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

By Elin Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

syngamus life cycle_basic_EFC

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing the McMaster slides. Photo by Kayleigh Meek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chough report: March 2018

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A chough collecting nest material for the 2018 breeding season. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Nesting underway with the wild choughs

The choughs started nest-building this month. Established pairs returning to their faithful nest sites and younger pairs setting up in new locations. Green and Black were the first pair seen taking wool and dry grass from Sorel across into the Quarry. Rather apt at Easter time. Yes Green & Blacks we will accept sponsorship. Yes payment can be in the form of chocolate (sustainable/palm oil free).

Whilst we have only witnessed a few individuals carrying nesting material we suspect all twelve males will attempt to breed. Some may simply carry twigs following the lead of the female. We hope the majority will go all the way and raise chicks. A lot of the success is dependent on age; three-years old being the average age females start laying eggs.

Trying to follow twelve males around Jersey is proving challenging for myself and our student Elin. We are being helped by Ronez Quarry staff and reports from the public (including zoo keepers on their days off – no rest for the wicked). We do suspect a small group of choughs are flying under the radar exploring new parts of the island.

We had our first confirmed sighting of choughs over the Zoo. Five were spotted by our Conservation Learning manager flying in a westerly direction over the car park. This was the same week we had an unconfirmed sighting by a member of the public of two choughs sat on a roof top in Gorey.

It definitely looks set to be an interesting breeding season. As always please do send in your sightings to bote@gmail.com or phone 01534 860059.

Gianna undergoes her cataract operation

Gianna, our ‘foster mum’ for the captive breeding programme, had developed cataracts in both eyes. We called in specialists from the UK to assess Gianna’s condition with the view to operate. Ophthalmologist Claudia Hartley and nurse Kelly Shackleton from Langford Vets, Bristol, flew over at the end of February. Claudia has previously helped Jersey Zoo to save the sight of one of our lemurs so we knew Gianna was in good hands.

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Operating theatre at Jersey Zoo. Photo by Liz Corry.

As you can imagine cataract removal is a very delicate operation. The delivery and maintenance of anaesthetic in a patient weighing less than 300g is equally sensitive. The operation had to be aborted on the first two attempts due to equipment malfunctions in the operating theatre. Understandably staff did not want to chance anything. The operation was postponed until March.

Langford Vets and the Durrell vet team attempt to remove cataracts from Gianna’s eyes. Photo by Liz Corry.

They say “third time lucky”, but luck had nothing to do with it. Perseverance, dedication, and immense skill meant that the third attempt was successful. Gianna’s operation took nearly three hours from ‘knockdown’ (going under anaesthetic) to stitching and waking up.

Now for the technical bit…Durrell Vet Alberto Barbon who assisted with the op said that Gianna underwent a bilateral phacoemulsification to remove cataracts. Surgery and anaesthesia went well, although she developed a hyphaema in the right eye following the surgery, we are hoping that this will resolve over the next two weeks”. In simple terms she has a sore eye, but it will heal and she will regain full sight.

Bird Department staff have taken good care of her providing medication and much needed TLC. Hester Whitehead, Senior Keeper, reports that Gianna is “clearly able to see much better already – in fact her demeanour was different as soon as she was returned to her aviary. She is on a course of daily anti-inflammatories, and really appreciates the extra attention the team has been giving her during her recovery.”

We are very grateful to Claudia and Kelly for helping Jersey Zoo once again. They also found time to perform sight-saving surgery on seven dogs and two horses at New Era vets before they left Jersey!

****WARNING: Image from Gianna’s operation below. Scroll down to ‘Rodent proofing at Sorel’ if you are squeamish about eyes and needles*****

 

Cataract removal in a chough at Jersey Zoo. Photo by Alberto Barbon.

Rodent proofing at Sorel

Upturned guttering fixed to the polytunnel to deter rodents climbing up and chewing holes in the netting. Photo by Liz Corry.

Up-turned guttering has been fitted around the edges of the netting at the release aviary. In theory, the slippy plastic and angle of guttering prevents rodents from reaching the net.

We have already noticed a difference and are now working on making sure there are no rodents trapped inside the aviary through adding this.

We are very grateful to the Royal Bank of Canada who provided funding for the guttering and fixtures.

The enclosed food tray mentioned in last month’s report has not met with approval from the choughs. This would have alleviated the rodent problem by preventing food spillage. We will have to come up with another design.

Ecological restoration expert visits Sorel and the Birds On The Edge project

Dr Robert Pal, director of restoration at Montana Tech of the University of Montana recently visited Jersey as part of his whirlwind tour of the UK. He was invited over by his friend Lee Durrell and kindly gave a talk to staff and volunteers at Jersey Zoo.

Dr Pal’s main research focus has always been the study of the flora and vegetation of disturbed habitats, including agricultural and urban areas. Terrestrial restoration to native communities and ecosystems is often hampered by exotic invasive species. The talk entitled “Exotic invasions and restoration – parallel paths in ecology” explained how fundamental ecology, restoration, and exotic invasion can be jointly interpreted and merged into an integrated framework.

The Manx Loaghtans contribute to the ecological restoration of Jersey. Photo by Robert Pal.

Naturally he was inquisitive about the Birds On The Edge project and managed to squeeze in a visit to Sorel before his flight left. Dr Pal said “It was fantastic to see this project and have first hand experiences on it, congratulations.

Dr Robert Pal with Durrell student Elin Cunningham. Photo by Judit Nyulasi.

Student Research
We always encourage students to consider the Birds On The Edge project when they are deciding on their dissertation projects both undergraduate and postgraduate. This year has seen quite a bit of attention with three projects either underway or in the pipeline.
The current chough placement student, Elin Cunningham, is studying Bioveterinary science at Harper Adams University. Whilst she assists with day-to-day management of the chough project she is also collecting and analysing faecal samples from captive and wild choughs to assess parasite levels. More to follow when she writes her blog for this site.
Miriam Lord, from Oxford University, visited this month to do some scoping work for her dissertation. Miriam will be assessing public awareness and attitudes to the chough reintroduction. She plans to return in summer to conduct questionnaires with people in the Zoo and in St Helier town centre.
A similar project will be undertaken by Catherine Firth, Nottingham Trent University. Her focal group will be primary schools. As well as gathering information Catherine hopes to provide educational talks to schools willing to participate. This will commence in June before schools break for summer.

Cauvette the chough will be making an appearance this summer – which lucky student will get the privilege? Photo by Tiffany Lang.

Cornish choughs, Channel Island choughs, and Kentish choughs?

Canterbury coat of arms circa 1925. From www.Heraldry-wiki.com

Continuing the student theme, we had a visit from Jack Slattery who has started his PhD looking into the feasibility of reintroducing choughs to Kent. This is with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) based in Canterbury, Kent.
As a bird enthusiast Jack was impressed with the project in Jersey. His interest, as part of the study, is less about how we reintroduced the choughs and more about stakeholders involvement and attitudes. Stakeholders include a wide range of people such as our project partners, landowners, and the general public. We have been quite fortunate in Jersey to receive a lot of positive support. Jack has to predict whether or not Kent will see the same.

Chough report: February 2018

By Liz Corry

Chough update

February – the shortest month of the year and the shortest report to date. The chough population has remained at 35 birds. None have shown signs of being sick. We have not witnessed any fights within the group or with any other species.

Not all are present for the afternoon feeds, but that is not unusual. The breeding season is upon us and pairs are starting to spend more time away from the group. A breakaway pair at Les Landes feed there during the day, returning to Sorel to roost.

Choughs at Les Landes. February 2018 (2). Photo by Liz Corry

Birds in foreground are choughs foraging at Les Landes (see below). February 2018. Photo by Liz Corry

Cauvette with (we suspect) Lee foraging at Les Landes Racecourse. Photo by Liz Corry.

There has also been an unconfirmed report of four choughs over Gorey Village. This is the east side of the Island and, while it’s uncommon to see choughs there, it’s not impossible.

The one afternoon when we did have all 35 choughs at the feed was the coldest of the month. The wind chill factor brought the temperatures down to -10°C and not surprisingly the birds wanted to stock up their energy stores with free food.

So all in all February was underwhelming.

I have now seriously jinxed March.

Planning Permission

As we reported here in November, permission was sought from Jersey’s Department of the Environment Planning and Building Services to extend the life of the Sorel aviary for another five years. We received approval for this extension on 6th February and are grateful to Planning for this. You can see details of the application and approval here.

DIY rodent control

With a further five years of the aviary we have been kept busy trying to rodent proof as best as possible. Guttering has been fitted along the edges of he aviary where the netting meets the timber. Rats are good climbers and we suspect they have been climbing the half-inch weldmesh along the polytunnel to get to the netting, chew holes, and enter the aviary. The slippy surface of the half round guttering should be of suitable size and shape to deter the rats. This technique is successful with our polytunnel aviaries at the zoo. The question is, will it work with the Sorel rats?

Upturned half-round guttering added to the aviary as a rodent deterrent. Photo by Liz Corry.

The inner partition dividing the tunnel into two sections has also been modified. There are several holes running along the ground where the rats have tunnelled or chewed through once inside. We have sunk half inch mesh into the ground and added plastic panels.

There are new food stands to replace the picnic tables which finally broke after five years. The stands have covers around the bases to deter rodents.

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The best way to deter the rodents is to remove the food source they are seeking inside the aviary. Choughs are messy eaters when it comes to the supplemental feed. They flick pellet around looking for mealworms first, before going back to the pellet.

We are trying out a new enclosed feeder intended for chickens. If the choughs take to it we can look at adapting the existing feeders.

Chough report: January 2018

Flieur (grey over blue leg rings) a four year old female chough. Photo by Elin Cunningham

by Liz Corry

It was a wet and windy start to 2018 with storms Eleanor, Fionn, David, and Georgina all battering Jersey within a span of 24 days. Not surprisingly then, there is little to report in terms of chough antics. Even less in the way of photos since cameras were kept locked away in the dry.

Storm damage

Wind speeds, rarely falling below F8 throughout January, took their toll on the aviary. The poly-tunnel netting suffered the most. Constant rubbing along the metal poles wore down the threads and cable ties snapped. In some areas joins in the netting opened up or came away from the wooden frame and overnight a large split in the middle of the poly-tunnel appeared. Obviously reducing the effectiveness of trapping birds in the aviary if we had a need to do so. An ostrich could escape from that, never mind a chough!

Netting ripped open and posts broken as storm after storm pounded the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Easily rectified by sewing and patching with extra netting, the tricky part was finding a day when weather conditions permitted use of a ladder for the harder to reach areas. Other damage has or will take longer to repair. Again this is because we are reliant on weather conditions favouring truck access to the site to take new timber and scaffolding.

As exemplified by this little incident on the one day it didn’t rain…

Toby from Ronez Quarry answered the chough SOS after the student’s 4WD failed miserably. Photo by Elin Cunningham.

Yes we did have 4WD on. No it obviously wasn’t working and we are eternally grateful to staff at Ronez Quarry.

My aviary and other animals

The aviary still functions as a supplemental feed station and roost site. As mentioned in past monthlies it is favoured by other wildlife. We probably have the complete compliment of Jersey’s small mammals visiting the aviary. This has pros and cons depending on your viewpoint. The owls and kestrels are very much in the ‘pro’ camp.

One afternoon our volunteer was shocked to find an owl flying around inside the aviary. As were the choughs! Normally we just find pellets. Earlier this month we thought we had stumbled upon a lost Damien Hirst masterpiece. Turns out it was just the neatly displayed insides of a rat.

We have also managed to film the culprit responsible for the defecation and destruction found in the keeper porch. Measures are underway to deter this behaviour.

We are experiencing problems using camera traps. A lot of the time they failed to even record chough activity. Fingers crossed we get more footage of the owl(s) if it or they return.

Camera trap photo taken at dawn of the choughs who chose to roost at the aviary.

Sign of the times

Despite the wind and rain the chough pairings are still clear to see. We are not far away from the time of year that the pairs start nesting. We are keeping a close eye on the existing pairs as well as the blossoming ones. Our two trios from last year will or have changed.

The death of Egg has forced Dusty to consider whether he becomes closer with Chickay or ditches her and starts afresh. Our young trio of Pyrrho and two wild siblings remains a close friendship. Pyrrho wants more. Will the young male feel the same this year now he is a year older with his hormones beginning to kick in?

Pyrrho (right) with her young male. Photo by Elin Cunningham

Who ewe looking at?

Apologies, but how else to entitle this section? The sheep are still confined to the field adjacent to the aviary. They started to take a keen interest in the grass surrounding the aviary but weren’t invited in! They have now been partitioned off to the next field. The choughs, however, make the most of the sheep’s field and the soil, dung, and hay there teeming with invertebrates.

The grass IS greener. Photo by Liz Corry.

The field gates are currently padlocked if you are to go and visit. Please be respectful of the sheep whilst they are up there: they are very friendly, but spook easily which tends to result in Usain Bolt sprints in all directions.

Advances in aviary design

Finally this month we have to thank John Corder, a follower of the monthly report, who answered a plea in December’s report. I had asked if anyone had suggestions for a more efficient way of building and operating release hatches. John linked us to a presentation made at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2016 conference describing the use of remote bird traps. These homemade traps incorporate remote central-locking systems used in cars and run off a 12v battery. A quick visit to eBay and a local hardware store soon had me set up to finally put my A-level in Technology to good use. The kit cost around £30. All that is needed now is to find a way of making it weather-proof and workable at Sorel. We hope to test this out in our zoo aviary first. Many thanks to John once again.

Efficient release hatches? We think not! Photo by Elin Cunningham

Chough report: December 2017

by Liz Corry

As the year drew to a close and daylight hours dwindled to their annual low, the choughs spent more and more time at Sorel close to their roost sites.

Chough movements in December

There was one intriguing public report at the start of December suggesting a new roost site. Farm workers at West Point Farm, St Ouen, had been seeing a pair of choughs in their barns around 7am each morning. At that time of year sunrise occurs around 7.40am. Was the pair roosting in the barns or being ‘the early bird that catches the worm’ and leaving Sorel before everyone else to find food out west?

Choughs leaving the feed site at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

The day of the report, and each day since, there have been 35 choughs at Sorel for the feed. The sun sets not long after with a dozen or so choughs staying at the aviary and the rest heading east, presumably to the quarry.

Taking in the last rays of a December day. Photo by Liz Corry.

Another reason to stay close to Sorel is the supplemetal feed. Now that winter has set in the availability of wild food is low and the need for calories high. December has not been particularly cold – in fact there have been a few balmy days where shorts were an option (for keeper not bird).

An unusually warm day in December enjoyed by the choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

However, our tiny island has taken a constant battering over the past weeks with gale force winds of 40 to 60 mph. It is bad enough walking or driving in it. Imagine being a 300g bird trying to fly or trying to stay grounded whilst searching for food in the soil.

24 hours later! (note the choughs on the roof) Photo by Liz Corry.

Apart from a demand for more food the choughs have on the whole faired ok so far with the bad weather. They are making the most of the sheep being confined to the aviary field. It is tupping season with one lucky ram confined to two fields with a flock of ewes. Lots of dung with maybe the odd tasty insect morsel inside.

One lucky ram confined to the aviary field at Sorel for tupping season. Photo by Liz Corry.

The choughs have been foraging in amongst the sheep confined to the field adjacent to the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Syngamus strikes again

There have been two cases of syngamus infection this month. Luckily I was able to trap the birds, Lee and Duke, within a couple of days of symptoms showing. They evaded capture on the first day of trying, partly due to the hatches not budging when released (if anyone can come up with a better release hatch design I will pay you! albeit in chocolate coins). The second day their hunger in the increasingly cold wet weather spurred on their motivation for staying inside the aviary and the hatches closed. Much to the relief of the vet on call over Christmas as it was the 23rd December.

Never easy trying to trap choughs who refuse to go inside. Photo by Liz Corry.

Whilst Lee had been our major cause for concern due to gaping and repeated sneezing, it was Duke who sounded the most congested once we had him in the hand. He also had a lot of mucus around his nares which we rarely see.

Duke presented with mucus coming from his nares as a result of infection. Photo by Liz Corry.

Once they had received their wormer injection they were released and left to feed on the pellet and insects at the aviary. Remarkably there have been no observations of sneezing since that day. However, do bear in mind the gales/fog/heavy rain/sleet (often in the same day) have meant that there is little incentive to hang around at Sorel observing birds.

We have tried. Body weights have been obtained for several of the birds. Not consistently to show any trends, but enough to know the choughs getting on the scales are not underweight. These of course will be the more confident individuals and/or ones that have low parasite loads. We have a new type of scale that the birds will use. A lot cheaper than the flat Kern scales (£20 versus £150).

Prototype weighing station using digital kitchen scales. Photo by Liz Corry.

They are not intended as outdoor scales so I have had a few attempts at weather-proofing. The current one needs improving as the birds are unsure. Once they have approved the design plans we can make several weighing stations to place around the aviary ensuring we cater to all of the choughs.

Gianna’s dilemma

Towards the end of November keepers at the zoo started to notice Gianna our foster mum having issues. She was crash landing when flying. Gianna is tame and she lets keepers get extremely close. She lets me open her bill to check for infections or blockages if needed. It was easy to see that the source of Gianna’s mobility problems was her eyes.

Gianna’s left eye was starting to show signs of cataract. Furthermore, there was no reaction in her right eye. She was taken to the Vet Department for further examination. Photos were sent to a UK specialist who confirmed she had cataracts in both eyes.

Jess Maxwell with Head Vet Andrew Routh examining Gianna’s eyes. Photo by Bea Detnon.

Since the initial assessment there has been a noticably downturn in her ability to move around. Understandably as her vision deteriorates her confidence in everyday things like hopping from rock to rock has decreased. She has been moved to an off-show aviary close to the Vet Department so she can receive the best attention from keepers.

Cataract forming in Gianna’s left eye at the start of December. Photo by Liz Corry.

The cataract in Gianna’s left eye by the end of December. Photo by Bea Detnon.

Despite everyone’s love for Gianna we have to accept that her future is murky. There is the option of an operation to remove the cataracts. As you can imagine this is very specialised, expensive, and relies on the individual being strong enough to undergo the operation. For those of you interested in avian ophthalmology click here. If the operation option is not feasible her quality of life will then need to be carefully considered.

Season’s greetings

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From all of us at chough HQ we hope you enjoyed your Christmas holidays and wish you all the best for 2018. Thank you for your continued support.

Chough report: November 2017

Choughs took flight this month to explore the west coast of Jersey. Photo by Trevor Biddle.

By Liz Corry

Having spent most of November on holiday or in bed overdosing on Lemsip, I thought I would get away with not having to write anything this month. However, as is now tradition, it is times like these when the choughs start hitting the headlines. So, thanks entirely to public sightings, I have the following news to share.

New sightings for November

There have been a couple of positive sightings of choughs at Petit Port and Corbiere once again. We never know every individual involved, but we do get at least one or two positive sightings of choughs in the area each year around this time and this year we have had some positive identification like Roy Filleul’s photo of PP003 at Corbiere and Mary with friend in the NT Field, St Ouen’s Bay.

Staff at Simon Sand & Gravel Ltd had a surprise sighting of two choughs flying around their buildings on 3rd November. They managed to film it and post on their Facebook site, see below. Since then we have been receiving reports of choughs making the most of St Ouen’s Bay. It tends to be 2 to 3 birds at a time, no large groups, and they are seen in the same places (although there could be observer bias in that).

We had a report of a chough drinking from the water’s edge at the St Ouen’s Pond Scrape (in front of the Eddie Buxton hide) which is personally very exciting as I’ve only ever seen them drink from the aviary water tray and the sheep bowsers.

Kempt Tower and Les Mielles nature reserve are becoming popular with at least three of the choughs. Thanks to Trevor Biddle’s photo of them down at the Scrape (south of St Ouen’s Pond) we know the identities of the three explorers; Pyrrho and wild-hatched siblings known to us as PP004 and PP005. Rather interestingly these three have been a trio since the start of this year and observed carrying nesting material towards the quarry back in spring.

Three sub-adult choughs spotted by a member of the public near the Scrape, St Ouen’s Bay. Photo by Trevor Biddle.

It is likely that people are seeing the same three in the area, but without leg ring information this cannot be confirmed. Understandably that information is hard to obtain, it is amazing just to get photos. All this knowledge feeds back into their long-term management plan so if you do spot choughs out and about in Jersey please do send in your report to birdsote@gmail.com or call 01534 860059 and leave the details.

Red-billed choughs in NT Field. 5-11-2017. HGYoung

Two choughs in the NT Field, St Ouen’s Bay. 5-11-2017. Photo by Glyn Young

Chough numbers in Jersey dealt another blow

One chough who will not be venturing further afield anymore is Egg. We had a rather sad report from Ronez Quarry of a dead chough found behind the door inside one of their buildings. On collection of the body the leg rings told us the bird was a captive-raised female known as Egg. What we did not know was the cause of death since the body looked to be in good condition and time of death fairly recent. She was taken to the Zoo’s veterinary team for post-mortem analysis.

X-rays ruled out any kind of trauma. She was underweight, but there was no evidence that she starved to death. Syngamus was present, but at a very low encounter rate. Internal investigation showed problems in her lungs and presence of acanthocephalans, a type of parasitic worm also known as thorny-headed worm. Once again we cannot say for sure that these factors caused the death, but certainly played a part in her demise. We are waiting on histology results for further information.

Captive-reared chough, Egg, collecting nesting material at Sorel back in April. Photo by Liz Corry.

This brings the chough population down to 35 individuals; 12 males, 23 females. It also means we have lost a potential breeding female. Egg was partnered with Dusty and for a second year in a row had made a nest although nothing came of it. We will now need to keep watch on Dusty. Will he form a new pairing in time for the next breeding season only a couple of months away? Will Chickay finally get her chance after spending two loyal years following him? More importantly was Egg‘s cause of death a one-off or is something sinister afoot?

Julian Hume

Julian Hume and Lindsey Hubbard visited the aviary on 13th November. Julian, better known for his work with extinct bird species was excited to watch such an exuberant, and very much living, species!

Julian Hume and Lindsey 13-11-2017 (1). HGYoung

Extension request for release aviary

The release aviary at Sorel was originally granted a five-year lease of life under States of Jersey planning regulations. As this comes to an end this month we have submitted a request to extend permission a further five years.

We still have a a group of choughs using the aviary as a roost site (not to mention kestrels and barn owls). There is still a need to recapture birds for veterinary treatment as demonstrated in last month’s report. The aviary facilitates this need.

In the long term we are also looking at introducing new blood lines into the population which would require soft-release of captive reared individuals. We still aim to remove the aviary at some point in the future, but for now there is still a clear need for the structure.

More information and opportunity for public comment can be found on the States website by clicking here.

The required planning notification went up at the aviary on 9th November and has, thanks to high winds, been replaced four times!

Sorel -Site Notice 12-11-2017. Jane De St Croix

Chough report: October 2017

A few of the Jersey choughs signalling dinner time. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

As October drew to a close it was achingly apparent that the chough flock was down from 38 to 36 individuals. The two wild-hatched females who went missing in September had still not made an appearance, forcing us to reluctantly record them as missing presumed dead.

This is the first time we have lost wild-hatched birds post-fledging period. One can’t help feel a sense of responsibility. These individuals were known to have a nematode infection, but attempts to medicate them had failed before they went missing. All we can do now is monitor the remaining choughs to ensure the same fate doesn’t befall them.

So we did, and guess what…two of the adults started sneezing. Egg and Helier began with the ‘I’m not sneezing, just clearing my nostrils’ subtle sneeze. After a few days Egg stopped whereas Helier continued and progressively worsened.

After a few failed catch ups due to jammed hatches, intelligent corvids, and of all things Portuguese forest fires (see ‘Sepia skies’ below) Helier was finally locked in the aviary allowing her to be treated by the vet team. She was released back into the wild straight after her worming injection and appears to be much improved.

Nematodes are part of the natural ecosystem. Choughs feeding in the wild will be exposed to them and have to tolerate or succumb. This year is turning out to be the worst since the project began in terms of number of infected birds and fatalities warranting further investigation.

Sepia skies

Having worked at Sorel for several years now you would have thought that everything that could go wrong in a catch up had done or at least been theorised and accounted for. Hinges sticking on trap doors, birds not showing up or not hungry enough to want to go inside, mountain bikers zooming past scaring the flock into the air, etcetera. Not once had we thought to account for Caribbean hurricanes and Portuguese forest fires!

On the morning of the first planned attempt to catch up Helier the skies in Jersey, and parts of the UK, were looking very ominous. Walking around Sorel it felt like someone had put a sepia filter on the world. Frustratingly my camera phone kept adding its own filter so the photos below don’t fully set the scene.

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On 16th October 2017 the skies above Jersey turned a sepia colour. Photo by Liz Corry.

Low cloud filled the skies throughout the morning. Around lunchtime the sun made an appearance, but looked more like Mars than our beloved sun. There were no horsemen on the horizon so instead of embracing impending doom I turned to the Gods of Google.

A red sun breaking out from the cloud of dust and ash in the atmosphere. Photo by Liz Corry.

An explanation for the near apocalyptic conditions was provided by the BBC. Remnants of Hurricane Ophelia passing over the south of England and Channel Islands were dragging dust from the Sahara and smoke from the devastating forest fires in Portugal and Spain across our skies.

I tried explaining this to a very confused flock of choughs who were clearly conflicted about what time they should go to roost. One might think this would be advantageous to someone trying to lock birds in an aviary. Nope. Instead it meant they just sat and stared at me in their perplexed state. A twenty-minute stand-off resulted in a dejected keeper walking away left to come up with a Plan B.

Roost check

Plan B failed. In fact it wasn’t until Plan E was executed that we were able to lock the sick chough in the aviary. The new plan arose from the need to know who was roosting in the aviary in case we had to lock in the sick bird for longer than a day. There was a small chance she roosted in the aviary already rather than the quarry. If so, all we had to do was wait until the birds had gone to roost and quietly shut the external hatches.

Cut to the scene of a person in dark clothes vaulting a field gate at night only lit by the stars and the dim headlights from a teenager’s car (one assumes from the discarded firework packaging and soda cans found the next morning) idling at Sorel Point.

The operation provided extra information other than Helier’s roosting site. A total of twelve choughs were roosting inside the aviary including Dusty the very first wild-hatched chough and the two females who follow him.

Kevin and Bean were hanging around outside the aviary. They could have used one of the external roost spaces at the aviary or simply flown over from the quarry at first light to forage nearby. The other interesting find was the kestrel who shot out of the external roost box when I arrived in the morning to check on the choughs.

There are no photos from Operation If this doesn’t work we’re screwed. So instead here are a couple taken at Les Landes when checking for signs of choughs at sunset.

A view of the Pinacle at sunset. Photo by Liz Corry

Sunset at Les Landes. Photo by Liz Corry.

The Women’s Institute expedition to the north coast

Earlier in the year the ladies of La Moye WI had invited me to give a talk about the choughs. Several of their members were already aware of the project, but had not realised that the historic breeding sites for Jersey choughs were in fact along the coastline at La Moye.

Enthusiasm for the project continued to grow as the evening went on, fuelled by the obligatory tea and cake, and by the end of the night a trip to Sorel was penned in the diary.

After a few clashes in the calendar a small group from La Moye finally made it up to the north coast this month. Glyn walked them around the conservation fields and release site. Not all of the choughs were present, but certainly enough to make an impact and demonstrate their amazing flying skills. I sadly missed out as I was in England, but from the looks on their faces I think they enjoyed it.

La moye WI (1)

 

Plémont – how to create species rich grassland…. or heathland

Plemont headlandBy Jon Parkes 

July 2016 saw the official opening of Plémont Headland and for the first time in over 140 years (before the original “Plémont Hotel” was built in 1874) the public have been free to enjoy this special place.

Creating and protecting “green space” for people has been at the heart of the Plémont debate and acquisition and indeed forms a very important part of the National Trust for Jersey’s ethos. But ensuring that nature has a home is also a vital component of what we do and there has never been a time when action has been so desperately needed.

In 2015 The States Department of the Environment published the results of the Jersey Butterfly Monitoring Scheme after 10 years of collecting data across 38 sites by a team of dedicated volunteers. The results suggest that whilst Jersey’s butterflies might be faring slightly better to those in the UK, the surveyed population has still decreased by 14%, (compared to 29% in the UK). Interestingly Jersey’s butterfly population is doing best in semi-natural sites as opposed to those in agricultural or urban habitats where they are declining. In fact the green hairstreak is one species that is doing particularly well and has been recorded as increasing by 458% in the last 10 years as opposed to suffering a 40% decrease in the UK. This could be seen as a strong indication of the importance of managed semi-natural sites such as Plémont.

Ponds

The creation of two ponds at Plémont was eagerly anticipated by the local toad and palmate newt population, who were literally queuing up to jump in upon their completion. For two consecutive years the Eastern Pond has been used by both species to breed. This year, the larger Western Pond has seen a whole new generation of toadlets emerge after metamorphosing from their tadpole stage.

Common toad. Photo by Kristian Bell

Despite the amphibian successes, both ponds have experienced teething problems and most noticeably the appearance of the lime-green algal blooms. Spirogyra is a family of around 400 species of filamentous algae that is commonly found in freshwater and is indicative of clean water that has high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates. It can be easily removed but doing so would jeopardise any invertebrate life or tadpoles that would become encapsulated amongst the tiny strands of algae.

Plemont pond

Another issue the ponds face is loss of water through evaporation, due to their exposed position to the sun, wind and transpiration – the evaporation of water from plant leaves. Whilst there is means to top up the water levels from a well, this would mean the introduction of more nutrients which would cause more algae. The proposed solution is to encourage more oxygenating plants and remove the algae once the toads have emerged from the water, decreasing the level of nutrients over time. Equilibrium will be reached, the water quality will improve and we will have to accept that the water levels will drop in the summer months. As long as there is water during the amphibians’ breeding period (February-June) the pond is serving its purpose and will act much like many natural ponds without constant water inflow.

Reseda luteola Weld R

Grassland

Back in the spring of 2015 you may remember the huge mounds of sandy soil which were spread over the footprint of the demolished buildings. Over 7,000 tonnes of sandy soil, sourced from Les Quennevais and recycled soil from La Collette formed the base of what we now refer to as the restoration area. To create a heathland such as Les Landes we would need a free draining sandy soil with a low pH (pH 5-6 ideally) and low nutrient levels. It is easier to maintain a species-rich wild flower habitat when there are fewer nutrients in the soil. If you add fertiliser (or compost or a lot of manure) to the soil, a small number of competitive plants are able to rapidly exploit these extra nutrients. These species then tend to become dominant and other plants are less able to compete for space. Most plants rely on a relationship with fungi and soil micro-organisms in order to grow. Fertilisers have a negative impact on these organisms making it more difficult for the flowers to grow.  With very little choice available, in the quantities we would need, a mixture of sandy soil, sourced from Les Quennevais and recycled sand from La Collette was chosen. Although the average pH was around 8.5, the particularly low nutrient status would mean far less of a burden when it would come to managing the developing vegetation.

Plemont headland 5

Snow bunting, Plemont, November 2017. Photo by Romano da Costa

This June our Conservation Officer, Jon Rault, assisted by the very knowledgeable local botanist Anne Haden, undertook a vegetation survey to assess how things have developed and have some interesting results. Around 50 plant species have so far been recorded including: wild carrot, toad rush, birds-foot-trefoil and small-flowered catchfly. Maritime Duneland plants such as fragrant evening-primrose, sea beet and sea radish have appeared, but this isn’t so surprising considering the origins of the soil, Les Quennevais of course being built on Dunes. Some more invasive plants such as the non-native cape cudweed and spotted medick which may need some management have become quite well established and some more exotic species including echium and Californian poppy have appeared as likely remnants of the holiday camp era.

Lotus corniculatis Common Bird's-foot-trefoil

Oneothera sricta. Fragrant Evening Primrose.Resent soil tests have confirmed that pH levels are still rather alkaline at between pH 8.5 and 8.9 and this is unlikely to change without any intervention due to the amount of concrete based material that must be underneath the layer of imported calcareous sand. Perhaps more encouraging is the nutrient status results from the same soil samples. For example, the amount of available phosphorus is currently between 8.8 and 25.8 mg/l with a “P index” of 0-3, compared to a recently tested former agricultural field which showed levels of available phosphorus at between 66.2 and 153.4mg/l giving a “P index” of between 4 and 7.

Beta vulgaris subsp maritima Sea Beet.Our current situation, with the encouraging results of vegetation surveys, indicates that the soil choice was a good one. Whilst our soil pH is much higher than we would have ideally liked, this is something that can be changed by adding sulphur, an expensive but affective way of raising acidity. As the results from the former agricultural field’s shows, high soil fertility is much more of a problem with no “magic cure”.

The decision on whether to try to acidify our soil in the effort to meet our original vision of creating a heathland is not one that needs to be made straight away and whilst wildlife and people are clearly making good use of the site, we have already achieved much of what we wanted to do.

For the meanwhile, the addition of calcareous grassland to our north coast may be something of an oddity but this may also be its strength and reason to remain as such. A new and interesting patch adding heterogeneity to the landscape is something that’s often lacking.

Further decisions will be required but there will be a need to balance and create opportunities for nature as well as public access and enjoyment.

This piece was originally published in the National Trust for Jersey magazine Discover and is reprinted here with kind permission

Choughs at Sorel Point May 2017. Photo by Mark Sleep

 

Chough report: September 2017

by Liz Corry

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” – George Eliot
If that bird happens to be a Jersey chough, substitute “earth” for Les Landes and “successive autumns” for lots and lots of insects. For the first time since the choughs have been living at liberty, the entire flock have snubbed their morning supplemental feed in favour of wild pickings out at Les Landes.
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Chough spotting in the middle of Les Landes Racecourse (the red circles indicate choughs, not cowpats). Photo by Liz Corry.

Choughs taking flight at Les Landes Racecourse. Photo by Liz Corry.

They have been flipping over and picking apart cow pats, probing the grass on the spectators’ stand at the Racecourse for cranefly larvae, and scouring the cliff face for anything else they can prise out of the ground.

A group of choughs (under the arrow) and starlings foraging in the spectators’ area of the Racecourse. Photo by Liz Corry.

This is obviously encouraging news for the project. The choughs are clearly content and they are gaining popularity with the public, both locals and tourists who delight in watching their antics. Especially the flying displays.

For the lone observer tasked with keeping track of all 38 choughs it is a roller coaster of emotions; pride, joy, irritation, despair etc. The blessed things don’t stay still nor in one group and it is near impossible to read leg rings. Add to that the inevitable sod’s law factor and you get events such as (1) Racecourse tractor mowing back and forth along your observation site (2) friendly kestrel spotting lunch slap bang in the middle of the foraging chough flock sending them scattering just as you are half way through counting said flock and (3) random 10 minute hail storm!
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La Nethe Falaise is a favourite spot for the choughs to hang out when they are up at Grosnez. Photo by Liz Corry.

There is, however, one trick of the trade that can be deployed and moments of need. It should only be practised by a trained professional. It can only be practised by a trained professional since without the recognition from the foster-reared and hand-reared choughs it probably wouldn’t work and you would be left looking like a right Parus major (one for the bird geeks).

Like any species, the offer of free food is too tempting and providing I can get close enough in an area where the birds do not feel threatened I can get the choughs to gather together in one place. Note in the video and photos the choughs closest to me are Ubè and Vicq, both foster-reared, and a couple of the older adults who have known me for four years.

Thirty of the choughs getting a sneaky supplemental feed at Les Landes Racecourse. Photo by Liz Corry.

It is possible to identify most of the leg rings when the choughs are this close. Right up until the point when sod’s law example number 2 comes into play. After that, only the clingy types stay behind begging for more free food.
For the past few weeks the maximum number of choughs at any one time has been thirty-four. There should be thirty-eight. The individuals who appear to be absent most often are Lee and Caûvette, their chick Pink, and Carmine another wild chick hatched this year.

Carmine, a wild chick from this year, was last seen at the aviary on September 2nd. Photo by Liz Corry.

Whilst it would be nice to assume Pink is with her parents, both chicks are of an age now not to be dependent on their parents. Furthermore they were both showing signs of having nematodes back in August. Failed attempts to catch them up in the aviary meant that they were never treated before they were last seen at Sorel at the start of September.
It is quite possible that Carmine and Pink have sadly perished. Ever optimistic we will continue monitoring the population and ask the public to keep their eyes (and ears) open.

As a footnote, apologies for the media quality this month. The trusty camera has packed up and I am relying on my camera phone!

 

 

Chough report: August 2017

by Liz Corry

This month has flown by. So have the choughs. Awful opening line, but accurate. Now that the breeding season is over the choughs are spending more time away from Sorel and it is quite rare to see all 38 choughs at the supplemental feeds.

West is best?

Lee and Caûvette are back at Les Landes and Grosnez. This time with their chick in tow. We were treated to several sightings of the family whilst we carried out rat monitoring fieldwork at Plémont. The most memorable sighting was that of all three flying through the early morning fog towards Grosnez. These days they spend the whole day out west, returning to Sorel an hour or so before roosting time.

Lee photographed by a member of the public at Grosnez castle. Photo by Mike Nuttall.

They are not the only ones on the move. A sighting from an ex-Durrell colleague of seven choughs flying over Hamptonne Country Life Museum added to the tally of sightings in St Lawrence parish.

All of the reports from St Lawrence are of birds flying over. Are the choughs just passing through or checking out the parish for suitable feeding site?

Their daily activities are making it a little harder for the team to monitor every chough as closely as we have in the past. Although we have still kept on top of monitoring their health and welfare. It is hard not to when you can get this close…

Syngamus infections in the wild chicks

Last month we reported that the wild chicks were sneezing and sounding congested. We managed to obtain individual faecal samples for three of the four chicks after patiently waiting at each feed. All three tested positive for syngamus nematodes. The fourth bird is proving harder to sample as it disappears out west with it’s parents each morning.

We have so far managed to trap and treat two of the chicks. We are still trying with the third. The chick we treated in July has shown a great deal of improvement which is encouraging.

Durrell vet nurse, Teresea Bell, examining one of this year’s wild chicks. Photo by Liz Corry.

Perils of living in the wild

One of the wild chicks had to be caught up for a second time this month. Beanie baby had plastic thread entangled around her foot. It was quite a mess and needed cutting. Luckily there was no damage and she was free to rejoin her parents. The other good news is that she had put on weight since the last catch-up to treat her for syngamus. We can’t hear her wheezing or sneezing anymore suggesting that the treatment has worked.

Plastic sack thread entangled around the foot of one of the wild chicks. Cut loose prior to photo being taken by Liz Corry.

Upholding tradition

We received report this month from a family who live close to the release site. They were pleased to see three choughs chilling out on their roof taking in the local scenery. We see a similar sight at Crabbé on the granite farmhouse and in Mourier Valley.

What is particular nice about this photo is the choughs sat on the witches’ step, or pièrres dé chorchièrs in Jèrriais. These are flat stones jutting from chimneys of granite houses in Jersey. According to Channel Island folklore, these small ledges were used by witches to rest on as they fly to their sabbats, i.e. meetings. In doing so the homeowner would be looked on favourably by the witch. One witch, Marie Pipet, from Guernsey was said to possess the power to turn herself into a chough!

Enrichment ideas for the captive choughs

Gianna 8-2017

Project student John Harding was set the task of designing enrichment feeders for the choughs in the zoo. Gianna, the tame chough, took up the role of R&D assistant and put them to test. She probably did more eating than assisting, but it still helped John find a winning design.

He also learnt a great deal as he discovered that ‘product placement’ is just as important as design. There are certain areas within the aviary, mainly on the ground, that Gianna does not like going to. In some cases it was a matter of gaining her confidence. In others she just outright refused to go and therefore a waste of time putting enrichment there.