Chough report: July 2019

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

By Liz Corry

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

Attendance records at Sorel on the rise.

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

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

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

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

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

Earl of Plémont  returns triumphant

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

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

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

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

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

Falling foul-can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big catch up

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

In Memoriam

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

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

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

 

Bracken bashing for charity

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chough report: June 2017

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By Liz Corry

Chough numbers increase in the wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliff hanger!

Chough travels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch up with Caûvette

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

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

Han Solo takes flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LIVE Teaching through nature

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

LIVE screen grab choughs

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