Chough report: May 2020

View of Ronez quarry across from the waters in Egypte (Jersey’s Egytpe!) Photo by Liz Corry.

BOLD-ering one step too far

Ronez Quarry had me on speed dial this month. On the 19th, staff found the body of Aude at the asphalt plant. She had become wedged inside the building and likely starved to death. Red and Dingle hold territory at this site. Had there been a confrontation or simply a tragic accident?

Then on the 28th Dusty and Chickay’s nest grabbed the headlines. One of their chicks had prematurely found its way outside of the building. Staff had been keeping an eye on it and noticed that the parents were not feeding it.

As I drove from my house to the quarry, thoughts of juggling hand-rearing at Sorel whilst doing the 10-12hr days of the Bird Department at the Zoo filled me with dread. Luckily, on a 9 by 5 mile island, I didn’t have to drive for long. And once I had assessed the situation I was a little more optimistic.

This choughlet stepped out of it’s comfort zone a little too soon. Photo by Liz Corry.

The chick looked to be about 4-5 weeks old. He had most likely been bouldering inside the building, hopping in and out of the nest. This morning he ‘bouldered’ a little too far heading down the staircase and on to the floor. A scary place for any chough with cement trucks driving by and gulls flying overhead. The parents were clearly aware of the chicks’ predicament and frequently flew passed to feed the chicks inside the building. They just weren’t prepared to put themselves in the same danger.

I intervened, carefully scooped up the chick, and moved it back inside near to the nest. Glyn then came down to take over observations as Mairi, at Sorel, warned him that the fed parents were heading back to the quarry. We had a camera trap at the ready for when the quarry closed and we had to leave. Not that it was necessary as Dusty flew in after the supplementary feed was put out and fed the chick. A happy end to the day. Hopefully the next time it decides to brave the outdoors the chick will know what its doing.

Zoo news

Penny had started incubating a clutch of four eggs at the start of the month. The first two had hatched overnight and during the 21st. The next chick emerged on the 22nd and the final chick on the 23rd. Amazing achievement for this pair. 

Tristan immediately spoilt the fun by turning on Penny the day the fourth chick hatched. His aggression threatened both mum and chicks so we intervened and put Tristan in a ‘time out’. We moved him to an off-show aviary where he will stay for at least two months, waiting for the chicks to fledge.

Sadly one of those chicks died early on. The other three continue to thrive.

Corbière choughs

More reports of the ‘Corbière pair’ have come in, including one with leg rings colours. This allowed us to produce a shortlist of who they might be. Slight hitch. We don’t have individuals with those specific colour combinations.

Checking out the chough on the roof of the Highlands Hotel, Corbière. Photo by Liz Corry.

The sunlight may have played tricks on the observer. Alternatively one of the missing birds is alive and well hiding out in the south. I tried to follow up on this, but found my other work commitments took over. The pair continue to be a mystery.

The entire west coast of Jersey is visible from Corbière. Photo by Liz Corry.

Trinity choughs

A pair of choughs are still active in and around Les Platons. Less so at the Zoo. Maybe their membership expired. If the pair are staying closer to the cliffs maybe they have a nest ? Or is lockdown making me delusional?

So much potential for choughs if the bracken on Trinity’s stretch of coast could be managed. Photo by Liz Corry.

Bracken covered coastline with Ronez quarry visible (furthest headland). Photo by Liz Corry.

I’m fully prepared to own the latter. On one ‘chough hunt’, I stepped out of Egypte woods onto the cliff path above Wolf’s Lair to the evoking melodies of bagpipes drifting across the bay. I thought I had finally lost it. Turns out Wolf’s Lair is simply the easiest place to practice your bagpipes without neighbours complaining.

I finally spotted one half of the Trinity twosome on the 12th.  Returning to my car from a thankless chough hunt, a single chough call caught my attention. The bird was casually flying eastwards from the direction of Wolf’s Lair along the cliffs. It made a graceful U-turn then disappeared out of sight. Are corvids capable of mockery?

Small coves on the north east coast could be home to our mystery choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

Plémont news

Don’t get excited. We still have no concrete nesting evidence or of Xaviour’s status. Beaker and Beanie Baby turned up at the supplemental feed on the 31st; the first time in nearly two months. Is this a sign of things to come?

The stretch of coast from Grosnez (foreground) to Plémont is home to Beaker and Beanie Baby. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chough catch-ups

Just to outdo last month’s leg ring problems, we had eight birds needing attention in May. Wally had been flying around with a toe caught in a ring since at least the 12th April. When Glyn tried to catch her on 4th May she had somehow managed to free the toe by herself. Typical.

Glyn giving Dusty a quick health check. Photo by Mairi Young.

Dusty was caught up on the 4th to free his toe from his left leg ring. Cauvette experienced similar problems having been spotted on the 16th and was dealt with three days later. Kevin, Lee, Pyrrho, Chewie, and Baie  lost a ring or had one slip under another. All were caught up over a seven day period and fitted with shiny new rings.

Other news

The ‘chough-mobile’ sprang to action once again transporting water to Sorel. Both water tanks at the aviary and inside storage had run dry. As with any garden bird feeder, the ones at Sorel need to be kept clean to reduce the spread of possible disease between choughs and other species. We are now regularly seeing a pair of jackdaw at the aviary as well as the magpie family.

Speaking of cleaning, the choughs have started their annual moult. Lots of primary and secondary feathers to pick up off the floor each visit. It takes roughly 90 days just for the tail feathers to complete their cycle of old to new ones. So expect to see a lot of scruffy birds in the meantime.

Lee kindly demonstrating what a chough in moult looks like. Photo by Mick Dryden.

 

 

Chough report: July 2018

A two-month old chough chick exploring Grosnez headland. Photo by Mick Dryden.

By Liz Corry

Jersey now has 46 choughs flying free thanks to a brilliant breeding season and release efforts by Jersey Zoo staff. Details of how that came to be this month are explained below.

Who’s the daddy?

Determined to crack the mystery over the wild chick lineage, we began catching birds to fit leg rings. It took a couple of weeks and help from Ian Buxton and Cristina Sellarés  (licensed bird ringers). By the end of July we had nine chicks fitted with leg rings and no birds left unringed. A total of nine birds.

Tarsus length being measured on a wild-hatched chick. This can be an indicator for sex. Photo by Elin Cunningham.

Plastic leg rings on a wild-hatched chough to identify individual (pink) and year of hatch (green). Photo by Elin Cunningham.

What we are not clear on, and may never know, is whether we had ten or eleven chicks at one stage. On 4th July Q and Flieur were seen feeding two unringed chicks. When we checked their nest on 16th June it was empty. Judging by the age of the chicks at the aviary they could not have fledged before the 16th. Did Q and Flieur nest elsewhere? Are they responsible for the mystery nest we found in the quarry?

Trevor and Noir were also seen feeding one or two unringed chicks at the start of July. Are they responsible for the mystery nest? Are these chicks in addition to Q and Flieur’s?

Noirmont feeding an unringed chick with partner Trevor looking on. Photo by Liz Corry.

We knew for certain Lee and Caûvette had two chicks and were happily taking them to Grosnez each day. Kevin and Bean had fledged three chicks. Yet, by the start of July, they were clearly only feeding two unringed chicks. Had one of the other pairs adopted the third chick over the course of the feeding frenzies at the aviary?

Lee feeding one of his two chicks at Grosnez. Photo by Mick Dryden.

By the time we had fitted all the leg rings, Trevor and Noir had stopped feeding a chick(s). Was this because they had died or because they never had them in the first place? The blood samples we send off only inform us about gender. There is a lot more involved to test for lineage.

For now, all that matters is that we have nine chicks being fed and nurtured out at Sorel. The wild chicks are named according to their leg rings until we can think of better names.

Dusty & Chickay Red White Blue
Kevin & Bean Green Orange
Lee & Caûvette Yellow Black
Q & Flieur Mauve Pink

You can already see a difference in the chicks as they get older. Bill colour is changing. More importantly they are picking up crucial skills from the adults, whether parents or not. We have seen them drinking from the water tray and lifting the broken slate enrichment area in the aviary looking for insects.

A recently fledged chick chilling with the flock at Sorel back in June. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chough chicks can be very forceful with their begging. Photo by Liz Corry.

Mega-beast: Dusty feeding one of his chicks. Photo by Liz Corry.

Dusty regretting parenthood? Photo by Liz Corry.

An unringed chick begging at Yarila (non-breeding bird) eventually pushing her off the stand. Photo by Liz Corry.

Dusty feeding one of his chicks whilst Chickay (mum) goes about her business. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chickay pretending not to see or hear her chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

Star wars saga

The three males – Han Solo, Skywalker, and Chewy – held in the aviary for a month have been officially released.

Release day saw 45 choughs turn up to wish the newbies well or steal their food. 50:50 really. Photo by Liz Corry.

Skywalker’s brief adventure outside in June meant it came as no surprise to see him leave first. Albeit to the roof of the aviary where he sat preening Zennor.

Skywalker’s (on the left) first hour of freedom spent with his new love of his life, Zennor. Photo by Liz Corry.

Han Solo and Chewy were not as quick to venture outside; once they did they appeared at ease, making friends with the free-living group. Although less at ease with the wild chicks who had decided to test the newbies’ untapped parenting skills by begging in their faces.

An unringed chick following Skywalker around in the misguided hope of free food. Photo by Liz Corry.

After a few days Han stopped showing up at the feeds. Since group attendance rate was around 80-90% it was hard to know if he was in trouble or not. He made a reappearance four days later and looked to be fine, feeding happily with the group.

The next disappearing act was after 5th July. This time he failed to reappear. There was a sighting on the 28th at the aviary. Although chances are the leg rings were misread for Caûvette’s (his year-colour is black, hers is dark blue).

As he was showing no obvious signs of ill health, a possible theory behind his disappearance is lack of food. If he struggled to find food in the wild (whether due to lack of foraging skills or the foreboding heat) and wasn’t making it to the supplemental feed, he could have easily starved. If he was made weaker by the lack of food, he would become increasingly susceptible to peregrine attacks.

In fact, on one of the post-release roost checks, only one chough could be seen at Sorel as the sun set. The presence of a peregrine perched on the adjacent cliff face may account for the absence of the other choughs.

Peregrine perched below an unused chough nest box on the cliffs at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Theories aside, we have had to conclude that Han Solo is  presumed missing at this stage. Gone to a galaxy far, far away.

Heatwave

Jersey’s north coast is being hit hard by the summer heatwave. The coastal grassland has lost its lush green colour and the sheep have temporarily vacated; there just isn’t enough vegetation for them. The choughs have been fairing ok; the supplemental food compensates for the rock-hard ground.

The release site back in May before the heatwave. Photo by Liz Corry.

The release site in July feeling the effect of the heatwave. Photo by Liz Corry.

The biggest concern for them (and us) is water. The stream in Mourier Valley is currently hidden by bracken and fresh water sources in the quarry depleted. With an absolute drought declared on the Island we were concerned the choughs would turn to hazardous water troughs. Horse troughs in particular tend to be designed with smooth steep sides. A bird or small mammal can’t climb out if they fall in whilst drinking.

The stream in Mourier Valley runs almost parallel to the footpath – not that you can see it for the bracken. Photo by Liz Corry.

We always provide drinking water for the choughs in the aviary. However, the water butt dried up in back in June. Cleaning duties have been reduced to a minimum and fresh water is carried up each day for the choughs. In mid-July we had help from a few Durrell staff to get extra containers up to Sorel. Two days later it rained!

The rain didn’t last long though. We are back to rationing water until the heatwave breaks.

Insect shortages

In addition to water shortages, we have been struggling with commercial insect supplies. The company who supply the Zoo with livefood ran out of mealworms – a natural glitch in the breeding process.

When they have managed to supply mealworms, the hot weather has led to the insects over-heating in the packaging they are sent in. Trust me the smell of dead and/or dying mealworms is not a pleasant one.

Rather than a photo of dead mealworms, here is a sheep instead! Photo by Liz Corry.

The alternative of dried mealworms has not worked in the past for birds in the Zoo. They refuse point blank, some writing an angry worded tweet to the CEO. Out of desperation, we gave them a try at Sorel along with suet pellet (made with insect protein). The pressures of begging chicks and lack of wild food meant the adults had no reservations over taking the dry food.

We are still struggling with insect supplies although the order of Remiline pellet finally arrived at the end of July. Swings and roundabouts.

ReWild the People

ReWild the People circular walk from Devil’s Hole held on the 15th July. Photo by Dave Evans.

As part of Jess Pinel’s fundraising challenge of 31 activities in 31 days we hosted a circular walk from Devil’s Hole to Sorel. This was a free event open to all. Whilst taking in the sea air we discussed the Birds On The Edge project and the benefits to the public.

Aaron le Couteur, shepherd, explaining how sheep help to restore Jersey’s coastal habitats. Photo by Dave Evans.

Aaron le Couteur, the shepherd, gave a very informative talk and the choughs showed up for a bonus feed. The event was enjoyed by all and hopefully gained a few new fans to spread the word across the Island. More information about the other activities undertaken can be found here.

Choughs getting a bonus feed for the Rewild the People walk. Photo by Dave Evans.

Lights, camera, action

The choughs took part in two media projects this month. They are clearly getting used to the cameras as they were not phased by the go-pros at the feed. We hope to share some of the footage soon.

Filming the choughs at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Both filming projects will be detailed further very soon so watch this space!

Chough report: June 2018

By Liz Corry

Breeding success

The choughs have been busy ‘behind the scenes’ resulting in a record-breaking breeding season. By the end of June, we had found four active nests with a total of ten chicks. We knew four chicks had hatched at the end of May. We didn’t have to wait long before Ronez Quarry sent photos of a second nest with chicks.

Dusty and Chickay’s nest with three chicks safely tucked away in a quarry building. Photo taken under license by Toby Cabaret.

This nest belonged to Dusty and his partner Chickay: an astonishing and heart-warming sight. This was their third season nesting, finally they had chicks, and from the looks of things they were at least three weeks old.

The icing on the cake is the uniqueness of the coupling. Chickay was hand-reared, proving that our choice of methods worked, and Dusty is himself a wild-hatched chick.

Ronez hired equipment to access the chough nests under license. Photo by Liz Corry.

A site-visit was arranged for 16th June when the quarry was not in operation. Ronez hired a cherry picker to access the nests. What we found was a mixed bag of good news and bad news. Some nests had failed, some succeeded beyond expectations. And then one complete surprise; a nest we had no idea about.

This nest contained one chick approximately four weeks old. We also noticed twigs in a nest-box we had put up in 2014. This is the first time the birds have tried to use this box. Either they decided it wasn’t a suitable place to continue or the pairing just didn’t work out.

The table below aims to answer any queries the dedicated reader has about which pairs succeeded.

Pair Bred before? Nest status
Green & Black Yes empty
Dingle & Red Yes empty
Kevin & Bean Yes 3 chicks
Dusty & Chickay No 3 chicks
Q & Flieur Yes empty
Lee & Caûvette Yes 2 chicks
White & Mauve Yes empty
Trevor & Noirmont No no nest found
Pyrrho & Percy No empty
? & ? 1 chick
Total 9 chicks

 

However it also throws up a few queries, like “didn’t Kevin and Bean have four chicks in May”? Yes they did. Sadly one is no more, probably the runt of the clutch, but to have three chicks still alive and well is a first for Jersey’s choughs.

The nest belonging to Lee and Caûvette was found to contain two chicks. Photo by Liz Corry.

You might also be tempted to ask “does the mystery chick not belong to Trevor and Noir“? That, dear reader, is something I still don’t have the answer to a month after the site visit. And one that is driving me insane so lets return to June 16th; life was simpler then.

We had taken a licensed ringer into the quarry with us so we could ring the chicks and get DNA samples for sexing. This is supposed to be done when the chick is around three weeks of age. Clearly from what we were seeing these chicks were older. We did not want to risk disturbing them for fear they prematurely left the nest once we put them back. It is a long way to fall!

That is ok, we thought, we can just ring them once they reach the aviary. We can see which adults feed them and work out ownership that way.

How naive we were.

Fledged chough chicks reach the aviary

Below is a montage of footage taken during the supplemental feed once the chicks had fledged. Imagine having a baby that can fly and walk and scream for food whilst doing said actions. Then multiply by two or three. That is what it’s like for a chough parent for the first few months. Note how loud the begging starts off then trails away. Always lingering, never stopping.

From appearances, Chickay was not keen on parenthood. She left most of the feeding duties to Dusty. One of our daily reports records an observation of Kevin “karate kicking” a chick in response to the constant in-your-face begging. Quite often at the feeds you would see chicks accidentally push the parent off the food-stand or shelf in the frenzy to beat its sibling to the food on offer. You also saw them beg at non-breeding individuals who looked more than a little perplexed by the situation.

Throughout all this, the three newbies (Han SoloChewy, and Skywalker) remained locked in quarantine in one half of the aviary. We could not attempt to catch-up and ring the wild chicks until the three had been released. That was scheduled for July.

All we could do in the meantime was try and figure out how many chicks each set of parents had. Lee and Caûvette made things easy as they continued to visit Les Landes and Grosnez, taking their chicks away from the mayhem for a few hours each day. We knew both of their chicks seen on the 16th had survived and arrived at the aviary the last week of June.

Family portrait: Lee and Caûvette with their two chicks at Grosnez. Photo by Mick Dryden.

Lee with his two noisy chicks. Photo by Mick Dryden.

Dusty and Chickay were tending to three chicks (well Dusty was at least). They would take them back and forth between Sorel and the south-east corner of the quarry. Initially there was concern over one of the three chicks as it looked relatively lethargic. We put this down to the heat and that it could be the youngest, struggling to keep up. Dusty was always very sensible, taking his chicks into the shade to rest.

Dusty and Chickay keeping their chicks in the shaded parts of the quarry. Note the chick lying down next to dad whilst the other two preen next to mum. Photo by Liz Corry.

Kevin and Bean‘s three also made it from nest site to Sorel. However, they made it a little harder. Most of the time their chicks were kept around Sorel Point. Often out of sight, but not earshot. 

View across the quarry from Sorel Point. Photo by Liz Corry.

Then the mystery deepened. Q and Flieur turned up to the supplemental feed with two chicks. “But their nest was empty?” you cry. Yes, yes it was. “And the surprise nest only had one chick in it?” you answer back. Yes, yes it did.

The Plémont pair

Earl and foster-reared Xaviour, or the Plémont pair as we call them, are still roosting out at Petit Plémont. Their amazing choice of nest site has made it impossible to tell exactly what they have been up to this breeding season. We did suspect, from the couple’s behaviour out of the nest, that the female was incubating eggs.

Earl taking a break on the WW2 bunker ruins at Petit Plémont. Photo by Liz Corry.

One was seen carrying something white away from the nest. An optimistic observer thought it was a faecal sac. These ‘sacs’ are produced by chicks and carried away from the nest by the parents. He changed his mind when he saw the adult pecking away at it. The white object started to look more like an egg, but smaller than a chough egg. Out of reach of the observer, we will never know the true-identity of the object.

In the days the followed, hope of a successful nesting attempt began to fade. Xaviour was spending more time away from the nest. Foraging around the headland and neighbouring cliff tops to feed herself rather than take back to an expectant nest.

The pair are young. This year should be taken as a positive step forward in their development. They remain the first pair to set up a territory away from the release site. As they mature they will no doubt see success with their nest.

Star Wars saga continues

Han Solo, Chewy, and Skywalker continue to adjust to life at Sorel whilst in quarantine. Faecal samples from the two Paradise Park birds tested positive for nematodes.

Staff began to hear sneezing from the confined group a week or so after their arrival. Nothing to cause alarm, but enough to warrant a wormer pre-release.

This was scheduled for 20th June. On the 17th the Bird Department received a call to say that there were only two choughs locked in the aviary. Skywalker was missing. Scanning the aviary, it became apparent that he had not used Jedi mind tricks to escape. He had in fact managed to squeeze out through a hole in the netting, no doubt created by rodents.

He was not with the free-living choughs at Sorel. Well not in plain sight at least. The following day he couldn’t be any more obvious if he tried. Skywalker was on the roof of the aviary alongside Zennor a young female.

Since the boys arrived at Sorel, Zennor has shown a keen interest in them. She sits, on the opposite side of the netting during every feed whilst everyone else is tucking into their meal. We thought her interest was in Han Solo as they had touched bills through the netting; fiction becoming reality? Alas, it was Skywalker she wanted which worked to everyone’s advantage as he had another chough to follow, returned to the aviary, and we managed to get him safely back inside.

Return of the Jedi: Skywalker shortly after being trapped back inside the aviary. Photo by Paul Pestana.

All in time for the vet to visit on the 20th, give all three a wormer, and fit Han Solo with a transponder chip just like all the other captive-bred birds have. Bird Department staff also kitted them out with shiny new leg ring combos to make it easy to tell them apart once released.

Luckily the States Vet agreed that no extra time needed to be added to their quarantine period. Once complete, at the end of June, they can be released.

May the force be with them.

Aviary maintenance

Despite the recent rodent-proofing at the release aviary there are still weak points in the defences. As exemplified by Skywalker’s escape. Without a major overhaul of the aviary design there is not much to be done.

Mind you, that overhaul may come sooner than imagined. The shelving has now warped so badly that bolts keeping the hatches closed no longer reach. The hinges on the external keeper door snapped right off due to rust.

This is the first year the pre-release group have not had full access to the flight tunnel in a bid to avoid further premature releases. Once the new boys have been released and settled into life at Sorel we can start repair work.

Supplemental feeds

The choughs have seen a few changes to the menu this month due to food shortages. There is still no Remilline pellet in stock in Jersey, so the egg-based diet returned to the menu. The live-food manufacturer has been experiencing issues with their mealworm stock resulting in fewer or no insects being delivered. Not the best of timing. We had to increase the amount of supplemental food this month in response to an increasing demand. Obviously with mouths to feed, the breeding pairs become more dependent on the aviary feed.

Lights, camera, action

Ronez Quarry very kindly funded young film maker Sam Hertzog to fly to Jersey and produce a short film about the chough reintroduction project. Sam had four days to try and sum up the last five years into a seven minute documentary. To make the challenge that little bit harder we threw in rolling sea fog, a field manager dying of hay fever, and birds that never paid attention to the script.

Sam succeeded. You can view his film below. We are very grateful to his friend Elin Cunningham for proposing the idea and for being the boom operator, gaffer, assistant director, chauffeur….