can start trapping young inside the aviary to fit identity rings and get DNA samples to determine sex. Our first attempt this year was on 30th June.

We managed to trap three of the new chicks inside the aviary along with several adults. This year’s colour ring is yellow; the yellow rings also have a number stamped on to help ID in the field.

Yellow (stamped with a number) is the colour ring indicating a chough hatched in 2021. Photo by Liz Corry.

The ‘Jersey’ red and white striped rings are no longer available. Until we can find a new supplier the birds will just have the metal Jersey Museum ring on one leg and two plastic rings on the other. We might stick with this combo as it means less ‘baggage’ for the birds.

One of the chicks was noticeably smaller and still had some grey colouration to its bill. This suggests it was younger and, therefore, from a different brood.

You can approximate the age a chough by the colour of their bill. Photo by Liz Corry.

Of the adults, we had caught Minty and Rey which meant we could replace Rey’s missing white and faded cerise rings. We released them and the other adults immediately so they could return to their chicks.

Dusty and Chickay were the only choughs to stick around outside the aviary whilst all this was going on. Upon release, two of the chicks flew directly to them heavily hinting at possible parentage. We now get to play match-the-ringed-chick-to-the-adult as they continue to feed their young. If we can catch them in time!

Zoo surprise

Far easier to manage are the chough chicks in the Zoo. Penny and Tristan have reared another brood. Well mostly Penny has since Tristan was temporarily moved out when he started showing signs of aggression. We knew we had at least two chicks from the begging noises coming from the box. Electrical issues with the camera set-up meant we had to wait until we ringed them in the nest to discover we actually had four chicks!

All four were ringed and DNA sexed and are now flying around on public display.

Four Zoo chough chicks were ringed in the nest this month. Photo by Bea Detnon.

 

Chough report: May 2021

Broken and faded leg rings used on choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Housekeeping

Another ‘catch up’ with the choughs this month. This time BoPercyTrevor, and Chickay all needed replacement leg rings. It provided an opportunity too to check their general health through body weights and visual inspection of feather and body condition.  

Happy to report they all looked well and it’s always nice to reconnect with Chickay again who we hand-reared back in 2014.

In contrast, we declared six adults and four juveniles (< 12 months of age) as missing, presumed dead. A few had been missing for a while; in particular, the juveniles who in this species tend to struggle to get through their first winter. Others like Beanie Baby had suddenly gone from their territory making it more obvious to detect the loss. An updated ID list for the Jersey flock is available here. 

Mystery chough in England

Of course one or more of the missing list may have taken flight off-island. No COVID-restrictions for them! A chough of unknown origin was spotted in Dorset early on in May. The video below was taken at Portland Bill near Weymouth. There was a later possible sighting on the Isle of Wight.  

 

The bird in Dorset was unringed and likely to be a Cornish bird dispersing along the coast. Devon have carried out a lot of habitat management to try and encourage choughs to disperse east from Cornwall, which might have helped this one to reach Dorset.

Whilst doubtful it was a Jersey traveller; I contacted the Portland Bird Observatory just in case. All our captive-bred released birds are fitted with transponders. A quick scan with a pet microchip reader would detect if a transponder had been fitted. This requires the bird to be in the hand, a long shot for Portland, but at least they now know about our project and can bear it in mind next time they have a surprise visitor. 

Choughs travel with Blue Islands airline

England did receive one influx of Jersey choughs this month though. The three males we bred in the Zoo last year finally secured passage to Paradise Park, Cornwall. Ever changing COVID travel restrictions in both the UK and Jersey had placed the export on hold for several months.

Pre-export checks include checking the chough’s transponder number matches the paperwork. Photo by Liz Corry.

Export routes are limited now because only certified ports are permitted live animal transfers. Portsmouth (ferry), Heathrow and Gatwick (plane) are the usual routes we use to transfer zoo animals between the UK and Jersey. Neither were an option this time around and after a lot of ‘blue sky thinking’, red-tape cutting, paperwork signing, and (I imagine) a magic 8-ball, our Animal Registrar managed to open up a route via Exeter. This relied heavily on the generosity of Blue Islands airline who have previously supported Durrell’s work. Port staff handling the transfer at Exeter were equally helpful and handed over the birds to David Woolcock who then drove them down to Hayle.

Once they clear quarantine, these males will join the non-breeding flock housed at Paradise Park and eventually be paired up for 2021. They may even find themselves travelling back past Exeter on to one of the planned reintroductions in Kent or the Isle of Wight.

Hatching underway in Jersey

The wild Jersey breeding pairs became very active at Sorel as hungry bills started to hatch out. We think that the first nests to hatch belonged to  Betty and Pyrrho and Percy and Icho. The males would be waiting at the aviary for the supplemental feed, snatch what they could and zoom back to their quarry nests. They would then return with the females to repeat procedure and spend the next hour or so flying back and forth roughly every five minutes.  

Females tend to stay on the nest for the first week post-hatch when the chicks are most vulnerable. Once they get their body feathers, mum will help in collecting food such as ant eggs/pupae, beetle larvae and, in Jersey, the supplemental diet of mealworms. 

Ronez Quarry reported a new nest in a building the choughs have not used before. We suspect this is Betty and Pyrrho since her last known nest site no longer exists. Ronez also sent through photos on 11th May confirming Dusty and Chickay had succeeded in hatching three chicks. These were the first to be accessioned in 2021 and given temporary names of PP066PP067, and PP068. Whilst not the most attractive of names it signifies that they are the 66th, 67th, and 68th chicks to hatch in the wild since the reintroduction began. 

Chough chicks around 17 days old) in the quarry. Photo taken under license by Toby Cabaret.

I should add that some chicks hatch out, die, and get discarded from the nest without us knowing, therefore, the total number hatched is likely to be higher. The same day we were given the good news about Dusty’s family, Ronez called again to say they had found three other chicks prematurely out of their nest.  

The nest these chicks were from is in a box in the secondary crusher building used by Green and his new partner Vicq. Standard procedure would be to return the chicks to the box and hope the parents continue to feed. This option was off the cards as access to the box requires a scissor lift and at 5pm, with hire companies closed, we had to think outside the box. Sorry, even I just sighed at that pun.  

Luckily Ronez had a spare nest box which they placed on the elevated walkway inside the building. One chick was wobbly to say the least when he was picked up. The other two seemed ok despite the fall. Whilst not ideal it meant the chicks were off the ground out of the way of gulls, predators, and morning site traffic. 

Unfortunately, the three chicks did not survive the night. I collected the bodies on the way to work for the Durrell vet to carry out post mortems. He believes at least one was still being fed by the parents judging by the quantity of undigested mealworms he found.

We don’t know how or why the chicks found themselves on the floor. I suspect the nest box is too small to provide adequate air flow in that quarry building which can lead to over-heating, aspergillus, and/or compromised breathing. We had planned to replace the box with a bigger one for the 2020 breeding season. Lockdown stopped that then and again in 2021.  

Even more of a mystery was what happened next with Green and Vicq. The day after the nest failed, Green was seen flying around with his old partner Pyrrho. Then Vicq reunited with her ‘best friend’ Lily who she spent most of 2020 preening and hanging out with.  

Plémont hatch-trick

Plémont Bay. Photo by Liz Corry.

We all needed some good news after that which is where the Plémont pair come in. Minty and Rey started behaving like new parents desperately looking for food around 14th May. There is sparse foraging habitat within the immediate vicinity of the nest. 

Bracken smothers most of the land in the immediate vicinity of the Plémont chough nest. Photo by Liz Corry.

However, 800 metres away at Les Landes there are fields grazed by horses and the racecourse next door. The male could be seen making regular visits to this site whilst the female remained with the nest. 

The Plémont pair source food for their chicks from paddocks like these around Les Landes. Photo by Liz Corry.

On a visit to the nest on the 19th, I heard the unmistakable sound of a begging chough chick. Too young to be visible. The parents on the other hand were visible. Especially if the raven family flew past. Minty has done a sterling job of keeping the nest predators away shouting at any who dared to go near.

Choughs are expert rock-climbers. Photo by Liz Corry.

By the end of the month, we had visual confirmation of chicks in the nest. Minty and Rey were still busy feeding and nest visits every five minutes gradually changed to every twenty minutes or so as the chicks grew and gained strength. The site of a parent carrying away a faecal sac from the nest is a joyous one. To a select few I guess. We are extremely excited to see what June has in store.

Rey, the female chough brooding chicks at Plémont. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

Chough report: April 2021

A female chough incubating her clutch. Photo under license by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Egg-cellent news

We have managed to identify ten nests. All of which appear to have females incubating eggs. Bonus news, one of those nests belongs to a wild-hatched pairing. Up until now, pairings have comprised Jersey Zoo or Paradise Park birds we have released or a 50:50 mix of captive-bred and wild-hatched choughs.

Nest  Sire Dam
1 Captive-bred Captive-bred (H)
2 Captive-bred (H) Captive-bred
3 Captive-bred  Captive-bred (H)
4 Captive-bred  Captive-bred (H)
5 Captive-bred  Captive-bred
6 Wild-hatched Captive-bred (H)
7 Wild-hatched Captive-bred
8 Wild-hatched Captive-bred
9 Wild-hatched Captive-bred
10 Wild-hatched Wild-hatched

(H) = hand-reared

The other point to note is that the Jersey flock now only has twelve males and eighteen females. The two males that are not paired up only hatched out last year. You wouldn’t expect them to be breeding yet. Then again, if you read last month’s report, never make assumptions with choughs…

Bo and Flieur probing for insects at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

The Trinity Trio

Reports started coming in over Easter weekend of three choughs visiting horse stables near Les Vaux valley behind the Zoo. Working closely with the owner we investigated, did some probing, if you pardon the pun, and discovered a few interesting facts.

A pair of choughs had been using the stables in 2020. The building is like a smaller version of one the quarry buildings and surrounded by several properties with horse-grazed fields. The owner had not noticed the choughs in a while so assumed they had gone.

Now a/the pair had returned, this time with nesting material. However, what appears to be happening is that they are removing material (silver birch twigs) from abandoned pigeon nests and flying off somewhere else.

On one occasion there was an almighty ruckus as the pair flew in to be greeted by a third chough. A phone call on Easter Saturday saw me drive round to the stables in the evening and find a solitary chough roosting in the rafters. 

The leg rings identified the bird as Bee the same chough regularly visiting the Zoo. This made sense, answering the question where does she go at night. It didn’t tell us who the other two were. That was until….

Peacock Farm

After Easter we received reports of two choughs visiting Peacock Farm. This belongs to the Jersey Royal Company of the famous Jersey royal potatoes. The farm also happens to be behind the Zoo and about a kilometre from the stables!

A pair of choughs were being seen, almost daily, on the site often with twigs in their bills. A neighbour managed to pinpoint which building they were going to. We met with two of their directors outside this building to introduce ourselves and explain about the chough project. Almost instantly, two choughs flew out from inside and started shouting at us. 

I would like to tell you that we read the leg rings, know exactly who the pair are and can confidently say there is an eleventh nest in Jersey. A royal one no less.

However, observations over the next few weeks left us a bit muddled. We know that the frenzy of twig trafficking slowed down. When the owner of the stables moved house we naturally stopped getting reports. We have not seen Bee over the Zoo as much. Likewise, chough sightings at the farm have dropped off.

Choughs Pinel and Bee at Peacock Farm, Trinity. Photo by Hannah Clarke

We do know that Bee and Pinel were photographed at Peacock Farm on 17th April. Bee frequently visits Sorel for supplemental feed. We have never seen any inclination that she is paired with Pinel. So if Bee and Pinel are a pair, who the heck was the third chough? Why wasn’t Pinel roosting with Bee at the start of April? Is this a new romance, could there be four choughs residing in Trinity?

The choughs appear to be horsing around this month. Photo by Liz Corry.

Who knows! Thank goodness the Plémont pair are straight forward. Oh wait…

Plémont, pesky choughs and puffins

The Plémont pair look to be progressing well. The female is incubating and the male is doing his best to defend the nest. We are managing to make weekly visits supported by several public sightings.

The Plémont male feeding the female as she takes a break from incubating their eggs. Photo by Liz Corry.

The puffins have now returned to Jersey to breed along the Plémont to Grève de Lecq coast. Puffins nest in burrows often in the same habitat choughs use for feeding and nesting. Our Plémont pair often crop up in reports from the seabird monitoring ‘arm’ of Birds On The Edge. Typically,  they are in flight so leg ring colours aren’t seen. That’s fine though right? Two choughs, one nest. All we need to know is when the chicks are due and if there are any disturbance/predation issues.

Wrong! Remember, never assume. Turns out there has been a switch-a-roo when we weren’t looking. In March we reported Beanie baby had lost her male and paired up with Minty, re-building the nest at Plémont. Jump to April and Minty is at Plémont but it’s not Beanie baby on the nest. It’s a younger female. Scandal!

Leg rings helped staff identify Rey as the female now on the Plémont nest. Photo by Liz Corry.

We haven’t seen Beanie baby all month. Was she ousted by the female or fell victim to the Plémont peregrine? We might never know. All I can say is Rey is incubating eggs at Plémont with Minty. Fingers crossed both Rey and Minty are rearing chicks come May.

Catching up with the choughs

We carried out a couple of successful catch-ups this month with the choughs to replace leg rings. All birds caught looked to be in good health and expected body weight. You always have to be extra cautious at this time of year. You want to be as quick as possible so as not to keep the parents from their eggs or chicks. Breeding females should only be caught if absolutely necessary and handled with care if doing so.

Which is my excuse for not taking any photos of the birds getting their new rings. Instead here is Riccardo trying to pretend everything is normal and that he isn’t holding the hatch door wires posed to drop them. See if you can spot the green lizard that clearly had me distracted from the job at hand.

Waiting to ambush the choughs at the aviary whilst being distracted by the basking green lizards. Photo by Liz Corry.

Aviary maintenance

The aluminium sheeting has been fitted to the aviary to deter rat access. Our next steps are ensuring no rats are living inside. Riccardo is monitoring with the aid of camera traps. Once the all clear is given, the aviary can be used to confine choughs if needed for example for veterinary reasons.

April’s weather has left us without rainwater on several occasions and we have ferried containers up there and altered our cleaning regime to accommodate.

Vegetation-wise, everything is growing which means regular strimming and mowing to maintain chough-friendly habitat. 

Sorel sheep set to work grazing a field previously used for winter bird seed crops. Photo by Liz Corry.

Meanwhile, the eco-friendly lawnmowers sharing the field with the aviary have set to work in another National Trust owned field. Don’t be alarmed if you visit and think a bunch of sheep have escaped. There is a hot wire around the perimeter.

Et maintenant, les nouvelles

Cappy is still happily living in Carteret, France. Photo by Catherine Bataille.

Cappy is still in Carteret. Yann has kindly kept us updated. We even had a photo sent in via Durrell’s Facebook site from a sighting on 11th April just north of Carteret. Read the news from France 

 

Irish national chough survey

From Government of Ireland Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage 

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.

From April to July 2021 KRC Ecological and ALC Nature will be running a national survey of these birds on behalf of National Parks & Wildlife Service all around the Irish coastline.

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.

Observations of Irish choughs can be reported here , email choughsurvey@gmail.com or call 089 278 5603.

Chough report: March 2021

By Liz Corry

Breeding season

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.

Horsing around

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!

Plémont 

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”. 

Catch-ups

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?

  1. Green is really unlucky having now found himself with ‘wife’ number 4 since 2015
  2. Vicq finally stands a chance at breeding, having spent the last two years in a female pairing
  3. 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.

SORG spawn

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:

 

Chough report: February 2021

Choughs arriving for the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Chough census

Ahead of the Island census next month we have taken account of Jersey’s chough numbers. We are missing several birds from the Sorel feeds. It is becoming increasingly harder to conclude that a chough missing at the feed means a dead chough. The chough in France is testament to that! However, the chances of them being alive are very slim if we don’t have any sightings elsewhere, there has been a long and consistent absence from Sorel, and/or their partner has re-paired.

With that said we have nine birds who have become ‘missing presumed dead’ over the last six months. This potentially brings the Jersey population down to 34 from 43 and one female in France.

Flieur looking a bit dubious about the makeover Bo is giving her. Photo by Liz Corry.

I have managed to carry out one catch-up to replace missing rings. We now have a few more birds with missing or broken rings. This adds to the confusion of who is present or not.

Plémont pair

The situation at Plémont has been a bit of a mystery. Beaker has still not been seen despite the female, Beanie Baby, regularly showing up for supplemental feeds. Only one chough was seen at Plémont. Then towards the end of the month, two choughs were flying around. This coincided with Beanie Baby preening and foraging with a new male at Sorel!

We need to confirm which birds are at Plémont. Gut feeling says Beaker is no more, Beanie has found a new partner, and is having another go nesting at Plémont.

Beanie Baby (Green/Black) surrounded by male suitors. Photo by Liz Corry.

Corbière pair

Another curve ball…the female hanging out at Corbière has not been seen in a long time. Her partner, Minty, has been at Sorel every afternoon for the feed. Here is the ‘fun fact’, Minty is now paired with Beanie Baby.

Trinity choughs

Choughs have been visiting the Zoo again. One in particular. In fact, of all the times we have been able to identify leg rings, it has been Bee or Bee with Pinel a young male. She visited the Zoo last year when she was paired with a different male, Mac. Whilst never confirmed, we assumed Bee and Mac were the pair regularly spotted around Trinity and St Martin.

Bee renewed her membership to the Zoo so she could visit the chough aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Mac has been missing for a while. Bee might be visiting the chough aviary in the Zoo looking for a new partner. There are still three single males in with the breeding pair. She might simply be looking for free food whilst away from Sorel. She has been observing the keepers and now tends to arrive shortly before a feed is due then disappear until the next feed. The Zoo choughs get three feeds a day.

Bee making herself comfortable on top of the Zoo aviary. Photo by David Mulholland.

Breeding pairs for 2021

We have ten pairs going into the 2021 breeding season. We only have twelve males in the flock, two of which are only one year of age, so ten is good going. Half the pairings are proven, having produced one or more broods in the past.

Hopes for a Trinity nesting pair now seem very slim. Plémont still has promise although unintentional public disturbance could be an issue if the 2020 nest site is used. As always Ronez Quarry will be the stronghold and the focus of our monitoring.

Observations at the supplemental feeds suggest the nest building or, for some, nest-refurbishment started this month. We think at least one female has started egg laying. Could we have Easter chough chicks?

Cappy in Carteret

Cappy is still alive in Carteret and starting to gain followers in France.

France and the Écréhous (foreground) are visible from Jersey’s north coast (through a 60x zoom!). Photo by Liz Corry.

Zoo news

Keepers managed to catch-up the three boys from the display aviary in the zoo and move them to an off-show holding area. This allows Tristan and Penny to start breeding without territorial disputes.

A very happy keeper (Cian) after a tricky catch-up in the Zoo chough aviary. Photo by Bea Detnon.

All three males looked healthy and were implanted with transponders for ID. All of the captive-bred birds have them. They will be exported to Paradise Park when travel permits.

A Jersey Zoo chough getting a transponder fitted under the skin for identification purposes. Photo by Bea Detnon.

Whilst travel doesn’t permit…

I have attended several online planning meetings over the past few month regarding proposed chough work in the UK. I tend not to mention them as they are quite heavy going, tedious things…

 

Zoom meetings with Cauvette the chough and Wildwood. Photo by Suzanne Kynaston.