Learn all about the choughs’ rich, but perhaps forgotten, Kentish heritage embedded in legends such as the murder of Thomas Becket, and immortalised at Shakespeare Cliff in King Lear.
These iconic birds, which are part of the crow family, fell victim to intensive farming practices and historical persecution, leading to widespread extinction with only small populations surviving in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man (and Jersey).
Can you imagine seeing a chough flying over the White Cliffs of Dover for the first time in over 200 years?
The Dover Castle aviary is the first step in the vision to reintroduce choughs to Kent. Dover’s chalk grasslands and white cliffs provide nest sites and rich diversity of insects on which choughs feed. We want to create a Wilder Kent by restoring this charismatic but threatened bird, with its glossy black plumage, red legs and bright red beak.
Thomas Becket, King Henry, Canterbury and the chough
Many will know the story of the murder of Thomas Becket, last year marked 850 years since his dramatic murder, but you may be less familiar with a mythical connection to the chough.
It is rumoured that as Thomas lay dying, a crow flew down and by paddling in his blood it acquired a startling red beak and feet, transforming into a chough.
There was a huge public reaction to Thomas’s death. Pilgrims began to arrive at Canterbury Cathedral from across Europe and King Henry II received many high-status visitors.
Henry invested in Dover Castle, creating the great tower keep as a fitting venue, suitable for important travellers on their way to Canterbury, and making it truly ‘fit for a king’.
Sometime after his death, Thomas was attributed a coat of arms featuring three choughs, which first appears about 100 years later in Canterbury Cathedral, and, in the 14th century, the City of Canterbury adopted a coat of arms with three choughs and a royal lion. But no one really knows why the chough became associated with Thomas, other than the legend of the blooded crow. Whatever its origin, the chough has a long history in heraldry in glass, sculpture, coats of arms, flags, and even pub signs!
Kent Wildlife Trust, Wildwood Trust and English Heritage will unveil a brand new chough aviary at Dover Castle this month. Visitors will now be able to get up close to four young red-billed choughs, who will be living at the aviary, and learn more about their cultural and ecological significance in Kent.
The choughs living in the aviary hatched earlier this year at Wildwood Trust, as part of a breeding programme to help reverse falling numbers of the chough population across the UK. A dedicated team of keepers from Wildwood have spent the past three months rearing and training the choughs in preparation for their move to the castle.
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
A blog post about cute pigs?! Nah. I’m just throwing you off the scent. Click bait. It is the monthly chough report of course with everything that happened in September.
Scoping out the racecourse
The chough flock spent at lot of time in September foraging around Les Landes Racecourse. There appeared to be plenty of insects available in the soil. Leatherjackets (cranefly larvae) from the looks of things although viewing through a scope a some distance adds uncertainty.
We still have a fair few turn up at the supplemental feed. The noticeable difference is that they are taking less food. Instead of finding empty food dishes within an hour of food being put out we find leftover pellet. Presumably because they have eaten so well out and about in the mornings.
Our rodent-proof food stands mean we can leave the leftovers for the choughs to snack on later. Hunger should not be a problem for Jersey’s choughs this month!
Class of 2019 suffer another setback
Another dead juvenile has been found out on the north coast. The body was found by a dog walker near Devil’s Hole. The lady regularly visits Sorel and knew when we would be feeding so kindly handed over the remains. We identified the bird as PP042 who fledged this year in the quarry. Not a huge surprise as they were on the missing birds list.
The surprise was the condition of the bird…headless and, on X-ray, very broken. You can see shattered bone in the left humerus (circled red in the image below). Our vet was a bit baffled at the post-mortem. The injuries sustained are something he is more familiar with seeing from a bird that had been hit by a car. Plus we don’t know if all this happened after the bird died or before.
We do know this means there are only 11 juveniles remaining. Three of those have not been seen in a long time. If they are still unaccounted for in October we will have to assume the worse.
PP035 is one juvenile very much alive and kicking. She was caught up mid-September because one of her plastic rings was unraveling. Not an easy thing to do for a bird to do. It would have required force. The ring was replaced and this time a lot of glue was used to seal the overlapping edges. She looked in good health and was released straight away.
The flock of sheep at Sorel were moved off site this month as part of their management plan.
There was, however, one little sheep who avoided the round-up. We found her merrily grazing away at the aviary. She had pushed through the fencing and entered the hedgerow bank rather cunningly hiding in the hedgerow when the shepherd was around and reappearing at the chough feed.
With a bit a team work and a lot of patience she was eventually moved out (it gave our push-mower a bit of a break!).
After seven years of working out at Sorel it felt quite eerie to visit and have no sheep and no choughs*. You can still find the sheep in various locations around Jersey doing their bit for conservation grazing. Maybe it could become the next rewilding game #whereswoolly?
*don’t worry we haven’t removed the birds, they do that themselves by flying off during the day.
Flocking season in the Zoo
At this time of year, with breeding over, we normally move all the Zoo choughs back into one aviary. This mimics the flocking behaviour you see in choughs over winter. However, this year was a bit different.
This is the first year we have had only one breeding pair at Jersey Zoo. It is also the first year we haven’t released parent-reared chicks. So that means trying to mix a family of four with the only other chough we have – Gianna.
Normally the other choughs ignore Gianna, but with one family and an uninvited guest in their territory things are a little different. We have made three attempts to mix Gianna with the group this month. The first time we assumed tensions were high because the male in the family had only just been moved back. He had been housed separately for the past two months due to bad behaviour. We gave him some more time to settle in and calm down before the next attempt. No change. We waited again. Surely the hormones had settled? Nope.
As soon as I leave the aviary the pair fly over and shout loudly at Gianna. If I then walk away from Gianna, they dive-bomb her and it gets physical. Thankfully, Gianna is thick skinned and once I’m back inside with her she returns to preening and picking out insects.
Sadly for Gianna I can’t live in the aviary and be 24-hr bodyguard (although the rent would be free). She has been moved back to her off-show aviary and might have to stay in there over winter.
New placement student
If Gianna does have to stay off-show she will receive lots of attention because….fanfare please…we have a student placement again! After more than a year with a vacant position, Flavio has joined the project.
He is with us until March and has already got stuck in to the task at hand. As evident in the video below. Faceal sampling for health checks, camera trap reviews for roost ID, and dealing with a dead chough all in Week 1.
Flavio has previously worked on a beetle conservation project in the UK so we are hoping to put his survey skills to use in Jersey. His mode of transport is a bicycle so be sure to give him a wide berth if you are overtaking – he has an expensive scope in his bag. I wouldn’t want it damaged!
The annual Inter-Islands Environmental Meeting was held in Alderney this year hosted by the Alderney Wildlife Trust. With the theme of Wilder Islands, delegates attended a two day symposium highlighting work carried out across the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and islands of the British Overseas Territories. Birds On The Edge was represented by myself and Cristina Sellares with Glyn Young joining on the challenging third day.
The third day was a mixture of talks and working groups tackling the challenges islanders face with biodiversity and climate change. Tony Juniper gave the introductory keynote speech.
We were also treated to an evening lecture from Dr George McGavin the esteemed entomologist and patron of the Alderney Wildlife Trust.
A separate blog will be posted going into more detail. The highlights for this report include the mention we got in Jamie Marsh’s talk on the white-tailed sea eagle reintroduction in the Isle of Wight. Guess where we might be taking choughs next? And our first possible sighting of a Jersey chough visiting Sark! Suffice to say our holidays work plans for 2020 are quickly filling up.
Building on the success of the Jersey choughs, can reintroduced choughs help restore Kent’s chalk grasslands? Could we eventually join the Cornish population and Kentish population to bring back this charismatic bird to England’s entire south coast as in days gone by? Ok, that last bit is jumping the gun. Although it is early days, the KCP are certainly working hard to make sure the first aim is achievable.
You can click the link here to read about Kent Wildlife Trust’s vision for a Wilder Kent.