Chough report: July 2019

A chough family out and about at Grosnez. Photo by Mick Dryden.

By Liz Corry

The choughlets finally made it across to Sorel this month to join the flock at the supplemental feed. Some are flying further afield following their parents to the west coast.  They now face the same challenges life throws at all choughs; finding food, avoiding predators, and putting up with those pesky folk who keep wanting to put leg rings on them.

Attendance records at Sorel on the rise.

The choughs are finding plenty to eat around Mourier Valley. Photo by Liz Corry.

With nest sites vacated for another year, the adults are spending more time together at Sorel. The addition of hungry mouths to feed has seen attendance records at the supplemental feeds increase. It has allowed us to get a better understanding of total population size. More on that later.

This year sixteen choughs fledged from various nest sites at Sorel and Plémont. Sadly, as reported last month, three died within a week of fledging all injury related. That still leaves thirteen hungry mouths to feed.

It has been quieter this year at Sorel compared to 2018. The broods fledged at different times. Families were arriving at Sorel days, sometimes weeks, apart giving the youngsters time to adjust. Last year they all fledged within a relatively close time frame. I guess it was noisy because the chicks had to compete with each other for attention.

The surprising news came from Skywalker and Pyrrho who casually rocked up to the supplemental feed one afternoon with two chicks in tow. Quarry staff thought this nest had failed. As first time parents, we had also written off the clutch. Wrong! One of the few times you are happy to be proven wrong.

Earl of Plémont  returns triumphant

Rather a grand title yet justified for the next snippet of news. Earl and Xaviour are returning to Sorel for supplemental food. And so is their chick! On 4th July I found 40 choughs waiting for me near the aviary. As I started going through the roll call, I stared down to find two familiar faces (well leg ring combos) staring back. 

Earl and Xaviour (middle two) returned to Sorel this month along with their new chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

I had to work my way through the flock to finally discover which, if any, was their chick. It was positioned at the back of the group, silently getting on with life, foraging for food.

The Plémont chick getting down to business. Photo by Liz Corry.

We expected the family to make an appearance at some point; the hot dry summer has hardened off the soil making it impossible to extract insects. Their reliance on the supplemental feed naturally increases at this time. We have also learnt that the cows grazing at Les Landes, a chough favourite, have been removed due to the farmer having to make cut backs. These provided another source of food for the birds especially Earl and his family at neighbouring Plémont. 

Falling foul-can

Work with me on this pun as I’m trying to make light of a tragedy. One of Jerseys licensed ringers, Ian Buxton, contacted me this month with regards to a specimen submitted to the Société Jersiaise. Somebody found the remains of a bird whilst out on the cliffs around Sorel Point. On seeing an address stamped on the metal leg ring they thoughtfully bagged the remains and took them to the museum.

This is how Ian became involved and then sent me the following image…

The remains of chough PP036 hatched this year at Ronez. Photo by Liz Corry.

The legs belong(ed) to one of this year’s chicks – PP036 also known as ‘White over Cerise’. 

A peregrine falcon hanging out at Sorel Point. Photo by Liz Corry.

We do like to wind up our vets at Durrell, but I wasn’t about to submit this for a post-mortem. It is quite likely that the youngster fell foul to the resident peregrine falcon.

PP036 had been absent from the feeds since 13th July and discovered on the 17th. We have three more youngsters on our watchlist who haven’t been seen in awhile. They could simply be with their parents over at Les Landes or Crabbé. Although the recovered legs makes me suspicious.

I have contacted the Jersey Climbing Club to ask members to keep an eye out whilst dangling from granite. They are more likely to come across remains than we are.

Big catch up

To ensure each chough has a unique ring combination we had to plan several catches this month. As well as some unplanned, carpe diem moments. Four broods remained unringed and several adults had lost one or more plastic ring.

Making use of the overgrown bracken to operate the hatches. Photo by Liz Corry.

The parents of the unringed chicks were understandably protective. They were on the alert whenever we called the group over for food in the aviary. Often they would land on top of the netting and just stare at us until we gave in and left. If they did go inside, they would immediately fly out as soon as one of us merely thought about closing the hatches! 

The added complication was trying to time it when enough staff were available to help out. We only needed certain individuals from a group of potentially 48 birds. Trying to hand net and process that many in a confined space is stressful to the birds. You want to be able to minimise time spent inside.

On the odd occasion the youngsters were helpful. I would arrive to find one or two chicks already inside. In their naivety and panic, they would forget how to fly out of the hatches giving me enough time to reach the handles and close them.

 

The big catch-up came on 19th July when I managed to lock in 34 choughs. Three escaped the hatches in an Indiana Jones style – one of which was an unringed chick. We’ll gloss over that. With the help of a volunteer and a licensed ringer, I hand-netted 28 of the birds, we weighed them, and fitted or replaced leg rings as necessary. All birds were released back into the wild once we had processed them. 

Whilst in the hand, we discovered one of this year’s youngsters had a clump of matted feathers around the neck. It was dried blood. There was no obvious wound, no fresh bleeding, but clearly something had happened since it’s first catch up three weeks ago. One to keep an eye on.

In Memoriam

The big catch up and recent numbers at the feeds are evidence to suggest we have lost eleven choughs since January of this year. This is not including the deceased fledged chicks.

We know the reason for one bird was aspergillosis because we had a body to post-mortem. Around two thirds of the lost birds were in pairs. Their partners have re-paired with a younger male or female. Was that before or after the disappearance? Cue the EastEnders theme tune.

Name Age (years) Captive or Wild-hatched? Year released*
Mauve 7 captive-bred 2013
White 5 captive-bred 2014
Bean 5 captive-bred 2014
Helier 5 captive-bred 2014
Mary 4 captive-bred 2015
Q 4 captive-bred 2015
Ube 3 captive-bred 2016
Duke 3 captive-bred 2016
Lil’Wheezy 2 wild-hatched 2017
Clem <1 wild-hatched 2018
Bumble <1 wild-hatched 2018
* if wild-hatched this is year it fledged.

 

Bracken bashing for charity

Whilst the sheep do a grand job of grazing the National Trust land at Le Don Paton they have their limits. They don’t actually eat the bracken, certainly not in any quantities to make a difference. At least once a year the rangers take a tractor up to clear certain areas. Understandably, the slopes of Mourier Valley aren’t practical even for the most skilled of drivers.

A Manx loaghtan sheep grazing in Mourier Valley. Photo by Liz Corry.

The wonderful staff at HSBC rose to the challenge and volunteered their time to bash some bracken. Despite July’s scorching temperatures the team joined the National Trust’s rangers and did a great job and clearing the vegetation.

HSBC volunteers helping clear the bracken in Mourier Valley. Photo by National Trust for Jersey.

The sheep can now take over and make sure it stays low. This is how it would have been centuries ago when farmers kept livestock around the coast. Although I assume with less corporate branding. HSBC also helped the rangers at woodland on Mont Fallu and clearing the alien invasive succulent, purple dew plant, from the salt marsh habitat of St Ouen’s Bay coastal strip.

 

Chough report: May 2019

Breeding success for 2019

At the start of May, Toby Cabaret and myself carried out the first nest check in the quarry. It took a lot longer than last year (4 hour). Along with more nests to check there was a small addition of a film crew.

Action man Toby being filmed for a documentary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Tune in around autumn to hear more about that. Back to the nests…

We recorded eleven potential nests including one new location thanks to Kevin at Ronez who had been keeping an eye on a pair. He is also the ‘guardian’ of Red and Dingle’s building and has successfully convinced them to use the nest-box rather than the hot pipes. The negotiations have paid off – two chicks were visible in the nest on 23rd May!

Chough chicks, only a few days old, in a quarry nest box. Photo by Toby Cabaret.

PS. the camera in the photo has been knocked out of position by the parents so we can’t monitor remotely. The box was accessed at a predetermined time under licence. These chicks were too young to ring this month. We will return in June.

Quarry staff also confirmed Dusty and Chickay’s nest had hatched and that Green and Black looked to be feeding chicks. The former cannot be accessed without some dodgy ladder work. We have to wait to see what will fledge. Green and Black’s nest can be accessed only if you have a hydraulic crane and Ronez generously paid to hire one as there are several nests that require it. On 25th May Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills was carried out. 

Kevin and new partner Wally (he must have a thing for hand-reared birds) have chicks. Her nest is one of the easiest to access and with the aid of a smartphone easy to check too…

Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills

We checked Green and Black’s nest first; 3 chicks! They looked about four weeks old. We decided it would be too intrusive to fit leg rings as they could prematurely jump to their death if disturbed so we backed down (literally in the crane). Mum and Dad were watching over us and went straight in to feed them once we left.

Lee and Caûvette’s nest also contained three chicks. Toby managed to manoeuvre the crane tantalisingly close to the nest, but we were short by a few inches. My finger tips could just about touch the base of the nest if I stretched and leaned out of the cart. Actually removing a chick safely from the nest (not dropping it onto the rock pile 20ft below) was out of the question.

A frustrated Toby drove on to the next site. This time with more success. We checked the nest site belonging to Trevor and Noir. Last year they raised one chick but it failed to fledge successfully. This year they had three chicks in the nest. Licensed ringer Dave Buxton and trainee ringer Paul Pestana helped process the chicks with leg rings, biometric measurements, and DNA sexing. Hopefully all three chicks will fledge in a few weeks time.

Licensed ringer Dave Buxton training Paul Pestana to ring a chough chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

An exciting discovery at the start of May was finding out who was responsible for the ‘Mill nest’. We watched as Percy flew to the top of the external nest-box and fed a demanding Icho who had been waiting patiently inside. When he left, she went back inside the nest and we could hear chick begging noises. Toby had reported hearing chick noises previously, this visit appeared to confirm it.

On the 25th, with the assistance of the crane we went to access the nest to ring the chicks. This was the last nest to be checked that day and had been surprisingly quiet. As we slowly rose closer to the nest  entrance the only sound to be heard was that of the crane’s motor. Looking inside all we found were three cold, unhatched eggs. The nest had failed and the parents had abandoned.

A check of Percy and Icho’s nest found the chick to be missing and the remaining eggs had not hatched. Photo by Liz Corry.

I can’t end this section without talking about Tony’s mad crane skillz (with a ‘z’ like all the cool kids, sorry kidz). We wanted to check the building Kevin had been keeping an eye on. The day before Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills (sorry skillz), Toby had spotted where the nest was located inside the building. Accessing it definitely required the crane. The trouble was how do we get the crane to the site with the various gangways and structures in the way. With mere millimetres to spare Toby drove the crane through the obstacle course and started taking us up. Removing the chicks from the nest safely was questionable as it required a fair bit of stretching. However, the dilemma was solved by taking a photo of the nest – the chicks were way too young to fit leg rings. And Toby had to tackle the obstacle course once again, this time in reverse!

The people on the ground managed to get a good glimpse of the leg rings on one of the parents. It was Pyrrho. We believe she is partnered with Skywalker. We give them another four weeks or so to see what leaves the nest. May the force be with them!

The Plémont family

There have not been many opportunities to monitor the Plémont nest. What we have seen has all been positive. Paul Pestana has kindly volunteered his free afternoons to keep an eye on them and has experienced a few cherished moments. Like watching Earl remove a faecal sac from the nest. To some, gross. To others, a happy sign that there must be a chick in the nest to produce the faeces in the first place!

Typical habitat to the east of Plémont – home to a pair of choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

As the days passed and the chick(s) got older you could hear begging noises coming from the cliffs. Only of course if there was little to no wind and you were prepared to get perilously close to a cliff edge. By the end of May this nest was not far from fledging. If and when they do, we will need to monitor the site as closely as possible. The headland is accessible by the public who may pose a threat to bumbling fledglings, the nesting peregrine pair certainly pose a threat, and the steep plummeting drop to the rocky seas below…well that is all part and parcel of being a chough!

Catch-ups at the aviary

There have been several catch-ups at the aviary this month mainly due to health reasons. Two of the breeding females, Caûvette and Wally, managed to get their hind toes caught in their plastic leg rings. As has become the norm, it took a few attempts to get each female. Luckily no injuries had been sustained making it a simple case of unhook toe, refit ring, and release bird.

Wally was one of two adults needing to be caught this month to free their hind digit caught in their leg ring. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chewbacca was also looked at in the hand after presenting signs of lameness and general lethargy. Clinical diagnosis – attention seeking. That may be an unfair assumption he could have just been run down. Although the ‘lameness’ suspiciously swapped each day between left and right. Personally, it looked more like he was playing the ‘oh woe is me card’ at the supplemental feed resulting in more food being thrown his way. Remind me again, is it the choughs that are trained or the keepers?

Zoo chicks

Tristan and Penny’s eggs hatched at the start of May. As with all corvids it can take a day or two between eggs, so keepers had to wait a week before knowing how many chicks would hatch. Only one egg didn’t make it, leaving the parents with three hungry mouths to feed.

Everything was going well, both parents very attentive, until one day Tristan turned. Keepers watching the nest-camera footage could see that one of the chicks had died. Mum carried on feeding the remaining two chicks with the dead one left in the nest. Tristan started being aggressive towards Penny each time he returned to the nest to the point he was endangering both chicks and mum.

Keepers caught up Tristan and moved him to a separate aviary. They discovered he weighed 400g. Considering captive males normally weigh around 350g this may have been a clue to why he was behaving as he was. With some species, if the male takes on too much protein during the nesting season they become ‘randy’ for want of a better word. Eager to keep breeding even when the female has chicks which results in aggression often directed at the female and/or chicks. He might have been trying to tell Penny to get rid of the dead chick. We will never really know. Keepers are always trying to second guess their animals acting as chef, interior designer, GP, and psychologist on a daily basis.

Continued work at the aviary

The boring stuff – there are still several jobs that need to be done at the aviary. Net trimming, replacing rodent-proof mesh around doors and hatch frames, and replacing the fixtures removed when the old timber was ripped out. A lot of these require working at height with power tools therefore a second person and special ladders are essential for health and safety. By the end of May these jobs were still outstanding as it has been difficult to fulfil the H&S requirements.

Not helped by the additional job of net repairs. Deja vu? Yes, rodents have chewed holes in the brand-new netting. Apologies for any walkers at Sorel and beyond who heard my cursing that day. In just one night, eighteen small holes were chewed into the new netting along the north facing side of the tunnel. Whilst waiting for the guttering to be transported back up to the aviary another two holes appeared overnight on the other side of the tunnel. The guttering, unsightly as it is, is now back on preventing the rodents from reaching the netting from the outside. There is also a large hole in the middle partition at ground level. I suspect a rodent had become trapped inside the aviary when the rebuild happened and chewed their way out.

It is getting harder to capture the entire flock in one shot these days – a sure sign of success. Photo by Liz Corry.

Volunteer request

An advert went out asking for a volunteer to help with the gardening at the aviary. During the spring and summer months the grass in and around the aviary needs cutting on a weekly basis.

The bank around the perimeter also needs maintaining for the benefit of the wildlife and to keep the path for staff accessible. There is a considerable drop on one side that becomes hidden when the bracken grows up. One step the wrong way and it’s an undignified fall into bramble and blackthorn.

Volunteer needed for vegetation clearance at aviary. Sheep need not apply. Photo by Liz Corry.

Despite hay fever allergies I enjoy this job, but it does demand time and with no student placement this year I am finding it hard to keep on top of it. Several people have shown interest in the position, few can commit on a regular basis. Hopefully by June we will have found a suitable volunteer.

Private donors

We are very grateful to the De Lancey Foundation who gave a generous donation towards the running of the chough project. In return, a group from their board of trustees had a private tour of Sorel and our facilities. Their passion for conservation and knowledge on the subject was evident as we discussed the challenges faced and the achievements made to date. The Foundation is also supporting the head-starting of Jersey’s agile frogs at the Zoo.

Last but not least

A colleague took his young family to Sorel to see the choughs and Manx loaghtans. His son, a huge fan of the computer game Minecraft (no me neither), was inspired to create his very own red-billed chough character for the game. I think this has to be a world first! Well done Sam. Watch this space for the development of more Birds On The Edge characters.

A Minecraft chough created by Sam Wright after his visit to Sorel.

 

 

Chough report: August 2018

One of this year’s chicks in need of a name. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Zoo choughs

Keepers were in shock this month after the loss of two choughs in the Zoo. On 8th August a male was discovered by a keeper on the floor of the aviary. From his physical appearance, staff assumed the chough had been in a fight with Tristan, the only other male in the group, and lost.

The male chough had x-rays taken to assess injuries. Photo by Liz Corry.

When a second chough, Issy our breeding female, became ill we suspected there was more to it. The male’s condition gradually worsened despite efforts and eventually the bird had to be euthanased. Sadly, the female died a few days later.

Andrew Routh, Head Vet, explains “We took blood samples that were analysed in-house, at our usual diagnostic laboratory in the UK and, additionally, forwarded on by them to a specialist also in the UK. We will be re-sampling the remaining three birds in the collection. Full post mortem examinations were carried out on both birds and a comprehensive set of tissues from each sent for analysis by board-certified pathologists in the UK. No conclusions yet on the cause though further tests are pending.”

The remaining three birds have been taken off-show to individual enclosures for close monitoring. So far, they have shown no signs of ill health, are eating well and chatting loudly. Gianna, the Italian diva that she is, is a tad miffed we have taken her away from her public. Hopefully we can return them soon at which point the chough keeper talks will resume.

Wild chicks update

The last unringed wild chick was caught up on 1st August to be fitted with leg rings. Whilst in the hand, the chick made noises we’ve never heard before. And no, it wasn’t because we were squeezing too hard! There is debate as to whether the sounds were more gull-like or goose-like. Either way the ‘meeping’ chick became the first of the 2018 group to be named – Beaker.

The last of 2018’s chicks to be ringed (left!) and his namesake Beaker (right) – both emit unusual sounds. Photo by Elin Cunningham.

Two weeks later the DNA results returned form the UK lab. Whilst teenagers across the land were jumping for joy over their exam results, we beamed with delight upon hearing we have five males and four females.

This is great news for the Jersey population because:

(1) The sex ratio for wild-hatched choughs in Jersey is now 1:1. For the entire flock, it is more like three females for every two males. Not quite as catchy. Still a good result;

and

(2) We can name the new chicks! Aside from Beaker we had names lined up for Dusty’s chicks. In honour of Ronez’s assistance with the project, the three boys are now known as Clem (who found the chicks), Toby, and Osbourne (Ossy for short).

Tempting as it might be to call Beaker’s sister Dr Honeydew, her name is still open to debateWe are still searching for appropriate Jersey-related names for four females and a male. Please use the comments box to put forward any suggestions.

Parents Chicks 
Dusty & Chickay Clem (male) Toby (male) Ossy (male)
Kevin & Bean Green (female) Orange (female)
Lee & Caûvette Yellow (female) Black (male)
Q & Flieur Mauve (female) Beaker (male)

The 2018 chicks now have the adult colouring in their legs and bills (adult behind the chick). Photo by Liz Corry.

Spreading their wings

The flock have shown a distinct change in behaviour this month. After the chaos over June and July when chicks had to be fed and wild food supplies had dried up, the adults are relaxing back into their normal routines. One fortunate member of the public snapped a photo of 30 choughs flying over Plémont. On the back of this, social media reported seeing ‘large’ groups back at Les Landes.

Choughs flying over Plémont headland. Photo by Anne Gray.

The change is partly due to the chicks becoming independent and feeding themselves.

A major factor will be the rise in wild food supplies thanks to the shift in weather. Leatherjackets in the soil and dung-loving insects will provide the calories needed to fly back and forth around the north-west coast.

We are seeing an average of 24 choughs at the supplemental feeds. They appear to be the same individuals; all families bar Lee and Caûvette‘s making up half the group. Their willingness to enter the aviary has taken a knock since the recent spate of catch-ups. We have to reassure them that entering the aviary does not always result in humans waving nets around.

Having a wild food source around provides them with options. Great for them. For staff not so much, as it means the birds are less likely to hang around the aviary. Health screening, weight checks etc. are not as easy.

Chough chick photographed back in July at Sorel. Photo by Peter G. Hiatt.

Now you sheep me, now you don’t

Lack of choughs at the aviary is being compensated by appearances of sheep within the perimeter fence. The first sighting was on one of the hottest, driest days of the summer. A young sheep was happily curled up in the shade of the aviary sheds munching on lush green grass whilst the others were lined up along the hedgerows competing for shade. Much to the sheep’s dismay it was returned to the flock.

The next day it was back! And once again returned to the flock. A day or so later a different sheep was present. Neither student or I could figure out how on earth they were getting through the locked gate and wire fencing.

Days passed, sheep were absent. Or so we thought. Camera-trap footage to investigate chough roost activity threw up a different mystery. A ewe present in the morning, had gone by the afternoon. Clearly they were playing games with us.

Camera trap image inside the aviary showing a sheep within the aviary perimeter.

They upped the stakes in the last days of August. Having hidden in the bracken, ‘Houdini’ found her way inside the aviary. True magicians never reveal their secrets – except when their hooves and horns knocking equipment over in the keeper-porch give them away. I had left both doors open, not expecting her to follow me in, but it meant she could safely hang out in the aviary until the shepherd reached Sorel. And saved me a job with the lawnmower.

Yet another prime example of how the conservation of one species can benefit others.

Chough report: May 2018

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By Liz Corry

Spoiler alert! Ronez Quarry found the first hatched egg shell of the year on 23rd May. However, there are so many more things to report about from May that we will leave that golden nugget of information for later.

Spreading their wings

Reports continue to come in from both the south-west and north-west corners of the island. The pair roosting in St Ouen’s Bay repeatedly foraged around Corbière Lighthouse, the desalination plant, and the sand dunes. And they are just the places we know about. I suspect they have taken a cheeky gander at the golf courses that lie to the north and south of their roost.

Choughs foraging by the old radio tower at Corbiere. Photo by Liz Corry.

Mary and Bo searching for found near the lighthouse. Photo by Liz Corry.

Looking at the hard granite around Corbière you would think it slim pickings on the menu for the chough pair. However, if you watch closely they are quite adept at finding tasty morsels. Take a look at this video for example. Not entirely sure what it is they have found, but obviously in high demand.

There is plenty of food on offer closer to the release site. Thanks to a local resident sending in a photo, we found a group of choughs hanging out at a ‘secret’ spot behind Sorel Farm. A horse field currently vacant except for rabbits, pheasant, swooping house martins, and aforementioned choughs. Short pasture, dung, and very little disturbance. Idyllic. For choughs at least.

This is a video of a few in a different horse field by the quarry.

The pair at Plémont are still going strong. They abandoned their nest in a sea cave and relocated to a crevice outside. We have not seen them at Sorel for a very long time. They appear to be finding plenty of food where they are. As the swifts start their summer residency in the same area we could be in for some interesting interactions. It is certainly an impressive sight to see the acrobatic flights of both species together.

Chough exchange

durrell-new-animal-transport-van-img-1

On 22nd May four choughs from Jersey Zoo were caught up and transported to Paradise Park as part of our animal collection exchange. The birds travelled by boat in the Zoo van driven by our Head of Operations and a senior mammal keeper.

None of the choughs hold a valid license.

Gwinny, one of the four, has been with us at the Zoo since the very beginning. However, she failed to find a partner who shared her chick rearing aspirations. Maybe she will find her Mr Right in Cornwall.

On the return trip the van was loaded up with four different choughs, two Namaqua doves and a Madagascar partridge (pear tree to follow). They travelled on the freight ferry which meant a 4am, repeat 4AM!!, arrival in Jersey – a fog covered Jersey to boot.

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Two new arrivals to a fog bound Jersey at sunrise (not that you can tell). Photo by Liz Corry.

Two of the choughs headed to Sorel where they will spend a month in quarantine acclimatising to life on the coast. We moved Han Solo, Jersey Zoo’s male, to the aviary the day before they arrived.

All three looked to be in good condition. We discovered Han Solo had a new claw growing through suggesting damage at an earlier date. He clearly has not been in any discomfort so no need to treat him.

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A new claw growing out after previous damage resulted in loss of the old claw. Photo by Liz Corry.

The three boys will be housed separately to the free-ranging choughs during quarantine with opportunity to socialise (between ‘bars’) at feed times. In fact the first meeting between the two groups happened within minutes of reaching Sorel. Lots of shouting and displaying from the outside group at first thought to be directed at the newbies. After ten minutes of observations it became apparent they were just after the food locked away inside!

If all goes to plan the two males from Paradise Park and Han Solo from the Zoo will be released at the start of July.

In case any of you were curious as to the names of Han’s new friends…Chewbacca and Skywalker of course.

solo

 Let the judging commence

Capture

Judges visited Jersey’s short-listed contenders for this year’s Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards on May 23rd.

Ronez Quarry nominated our chough project for the work we do in collaboration with them to monitor and protect the wild population.

The quarry has been home to the choughs since the first soft-release back in 2013. This season we had at least eight pairs trying to raise chicks in the quarry.

Winners will be announced on 27th June. There are several awards up grabs with a total prize fund of £3,750. One of the awards is a People’s Choice Award worth £500. Social media voting will begin in June – get clicking!

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Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards judges at Ronez Quarry. 23rd May 2018. Photo by Liz Corry.

If we are fortunate enough to receive any money it would go towards providing an educational experience for school groups visiting the quarry. A chance to learn about natural resources, coastal conservation, and of course the choughs. Any remaining money would go towards covering the costs involved in ringing and DNA sexing chicks (approximately £18 per chick).

Ronez quarry viewpoint image

Ronez Quarry

Wild nest updates

If all goes well then Han Solo and the boys will be joined by several wild-hatched fledglings in July. The day the judges visited the quarry was the same day we discovered the first chicks of 2018 had hatched.

Toby Caberet had found hatched egg shell near one of the known nest sites. Using a handheld endoscope camera we were able to confirm a record number of four chicks in a single nest.

Four recently hatched chough chicks in a nest at the quarry. Photo taken under licence by Toby Caberet.

This is amazing news as this particular pair are first time parents. The chicks are very young. They have a further six weeks before leaving the nest and, as we learnt last year, that still doesn’t guarantee they will make it to Sorel. As long as the parents can find enough insects they stand a good chance.

All the more reason to rejoice in the next bit of news.

(St) Mary had a little lamb, and St John and St Peter…

This month the Manx loaghtan lambs were moved from the farm in St Catherine’s to the grazing site at Sorel. They are now old enough to roam the cliff tops. Still very vulnerable. Bleating can be heard far and wide from ‘lost’ lambs whose mothers are two feet away hidden in the gorse. Please remember to close gates and keep dogs under control. Any mountain bikers, be alert! It might not be a brown rock on the path that you are about to ride over.

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Ewes and their lambs are now out roaming free at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

A new grazing site in St Peter’s Valley has become home to another flock of Manx loaghtan sheep brought in to graze the meadows and hopefully improve biodiversity in the area. You can see them if you visit Quetivel Mill, a National Trust property open every Monday and Tuesday (10am-4pm).

Lambs are now out and about at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

And finally, we couldn’t sign off without including the following picture taken by Mick Dryden at Sorel Point. A rare spring migrant to the Island, a honey-buzzard, flying alongside one of our choughs. I bet that was a sight no one predicted they would see five years ago!

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Honey-buzzard and chough at Sorel Point. Photo by Mick Dryden.

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.

Chough report: June 2017

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By Liz Corry

Chough numbers increase in the wild

Jersey’s free-living choughs have had another productive nesting season. There are seven pairs in the group and we discovered five nests. As reported last month, Dingle and Red’s clutch of four eggs failed to hatch.

That still left four active nests with chicks. The team was taken to the nest-sites on 9th July by Ronez operational assistant, Toby Cabaret. Dave Buxton, licensed ringer, joined the team in order to fit leg rings on the chicks.

We were initially greeted with bad news. We found two dead chicks on the floor under a nest, approximately two and three weeks old at time of death. Post mortem results were inconclusive due to decomposition of soft tissues. Fortunately there was still one chick alive in the nest.

Licenced bird ringer Dave Buxton with a chough chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

Fitting plastic leg rings and taking DNA samples for sexing. Photo by John Harding.

A second nest had also lost a chick leaving just one chick for the team to process.

The third nest was checked and also found to contain just one chick. In all of the above nests, the parentage was unknown; although we had our suspicions.

Each nest checked contained one chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

The fourth nest belonging to Green and Black was in one of the nest-boxes fitted this year. Despite the nest camera being blocked with wool and twigs we had strong suspicions there were chicks inside. Due to access issues it would be a case of waiting for fledglings to emerge to determine if this was the case.

On the 21st we received news from Toby that one of the ringed chicks had started to explore outside the nest. We estimated it would be a week before it made an appearance at Sorel.

Photo of the first chick out of the nest. Photo by Toby Cabaret.

We were right! On the 27th the dulcet tones of a begging chick could be heard over the cliff tops and upon its arrival at the aviary accompanied by its parents. Finally we knew who its parents were. Kevin and Bean were the only two choughs hurriedly feeding the chick. This was quite a moment for the team since young Bean is one of three hand-reared females at Sorel. There could only be one name for this chick; Beanie baby.

The first fledgling to arrive at the aviary begging for food from its parents. Photo by Tanith Hackney-Huck.

Our question over the fourth nest was answered two days before Beanie baby flew to Sorel. Paul Pestana’s voluntary observations paid off on the 25th when he spotted a commotion on the roof of one of the quarry buildings. Two chicks had jumped up through a hole in the roof and started begging frantically at Green and Black who had returned with food from Sorel. Within minutes of being fed they hopped back out of sight and the adults flew off to find more food.

This breeding season seems to be one of give and take. Therefore, our news of two unringed chicks was followed by news of a loss the next day. Concerned quarry staff phoned in the morning to report a chick on the ground in a building looking like it couldn’t fly. A somewhat common appearance in chough chicks that haven’t fully fledged. However, it soon became apparent it was more serious. Sadly the chick died before it reached the vets. A post-mortem showed a severe syngamus infection as likely cause. Black was showing symptoms of a syngamus infection. If she was ingesting infected insects it was highly likely she was also feeding them to the chicks. The survival of the second chick was now in doubt, but there was nothing we could do until it flew to Sorel.

Cliff hanger!

Chough travels

Whilst staff have been busy observing nests, the choughs have been off gallivanting along the north coast. Nottingham Trent student Guille has been attempting to follow them as part of his MSc project. He wakes at dawn and tracks groups or individuals armed with a pair of binoculars and a trusted bicycle. He also put a plea out to the Jersey public via social media to report any sightings. They didn’t disappoint.

After an initial slow start, Guille has been able to observe choughs foraging at Crabbé, Plémont, Grosnez, and Les Landes. All places we knew they visited already, but thought they had ditched during the breeding season to stay close to nest sites. At least that is the impression you get when you go to the aviary to feed twice a day.

One warm day, a pleasing find was seeing a group of choughs bathing and drinking in the stream at Mourier Valley. Rather more interesting was the discovery of the breeding pairs travelling several kilometres away from their nest sites. White and Mauve with at least 16 others were photographed at Grève de Lecq at the start of the month. We had started to think this pair had failed to breed this year, so it wasn’t too surprising for them to be away from their nest site.

Choughs photographed at Greve de Lecq on June 12th by Nick de Carteret

We suspected the Les Landes pair, Lee and Caûvette, were responsible for one of the chicks in the quarry. Guille’s observations and public reports meant that the pair were spending considerable time and distance (~5km) away from their nest to forage. Grosnez, Plémont Headland, and Les Landes being their favourite spots. Kevin and Bean were also spending time away from their nest having been seen 2-3km away  in the mornings and early afternoon.

Lee (on the left) and Caûvette photographed at Grosnez by Mick Dryden.

Catch up with Caûvette

We trapped Caûvette in the aviary at Sorel and caught her up to remove her back digit from her plastic leg ring. Unlike Bean she had not managed to free it unaided. There appeared to be no damage. The only thing was that claw had become overgrown and needed a trim. Once weighed she was released from the aviary to join the others. In the process of catching her up we also caught up Green and Q much to their displeasure. Not one to waste an opportunity we recorded body weights for those two prior to releasing. The two males and Caûvette were all good weights suggesting that they must be finding enough food whether wild or at the aviary.

An unappreciative Cauvette before her toe was removed from the plastic leg ring. Photo by Liz Corry.

Han Solo takes flight

Zoo chough chick Han Solo in the nest box…one imagines anyway.

Our zoo chick, Han Solo, took his first flight out of the nest box on 15th June and there wasn’t a Millennium Falcon in sight! Well maybe a kestrel hovering over the valley.*

He had been teetering at the edge for several days beforehand. Once out it took him a little while to get used to his new-found flying skills, preferring to hang out in one of two places. He doesn’t seem too perturbed by the public. We assume mum and dad have explained the situation to him.

Recently fledged chough chick and parents at Jersey Zoo. Photo by Liz Corry.

*apologies to anyone not a fan of Star Wars and to everyone for the bad pun.

RBC helps out Jersey Zoo’s own RBCs (red-billed choughs)

On 9th June a team from the Royal Bank of Canada volunteered their time at Jersey Zoo to help with the choughs.

Team RBC: The Royal Bank of Canada staff who volunteered their time for the Red-Billed Choughs. Photo by Gisele Anno.

They were set the task to weed the borders outside the display aviary and plant it up to look like chough habitat found on the north coast. Species such as foxglove, red campion, bladder campion, knapweed, lady’s bedstraw, birds foot trefoil and heather were added. Most of the plants were coming to the end of their flowering period, but they will grow back next year.

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RBC volunteers weeding the borders outside the chough aviary at Jersey Zoo. Photo by Gisele Anno.

Gorse bushes translocated from the old green lizard enclosure into the aviary when the choughs first moved in, have now spread to the outside. Volunteers made sure these young growths received a bit of TLC to encourage them to grow.

RBC volunteers working hard on the native species border. Photo by Gisele Anno

At the end of a hard day’s work they were treated to a talk from Glyn about Birds On The Edge, the choughs, and the reason why conserving coastal farmland is important.IMG_5806

On top of volunteering their time, the RBC have donated money to help rodent proof the release aviary and repair netting damage. For which we and the choughs are extremely grateful.

LIVE Teaching through nature

The choughs participated once again with Alderney Wildlife Trust‘s LIVE Teaching Through Nature schools programme. Their blogging skills almost as good as their flying skills if I may say so myself. The online paid programme offers schools the opportunity to bring nature into their classrooms by utilising live streams of Alderney’s seabirds, videos and blogs from Durrell and the choughs in Jersey, and the occasional live chat with field staff.

LIVE screen grab choughs

This project links directly to the key stage 1 & 2 curriculum, and is an effective way of teaching science and literacy skills, and encouraging pupil creativity and confidence. Feedback from our two week takeover in June was yet again positive hopefully inspiring some young conservationists along the way.

Chough report: May 2017

Wild flowers at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Jersey’s coastal habitat was home to spring lambs, wild flowers, and baby choughs this month. Here is what the choughs got up to. Or, as we can now call them, what the award-winning choughs got up to!

May the 4th be with you

On May the 4th the first of the three eggs in Issy and Tristan’s nest hatched. Staff were naturally excited and considering the date, the geeks amongst us (i.e. everyone), started putting bids in for Star Wars related names for the clutch.

Chough eggs hatch sequentially so we expected it to take a few days. However, the days passed and it became clear that this would be the only egg to hatch.

Han Solo was duly christened.

The parents were keen to remove one of the failed eggs. The other was left in the nest for quite sometime.

With only one chick to care for, Han Solo was well fed and grew steadily day by day.

Breeding in the wild

This year’s wall planner had a rather colourful month in store with various predicted hatch dates starred and scribbled in colour-coded marker. First off the blocks were to be Red and Dingle (hand-reared) who raised their first chicks last year. This year’s eggs were due to hatch around the first week in May. A change in Red‘s behaviour on 4th May suggested the eggs might have started hatching. Instead of waiting for the cue from Dingle, she was already waiting at the aviary for food in the morning. As soon as she picked up a mouthful of mealworms she zoomed back to her nest.

We asked Kevin le Herissier, responsible for ‘their’ building (Ronez naively still believe that the buildings are theirs not the choughs’), to check the nest the following week. This was to allow time for the entire clutch to hatch and so that the parents were not as sensitive to disturbance.

To our bemusement the photo he sent back was of a perfect nest containing four eggs.

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Red and Dingle’s nest early in May. Photo by Kevin le Herissier

A follow up check on the 19th also found four eggs. Guess what was found when the nest was checked for a third time on the 31st? Sadly, not a case of third time lucky. Still four eggs. Under license by the States of Jersey, these eggs were candled in the nest to find answers to what had happened, why they hadn’t hatched. One egg had failed during embryonic development while the others looked like they contained almost fully developed chicks. The eggs were returned to the nest.

New nest-site discovered

Student John Harding and Ronez operational assistant Toby Cabaret checked on the nests in the quarry on the 19th. Armed with a GoPro and a very long pole they checked nest-boxes and known nest sites. One of the nest-boxes we fitted in the quarry in 2015 had nesting material in it. What flew out wasn’t a chough though. It was a kestrel!

Most of the nests were just centimetres out of reach of the pole and suspiciously quiet. The team did, however, spot a female on a nest in a building not previously used by the choughs. With no wish to disturb her the nest was left alone. We now have the task of trying to work out which pair this nest belongs to.

A neighbouring building was also found to have a nest. This one didn’t have a female on it, but from the begging noises it was clear there were at least two chicks in there. Again this is a new site and new pairing.

This video shows Toby and John trying to use the GoPro to check the cheeping nest. They didn’t realise at the time how close they were to the nest. You can see the chicks.

They look extremely young. Normally we would avoid disturbing a nest at this age. From our calculations we expected any chicks to be a few days older. From their begging they look strong.

All nest checks are done under license from the States of Jersey.

Chick ringing and revelations

On the 31st we returned to the nest sites. This time with Channel Island ringer Dave Buxton in case the chicks were old enough to fit with leg rings. We were also armed with a new piece of equipment…a USB endoscope camera. It doesn’t provide HD images like the GoPro. However, it is equipped with LED lights and a lot more manoeuvrable (and only cost £25).

Toby Cabaret checking a chough nest with the Potensic endoscope. Photo by Liz Corry.

Three chicks could be seen with the endoscope plugged into a smartphone. Photo by Liz Corry.

Due to health and safety concerns, two nest-sites were out of bounds. We were able to check the nest with the cheeping chicks. This time eerily silent, although it was clear from the endoscope image that there were three bills. They still had pin feathers on their heads and from their size they looked no more than two weeks old. Too young to fit rings.

Before leaving the building John and Toby went a checked the next floor up on a hunch that there could be something. They were right! They found a nest tucked away behind girders.

Spot the nest? Photo by Liz Corry.

Despite a grainy image, the colour and shape of a bill could be seen and possibly a second body. The image below is a snapshot from the endoscope. The image is less clear than in realtime. You will be forgiven if you can’t spot the head of a chick.

Screen grab of endoscope view in nest showing the pale bill of a chick (far right). Photo by Liz Corry.

Whilst checking this nest Kevin and Bean flew in and appeared slightly aggrieved that we had discovered their little secret. The disappointment of the chicks once again being too young to ring was quickly overshadowed by this news. Bean is one of our hand-reared females released as a juvenile in 2014 and now, three years later, rearing chicks of her own!

Chough-watch

We received several reports of choughs out and about this month from members of the public. Of interest was a report of a pair from Tabor Park, St Brelade. They had been seen on the allotments, but flown before leg rings could be read. Five days later another report came in of a chough calling at the desalination plant by Corbiere.

We have radio-tracked choughs to the south-west before in 2014 and 2015. Since then there have been a handful of sightings around Gorselands, Le Creux and Red Houses.

Choughs on the move. Photo by Liz Corry.

Regular chough watchers Mick Dryden, Tony Paintin, and Piers Sangan reported choughs at Crabbé, Île Agois, and Grosnez during the day. We assume these are the sub-adults and non-breeders who don’t have commitments at the quarry. Without leg ring records we can’t be sure.

Grosnez to Plémont with Sorel point in the far distance: areas visited by the choughs this month. Photo by Liz Corry.

Personality research with Nottingham Trent University

Guille Mayor arrived this month to start his MSc research looking at personality traits in released choughs. He is trying to see if personality relates to dispersal distances and success in the wild. Part of his work will involve behavioural observation at the release aviary and how individuals react to a novel object.

The trickier part of his study requires him to find where the choughs go each day. He obviously likes a challenge since only three in 34 have radio tracking devices and Guille is on a bicycle. If you do spot a chough away from Sorel please as also let us know. Send an email, call 01534 860059, or post on Jersey Wildlife Facebook page. Location, date, time, and, if possible, leg rings need including.

And finally

British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) held their annual awards at The Deep in Hull this month. Durrell had entered four categories and came away with three gold and one silver. We are delighted to announce that the return of choughs to Jersey was awarded gold in the conservation category.

Many thanks to everyone involved over the years that have helped plan, raise, release, monitor, and protect the choughs, many of which have volunteered their free time to do so. And of course our partners at the National Trust for Jersey, Department of the Environment, and our extended chough family at Paradise Park.

BIAZA award 2017

Choughs at Sorel Point May 2017. Photo by Mark Sleep