The Jersey chough is still doing well in France. Photo by Yann Mouchel.
Vive la France!
Happy to report that the chough who found her way to France is still there. We will call her Cappy from now on as she appears to be enjoying life at the Cap Carteret. Yann is trying to get a photo of the metal ring in case we can read the number to confirm her identity. She has definitely not been at the November supplemental feeds back here in Jersey.
The other choughs were still travelling around the Island to places such as Noirmont, Corbière, and Les Landes. No reports from Trinity or St Martin’s parish.
As November drew to a close, we were seeing more choughs at the supplemental feed. It made the observations fairly challenging for our student, David, with thirty plus birds to ID in the howling winds.
Whilst we still believe the total population size is in the forties there are concerns for a couple of individuals we haven’t clocked in a while. In particular the female from the Corbière pair.
Honeydew has not been seen at the supplemental feeds, yet her partner Minty has. When David has visited Corbière in the mornings he has been seeing two choughs. One is definitely Minty. Eventually he discovered that the second chough was not Honeydew but another female Yarila.
It seems history has repeated itself and whilst the individuals are different the scenario is the same. A pair spend their summer in the southwest then, as autumn turns to winter, the female is lost and the male spends more time at Sorel. This time round, however, the male is still visiting and possibly even roosting in the south along with a new female.
Honeydew (foreground) disappeared this month and Yarila (behind) has snatched up her man. Photo by Liz Corry.
David has seen two pairs fly west over Devil’s Hole at roost time. One is likely to be the Plémont pair. He thinks the Crabbé site has been abandoned so the other pair could be the Corbière birds.
Connecting islands 10,000km apart.
More damage to report at the Sorel aviary. Rodents again but also tears in the netting higher up likely to be weather related. The Zoo’s Site Services team came up to help with repairs. Frustratingly a day later the rodents had chewed back through.
I have been in contact with the team behind the RSPB Gough Island Restoration work. Their aviaries have to be resistant to killer mice! They shared photos and drawings of their rail aviaries with suggestions of what we could do in Jersey.
Rodent-proof aviary on Gough island. Photo by Richard Switzer.
Fun fact: they based their design on the chough release aviary! Richard Switzer, RSPB aviculturalist, used to teach at the Durrell Academy. Richard also worked for San Diego Zoo’s Conservation team with birds such as the Hawaiian crow, another species linked to the chough project. He has followed the chough reintroduction from the start and visited Sorel which is where he got the idea for the rail aviary.
From discussing ideas, it looks like we need to strip our aviary of the ineffective upturned guttering and replace it with aluminium flashing. If they can get it delivered to an island in the middle of the Atlantic and fit it themselves, it must be super easy to do here in Jersey. Right?!
To find out more about the Gough Island restoration work click here. I must warn you there is graphic content of predation on their website from the get go.
Gorilla on the loose in Jersey!
One unusual visitor to the supplemental feed site this month was a Jersey Gorilla. Don’t worry not a zoo escapee, rather Will Highfield the fundraising legend that is ‘Jersey Gorilla‘. Will has been setting himself crazy challenges since 2019 initially raising funds for the new Jersey Zoo Gorilla enclosure. He surpassed everyone’s expectations, even his own, and smashed his target. With the onset of the pandemic, Will continued his gallant/insane efforts (you decide) and started raising funds to support all the work the Zoo do including the chough project.
On 28th November Will set himself a challenge worthy of being committed – run 100 miles in under 24 hours! On a 9 x 5 mile island! Starting at 4am in St Aubin’s, he ran anticlockwise around the Island’s roads, trails and cliff paths almost two and a half times. And he wasn’t alone, more lunatics, sorry runners, joined him along the way for support.
Speaking of support, when Will reached Sorel he was joined by Fiona Robertson of Performance Physiotherapy Jersey for what has to be the most picturesque clinic setting.
Physio on the go for the Jersey Gorilla. Photo by Fiona Robertson.
Will finally finished the challenge at 9am the next morning after 29 hours and 53 seconds of running. This is a phenomenal achievement. It might not have been within 24 hours, but considering all the miles he has run for charity over the past year and the subsequent injuries that plagued him along the way, 29 hours is equally bonkers.
A huge thank you to Will for his support. Now please go and put your feet up!
Choughs foraging at Les Landes Racecourse. Photo by Liz Corry.
We don’t have much to say for September. Thankfully. The public can’t stop talking about choughs! Whether it be via website, WhatsApp, email, or simply stopping me in the street, the reports have come in thick and fast.
The birds are spending more time flocking together now the pressure of the breeding season is behind them. Quite literally going where the wind takes them, often to areas they already use just in greater numbers. Makes it nice and obvious to onlookers. The chattering of choughs is hard to ignore.
Les Landes Racecourse is once again proving popular. Both with birds and people. Easy access by car, pleasant pathways to stroll or walk dogs off lead, and stunning summer views across to the other Channel Islands. Obviously from the people’s point of view. For choughs, and plenty of other bird species, there appeared to be an abundance of invertebrate food attracting them to the site.
Beanie Baby and Beaker were two such birds visiting Les Landes. One report of the pair described them to be with a third unringed bird. Could this be Xaviour?! If she had lost all the plastic rings the remaining metal can often be hard to see depending on the angle of the sun. Another, more exciting option is that the third was an unringed chick. Sorry Xaviour, but a fledged chick from a wild pair out trumps your card. We’ve not had further sightings to lend support to either theory.
Beaker (left) and Beanie Baby at Grosnez. Photo by Mick Dryden.
Under the category of ‘not surprising, but still a first’
A pair of choughs have been frequenting the fields near The Elms, headquarters of the National Trust for Jersey. Seems only fair. They’ve ticked off Durrell headquarters already. Next month Howard Davis Farm to say hello to the Government of Jersey’s Environment team?
Another pair rested on the chimney of the observer’s home in St Peter’s before heading off. This lane is sandwiched between the Airport and Les Mielles in St Ouen’s Bay. An airport might not sound like the best place for a bird to be, but it is surrounded by chough-friendly habitat. The sand pits, home a pair last year, is very close by. Could this be an indication that a new pair have moved in?
Choughs have been spotted close to St Ouen’s Bay and Jersey Airport. Image by Google Earth.
Closer to Sorel, a gentleman sent in two reports of choughs at La Tête de Frémont and Bonne Nuit Bay. I’m surprised we don’t get more sightings in this area given the dramatic cliffs and suitable foraging habitat. It is also a likely route for them to take if heading over to Les Platons.
File these under ‘need to know more’
We’ve had a reliable report of chough over Grouville Common. An, historic report from nearby Gorey village was more likely the resident jackdaws. There have been choughs checking out Gorey Castle in past years. Grouville Common is a little too woody to appeal to choughs. It does, however, join up to the Royal Jersey Golf Course. Plenty of short grass and close to the high tide strand line of Longbeach if the choughs fancied a maritime invertebrate mix in their diet.
The fairways of Royal Jersey Golf Club could look very attractive to hungry choughs. Photo by Royal Jersey Golf.
Lastly and very importantly are two sightings from one of our project partners in Trinity Parish. Regular readers will know that we are still trying to solve the mystery of the Trinity pair. Who are they and where do the roost (or nest back in summer)? Don your deerstalker hat, light the Holmes pipe, and ponder the latest clues. On 14th September, two choughs were seen flying over Petit Pré Woods at 19:10. They had been flying around the Royal Jersey Showground and headed off inland. With the sun setting at 19:22 that day it wouldn’t be long before they went to roost. Inland? Or a quick U-turn back to a coastal site? At dawn, on the 16th, two choughs were flying over Victoria Village. The ‘village’ (actually a housing estate) is 100 metres away from the showground as the chough flies. Two sightings in the same area, one going to bed, one leaving for the morning feed? Could we be closer to solving the mystery?
In other news
The choughs have welcomed a pair of jackdaws into their flock. Photo by Liz Corry.
The aviary at Sorel is starting to be used by more than just the choughs and our visiting barn owls and kestrel. A pair of jackdaws have been hanging around at the supplemental feed. They don’t interfere with the choughs or go inside the aviary. Think they just like the company.
Magpies on the other hand are known to go in the aviary. This month, for the first time, we have witnessed juvenile magpies go inside. Much like the chough parents bringing their fledglings to feed, the magpies have done the same. The choughs do not appear bothered and will defend their food supplies when they need to. The problem is with the young magpies who haven’t quite got to grips with how to get out of the aviary. When keepers arrive to feed, the magpies’ stress levels increase and they fling themselves into the netting in panic.
On two occasions the keeper trapped them in the aviary, caught them with a hand net and released them unharmed. It seemed like the best thing to do, but actually they need to learn how to get out by themselves. Otherwise the behaviour pattern happens all over again. The magpie in the video below eventually walked out of the aviary and flew away.
Less welcome at the aviary are rats. Many a curse word has been uttered when keepers find a new hole chewed in the netting. This month the rats stepped up their game. Keepers have seen a rat in the aviary during the daytime when the supplemental feed goes out. This has happened a few times. It poses a disease risk to the choughs as rat droppings and urine can fester harmful bacteria.
We have been extra vigilant when cleaning the water tray and dishes. Surfaces are already cleaned daily. I will be setting up traps and investigating options for rodent proofing. The up-turned guttering clearly isn’t deterring the Sorel rats (think agouti more than average lab rat!).
New recruits mixing with the flock. Photo by Liz Corry.
The results are in!
We finally finished ringing the young choughs at Sorel by the second week in August. Part of the ringing process includes collecting DNA samples to send to the UK for identifying sex. The results came back relatively quickly. We have three males and nine females. Overall, this means we still have an imbalance in the population. Roughly one male for every two females. The good news is that, providing they make it through the winter, we could be looking at fifteen pairs for the 2021 season.
I spoke too soon. One of the 2020 males sadly died this month. He had not shown any indications of being sick until one of the ringing catch-ups. He wasn’t the target, just found himself in the group locked in and had to be hand-netted. Once in the hand we could hear his breathing wasn’t right.
It was Sunday evening and with no vet nearby. I decided to release him and then re-catch the next day with a vet in tow. Big mistake. The weather (thunderstorms), the aviary (jammed hatches), and the bird’s stubbornness all played against me. When I could try catching, he would simply sit outside watching the others go in. Only moving when I walked to the brow of the hill, clear of the hatch doors.
Evading capture. Photo by Liz Corry.
He still wasn’t looking ill, sneezing, or open-mouthed breathing as they would with a Syngamus infection. However, a phone call on the 17th from Ronez proved otherwise. He had been found dead in the bottom quarry. His post mortem revealed no obvious signs of Syngamus or Aspergillus. He had thorny-headed worm present just not in any numbers to cause fatality. Another unsolved mystery for the chough history books.
I order a new a batch of leg rings each year. One leg ring represents year of hatch and each year has a specific colour. We are now in the seventh year of choughs breeding in the wild and the colour options are becoming limited. We also struggle with quality from the supplier hence a lot of replacements are required.
The plastic striped ring and the numbered metal ring provide information that this is a Jersey chough, Photo by Liz Corry.
I invested in a batch of colour rings with text written on. Theoretically, each chick is accessioned with a PP number in the ZIMS database. This PP number would be on their plastic ring so, theoretically, we would need just one ring for year and individual instead of the current two.
Note I keep saying theoretically. The chaos that COVID-19 caused with our monitoring meant this plan was side-tracked. The first batch I ordered arrived in time for the start of ringing. Only we couldn’t use them. The manufacturer had printed the text in black not white on a dark blue ring. Totally illegible.
The next batch (different manufacturer) arrived too late. However, I did end up using one on Danny. Danny, for those who haven’t read July’s report, was given a pale blue leg ring. We already had a chick with pale blue on the other leg. When Danny found himself in a hand-net again this month, I swapped his ring for one of these new ones. It’s a bluer blue than the old pale blue. Stands out a treat.
A new pale blue coded leg ring will make Danny stand out in the crowded flock. Photo by Liz Corry.
I also looked into a new style of plastic ring; clip-on rings. Used widely amongst pigeon fanciers and super easy for a 3D printed mass market. The keepers in the Zoo have started trialling them on the red-breasted geese. For the choughs they look ideal as we can glue the clip shut much like we glue the current wrap-around rings. Alas, I was let down again by delivery times. The fit of the ones that arrived were a millimetre too tight. Sounds negligible yet makes a huge difference. Just the same as the rings we wear.
Back to the drawing board for next season. Will have to add leg rings to the chough’s Christmas wish list.
A few noteworthy public sightings came in this month. Max Allan, retired vet well known to many Islanders, had ten choughs land on his roof in St John. They normally try and avoid vets! Not sure if he charged for their visit.
Durrell’s former CEO, Paul Masterton, emailed in photos of three choughs visiting his neighbour’s house. This was somewhat fortuitous as it might well be the only bit of evidence we have of Trevor and Noirmont having successfully fledged a chick this year.
Choughs stopped by to pay a visit to Durrell’s former CEO this month. Photo by Paul Masterton.
Noirmont and a chick were photographed on the roof of the house. The chick was one that Glyn had caught and still needed the other rings to be fitted. We were having difficulty assigning parents to this chick as we hadn’t seen it being fed by anyone.
It would seem unlikely for Noirmont to travel without Trevor. If we assume he was the third bird it suggests this chick belongs to them.
North East explorers
A pair of choughs have been sited on several occasions flying over Rozel Valley. The Rozel sightings cluster around la Ferme farm a dairy farm home to 280 Jersey cows. If a pair of choughs are looking for a new home then la Ferme’s buildings and the surrounding grazed land offer a favourable choice. Neighbouring attractions, if this was an ad in Chough Property Monthly, include horse-grazed paddocks and scenic clifftops.
La Ferme Farm, Trinity, is located in the north east of the island. Image from Google Maps.
Back in February I saw a pair of choughs from my garden flying over Rozel valley. This month I saw the same thing. Maybe even the same pair? They spent a fair amount of time dipping in and out of sight possibly landing to feed. An hour later they flew by again this time from the direction of Rozel Bay over to White Rock.
These could be the same choughs seen at Farmers Cricket Ground last month and again this month.
Flying further afield
COVID-19 has prevented a lot of zoos from importing and exporting animals as part of their collection management. The two choughs we bred at Jersey Zoo in 2019 were due to travel to Paradise Park, Cornwall. This was put on hold in lockdown and the birds housed in off-show aviaries so Penny and Tristan could start their new family.
On 25th August, along with several birds of other species, the chicks finally made their way across the channel via ferry. These two girls can now become part of the UK breeding programme.
And, just because they haven’t featured in a while….
Fledged chough chicks joined the flock at the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.
Summary of the 2020 breeding season
We have ringed a total of twelve chicks this year from seven different broods. Three chicks have unknown parentage although I can narrow it down to three possible options. We also know that five chicks died bouldering or shortly post-fledge which brings the 2020 total to seventeen chicks. No doubt we would have recorded more if COVID-19 restrictions had not prevented us for checking in nests. In a way it doesn’t matter. The twelve that fledged and continue to fly around Jersey are the important thing.
Last month’s report sounded like we had a handle on which pairs had bred and which chicks had made it to the aviary for supplemental feed. We didn’t. Not entirely. None of the chicks had been ringed in the nest this year thanks to the pandemic situation. On some days there were numerous unringed, identical birds in the flock.
On 23rd June, Glyn opportunistically caught up two of the unringed chicks to pop on a plastic leg ring. Six days later I caught up four chicks with a licensed ringer including one Glyn had previously caught. We fitted them with the full complement of rings and took DNA for sexing.
Choughs very quickly wise-up to any catch-up plans. Repeated back to back catch-up attempts result in the birds avoiding the aviary. Which meant it took all of July (and the first week in August) to finish processing all of the unringed chicks.
As the month went on, we started to get a clearer picture on parentage. However, the longer you wait to ring a chick the more independent it becomes, i.e. feeds for itself. You need to see an adult physically feeding a youngster to know it is the parent. Of course, there is another risk with waiting. An unringed chick seen at the start of the month might get predated, fatally injured etc. and won’t be around by the end of the month. We certainly experienced that with Dusty and Chickay’s brood.
The twelve that survived bring the total wild population back up to 44 after the dip in 2019. We look forward to monitoring their progress.
One of the more memorable ringing events occurred on 16th July. I had completely different plans that day taking a film crew to Sorel along with a colleague, Dan, to film a piece for our Love your zoo LIVE event. As we arrived, I spotted an unringed chough in the aviary. Not only that, but it was also a new arrival. You can tell by their naivety when they are inside the aviary. Instead of navigating the open hatches and flying straight out they fumble around in blind panic if spooked. Trapping it and catching it up was super easy. There were no licensed ringers available at short notice to fit the metal ring, so we did the rest.
Dan was very excited especially when he found out he was going to be my glamourous assistance. I let him pick the ring colour with a caution of anything but pale blue or grey (hard to distinguish in the wild). He went with pale blue. Despite that we have named the chick Danny. The sexing result came back as a male just to add to the significance.
We spent two and a half hours filming out at Sorel that day. As expected, a lot ended up on the cutting room floor. Here is the video for those who missed it.
Zoo chicks take flight
The three youngsters left their nest box at the start of July. The first was out on the first! They look really good and follow mum to the ground looking for food. Still insisting mum feeds them, but watching and learning all the time when Penny is foraging for worms, larvae etc. We are lucky that the Zoo aviary is home to a few ant nests. As long as we time it right, we can turn over a stone and have hundreds of eggs available to the choughs. They just have to make sure they get to them before the ants have carried them away.
On of Penny’s chicks contemplating the big leap. Photo by Liz Corry.
Sexing results came back on the 17th confirming we have three males. Two firsts for the Zoo; three chicks fledged, no females. These boys will head to the UK early next year to join either Paradise Park or Wildwood‘s breeding programme.
Chough chicks fledge in the Zoo. Photo by Liz Corry.
Chough travel plans continue despite Covid-19
Beaker and Beanie Baby continue to visit Grosnez and Les Landes whilst roosting at Plémont. They even made an appearance at the Sorel feed on 28th July. Maybe supplies were running low over in the west?
Searching for choughs at Les Landes and Grosnez. Photo by Liz Corry.
Cliffs adjacent to Les Landes racecourse offer plenty of roosting and nesting opportunities. Photo by Liz Corry.
Someone is certainly enjoying the east of the Island. More reports from Les Platons, Bouley Bay, Trinity, and flying over St Martin’s cricket pitch. We have Dave Buxton to thank for the latter. Licensed ringer and avid cricketer.
The pitch certainly looks inviting to a chough with all that short grass. The question is what lies beneath? Juicy grubs?
Choughs have been spotted flying over Farmers Cricket Club, St Martin. Photo by Farmers CC.
This year’s chicks have started to fledge and make their way over to Sorel. First out, and no surprise, were Dusty andChickay’s chicks on the 9th. The only surprise was the number. Four! This is our largest brood recorded having made it from nest to supplemental feed.
Kevin and Wally with one of their chicks. Photo by Liz Corry.
Ronez staff reported seeing a chick bouldering next to Lee and Caûvette’s nest and at least one still in the nest. Sadly, on the 15th they recovered a body which we assume was one of these two chicks. We have not seen Lee or Caûvettefeed chicks out at Sorel and can only assume the brood failed. This is unusual for the pair. The post mortem on the recovered body was inconclusive.
Lee and Caûvette’s chicks perished; at least they have each other. Photo by Liz Corry.
Bo and Flieurwere caring for two chicks at the supplemental feeds. This is Bo’s first-time parenting. He seems up for the challenge. I wonder if he realises he is set for at least a month of earache post-nest?
One of Chickay’s four chicks demanding to be fed. Photo by Liz Corry.
Other first timers are Percy and Icho. Last year their first clutch failed. This year they have three youngsters. Two arrived at the aviary with them on the 23rd then a third was noticed on the 26th.
Our regular breeding pairs had varying success. I’ve already mentioned Dusty. His father, Green, and partner Pyrrhotended to a nest, yet nothing made it across to Sorel.
Red,one of the original release birds, and Dingle raised two chicks that we know of. Ronez staff reported hearing chick noises coming from the nest box. Then on the 25th they had to intervene when one chick, having left the box, found himself with his firstlife choice: a) face imminent death from construction vehicles b) face imminent death from tons of molten ash pouring on him or c) let the kind hi-viz human pick him up and move him to a safer area. He (we) went for Option C.
Kevin and Wally fledged two chicks. Straight forward. No drama there.Trevor and Noirmont also fledged two chicks. I saw them bouldering around their nest site mid-June. What happened next is a bit of a mystery. Throughout June, no one observedTrevor or Noirmont feeding chicks at the aviary. They failed then right? Wrong! Although I can’t tell you until July’s report. The power of hindsight. Insert dramatic pause here.
A chick arriving at the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.
Awkward: the aviary takes a bit of getting used to for new arrivals. Photo by Liz Corry
Embarrassing but we got there. Photo by Liz Corry.
June revealed two new pairings. That of Bee and Mac and Honeydew and Minty. All relatively young (≤3 years old) and no known nests. However, back in March Minty was seen carrying nesting material. At the time we reported him having a ‘blossoming’ relationship with a different female. Does this mean he was building a nest with her and it failed? He switched females and started building a nest with Honeydew way back in March? Either way we have no current evidence of Honeydew and Minty caring for a nest at Sorel.
Without wanting to sound like a broken record, the Plémont update is much the same. No confirmed sign of Xaviour. Beanie Baby and Beaker are roosting at Plémont. No sign of chicks although monitoring of this site has been minimal. I think I have discovered their nest. It is too late in the year for them to be using it for definitive proof and I can only reach it at low tide. For monitoring purposes, due to Jersey’s amazing tidal range, it needs to be a low, low tide if that makes sense.
High tide mark black) on the cliffs give you an idea where choughs can and cannot nest. Photo by Liz Corry.
The Corbière mystery has been solved. Early June I managed to get a partial ID on one of the pair.Annoyingly this was on a day I had not planned to go looking and had no scope or long lens camera in the car.I did manage to clock a green ring on the left leg. This narrowed it down to one of six options.
La Rosiere, Corbière, provides foraging and potential nesting habitat for choughs. Photo by Liz Corry
I returned on the 23rd in unforgiving heat this time armed with equipment. Turns out I didn’t need it as they were right there in front of me. Theheat must have made them complacent splitting their time between foraging on open ground for a spell and sheltering in the old quarry ruins.
Honeydew and Minty sheltering in the ruins from the intense heat. Photo by Liz Corry.
Quarry ruins used by the choughs as shelter. Photo by Liz Corry.
With an air of smug triumph, I said hello to Minty and Honeydew, cracked a culturally inappropriate joke about them being at the Jehovah Witness hall, then decided I had been in the sun for too long.
The Corbière pair arriving at the Kingdom Hall foraging site. Photo by Liz Corry.
Actually, what I did next was run around Gorselands and la Moye as I thought I heard a second pair calling not far away. When I returned toMinty and Honeydewone of them called out…and it echoed! I had just spent half an hour chasing an echo.I packed up and went off for an ice cream.
The desalination plant next to the Kingdom Hall may explain the echoing bird calls. Photo by Liz Corry.
From my collective observations and the few public records, it does look like this pair could be roosting in the south west corner of Jersey. They like to use the abandoned Highlands Hotel during the day. It acts as a safe rest stop overlooking the land. They head to the roof then disappear out of sight for several minutes before heading off again to forage. The structure looks to have potential for a roost. The building hasapparently beenempty for 12-18 months. I would like to get in contact with the owner to see if we can investigate the possibility of roost or nest.If any readers can help with this please do get in contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 860 059.
Highlands Hotel is a prominent feature of the cliff tops in Jersey’s southwest. Photo by Liz Corry.
After the feed one Sunday, Icho was sat in the dead hawthorn tree by the aviary looking out of sorts. Percy was off somewhere else. She was very quiet and her feathers were out of place. There looked to be bald patches under her eyes and top of head. It was very easy for me to shut her in the aviary (another cause for concern).
Icho shut in the aviary to be caught up for a health check. Photo by Liz Corry.
Thankfully it was just a case of damp feathers mixing with rock dust. She must have bathed before arriving at the aviary. The right ratio of dust to water acting like ‘hair gel’ on the feathers.
Her subdued nature? Probably the same any mother has who had spent the past seven weeks feeding three hungry mouths?
A short yet sweet update. Penny continued to look after her three surviving chicks in the Zoo. We didn’t have to intervene just make sure she continued to get a regular supply of food. We ringed the chicks on the 16th and took DNA samples to send off for sexing. All looked fit and well.
Three very healthy chicks visible on the Zoo nest-cam. Photo by Liz Corry.
The Malagasy A-Team
I have been making the most of June’s daylight hours to keep on top of maintenance jobs. Well trying to at least. There is the ever-growing grass and surrounding bracken to keep on top off. The rats are still making a meal of the netting in quite an extraordinary way. A substantial sized rectangle had been gnawed out of one piece. I’m not sure which I was more alarmed at – the size or the shape.
For one memorable day in June, I had help from a very specialvolunteer group. Five staff members from Durrell’s Madagascar team have been over here in Jersey since February. They were attending the three-month DESMAN course at our Academyand became ‘stranded on the rock’ thanks to the pandemic.
Mamy and Henri cut the grass and created enrichment areas inside the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.
Students from the other countries had managed to make it home. Getting back to Madagascar was a little trickier. To alleviate lockdown boredom, they offered their assistance around the Zoo where feasible and out at Sorel. They powered through the jobs which helped me immensely.
Mirana meeting the Manx loaghtans. Photo by Liz Corry.
One task included re-vamping the signage at the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.
They managed to get flights home a few days later. They were ecstatic. I wasn’t. I had just lost my best team! I jest. We love our colleagues and lament over not spending more time face to face…unless it is in times of a pandemic.
Mamy showed off his carpentry skills. Photo by Liz Corry.
From left to right: Mirana, Lova, Helen hiding) and Ny set to work removing the bracken before fixing holes in the netting. Photo by Liz Corry.
As well as an unexpected volunteer team, I was in for another treat at Sorel this month.One evening, as I drove away from the aviary, I noticed a bird of prey sat on the field gate. Not unusual. Kestrel, buzzard, harrier, barn owl all hangout up there. This beauty caught my eye. It looked falcon-esque. Yet as I drove closer, eventually stopping mere metresaway, managing to get my camera out of the boot, AND take a photo, I knew this wasn’t your average falcon. Of course the jesses were an early give away.
Cyrus taking in the scenery on an excursion from St Johns Manor Falconry. Photo by Liz Corry.
With no falconer insight,I fired off a few social media messages to see who was missing their bird. Within minutes St John’s Manor contacted me to say it was probably their beloved Cyrus. Turns out she had been missing for a day and her GPS tag had failed. I know what it feels like when our choughs go missing so I stayed nearby to keep an eye on her until they arrived. I’d love to tell you there was a happy ending. I don’t know if there was. As soon as the falconer arrived, she flew off. Not far and it was approaching roost time so I would like to think she opted for rabbit in the falconer’s hand rather than the ones running around Sorel.
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 28thDusty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There appears to be a sneaky reshuffle within the pairings. Black, a female released in 2013, has not been seen since 25th March. We were hoping it simply meant she was incubating eggs. However, her partner Green started showing up with another female Pyrrho along with her partner at the time, Betty. As the month drew to an end the bond between Green and Pyrrho had strengthened, Betty was making moves on another female and Black still had not been seen.
Black has an interesting past. She was one of the first seven choughs to be released into Jersey. Males were few and far between in the early years. Her chance for a breeding partner came in 2016 after Dusty’s mother disappeared conveniently freeing up Green. Black took over both territory and nest site and laid a clutch each year without fail.
She hasn’t had much luck though. The 2018 clutch failed to produce anything and both 2019 chicks died shortly after fledging. Back in 2017, we named her only surviving chick Lil’Wheezy because both parent and chick showed signs of a syngamus infection. Lil’Wheezy disappeared before the year was out.
You start to wonder if Black’s health was compromised over the years making her more susceptible to predation. If she still hasn’t been seen by the end of May we will assume she has perished.
Choughs ignore social distancing rules. Photo by Liz Corry.
Throughout April the Sorel supplemental feeds were covered by Glyn, his daughter Mairi, volunteer Sarah, Zoo student Beth and myself. All student placements at Durrell were given the option of returning home before lockdown. Beth very kindly decided to stay in Jersey and became an integral part of the Bird team.
Monitoring nest sites, foraging sites further afield, and potential new nest sites was limited to what I could achieve in my free time. Thankfully, Sue Mueller wished to volunteer with the monitoring as her permitted outdoor activity. Already a keen wildlife photographer and chough lover she was happy to spend her time sat at Sorel Point or walking sections of coastal path.
A pair of choughs looking for food in the quarry. Photo by Sue Mueller.
April’s nesting progress
COVID restrictions limited the amount of nest observations in the quarry this season. Photo by Liz Corry.
Sue’s observations helped us to confirm eight active nest sites this month. Most were last year’s sites. Of note, we think Bo and Flieur might be nesting in the same area Flieur used with her previous partner. Sue couldn’t get a clear ID on the rings. The pair’s behaviour suggests Flieur is incubating, as are several other females.
It is doubtful that we will be able to determine hatching dates which in turn will restrict ringing at nest sites. We will be reliant on fledglings following their parents to the supplemental feed site in order to trap and ring them.
Betty and Zennor both lost rings this month. At the feed on 12th April it was clear Zennor had lost her striped plastic ring. Betty had lost his black ID ring. When possible, we will try to catch up these birds and replace rings. For now, we can still distinguish them from others in the flock.
Wally flew in to feed on the same day with her hind digit of the left foot stuck in her ring. Pretty sure she did this last year during the breeding season. She will need to be caught up to free the digit and assess the condition of the rings.
Waiting for choughs to enter the aviary in order to catch and replace leg rings. Photo by Liz Corry.
Away from Sorel
No definitive news on the Plémont territory other than they are still in the area. My guess is that Xaviour has gone leaving Beaker and Beanie Baby holding territory. Gone where or how we don’t know. I suspect Beanie Baby has chosen her own place to nest; the exact location will be kept confidential.
Reports continue to come in of choughs around Les Platons. I haven’t managed to see them there yet. Not that the dogs are complaining about their new evening routine.
Going on a chough ‘hunt’ at Les Platons. Photo by Liz Corry.
East of les Platons, has patches of suitable chough habitat tucked in between woodland and bracken. Photo by Liz Corry.
I did have plenty of sightings of a choughs at the Zoo. Often just a single bird, a few times it has been a pair flying over. The single bird (assuming it is the same individual) likes to hang out on the Manor House roof, particularly Lee Durrell’s chimney.
Several times whilst servicing Kirindy or the flamingos I have heard a call, looked up, and seen a chough fly overhead. The Durrell staff having to self-isolate at the campsite have also been kept entertained by the visitors – incidentally the only visitors allowed to the Zoo in April due to lockdown restrictions!
Further south, we have had regular reports of choughs visiting the sand dunes, Gorselands, and Corbière.
A chough spotted on the roof of the abandoned Highlands Hotel, Corbière. Photo by Mick Dryden.
More often than not it has been a pair spotted, sometimes more. I think a pair have established a territory again in the south west. Hopefully they will have more success than the last pair who kept relying on the Sorel feed for sustenance.
Habitat around Corbière’s WW2 Naval tower provides food for choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.
One of their problems, I suspect, was the amount of disturbance they received when trying to find food in areas with heavy footfall. And paw-fall. And car-fall! Dog walkers, tourists, tourist coaches, cars, vans, children tobogganing down the dunes (a designated SSI site) all mean that birds are frequently disturbed. Maybe lockdown will have its merits. Fingers/feathers crossed!
The track to Corbière lighthouse attracts visitors for the views, WW2 bunkers, and the obligatory ice cream van. Photo by Liz Corry.
On 5th April, we managed to catch the remaining juvenile in SORG and move her to the off show aviary to join her sibling. This meant Tristan and Penny could begin nesting. Lots of activity carrying twigs, wool, and moss into the nest box. Penny began egg laying as April came to a close.
We are sad to report the death of one of our keenest academic supporters. Dr Graham Law of the University of Glasgow passed away on 9th April. Graham made several visits to Jersey in the early 1980s but on a return visit to the Island in 2016, he took a great interest in the chough reintroduction project and helped establish links with the chough team at the University.
Graham worked as a zoo keeper for 23 years before moving to academia but never lost his enthusiasm for bettering the lives of animals in his care. He taught on the Glasgow Universities Masters course on Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law and was involved in many environmental enrichment projects including a remarkable one for killer whales. All of us who knew Graham and were so influenced by him in our life and careers will miss him deeply. Our thoughts are with Rosie and his children.
Choughs and staff have been battling storm-force gales this month. With fewer insects around most, if not all, of the birds have been appearing at the supplemental feed fuelling their travels around Jersey’s coastline.
Here is what else we’ve been getting up to in December…
Cosmetic surgery on Wally’s Christmas wishlist?
Wally is currently sporting an overgrown upper mandible. Photo by Liz Corry.
Wally and juvenile Dary both have overgrown bills. From observations it looks to be the upper mandible that has overgrown rather than the tip of the lower mandible breaking off. This should not be a major problem, however, it may reduce the effectiveness of their foraging skills. Hopefully natural wear and tear will eventually rectify the situation. Watch this space.
Dary currently has an overgrown upper mandible. Photo by Liz Corry.
Habitat use in December
Plémont pond at the restored headland. Photo by Liz Corry
Observations at Plémont over the Christmas period suggest that the area is no longer being used by choughs as a roost site. To be expected with the disappearance of Earl although it would have been nice for Xaviour to remain there with her new partner. We could do with finding out where she is roosting as it may tell us where she will nest in 2020.
There could be ‘new’ roost sites around the Island that we are not aware of. One chough was observed flying west after the supplemental feed roughly 30 minutes before sunset. Annoyingly, having just come from a fruitless search of Le Pulec to Plémont, all I could do was watch as it disappeared behind the tree line at Crabbé. From there it could have gone in any direction…including back to Sorel.
Watching from the Devil’s Hole cliff path as a lone chough flies off into the sunset. Photo by Liz Corry.
We have had a couple more reports of a pair of choughs around Grantez and the adjacent coastline. One sighting from an ex-chough keeper referenced the land behind St Ouen’s Scout Centre.
Two choughs spotted at the back of St Ouen’s Scout Centre. Photo by Kathryn Smith.
It is impossible to see leg rings in the photo, but it does show the type of habitat the choughs are willing to explore in Jersey looking for food. There are several houses nearby and the area is a popular spot with dog walkers. Let’s hope we get more sightings reported and the pair’s identity solved. Remember you can send in sightings by clicking here.
Aerial image of the Jersey Scout Centre in St Ouen and surrounding area. Image taken from Google Earth.
Kevin has lost his yellow ID ring so for now he is just white left. We will try and rectify this in the New Year when the force 9-10 gales hopefully die down making the catch up less like Mission Impossible.
Kevin can only be identified from his white 2015 year ring after losing his yellow ID ring. Photo by Liz Corry.
Luckily he is easy to spot as he is normally with his partner Wally. A couple of the other choughs are proving harder to ID despite having all their leg rings. Take Morris, he has a grey over cerise ring whilst Baie has pale blue over cerise leg rings. It’s not easy to distinguish the two colours especially when the low winter sun is beaming directly on the birds. There are three of us who work out at Sorel and we have all mistaken one for the other at some point.
All this means we might not realise a bird is missing/dead straight away. As the month (and year) draws to a close we have been trying to determine exact numbers. Where possible both myself and Flavio have headed out to the coast; one staying at Sorel whilst the other heads to a different known foraging site(s). It feels a bit like a wild goose chase…but with choughs.
Counting choughs…or is it sheep? Photo by Liz Corry
Our best guess is that there are now thirty-five choughs living free in Jersey; twenty captive-reared, fifteen hatched in the wild. We have not been able to account for any extras at Sorel throughout December.
December’s persistent gales have taken their toll on the aviary. So much so that an external hatch door came off its hinges and landed inside the aviary. The cable-ties securing plastic side panels in place to provide shelter from the winds) snapped off. Not once, but three times. The vertical anti-rodent guttering snapped off. And to top it off, holes appeared in the netting along the top. Possibly rodent-related although this could also be because the netting rubs on the support pole in the winds.
Still, despite the Force 10 battering, it has fared better than the Motocross track whose observation tower and trailer blew over!
Christmas Day at Sorel was a very different picture to the last three weeks of wind, rain, and hail. Photo by Liz Corry.
The one upside to all the rain appears to be how useful the dirt tracks have become to the choughs. Birds were spotted probing the muddy ruts for insects, drinking from the puddles, and hanging out on the field gate.
Sorel farm track has attracted the attention of the birds this month. Photo by Liz Corry.
Heard of a kissing gate? Well this is a choughing gate. Photo by Liz Corry.
Kentish chough developments
At the start of December (when the ferries were still sailing!) I was invited over to Kent to assist with planning the Kentish chough reintroduction. My first day was spent with the team visiting potential aviary locations and discussing suitability.
A view of Dover Harbour from the White Cliffs. Photo by Liz Corry.
Several landowners already work towards restoring habitats that will benefit choughs. The National Trust for example graze ponies to improve the flower-rich grassland. Short grass and insect-attracting dung – what more could a chough ask for? The challenge Kent face is working in such a densely populated area. Dover is a smidge different to Sorel.
The National Trust are just one of the many stakeholders involved in the project. Photo by Liz Corry.
Kirsty Swinnerton, Kent Wildlife Trust (and well known to BOTE through her long involvement), pointing out the boundaries of a current grazing project using Shetland cattle. Photo by Liz Corry.
My second day was at Wildwood Trust, home to the captive choughs. A morning of meetings resulted in potential research collaborations and a few ideas for how to manage the Kent releases.
Signage at Wildwood mentions the success of our chough work. Photo by Liz Corry.
Wildwood are also involved in exciting projects to rewild nearby forest as well as several exciting projects around the UK. It was nice to see behind the scenes and talk about something other than choughs! The photo gallery at the bottom shows just a few of the species Wildwood conserve.
I gave a lunchtime talk to staff about the Jersey project and the lessons we have learnt. I gave the same talk on the final day for the Kent Wildlife Trust. That talk was held at the Tyland Barn Centre and streamed live to staff at their other reserve centres. The trust are heavily involved in the public engagement side and particularly interested in how the Jersey community have reacted to the choughs.
Talking to staff at Kent Wildlife Trust about Birds On The Edge and the choughs. Photo by KWT
It is with a heavy heart that we report on the passing of Gianna the tame chough at Jersey Zoo. Last month she was rushed to the Zoo’s Vet Centre after being found on the floor soaking wet from the rain and motionless. After a couple of hours under a heat lamp she showed improvement and began taking food from keepers.
Immediate action was taken to modify her enclosure. Site Services added an extra shelter on the roof and keepers added new perching and extra shelter boxes. The keepers and students covered the floor with a tonne of fresh sand in case the mud bath created by the heavy rains was harbouring any nasty germs.
Sadly all this was in vain. Despite eating and interacting with keepers Gianna seemed to be struggling. The difficulty with treating any animal is that they can’t tell you what is wrong. Our vet team carried out several tests each one not really providing the solution. Sadly despite medication and a lot of love, Gianna slipped away on 11th November.
Gianna arrived in Jersey seven years ago from Turin, Italy. She had been rescued by staff at the Universita di Medicina Veterinaria after being found injured on a balcony of a block of flats. Staff looked after her that summer at their facilities, but needed to re-home her. They recognised something in her, something special, and thought she could serve a greater purpose by joining the Jersey chough project. Or simply put she was far too imprinted to be released! They suspected she had been hand-reared and kept as a pet. They guessed her age at around three years old based on examination.
I’m ready for my close up. Photo by Liz Corry.
Gianna integrated well into the captive flock, but it was clear her love of human attention meant she was never going to pair up with another chough. We did try her with a hand-reared male. She attacked him in a jealous rage when keepers started showing him attention. Prima donna!
In 2015 we changed tactic. This time we would ‘pair’ with her! Gianna was moved to a bespoke aviary allowing staff easy access to the nest-box. Immediately she built a nest with material we provided. She even laid her own eggs. Not that they were fertile. However, it meant that when the time came we could swap her eggs for fertile ones to foster incubate or chicks that Gianna and staff could raise together.
She foster-reared her first chick that season and the following year raised four more. These four were released at Sorel that summer. Two have since had chicks of their own, one nesting in the quarry, the other out at Plémont.
Gianna’s impact on the success of the project doesn’t end there. During her time at Jersey Zoo she has acted as an ambassador for the choughs. Her friendly demeanour meant she always came to the front of the aviary for the keeper talks. In recent years her confidence grew and she would allow certain visitors to tickle her through the mesh under my supervision. This simple interaction made people suddenly appreciate that birds have personalities.
Gianna and staff kept regular checks on the foster chicks’ weights. Photo by Liz Corry.
Any student that worked with her couldn’t help falling for her charms…even the ones that thought they didn’t like birds! She returned the admiration especially if said student provided her with insect-filled enrichment. The video below was filmed by the current project student Flavio in October after he had created new enrichment using bamboo.
Frustratingly we don’t have any answers yet to why she died. The vet team are waiting on results from the UK lab. Even then it is likely that several factors acted together to cause her ill health.
What we do know is that Gianna has helped expand people’s knowledge about red-billed choughs, developed foster-rearing techniques for conservation management, and trained numerous students in captive husbandry. Most of all she was loved and will forever be in our hearts.
Other veterinary news
We are still waiting on lab results from the UK to shed light on the reason why Lotte was found dead in the quarry. Until the histology is known the post-mortem remains inconclusive.
On a positive note, the bird treated for a suspected syngamus infection last month is still doing well. No further issues have arisen within the group.
War and Peace
I have no evidence of a bitter love rivalry or lightsaber joust to the death, but if we assume as such it makes this next bit more bearable. Or at least entertaining.
As alluded to last month, it does appear that we have lost two breeding males. Earl and Skywalker have not been seen at Sorel, or anywhere else in Jersey, since August and September respectively. Their females have re-paired and, in both cases, the new partnership has arisen at the same time the ‘old’ male disappears. Implying the ‘old’ male was pushed out.
Skywalker’s partner Pyrrho is now preening and cuddling up to Betty (a male). Betty’s ex has not been recorded at the feed since summer. We can only assume she is dead.
Betty has his eyes set on a new female and could well breed for the first time next year. Photo by Liz Corry.
Earl’s partner Xaviour is now with wild-hatched Beaker. We had seen this male with another wild-hatched female giving hope to having our first truly wild Jersey chick in 2020. Whilst this now looks unlikely it still looks like Plémont will remain a breeding site. If Xaviour stays in good health!
Xaviour (far left) preening Beaker which lets the others know she belongs to him now. Photo by Liz Corry.
Update on the 2019 fledglings
From the ‘chough register’ we keep at the supplemental feeds we know that three youngsters have not been present since the end of July. Initially you assume that you are just not seeing their leg rings in the mayhem of birds at the feeds. Or that they are not returning to Sorel because they are with a breakaway group finding food elsewhere on the Island. The report of a possible chough in Sark also adds to the doubt; maybe the lone chick from Plémont decided the odds looked better across the waters?
Now winter is upon us and with no confirmed sightings we are recording Cliff, Cerise, and Pallot as missing presumed dead. Those of you who follow regularly maybe wondering why you have never heard of those three before. You have, but as PP046, PP041, and PP048. We finally named the 2019 youngsters!
Baie pays a visit to the supplemental feed site. Photo by Liz Corry.
Of note, we have named one clutch after two St John households who have supported the project since the start. A small token of our appreciation. Morris and Dary regularly visit the aviary for food and make trips out west having learnt the best foraging spots from their parents.
We turned to the Jèrriais dictionary for two names. Jaune, meaning yellow, was given to a female with a yellow leg ring. Baie is the only surviving chick from the ‘Dust bay’ building in the quarry (also located in the bay at Ronez).
We’ve also kept the Star Wars theme alive with naming Skywalker’s offspring. I had to turn to an uber-geek for help. There is a prize to the first person who guesses correctly and knows the reasoning behind the choices.
A few leg ring issues needed addressing this month. One was Flieur, who had lost her blue plastic ring and need a replacement. One youngster still needs a metal ring. She is proving tricky to catch; at least her colour ring combo makes her easy to spot.
The birds can make it really hard to read leg rings, super easy, or somewhere in between. Photo by Liz Corry.
If you manage to read and/or photograph any leg rings on a chough whilst out and about in Jersey, you can now identify which bird it is. Or at least have a go before they fly off. Click here for the list of Jersey’s choughs.
I have also updated our website to include a new chough sighting form. Hopefully this will make it easier to report your sightings and provide the team with the data we need.
You can find a new guide to show the differences between a chough and some of its corvid cousins in Jersey. As well as a couple of distant relations that have been misidentified in the past (there are more videos of choughs here too).
We are still experiencing a few technical glitches since we went back online. For a while comments were being blocked. That should now be resolved, but please do get in touch if you experience any problems. Forays into the Matrix are few and far between so faults easily go unnoticed unless reported by users.
Chough movements and public sightings
We have had several public sightings this month, more so than last month. The dip in temperatures and heavy rains will be forcing the birds to look further afield for food. None of the sightings have been from anywhere unexpected. Places like Le Pulec (Stinky Bay), Crabbé, and St Ouen’s Bay have been visited before albeit infrequently. The interesting information from these sightings is the time of day and numbers. We clearly have a pair using the west coast independent from the others. We could really do with establishing who these two are.
A chough in flight over Crabbé. Photo by Trevor Biddle.
Group activity close to roost time is being cited more particularly over Grève de Lecq. Again, this might be linked to the weather; birds trying to stock up on calories before bed as overnight frosts creep in.
Numbers at the supplemental feed have varied this month. The register shows that on average 75% of the group are present when we put the food out. The rest either don’t need it or swing by just before roosting. Some days it has been the reverse with less than 25% at the feed. These are the drier days when the winds and sunshine are in the birds’ favour.
These patterns of behaviour are what you expect to see at your garden bird feeder. The choughs are no different. Yes there is food out there for them to find naturally, but due to human impacts on the environment they need a helping hand.
Mud, mud, glorious mud. Photo by Liz Corry.
One thing the choughs don’t need from us this month is fresh water. They are getting plenty of that thanks to the endless rainy days. A few of the birds have been spotted drinking and bathing in the puddles formed up by the motocross much to the delight of onlookers.
Icho drinking from a puddle at the Motocross. Photo by Liz Corry.
Percy watches over his partner Icho whilst she is down on the ground bathing. Photo by Liz Corry.
The 5th International Chough Conference was held in Segovia, Spain from the 3rd to 5th October. Held at the Palacio Episcopal building adjoined to Casa de Espiritualidad San Frutos. A very religious affair! And very inclusive events with delegates from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and all around the UK. And Jersey!
There were two days of talks focused on red-billed choughs and yellow-billed (Alpine) choughs and a field trip to Hoces del Duratón Natural Park on the final day. Being the chough geeks that we are, the evenings were spent staking out chough roosts in ‘downtown’ Segovia. More on that later.
Question time after each set of talks.
Segovia is a 25 minute train journey north of Madrid and famous for it’s gothic cathedral, roman aqueduct, and Disney-esque Alcázar Palace. It also happens to be home to a large population of red-billed choughs.
A census carried out this year by José González del Barrio and his team recorded 123 choughs roosting in the city. They seem to have a penchant for architectural masterpieces; its not hard to see why. The cathedral is home to half the population with the alcazar and churches accommodating another 30%.
Segovia Cathedral is home to half of the city’s red-billed choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.
It stands to reason that they also have a considerable number of nest sites in Segovia. José’s team recorded 94 nests this year ranging from natural caves to guttering in the cathedral. Bell towers seem to be a particular favourite.
It is not unusual for Spanish choughs to nest in man-made structures, but researchers have noticed an increase in numbers of birds switching from natural mountain caves or crevices to these urban sites.
Just outside of the city (1-3km) there are cereal crops, fallow fields, and grazing cattle and sheep on land they refer to as ‘wasteland’ i.e. can’t grow commercial crops. These provide foraging sites for the choughs (and jackdaws). This is probably why the urban areas are more appealing to raise young rather than up in the mountains where temperatures fall below zero.
However, there is a rather unappealing element to urban living. I’m not referring to the flea-riddled stray cats that prowl the cathedral like a gang of hooded youth. Although cats and rats do predate the birds and eggs.
Cathedral cats prowl the chough territories but don’t be fooled, its hiding a flick knife somewhere. Photo by Liz Corry
The problem is Segovia’s human inhabitants and their dislike of pigeons. Pigeons roost and nest in the same places as choughs. So when someone puts up a deterrent to stop pigeons pooping on an historic monument, it also stops the choughs. Nine nests failed this year due to human disturbance. The worse cases seeing chicks and/or adults blocked in and starving to death.
Blocking off building access to combat pigeon problems can be fatal to choughs.
This behaviour is largely due to a lack of awareness over choughs in general. One reason why organisers selected Segovia to host the conference. Our presence in the city (especially on the roost visits) gives the choughs some ‘air time’. We also had local government officials sit in on the talks. Hopefully public attitudes will change towards choughs. The real challenge will be how to pigeon-proof a structure whilst still giving access to a similar sized species.
City life or country living?
Despite the perils of city living, the choughs have been switching their country cliff-side dwellings for urban development over the last 10-15 year in central Spain. Guillermo Blanco presented data that showed the number of cliff nesting pairs had dropped by 180 pairs over a twenty-eight year period. Switching limestone or clay cliffs for farm buildings and human dwellings.
Jesús Zúñiga had a similar tale to tell in the Sierra Nevada National Park of southern Spain. The chough population has declined by 60% compared to data collected in 1980-1984. This also coincides with an increased use of buildings for roost and nesting.
Choughs in central Spain are switching from cliffs for buildings when it comes to nesting and roosting.
Some choice of nest sites may look familiar to Birds On The Edge readers. Others are a little more suited to the pages of Homes & Gardens magazine.
Many of the buildings the birds are choosing to nest in are abandoned and nowhere near as intricate as the cathedral and churches of Segovia. Ledges and boxes have been erected by conservationists to support nest construction. They are seeing some amazing results.
As eluded to earlier, predators are more of a problem in these areas. Cats, rats, pine marten and genets. A team from Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi have come up with a genius idea – “ugly nests” (patent pending). They have used reclaimed materials such as water containers (too slippery for the mammals to grip) and installed them so they are out of reach from predatory paws.
Installation of artificial nests built with recycled materials.
Wild chough chicks reared in reclaimed artificial nests.
The team were so proud of their ugly nests that we were treated to a demonstration of how easy it is to make one (we had the priest on standby if it all went wrong). We even had an auction with the winning bidder becoming the proud owner of a bespoke ugly nest!
Practical demonstration of how to make a chough nest-box from a water container.
Food availability for choughs
The main reason for the ‘cultural shift’ in Spanish choughs has been the change in agriculture surrounding the limestone cliffs and gorges. Irrigation of the land for maize and fruit growing instead of traditional dry cultivation means a reduction in suitable foraging habitat for the birds.
Places like Segovia on the other hand have livestock grazing within a kilometre of the city walls. This is perfect foraging habitat for choughs (and several hundred jackdaw).
Cattle grazing outside Segovia’s train station provides perfect foraging habitat for choughs and jackdaws.
We know dung is a favourite food source for UK choughs. Gillian Gilbert (RSPB) explained how the Scottish birds particularly like to rummage through dung between July and October in search of invertebrates. In the 1980s, choughs were finding lots of beetles from the Aphodius family. Nowadays, Aphodius numbers have declined and the choughs are more reliant on species of Geotrupes beetles. So what is the problem? Well Geotrupes are soil-boring dung beetles, they drag the dung down into the ground, whereas Aphodius live in the dung. The birds have to work more to probe soil compared to dung which means Geotrupes have less nutritional value.
Eric Bignal feeding choughs in Islay as part of their conservation management.
Food availability (or lack thereof) was a common theme across all countries. In the UK, the Islay choughs began receiving supplemental food eight years ago when researchers noticed a population crash. This extra food, provided by farmers and chough-champions Eric and Sue Bignal, is crucial during the months of September and October.
In the past few years, several of the Cornish birds have been visiting garden bird feeders to score some free food. This may be more opportunistic than essential for survival, but certainly something researchers should keep an eye on in case things change.
Yellow-billed (or Alpine) choughs are known to be opportunistic feeders. Mention choughs to anyone who skis in the Alps and they will probably regale tales of over-friendly, black birds hanging around their restaurant table. Alpine choughs have a broader diet then their cousins. In winter, as temperatures drop they start to forage on juniper berries, seeds, and après-ski leftovers.
Alpine choughs foraging. Spain 2014. Photo by Glyn Young
Cristina Vallino, University of Turin, has undertaken a novel approach to observing the feeding behaviour of these birds around ski resorts. Using the free-access public webcams from ski-resorts in three different Alpine countries she has clocked up 13,704 recordings and analysed flock size, stay time, food intake, vigilance distance and flushing distance. She then combined this with genetic studies of the diet to determine variation in diet. Her concerns for the Alpine chough are the long term effects of eating leftovers. Will this ‘fast food’ be effecting their health?
Conservation of European choughs can be a little tricky compared to the UK because the birds can travel long distances. For example, in some years individuals roosting in Segovia may nest in Madrid. Subsequent juvenile dispersal from those nests plays an important role in range expansion. Not just moving within country but between countries too.
Personally speaking, the two most anticipated conference presentations focused on the first use of solar-powered GPS tags on choughs. One on an Alpine chough in Aragon, Spain, the other on red-billed chough in central Spain.
Both studies used transmitters built by a Lithuania company, Ornitrack. The tags transmit data using the 3G mobile network. So as long as you have coverage you can receive data anywhere in the world…roaming charges apply. No joke – just ask the Russians!
Solar-powered GPS tag on a red-billed chough.
The tag is solar-powered which explains the bulky size; the panel needs to be above the feathers in order to charge. The weight of the tag requires harness attachment rather than just gluing on to the body. Juan Manual Pérez-Garcia and his team fitted harnesses to six birds this summer and had some interesting results.
One bird covered a distance of 173km in two days. Another flew 85km on its first flight (in under 3 hrs) then took another 15km journey before settling down for 12 days. Sadly it was then predated by a booted eagle. They know this because an accelerometer fitted in the tag gives an activity pattern. You can detect feeding events, roosting events, and sadly the shaking around and eventual immobility from a predation event. And then the carrying off to the nest to feed the eagle chicks event!
Data from the GPS can provide information on whether the bird is in flight or at rest. Or caught by a booted eagle!
These studies are in their infancy stage. A lot of work is needed looking at the welfare implications of tag attachment. Cost is a small hurdle to overcome considering each tag is about £1,200 plus a data transfer fee. There is definite potential and something we are keen to explore in Jersey.
Future prospects for choughs
The scope of work and tireless dedication evident from everyone in the room (any associates that could not be there in person) is promising for the future of choughs. Whilst classed as least concern, due to their global range, the species appears to be in decline. By sharing data, collaborating on research, and undertaking well-planned translocations or re-introductions we will hopefully halt any further decline. In the process, as several talks showed, this can have a far wider impact for global biodiversity because species restoration works in partnership with habitat restoration.
Helmut Magdefrau put forward their proposal to re-introduce choughs to Slovenia.
There was far too much to cover in one post. I will end with a photo gallery of chough sightings in Segovia and a couple of videos. All of which may help you plan your 2020 holidays!
La Palma island wildlife recovery centre: choughs often end up at the centre after collisions with power lines or collisions with cats mouths.