Chough report: December 2021

By Liz Corry

Sorel in the bleak midwinter. Photo by Liz Corry.

December was wet and wild, but that didn’t stop the choughs from making the most of Jersey. We had several sightings covering the north and south of the Island.

Jersey choughs have been foraging in the fields along le Canibut. Photo by Liz Corry.

The fields around Le Canibut lane in St John provided daily sustenance for a bit. Corbière became an early morning jaunt for several birds. Eight were spotted one morning searching for insects amongst the stony ground around the headland. We were able to identify the birds as a mix of this year’s juveniles and non-breeding sub-adults.

Monvie and Jaune searching for invertebrates on the south coast. Photo by Mick Dryden.

Historically, choughs in Jersey were known to nest along the stretch of coast running from Corbière to Beauport. The coastline clearly still holds it appeal for the species although not enough to support a chough independently from Sorel and the supplemental feed.

The south west corner of Jersey was historically home to breeding pairs of chough. Image taken from Google Earth 2022.

December catch-ups

An ‘epic’ event happened this month at Sorel. I finally managed to outsmart the choughs and trap them in the aviary on the first attempt. Ok, so it’s not climbing Kilimanjaro or turning rainwater into wine. But in our books, it’s pretty impressive. Especially given the fact myself and the student shut in 14 of the 24 choughs present, hand-netted and weighed seven, replaced missing rings on three, and solved a medical mystery for one. All within an hour and time to spare before sunset. 

No, before you ask, there was no pear tree and/or partridge in sight.

Student Charlotte Dean got the rare opportunity to hold a wild chough whilst learning about ringing. Photo by Liz Corry.

Minty, our Plémont male, now has brand new green and red rings. It should make him more obvious when he is flying between Grosnez and Plémont during the breeding season. In the process of replacing Lee’s missing white ring we noticed wear along the top edge of his metal ring. This was only fitted six years ago.

 

Lee’s metal ring fitted in 2015 is showing wear and tear. Photo by Liz Corry.

The medical mystery concerned Minty who was observed limping one afternoon at Sorel. There also looked to be swelling on one of his feet. Once in the hand, it was clear to see his hind digit on the left foot was swollen. In consultation with the vet, it was decided that it was likely to be fibrous scar tissue or a cold abscess. The limping seen the week before was unrelated and has not been observed since. We will continue to monitor him as closely as we can as with all the choughs. We will take him to the vet to be X-rayed if his condition worsens.

Swelling on the hind digit looks to be scar tissue or a cold abscess. Phot by Liz Corry.

Essential Maintenance

Ever since that catch-up on the 22nd, the choughs have been on the defensive, reluctant to enter the aviary if we are present. They might hate us even more when we set up the Henchman ladder to repair the tears in the netting.

Tears in the netting are appearing once again along the metal support pole. Photo by Charlotte Dean.

We tried to do the work on 9th December with the assistance of the Government Countryside Rangers. The ladders are too big for our Dacia and the condition of the farm track called for the Rangers’ high clearance Land Rover.

After our best Chuckle Brothers impression getting the ladder into the aviary whilst being pelted with hail, the Henchman was too tall to stand upright inside. We had borrowed Site Services’ Henchman because the Bird Department’s one was in use, not realising it was a different model until it arrived at Sorel car park.

We rescheduled for the New Year and set to work repairing the holes we could reach unaided.

We also had to reschedule installing new nest boxes in Ronez Quarry. Emergencies at Ronez postponed the two planned visits in December. I’m hoping it will be a case of third time lucky in January.

We kept ourselves busy in the meantime. The student created Christmas themed enrichment for the choughs using reclaimed wood, old perching, and non-toxic paints. A well-deserved Blue Peter badge is winging its way to her.

December in Jersey…must be time for a visit to Hawai’i

I participated in two online planning workshops this month to discuss ideas for the ‘Alalā reintroduction plans (aka the Hawaiian crow). The ‘Alalā Project team and the Jersey chough team have had on and off contact over the last ten years sharing a common goal and using similar practices we can both learn from.

Hawaiian crows are tool users. Photo by Ken Bohn/San Diego Global

Release efforts between 2016 and 2019 saw captive bred ‘alalā living free in Puʻ u Makaʻ ala Natural Area Reserve on Hawai’i Island. Sadly, after several losses, the team decided to re-capture the surviving birds and return them to the safety of captivity whilst they set to work on Plan B.

‘Alalā face a very complicated situation which is why the team are looking for help and ideas from far and wide including the Mariana crow, Puerto Rican parrot projects, and the Jersey chough project. Getting all four teams in one virtual room was a challenge in itself given the time zones. The first meeting was at 10pm (GMT) the second a more respectable 6pm.

It was very motivational to hear people sharing experiences that resonated across species and countries. Often when helping others you end up learning something yourself. And it reminded me just how lucky Jersey has been to have had success so early on with a species recovery project.

               

Blue Islands flight JECH0U9H

The four juvenile choughs bred at the Zoo this year were exported on the 16th to Paradise Park via Blue Islands. It was a true team effort requiring all Bird Department staff in that day to help catch the four out of the aviary in the afternoon of the 15th. They were then held in a quarantine aviary overnight ready for a 6am wake up call. The birds were caught and crated ready for a 7am departure in the dark heading to the airport. Blue Islands flew them to Exeter where they were met by Paradise Park staff and driven on to Hayle, Cornwall.

And finally…

As we bring December and 2021 to a close, we would like to thank everyone who has been involved in the project this year and all our supporters for their generosity and enthusiasm. It’s been another hard year for choughs dodging peregrines and humans dodging COVID, but we made it. Happy New Year! Here’s to a year full of leatherjackets, dung beetles, larvae and whatever else makes you choughing happy.

Sunsetting on another year at Sorel. Photo by Charlotte Dean.

Chough report: November 2021

November afternoons at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

At the start of November, I was still wearing shorts to work. By the end, several layers, gloves, a woolly hat, and the obligatory waterproofs. The choughs also noticed the change in weather. The entire flock are now waiting for supplemental food each afternoon. Some birds even wing-begging for food. Clearly, wild supplies of invertebrates were not meeting energy demands for birds battling winds and trying to stay warm.

The sheep left. Not necessarily related to the weather, I think they have been moved to St Ouen. This might add to the choughs’ hunger if there are less dung invertebrates around Sorel in the sheeps’ absence.

Hungry choughs waiting for the supplemental food. Photo by Liz Corry.

Storm Arwen caused more minor damaged at the aviary. Of note, the keeper door had been blown wide open when the force of the wind bent the bolt out of place!

I was quite surprised we didn’t suffer more, especially considering last month’s gale damage. Luckily, I managed to fix the damaged panelling before Storm Arwen hit.

Lily leaves the flock

Lily, a three-year old female, appears to have either perished or left the Island. She was last seen on 5th November at Sorel. She has not been reported elsewhere.

Lily is an example of how post-release management has played an important role in the project’s success. Lily hatched in the wild in 2018. We had to catch her up in December that year when we spotted her digit caught in her ring. Durrell vets had to intervene as the toe needed amputating (click here to learn more). She was released back into the wild the same day and formed a partnership with another female looking out for each other over the years.

Lily and Vicq hanging out together this summer. Photo by Liz Corry.

New partnerships

Since Lily disappeared, her ‘partner’ Vicq has been seen preening Pinel. He is a wild hatched bird from 2020. If this new partnership continues over winter, it could mean a new breeding pair. 

Likewise, Danny and Portelet are also showing promising signs of being a new pair for 2022. Both pairings will need to find a nest site and establish a new breeding territory. No doubt keeping the project team on their toes next season.

Roost monitoring

We have been without a student placement all November which has restricted certain tasks, one being the biannual roost checks. I’ve not been able to check all the known roost sites due to sunset times clashing with the supplemental feed.

I have been able to monitor the aviary and, as suspected, several of the quarry birds are roosting at the aviary again. I suspect they will switch back to the quarry once sunset times start occurring after Ronez have clocked off for the day.

Leg rings

We finally managed to trap Monvie in the aviary to fit her metal ring. This is engraved with details of Jersey Museum in case the bird is recovered by a member of the public. Also, it comes in really useful when a plastic colour ring drops off and we can’t be sure on identity. Case in point, Archirondel, who we also managed to catch the same day and replace her white ring.

Monvie having a metal leg ring fitted by a licensed ringer. Photo by Liz Corry.

Bo and Minty evaded several catch-up attempts this month. We will keep trying although, at least for now, we can still distinguish them in the flock. Then on the 29th, Lee arrived missing one of his rings so he gets added to the ‘to do’ list for December. 

French news

Our friend Yann commented on last months’ report to say he has not seen Cappy since spring. Disappointing if she has perished although not a surprise. It would be nice to think she has moved south, along the coast towards Brittany under the radar of French birders. 

And finally

Camera trap footage at Sorel often throws up a few surprises. This month it was the camera itself with the surprise. I found an orb weaver (spider) and ladybird ‘hiding’ behind the camera. The spider’s full name is Nuctenea umbratica, commonly known as a walnut orb-weaver. Apparently also known as the toad spider although I’m not sure why – a tendency to hide behind things?

I logged the find with the Jersey Biodiversity Centre using the iRecord app. Both are common species but it is still important to record when you can.

Camera traps throw up all sorts of surprises at the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

 

Chough report: October 2021

Do choughs need a Corvid-19 passport to leave Jersey? Photo by Liz Corry.

Report by Liz Corry

Out of sight but not out of mind

A year ago we had our first-ever confirmed sighting of a chough off-island when a juvenile flew over France. Has it happened again?! 

Rocky, a juvenile male from Ronez Quarry, is missing from the flock. He has bright pink and yellow leg rings making it theoretically easy for the team to pick him out in a crowd.  He has not been at the supplemental feed. That alone doesn’t mean much these days; however, on one occasion he was the only one not to turn up. This suggests he is either dead or has left the Island effectively reducing the population to 31 choughs.

It would be good if we can start raising our profile across the Channel Islands, Brittany, and Normandy to enable the public to report chough sightings if indeed the birds have flown further afield.

Rocky is not the only one to leave Sorel. Aaron spent a busy weekend transporting sheep off-site to another location for livestock management reasons. I’ve no one to talk to now when I’m cleaning the aviary!

Hello Dolly. Photo by Liz Corry.

Storm damage

The sheep were still out at Sorel when the storms hit this month. We had a couple of weeks where we were strongly reminded that winter is approaching.

The gales managed to break a food stand, break signposts, dislodge a water butt (it was empty to be fair), and pop several rivets. All easily fixed and looking like new. Or, in the case of signage, actually new thanks to the Government Countryside Rangers.

A few small tears have appeared in the netting and fixing points in need of attention. This will require some extra hands and a sturdy ladder. 

What’s wrong with this picture? Photo by Glyn Young.

Minor damage inflicted by October’s stormy weather. Photos by Liz Corry.

The sudden downpours turned walking to the aviary into a game of will I or won’t I end up like a drowned rat? Should I leave the dishes out or condense them down to put under cover? The latter confusing the choughs for a split second when they didn’t find a food dish where it normally would be.

New nest boxes for 2022

We have built two new nest boxes with a grant from the Jersey Ecology Trust Fund. These will replace two existing nest boxes which need to come out for different reasons. Percy and Icho’s box currently requires the hiring of a cherry picker to ring their chicks. The new nest design will allow access from inside the building. Plus, the current one became lopsided back in 2019 and is increasingly at risk of falling down. Not ideal for quarry staff least of all the choughs.

Percy and Icho’s nest box will undergo a Changing Rooms special this winter. Photo by Liz Corry.

Ronez Quarry will be installing the boxes before Christmas ready for the next breeding season.

The grant provided by the Jersey Ecology Trust Fund included several other items such as DNA sexing kits and leg rings. For various reasons, we came in under budget. The Trustees kindly permitted us to use the remainder of the budget to purchase new binoculars. For which I am very grateful – I was beginning to think it was just my eyesight!

Celtic cousins 

Regular readers might remember that the new design of nest box came from the owners of a renovated barn in Ireland. In fact, it was the October 2019 report where we featured the same nest box needs (thanks a lot COVID-19!).

Ireland is home to a population of almost 850 breeding pairs. This is more than Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Jersey’s numbers combined. Yet this still makes it a scarce species in Ireland restricted to the western Atlantic coastline.

View overlooking Beginish and Doulus Head from Valentia Island on Iveragh, Ireland. Photo by Norman McCloskey.

One conservation initiative involved with Irish choughs is LIVE (Llŷn Iveragh Eco-museums). The overall aim of LIVE  is to enable coastal communities to promote their natural and cultural assets, creating opportunities for sustainable tourism, especially outside of the traditional peak tourist seasons. LIVE uses the Ecomuseum model of co-operative marketing to create a powerful suite of digital and non-digital resources for eco and educational tourism. These resources are underpinned by knowledge of the local environments of the Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynedd and the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry.

As part of this, Fiach Byrne, University College Cork, has has been investigating winter habitat use of choughs around the Iveragh peninsula, County Kerry. He recently presented his findings online; the YouTube video is below.

To find out more got to www.ecomuseumlive.eu or follow them on social media (@ecomuseumslive).

We hope to be hearing more from Fiach and the LIVE team in the future. There are lessons we can learn from our Celtic cousins to help the Jersey choughs thrive.

And finally…

Reviewing camera-trap footage can often be monotonous especially when it is just a blade of grass that sets off the trigger. Occasionally you come across a real gem. This month we managed to capture a series of images showing the barn owl hunting at the aviary.

A barn owl hunting outside the chough aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chough report: September 2021

September at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry

By Liz Corry

Sun, Sorel, and sweaty volunteers

At the start of September, a group of Durrell volunteers responded to the call for help at Sorel to remove bracken alongside the aviary and patch up holes in the netting. 

Volunteers removed bracken at Sorel, ruining Dot’s game of hide and seek. Photo by Emily Hewinson.

The weather was less forgiving than anticipated with soaring temperatures and no shade other than the shadow of the choughs occasionally flying overhead. Fuelled by caffeine, cold water, and chocolate digestives they managed to finish the tasks in time for the choughs’ supplemental feed.

Sewing skills were put to the test on the aviary netting. Photo by Emily Hewinson.

The only real challenge that day was working out how many bags of bracken can fit in the back of a Dacia. Spoiler alert – its two. Which meant two trips to the burn pile at the Zoo as we had managed to fill four bags clearing the one tiny strip.

The project vehicle was put to the test this month transporting bracken. Photo by Liz Corry.

Having the holes in the netting closed up will allow us to start catching up choughs again to replace leg rings. We still have one youngster in need of a metal ring.

To catch a chough in the aviary first requires the chough to enter the aviary. Something the Jersey birds decided they didn’t want to do this month. At least not in front of staff.

Preliminary study 

We are hoping to setup a postgraduate research project next year that investigates the choughs’ use of the supplemental feed site with the help of RFID technology. From bank cards to cat flaps, the day-to-day use of chip reading technology is increasingly being applied to wildlife conservation and research. 

We can potentially use the technology to tell us which birds are visiting the aviary, how often, for how long and what times of day, the list goes on. There is even the possibility of remotely weighing individuals and calculating how much food they take on, on an individual and group basis. The challenge is designing a setup suitable for choughs, their behaviour, and their environment. A perfect puzzle for a post-grad.

In the meantime, we are kick starting the study by finding out what size and shape antennae we could use to read the RFID chips attached to the birds as a leg ring. An off-the-shelf bird counter is available using a square antennae. Will a chough happily walk through this? 

Instead of spending £800 up front to find out the answer is no, we are going to play around with hatch sizes at the aviary. They already pass through a 40cm by 60cm rectangle. Can they cope with 25cm by 25cm? 

This means we need to spend lots of time watching, recording, and trawling through camera trap footage. It’s actually more entertaining than it sounds.

WildSnap! at Sorel

Speaking of camera trap footage…Durrell launched a nature connections programme in summer called WildSnap aimed at teenagers and their tech savvy brains. In partnership with My Naturewatch using a combination of Raspberry Pi electronics and Blue Peter magic, you build your own camera trap then go out and see what wildlife you can find.

The kit costs roughly the same price as a cheap bog-standard camera trap you can buy from the site that rhymes with Glamazon (especially if you live in a VAT-free country). Naturally we were keen to put one to the test and see how useful it could be on the chough project.

Image quality is equal if not better than a budget priced shop-bought camera. The design might not be the most robust, but it does the job taking video or photo.

For any non-teens who want to try building their own camera, check out the how to video below. Raspberry Pi products are widely available these days. Just remember to drop the ‘e’ when Googling!

Chough travels

Whilst staff attention focused  on the aviary, the choughs decided September was best spent away from Sorel. Once again, Les Landes to Plémont became a popular playground as well as food source.

Portelet looking for food at Les Landes. Media by Jo Bramley/Jersey Wildlife Facebook group.

There were several consistent reports of choughs in the south west of the Island too. Enough to suggest a small group had made the visit their daily morning routine. 

One colleague reported her delight in seeing the birds outside her window whilst staying at the Corbière radio tower. Quite an impressive view made even more memorable by the charismatic choughs.

Not so many reports from east of Sorel. It’s unclear if the parish of Trinity still has a resident chough or two. We are entering the time of year when choughs tend to disperse further afield. Residents in the other Channel Islands and the French coast should start keeping their eyes peeled!

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.