Chough report: September 2020

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!).

Chough report: July 2020

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.

Danny boy

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.

 

Chough report: February 2019

White died this month due to health complications. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

Where to begin? The start seems a good place, but this start begins with an end. Two in fact, maybe three. Following? You will.

Wild breeding population suffers a setback

We sadly have to report the death of two choughs and a highly likely third. At the start of February, White was flying around with tatty feathers looking rough. He soon started showing symptoms of a syngamus issue despite ‘clean’ faecal samples. At the same time we noticed that Mauve, his partner, was not being recorded at the feeds. It is easy to lose an individual in a large flock, but pairs stick together.

White began to deteriorate so he was caught up and checked by the Vet. It took two days to trap him because the entire flock are now wise to our methods. Once locked in the aviary it was clear he was in trouble.

His was surprisingly good weight for a sick bird, which in itself was a concern. He has always been a larger bird, you can spot him in the flock based on size alone, but you would expect a slight weight loss.

Worming proved futile and he died a few days later. Post mortem results showed that his airways had become blocked by plaques of pus that had dislodged in the trachea. Why he had the plaques in the first place is unknown.

Whilst all this was going on Mauve was still absent. By the end of February, we had to conclude that Mauve was no longer with us.

White preening his partner Mauve in 2015 – their first season together. Photo by Liz Corry.

Mauve was one of the original group released in 2013. She had an interesting start to her free-flying life in Jersey as recounted in several of the earlier reports. White was brought to Jersey at the end of 2013 and released in 2014. They paired up in 2015 and a year later they had chicks of their own out on the north coast.

Cold case: chough PP012

On the same day that White passed, I was informed of a dead chough found in a garden at Grosnez. As Mauve had been missing I naturally assumed it was her.

On Sunday 17th, members from the Birds On The Edge team ran a stall at the annual Seedy Sunday & Wild About Jersey event (see below). Within an hour of the doors opening to the public I was approached by a lady from Grosnez. Seeing Lynne, our volunteer dressed as a chough, reminded her – she had a dead chough in her freezer!

The next 24 hours in the story were filled with twists and turns. In a nutshell, the lady had found the dead bird on her property in September 2017! At the time she wasn’t aware of the chough project, but had carefully double-bagged the body with a descriptive note attached. Nowadays she regularly sees the choughs flying over her land and knows what they are. As we all know, time ticks on and we forget things. Until you bump into a lady dressed as a giant chough!

Clearly this bird was not Mauve. The chough in question was Carmine, a wild chick hatched in 2017 belonging to Q and Flieur. She was one of the juveniles with syngamus who we had trouble trapping in the aviary. Since she was never medicated she probably succumbed to the infestation whilst flying around Grosnez with her parents.

A juvenile red-billed chough. Photo by Liz Corry.

We are very grateful to the lady for preserving Carmine and reporting it as we now have closure on a case. We can add this info to our dataset which aids future management plans.

If you do find a dead or injured chough in Jersey please call 01534 860059 or contact any of the project partners. We can come to you and collect the bird. All of our birds have metal leg rings on with a unique number. This will tell us who they are even if they have lost their plastic rings.

Replacement rings

Replacing missing rings on the choughs is turning into a never-ending challenge. Not helped by the birds either not showing at the feed or not staying inside when we try to shut the hatches.

A plastic leg ring found in grassland near the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.

When White was trapped inside, I had the opportunity to replace Green’s missing rings. I could not fit the black gull-ring used with Green and the original release cohort. These need to be heated in hot water to open them without the material snapping; also tricky to fit one-handed. Since I was working alone without a thermos I made an on-the-spot decision. I fitted a black and white striped ring we happened to have in the ringing box.

These rings are normally used in the UK to identify a Cornish chough. As we don’t expect many of these to turn up in Jersey over the next few months I’m sure it will do as a temporary measure.

To get around the struggle of trapping the birds I tried the route of shutting the hatches after the birds had gone to roost. Fingers crossed at least one of the birds who still roost in the aviary would be a bird we needed. There were ten birds still at the aviary as the sun set. Two, maybe three, used the external roost boxes. The others went inside. The plan almost failed when the hatches didn’t close. I climbed the framework, silently cursing so as not to spook the birds, and manually closed the broken hatches.

Returning in the morning I was met with an interesting find. Earl and Xaviour had slept at the aviary. We thought they were back at Plémont having regularly been seen there before sunset. It now appears they are there for supper before flying back to Sorel to sleep. This finally meant Xaviour could have her two orange rings returned. Annoyingly she was the only bird in that group needing rings. We still have two Orange-right-only birds flying around. We need to see who if any they are partnered with to know who they are.

Potential new breeding pairs for 2019

Despite the sad loss of a breeding pair there is good news for the 2019 season. We have at least four new pairings thanks to the birds maturing. Zennor’s love for Skywalker is still going strong from the first moment she set eyes on him at Sorel last summer to a very exciting moment I can’t reveal until the March report!

Vicq, a foster-reared female has caught the eye of wild-hatched Osbourne. He isn’t even a year old yet, but it appears Vicq has staked her claim. And of course there is her clutch-mate Xaviour whose second year at Plémont may prove fruitful.

At present we have fourteen potential breeding pairs for 2019. I’m not sure how possible it will be for me to monitor them all throughout the season. I’m really hoping not to repeat the fiasco of last year when we miss-timed the hatch dates and were too late to ring the chicks. I may well be looking for volunteers.

Population census

The 2019 attendance record at the supplemental feeds has been relatively poor; around 60%. There are a few consistent absentees such as Earl and Xaviour who are spending more time back at Plémont. Other absentees have not been as easy to determine. The death of White obviously made us uneasy. What if we have lost more?

The dolmen at Grantez is one area choughs have been spotted this month. Photo by Liz Corry.

When possible, I have travelled around to known foraging sites to try and count the choughs. Of course to count them, I need to see them and I appear to be having issues with that. First off, Jersey’s potato fields are currently covered in plastic sheeting. In a way searching is easier because there are swathes of land where the choughs won’t be going. However, it also makes it hard to see anything when the morning sun reflects off the plastic.

Potato fields at L’Étacq covered to protect and encourage new growth. Photo by Liz Corry.

More fields near Grantez giving the illusion of water bodies when viewed from afar. Photo by Liz Corry.

I had a report sent in from one of the States’ rangers of two choughs in a field at Grantez one morning. Grantez is a perfect stop off for choughs with grazing sheep, a high vantage point to look over St Ouen’s Bay, two large fields grazed by donkeys, and a dolmen. Choughs love a bit of neolithic architecture. Of course, when I go up they aren’t there.

The same can be said for Le Pulec, Les Landes, and Plémont. All places I have had confirmed sightings this month. Fortunately we have a report of 13 at Les Landes at the same time we had 28 at Sorel. So at least we know we still have at least 41 choughs.

Not a chough – but perfect chough foraging habitat. Photo by Liz Corry.

Wild About Jersey

This year’s Wild About Jersey teamed up with Seedy Sunday a free seed exchange event. Le Rocquier School hosted the weekend with the Saturday (16th) dedicated to volunteer survey training for butterflies, bats, reptiles and the new Pond Watch scheme (takes over from Toad Watch). Sunday (17th) was the Seedy Sunday open day with various stalls, talks, interactive exhibits, and a guest speaker Alan Gardner, The Autistic Gardener.

Birds On The Edge had a stall staffed by Cris Sellares, Tim Liddiard, and myself. Conservation crops, a chough nest, and a dung beetle (soft toy) were laid out so the public could learn more about our work. I gave a talk entitled ‘Witches and Unicorns: how saving one species helps another‘. Trust me there is a link!

Drumming up support for Birds On The Edge. Photo by Liz Corry.

Not only did the event raise the profile of Birds On The Edge and bring to light the fate of Carmine, it managed to raise £1248.62 for Jersey Trees for Life. The money will be used to maintain and create more red squirrel bridges, across our Jersey’s roads.

Small mammal, big pain

Mice attempted to break into the chough feed-twice! Photo by Liz Corry.

The much ‘loved’ rodents struck again at the aviary. Droppings covered almost every surface in the keeper porch. Anything with the slight whiff of food about it had been nibbled including the first aid box! And then of course there was the ‘heavy duty’ storage box for the chough food.

Mice are smart. As evidenced by the fact the only place they chewed the box was the hinge – the weakest point. They didn’t succeed in reaching the pellet, but they did contaminate it with plastic shavings which meant it couldn’t be fed to the birds. As a temporary measure, I taped the hinge whilst I went to the local hardware store. It bought some time at least.

Plasterers metalwork is being use to add extra rodent-proofing to the aviary doors. Photo by Liz Corry.

With my zoo keeper thinking hat on I wandered around the store looking for an easy, cheap, will-fit-inside-my-Hyundai, solution.

Plasterers beading! At just over £2 a strip it made for a cheap and easy to fit edging strip to the door frame to stop mice and shrews from getting in. The metal work is flexible enough for a human to bend it by hand but sturdy enough to deter a mouse.

I also salvaged some builders metal work from the skip. Durrell’s HQ is currently undergoing repairs and the builders had just that week ditched some scraps. All I need now is for them to ditch their cutting tools as my Leatherman doesn’t fair well with the more robust stuff.

A metal bin has been donated to the project to stop the mice eating our supplies. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

Thanks to a charitable donation we were given a metal storage box for the chough food. The mice and shrews can only get into this if they work together to form ladder and flip the lid.

I wouldn’t put it past them. Just take a look at the camera trap image below from inside the aviary.

Spot the Mission Impossible mouse trying to reach the chough food. Photo taken using Moultrie camera trap.

Magpie-proof feeders mark II

A new design of chough-feeder. Photo by Liz Corry.

We now have another design of chough feeder in use at the aviary. The choughs successfully probe for food reaching every nook and cranny. Magpies are limited by their bill shape and length.

It doesn’t stay that clean for long and has room for improvement in terms of ease of cleaning. We also have to remember to screw the lid back properly.

I was lazy one evening, and screwed it back by hand. The next day I returned to find the choughs had freed the bracket and opened the lid!

Clearly their idea of slow-release feeding is not the same as mine.