Chough report: May 2019

Breeding success for 2019

At the start of May, Toby Cabaret and myself carried out the first nest check in the quarry. It took a lot longer than last year (4 hour). Along with more nests to check there was a small addition of a film crew.

Action man Toby being filmed for a documentary. Photo by Liz Corry.

Tune in around autumn to hear more about that. Back to the nests…

We recorded eleven potential nests including one new location thanks to Kevin at Ronez who had been keeping an eye on a pair. He is also the ‘guardian’ of Red and Dingle’s building and has successfully convinced them to use the nest-box rather than the hot pipes. The negotiations have paid off – two chicks were visible in the nest on 23rd May!

Chough chicks, only a few days old, in a quarry nest box. Photo by Toby Cabaret.

PS. the camera in the photo has been knocked out of position by the parents so we can’t monitor remotely. The box was accessed at a predetermined time under licence. These chicks were too young to ring this month. We will return in June.

Quarry staff also confirmed Dusty and Chickay’s nest had hatched and that Green and Black looked to be feeding chicks. The former cannot be accessed without some dodgy ladder work. We have to wait to see what will fledge. Green and Black’s nest can be accessed only if you have a hydraulic crane and Ronez generously paid to hire one as there are several nests that require it. On 25th May Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills was carried out. 

Kevin and new partner Wally (he must have a thing for hand-reared birds) have chicks. Her nest is one of the easiest to access and with the aid of a smartphone easy to check too…

Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills

We checked Green and Black’s nest first; 3 chicks! They looked about four weeks old. We decided it would be too intrusive to fit leg rings as they could prematurely jump to their death if disturbed so we backed down (literally in the crane). Mum and Dad were watching over us and went straight in to feed them once we left.

Lee and Caûvette’s nest also contained three chicks. Toby managed to manoeuvre the crane tantalisingly close to the nest, but we were short by a few inches. My finger tips could just about touch the base of the nest if I stretched and leaned out of the cart. Actually removing a chick safely from the nest (not dropping it onto the rock pile 20ft below) was out of the question.

A frustrated Toby drove on to the next site. This time with more success. We checked the nest site belonging to Trevor and Noir. Last year they raised one chick but it failed to fledge successfully. This year they had three chicks in the nest. Licensed ringer Dave Buxton and trainee ringer Paul Pestana helped process the chicks with leg rings, biometric measurements, and DNA sexing. Hopefully all three chicks will fledge in a few weeks time.

Licensed ringer Dave Buxton training Paul Pestana to ring a chough chick. Photo by Liz Corry.

An exciting discovery at the start of May was finding out who was responsible for the ‘Mill nest’. We watched as Percy flew to the top of the external nest-box and fed a demanding Icho who had been waiting patiently inside. When he left, she went back inside the nest and we could hear chick begging noises. Toby had reported hearing chick noises previously, this visit appeared to confirm it.

On the 25th, with the assistance of the crane we went to access the nest to ring the chicks. This was the last nest to be checked that day and had been surprisingly quiet. As we slowly rose closer to the nest  entrance the only sound to be heard was that of the crane’s motor. Looking inside all we found were three cold, unhatched eggs. The nest had failed and the parents had abandoned.

A check of Percy and Icho’s nest found the chick to be missing and the remaining eggs had not hatched. Photo by Liz Corry.

I can’t end this section without talking about Tony’s mad crane skillz (with a ‘z’ like all the cool kids, sorry kidz). We wanted to check the building Kevin had been keeping an eye on. The day before Operation Test-out-Toby’s-crane-driving-skills (sorry skillz), Toby had spotted where the nest was located inside the building. Accessing it definitely required the crane. The trouble was how do we get the crane to the site with the various gangways and structures in the way. With mere millimetres to spare Toby drove the crane through the obstacle course and started taking us up. Removing the chicks from the nest safely was questionable as it required a fair bit of stretching. However, the dilemma was solved by taking a photo of the nest – the chicks were way too young to fit leg rings. And Toby had to tackle the obstacle course once again, this time in reverse!

The people on the ground managed to get a good glimpse of the leg rings on one of the parents. It was Pyrrho. We believe she is partnered with Skywalker. We give them another four weeks or so to see what leaves the nest. May the force be with them!

The Plémont family

There have not been many opportunities to monitor the Plémont nest. What we have seen has all been positive. Paul Pestana has kindly volunteered his free afternoons to keep an eye on them and has experienced a few cherished moments. Like watching Earl remove a faecal sac from the nest. To some, gross. To others, a happy sign that there must be a chick in the nest to produce the faeces in the first place!

Typical habitat to the east of Plémont – home to a pair of choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

As the days passed and the chick(s) got older you could hear begging noises coming from the cliffs. Only of course if there was little to no wind and you were prepared to get perilously close to a cliff edge. By the end of May this nest was not far from fledging. If and when they do, we will need to monitor the site as closely as possible. The headland is accessible by the public who may pose a threat to bumbling fledglings, the nesting peregrine pair certainly pose a threat, and the steep plummeting drop to the rocky seas below…well that is all part and parcel of being a chough!

Catch-ups at the aviary

There have been several catch-ups at the aviary this month mainly due to health reasons. Two of the breeding females, Caûvette and Wally, managed to get their hind toes caught in their plastic leg rings. As has become the norm, it took a few attempts to get each female. Luckily no injuries had been sustained making it a simple case of unhook toe, refit ring, and release bird.

Wally was one of two adults needing to be caught this month to free their hind digit caught in their leg ring. Photo by Liz Corry.

Chewbacca was also looked at in the hand after presenting signs of lameness and general lethargy. Clinical diagnosis – attention seeking. That may be an unfair assumption he could have just been run down. Although the ‘lameness’ suspiciously swapped each day between left and right. Personally, it looked more like he was playing the ‘oh woe is me card’ at the supplemental feed resulting in more food being thrown his way. Remind me again, is it the choughs that are trained or the keepers?

Zoo chicks

Tristan and Penny’s eggs hatched at the start of May. As with all corvids it can take a day or two between eggs, so keepers had to wait a week before knowing how many chicks would hatch. Only one egg didn’t make it, leaving the parents with three hungry mouths to feed.

Everything was going well, both parents very attentive, until one day Tristan turned. Keepers watching the nest-camera footage could see that one of the chicks had died. Mum carried on feeding the remaining two chicks with the dead one left in the nest. Tristan started being aggressive towards Penny each time he returned to the nest to the point he was endangering both chicks and mum.

Keepers caught up Tristan and moved him to a separate aviary. They discovered he weighed 400g. Considering captive males normally weigh around 350g this may have been a clue to why he was behaving as he was. With some species, if the male takes on too much protein during the nesting season they become ‘randy’ for want of a better word. Eager to keep breeding even when the female has chicks which results in aggression often directed at the female and/or chicks. He might have been trying to tell Penny to get rid of the dead chick. We will never really know. Keepers are always trying to second guess their animals acting as chef, interior designer, GP, and psychologist on a daily basis.

Continued work at the aviary

The boring stuff – there are still several jobs that need to be done at the aviary. Net trimming, replacing rodent-proof mesh around doors and hatch frames, and replacing the fixtures removed when the old timber was ripped out. A lot of these require working at height with power tools therefore a second person and special ladders are essential for health and safety. By the end of May these jobs were still outstanding as it has been difficult to fulfil the H&S requirements.

Not helped by the additional job of net repairs. Deja vu? Yes, rodents have chewed holes in the brand-new netting. Apologies for any walkers at Sorel and beyond who heard my cursing that day. In just one night, eighteen small holes were chewed into the new netting along the north facing side of the tunnel. Whilst waiting for the guttering to be transported back up to the aviary another two holes appeared overnight on the other side of the tunnel. The guttering, unsightly as it is, is now back on preventing the rodents from reaching the netting from the outside. There is also a large hole in the middle partition at ground level. I suspect a rodent had become trapped inside the aviary when the rebuild happened and chewed their way out.

It is getting harder to capture the entire flock in one shot these days – a sure sign of success. Photo by Liz Corry.

Volunteer request

An advert went out asking for a volunteer to help with the gardening at the aviary. During the spring and summer months the grass in and around the aviary needs cutting on a weekly basis.

The bank around the perimeter also needs maintaining for the benefit of the wildlife and to keep the path for staff accessible. There is a considerable drop on one side that becomes hidden when the bracken grows up. One step the wrong way and it’s an undignified fall into bramble and blackthorn.

Volunteer needed for vegetation clearance at aviary. Sheep need not apply. Photo by Liz Corry.

Despite hay fever allergies I enjoy this job, but it does demand time and with no student placement this year I am finding it hard to keep on top of it. Several people have shown interest in the position, few can commit on a regular basis. Hopefully by June we will have found a suitable volunteer.

Private donors

We are very grateful to the De Lancey Foundation who gave a generous donation towards the running of the chough project. In return, a group from their board of trustees had a private tour of Sorel and our facilities. Their passion for conservation and knowledge on the subject was evident as we discussed the challenges faced and the achievements made to date. The Foundation is also supporting the head-starting of Jersey’s agile frogs at the Zoo.

Last but not least

A colleague took his young family to Sorel to see the choughs and Manx loaghtans. His son, a huge fan of the computer game Minecraft (no me neither), was inspired to create his very own red-billed chough character for the game. I think this has to be a world first! Well done Sam. Watch this space for the development of more Birds On The Edge characters.

A Minecraft chough created by Sam Wright after his visit to Sorel.

 

 

Chough report: June 2019

Plémont bay – a new territory for the choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

By Liz Corry

A lot of ups and downs this month for the Channel Island choughs; literally in some cases! The nests have fledged with some surprising outcomes. Whilst the chicks were escaping their nests, I escaped the Island to Slovenia to talk all about choughs to Germans. 

Rewilding Plémont

In a first, on record, a wild-hatched chough has fledged at Plémont! The pair responsible were on their second season of trying and are the first to successfully breed away from Sorel.

The success is largely due to the pair’s ability to find food in the wild. They have not been seen at the supplemental feeds for a long time implying they don’t need it. Instead they forage around Plémont, Grosnez, and Les Landes. 

Research by BirdWatch Ireland showed choughs in Donegal have a preference of wind-swept, maritime grassland within a 1 km range from the nest. Petit Plémont headland matches this description perfectly. In addition, the wonderful restoration work of the derelict Pontins site by the National Trust for Jersey a few years ago has really paid off.

The Plémont chick is a fast learner. It even picked up some cave art skills! Photo by Liz Corry.

It has been quite challenging to keep up with the youngster. When first bouldering outside of the nest it would hide behind rocks when mum and dad were off finding food. We didn’t manage to get any clear photos of it at this age. 

Born into the wind, the chick was quick to develop its flying skills. None of this hanging around the quarry clinging to the safety of girders and stairways.

There have been a few sightings of the family at Plémont. We probably won’t be able to give the chick an identity (leg rings, DNA sexing) until they start returning to the Sorel feeds. If they return!

The ones that got away

We returned to the quarry on 4th June to ring chicks too young to ring when we visited last month. The first nest belonged to Red and Dingle using a box in the asphalt plant. You may remember they had two young chicks. Now there were three!

Licensed ringer Dave Buxton discovered three chicks in the nest- box. Photo by Liz Corry.

The newcomer was 23 grams lighter than it’s siblings. Having hatched last, it had time to catch up. On 25th June the quarry reported all three chicks had fledged with parents attentive as ever.

Staff soon began to realise one of the chicks was in trouble. Whilst two had positioned themselves on the purlins of the building, the third was out and exposed to the risk of mechanical harm. Staff left doors to the building open hoping the parents would encourage the chick back to safety. Apparently the parents were shouting at it quite a lot; one assumes that is what they were trying to do!

Onsite CCTV allowed staff to keep watch on the chick; it appeared to be doing ok. After two days it wasn’t moving – at all. Sadly it had died. A post-mortem revealed a healed fracture in one wing. An underlying reason for its restricted movements around the asphalt plant? The interesting find was that this wasn’t the ‘runt’, but one of the older, larger chicks.

Choughs are full of surprises. When we went to ring Kevin and Wally’s brood on the 4th we found they had lost a chick pre-fledge. Disheartening as it was they had made up for it in size. They were huge! We remembered tiny, half-naked things. These were fully-feathered beasts. I’m pretty sure there is no literature on choughs feeding protein shakes to their chicks. We certainly didn’t find a nutribullet secreted in the building framework. Whatever they’ve been fed, the chicks survived and by the end of the month they were frequenting the Sorel aviary.

One of Kevin and Wally’s chicks having leg rings fitted. Photo by Liz Corry.

Other fledging news

We are pretty certain that all the chicks have now fledged. Unless any undetected nests along the north coast wish to make a claim – please do so now.

Proud to say we have new choughs flying around Jersey’s north coast from six different families. Somewhat disheartening to know there were broods or individuals that didn’t make it. From what we have seen it is simply a result of life in the wild.

One reason for loss is inter-specific competition within the quarry. I had a joyous moment mid-June watching Green and Black’s recently fledged trio being fed on the east side – where we used to supplemental feed released choughs.

Imagine my surprise as watching through the scope I saw a herring gull appear from nowhere and pin down a chick by the throat. Lots of shouting and wing slapping ensued.

Surprise attack by gulls on the recently fledged chough family. Photo by Liz Corry.

A pair of herring gulls pin down one of the chough chicks by the throat. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

A second gull joined in as did all the choughs in the quarry at the time. The chick managed to escape although I imagine it sustained injuries. Since that day we have only seen the parents with one chick.

The gull’s actions were not fully unjustified. They had a chick about two metres away from where the chough family had been hanging out. They were just doing their job of being good parents. With more choughs and increasing numbers of gull nests we are likely to see more of this behaviour.

Taken several days after the attack, this cute ball of fluff explains what the fight was about. Photo by Liz Corry.

An interesting anecdote from this event was how the other choughs reacted. They didn’t physically attack the gulls (a couple tried) it was more of an audible attack. Once the fighting stopped and one gull returned to their nest, the choughs stayed with the chough family almost like a standoff.

When it looked like matters had calmed down the choughs began breaking away going about their business. One pair returned to their nest in the lower quarry. Choughs truly are a social species.

Zoo chicks

Thankfully choughs raised in the zoo do not need concern themselves with gulls, peregrines, or dangerous rock-crushing machinery. Just their dad!

Tristan remained separated from Penny and the two chicks throughout June. The chicks look really well and have now fledged. We will look at moving Tristan back soon along with Gianna for the summer. 

Dobrodošli v Sloveniji ⁄ Welcome to Slovenia

I was invited to talk at Monticola’s annual meeting held, this year, in the Julian Alps, Slovenia from 11th to 16th June. Monticola is an association of amateur and professional ornithologists specialising in alpine species.

The Julian Alps in Slovenia were once home to red-billed choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.

This year’s focus was to discuss the feasibility of reintroducing red-billed choughs to Slovenia. Red-billed choughs disappeared mid-twentieth century from Slovenia (yellow-billed choughs are still numerous). Hunting is attributed to much of the loss. Change in land use and effects of pesticides and/or cattle worming are likely to be the other major players. A large proportion of alpine pastures in the Julian Alps have been lost to the encroaching commercial forest.

Caûvette the chough surveying the habitat. Photo by Liz Corry.

Various day time excursions were planned along with evening talks. Members of BirdLife Slovenia (DOPPS) talked about their work and joined me for a scary panel discussion on reintroducing the chough. I say scary, not because of the stature or responsibility being on this panel. Rather because it was in German…and Slovenian!

Tomaz Mihelic, BirdLife Slovenia, gave talks about monitoring and conservation of various Slovenian species. Photo by Liz Corry.

 

BirdLife Slovenia don’t just work with birds. Photo by Liz Corry.

Monticola members are mainly German or Swiss-German. To add to the fun, the German for red-billed chough is Alpenkräuhe which is not the same as the Alpine chough known in English as yellow-billed choughs.

Promo material handed out to Monticola members. Photo by Liz Corry.

Thankfully I had the lovely Johannes and Arnette Denkinger who took me under their wing. Johannes had invited me to speak after reading about Birds On The Edge. It has been his passion for many years to see the return of the red-billed choughs to the eastern Alps.

Birdlife Slovenia did not appear to be against the idea, but raised the realistic challenge of limited resources and existing government priorities. Using evidence from Jersey, and Durrell’s ethos, we all agreed there was scope to create a similar project to Birds On The Edge in Slovenia whereby the focus is restoring alpine pastures. Support is already there within the German zoo community where a captive-breeding programme has been initiated. Tiergarten Nuernburg are leading the work and have invested in habitat feasibility studies.

At the end of the day this needs the people of Slovenia to be behind it. A challenge Johannes is prepared to take on!

Caûvette the chough taking a break at Lake Bohinji. Photo by Liz Corry.

Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards 2019

Congratulations to Birds On The Edge partner the National Trust for Jersey who were awarded runner’s up prize for their conservation meadow at The Elms. The winners were SCOOP The Sustainable Cooperative for their soon to launch ‘Re-Wild my Plate’ initiative.

Glyn Young presenting Kaspar Wimberley of SCOOP with first prize at this years Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards.

Glyn Young was one of the judges and presented the awards at a ceremony held at the Pomme D’or Hotel. I gave a short presentation explaining how we spent last year’s award money supporting the chough project. We must state for the record there was no vote rigging! 

Chough report: April 2019

By Liz Corry

Breeding out on the north coast has been in full swing this April. Thirteen nest sites have been recorded, two of which are new. We have a new site within the quarry and for the first time a nest-box installed along the north coast is seeing action. Sadly it looks like a territory in the south-west of the Island has been lost, but with 13 of our 15  males in action things are still looking good.

A pair of choughs copulating at the start of April. Photo by Liz Corry.

Ronez: same sites, different pairs

Working closely with Ronez Quarry staff we have been able to record eleven nests on their property.

Ronez Quarry pit (using a lens filter before you ask). Photo by Liz Corry.

It does look like we have lost Bean and males Q and Duke. Their ‘other halves’ are using the same nest sites they had last year this time with new partners.

All nest-boxes installed in the quarry are now being used and show promise. With help from quarryman Kevin Le Herrisier, Red and Dingle have been encouraged to nest in a box rather than on the hot pipes that cooked their eggs for the past two seasons.

A nest-box installed in the quarry to support the breeding population. Photo by Liz Corry.

Two external boxes are once again in use and are already having more success (now that they’ve evicted the kestrel). One of these boxes is being used by wild-hatched Percy and Icho who was released in 2014.

The really exciting news came from Toby Cabaret, Assistant Operations Manager. He reported hearing chick noises from the box. Considering it took a hydraulic crane to put the box up in the first place, Toby was a little unsure of what he was actually hearing.

You talking to me? Photo by Liz Corry.

I spent an hour observing the nest site from the newly installed viewing platform in the lower quarry. Accompanied by an inquisitive gull, I watched as Percy made four visits to the nest-box within a fifty minute period.

Either Icho is one demanding female or they have chicks. This was on the 11th which meant Jersey’s choughs had started early!

North coast nests

Once again, Earl and Xaviour are nesting out at Plémont. Visitors to Plémont Beach cafe are having regular flypasts if they spare the time to look up from their all-day breakfasts. This is the first nest site away from the quarry and is susceptible to human disturbance. The public cannot access the nest itself, but they can access the headland above even though part of it falls within the Seabird Protection Zone in place March to July. Low tide fishermen, walkers, drone users, and a gentleman in red speedos who takes a folding chair out to the furthest point on a regular basis so he can sunbathe  – the downside to having a good spotting scope – have been noted in the vicinity.

This has not deterred the pair from nesting, in fact we believe Xaviour is incubating eggs. The concern will be around fledging time when chicks are vulnerable and learning to forage on that particular headland.

As well as this natural nest site, we have nest-boxes along the cliffs stretching from Sorel to Devil’s Hole. One of these has been destroyed by rockfall (hopefully not with birds inside). Another has been used for the first time as an actual nest rather than rain shelter. Vicq, one of our foster-reared girls and now fully fledged ‘cougar’, has taken a shine to one year old Osbourne. As  Ronez’s CEO namesake, I guess he was destined to be the first of the 2018 wild-hatched choughs to pair up.

Osbourne taking an interest in what Vicq is doing inside the nest-box. Photo by Liz Corry.

When Vicq and Osbourne were seen for the first time using the box they were very attentive. They had already built the nest. Vicq was clearly very busy inside whilst Osbourne maintained a supervisory role (or didn’t have a clue what was happening). The next day they were still visiting the box albeit less frequently. A visiting student, Rachel Owen, observed the nest for a set time each day for the following week. Nothing! Not a single visit to the box by a chough. Vicq‘s first nest had failed; certainly one to keep an eye on next year.

South-west losses

Another failure this year has been the nest in the south-west of the Island. In fact the pair have not been seen at all this season by staff at Simon Sand & Gravel Ltd. I was beginning to get paranoid having visited the area a few times this year on a chough hunt and returned unsuccessful.

Student Rachel Owen, who was staying with friends in Corbière, spent two mornings walking the coastal path from Gorselands to the sand dunes. Again no choughs. Several other corvids around to test her ID skills, but clearly the pair who tried holding down a territory in this area last year have abandoned. Pleased to say Rachel stayed upbeat about it despite the miles she covered on foot.

Rachel Owen spent a week in Jersey working with the choughs as part of her studies. Photo by Rachel Owen.

Whilst we have no strong scientific data, we do know the pair returned every day to Sorel throughout 2018 to get food before roosting back in the south-west. Compare that to the Plémont pair and you can’t help thinking that the south-west provides a poor food resource. The other factor to consider is the unintentional human disturbance. The number of visitors to Corbière and the dunes meant the choughs were constantly moving around whilst foraging.

The sad news is that the female, Mary, has not been seen since the start of February. Partner Bo had a similar attendance record until we discovered he had just been incognito. He was one of two individuals we reported on last month for having identical leg rings. Bo is currently nesting in the quarry with a different female.

Pastures new

There have been several confirmed reports of choughs exploring the north-east of the Island. On the first Sunday in April, Glyn Young watched a pair fly between la Saie and le Coupe Bays. About an hour earlier, one of our keepers living near the zoo had spotted them flying in Glyn’s direction. The following weekend, a local birder recorded a pair near Anne Port, briefly stopping at Gorey Castle before heading west. The weekend after that I was alerted by a distinct call coming from the skies above my house! Two choughs meandering along on the thermals above Rozel Valley.

Are these weekend visitors? Presumably the same pair, if so which? To add to the mystery, another Durrell colleague reported four flying over her house east of the zoo on a Tuesday morning.

I contacted Jersey Heritage regarding the sighting at Gorey castle. To a pair of passing choughs, the 800-year old building offers numerous potential nesting opportunities.  A volunteer guide at the castle witnessed the same visit, but nothing else before or after. It doesn’t necessarily mean that is the end of the story.

There are plenty of foraging opportunities in the north-east if you look around. Rozel Manor for instance has land grazed by cattle. Nearby there are two smallholdings with pigs which get rotated around (field not pig!) so the land isn’t completely churned up. Plus plenty of large, horse paddocks as well as properties with extensive, well-maintained lawns. Providing pesticides are not being used there could be an untapped source of food for the choughs.

A “chough’s eye view” of the habitat around the north-east of Jersey. Photo by Liz Corry.

Sorel aviary ‘spring clean’

Much needed major repair work was carried out this month on the aviary at Sorel. We experienced a few setbacks in suppliers and contractors resulting in Durrell’s own Site Service team carrying out the work with a very short turnaround window.

We called in a favour with the Natural Environment team. States ranger Keiran drove the building materials and equipment to Sorel as we don’t have a suitable vehicle.

The States of Jersey kindly donated their time and vehicle) to help Durrell transport materials to Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Brand new netting has been fitted to the tunnel. Not a simple job as the timber framework it was attached to was rotten. All of the shelving in the tunnel has been replaced and most of the framework. It also meant that the hatches had to be removed, new marine-grade steel hinges fitted, and finally re-wired before fitting.

The aviary under repair. Photo by Liz Corry.

A metal pole has been installed running down the centre of the tunnel to support the hoops.

This was the original intention back when the aviary was first built, but never came to fruition.

Timber was used instead, which of course didn’t weather well and in certain places led to netting fraying.

 

There are still several DIY tasks that need to be completed in order for the aviary to function as a catch-up facility. It is, however, up and running again as a supplemental feed site and roost for those birds that need it.

Jersey Zoo’s breeding group

This year we have just one breeding pair of choughs in the zoo; Tristan and Penny (short for Pendragon). This is their first time together not that you can tell. They have made a perfect nest and began egg-laying on the 19th. Mum is tending to a clutch of four eggs with Tristan keeping her well-fed. We have to wait until May to see if they all hatch.

Gianna is still at the Zoo although now off-show in her foster-rearing aviary. We haven’t broken the news to her yet that we want the other pair to parent-rear their own chicks. Gianna hasn’t built a nest this year which is unusual. I think it is linked to the lack of attention she is receiving. The project has been without a student placement for several months now. Normally they would be visiting Gianna two to three times a day in addition to the keeper visits.

Any other business….YES loads!

April was definitely a busy month. To add to all of the above activities there have been several visitors all wanting to learn how the reintroduction and Birds On The Edge can be of benefit. Below is a summary although really they warrant separate blogs. In no particular order:

Author Patrick Barkham and his family spent the Easter Holidays at the Durrell Wildlife Camp. He managed to include a trip to Sorel where I could explain the work we do and show off the choughs. Inadvertently, Patrick helped with our data collection. As I stood on the cliff tops pointing to a nest-box and commenting on the lack of uptake, Vicq and Osbourne eloquently flew straight inside! Side note: highly recommend reading Patrick’s books, especially Islander and Badgerlands.

Vicq collecting material to build her nest at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

Jersey zoo played host to  the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Directors’ Days conference. Over 130 zoo directors travelled to Jersey for the three-day event. This year’s theme was around leadership in conservation and how to encourage the community to set ambitious targets for greater conservation impact. The Birds On The Edge project was therefore a fitting optional field trip for the final day.

On the same day we also welcomed two guests from the Scottish Chough Study Group – Pat Monaghan, University of Glasgow, and Amanda Trask (now at ZSL). We are assisting in planning a translocation intended to ensure the survival of the remnant Scottish population. Also supported by improved supplemental feeding methods adapted from the lessons learnt with the Jersey choughs.

The two groups met out at Sorel providing Pat and Amanda with a bonus opportunity to network with Scottish EAZA members! Watch this space!

Great minds around a table in a castle – the start of something epic? Photo by Liz Corry.

Lastly, I escaped the rock for 24 hours to attend a workshop at Dover Castle, Kent. A PhD student is currently assessing the feasibility of reintroducing choughs to Kent. Historically, the species resided across the entire south coast of England not just Cornwall where you find them today. Plus choughs feature heavily in Canterbury heraldry.

The workshop was an opportunity to get project partners and experts together to discuss the next steps. Our good friends from Paradise Park were present allowing for a quick catch-up. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the room driven by Kent Wildlife Trust‘s latest goal to develop a wilder Kent. Again watch this space!

In the meantime, watch this video and reward yourself for reaching the end of April’s report!

Chough report: June 2018

By Liz Corry

Breeding success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

How naive we were.

Fledged chough chicks reach the aviary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plémont pair

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars saga continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the force be with them.

Aviary maintenance

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

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

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

Supplemental feeds

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

Lights, camera, action

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

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

Chough report: May 2018

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By Liz Corry

Spoiler alert! Ronez Quarry found the first hatched egg shell of the year on 23rd May. However, there are so many more things to report about from May that we will leave that golden nugget of information for later.

Spreading their wings

Reports continue to come in from both the south-west and north-west corners of the island. The pair roosting in St Ouen’s Bay repeatedly foraged around Corbière Lighthouse, the desalination plant, and the sand dunes. And they are just the places we know about. I suspect they have taken a cheeky gander at the golf courses that lie to the north and south of their roost.

Choughs foraging by the old radio tower at Corbiere. Photo by Liz Corry.

Mary and Bo searching for found near the lighthouse. Photo by Liz Corry.

Looking at the hard granite around Corbière you would think it slim pickings on the menu for the chough pair. However, if you watch closely they are quite adept at finding tasty morsels. Take a look at this video for example. Not entirely sure what it is they have found, but obviously in high demand.

There is plenty of food on offer closer to the release site. Thanks to a local resident sending in a photo, we found a group of choughs hanging out at a ‘secret’ spot behind Sorel Farm. A horse field currently vacant except for rabbits, pheasant, swooping house martins, and aforementioned choughs. Short pasture, dung, and very little disturbance. Idyllic. For choughs at least.

This is a video of a few in a different horse field by the quarry.

The pair at Plémont are still going strong. They abandoned their nest in a sea cave and relocated to a crevice outside. We have not seen them at Sorel for a very long time. They appear to be finding plenty of food where they are. As the swifts start their summer residency in the same area we could be in for some interesting interactions. It is certainly an impressive sight to see the acrobatic flights of both species together.

Chough exchange

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On 22nd May four choughs from Jersey Zoo were caught up and transported to Paradise Park as part of our animal collection exchange. The birds travelled by boat in the Zoo van driven by our Head of Operations and a senior mammal keeper.

None of the choughs hold a valid license.

Gwinny, one of the four, has been with us at the Zoo since the very beginning. However, she failed to find a partner who shared her chick rearing aspirations. Maybe she will find her Mr Right in Cornwall.

On the return trip the van was loaded up with four different choughs, two Namaqua doves and a Madagascar partridge (pear tree to follow). They travelled on the freight ferry which meant a 4am, repeat 4AM!!, arrival in Jersey – a fog covered Jersey to boot.

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Two new arrivals to a fog bound Jersey at sunrise (not that you can tell). Photo by Liz Corry.

Two of the choughs headed to Sorel where they will spend a month in quarantine acclimatising to life on the coast. We moved Han Solo, Jersey Zoo’s male, to the aviary the day before they arrived.

All three looked to be in good condition. We discovered Han Solo had a new claw growing through suggesting damage at an earlier date. He clearly has not been in any discomfort so no need to treat him.

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A new claw growing out after previous damage resulted in loss of the old claw. Photo by Liz Corry.

The three boys will be housed separately to the free-ranging choughs during quarantine with opportunity to socialise (between ‘bars’) at feed times. In fact the first meeting between the two groups happened within minutes of reaching Sorel. Lots of shouting and displaying from the outside group at first thought to be directed at the newbies. After ten minutes of observations it became apparent they were just after the food locked away inside!

If all goes to plan the two males from Paradise Park and Han Solo from the Zoo will be released at the start of July.

In case any of you were curious as to the names of Han’s new friends…Chewbacca and Skywalker of course.

solo

 Let the judging commence

Capture

Judges visited Jersey’s short-listed contenders for this year’s Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards on May 23rd.

Ronez Quarry nominated our chough project for the work we do in collaboration with them to monitor and protect the wild population.

The quarry has been home to the choughs since the first soft-release back in 2013. This season we had at least eight pairs trying to raise chicks in the quarry.

Winners will be announced on 27th June. There are several awards up grabs with a total prize fund of £3,750. One of the awards is a People’s Choice Award worth £500. Social media voting will begin in June – get clicking!

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Insurance Corporation Conservation Awards judges at Ronez Quarry. 23rd May 2018. Photo by Liz Corry.

If we are fortunate enough to receive any money it would go towards providing an educational experience for school groups visiting the quarry. A chance to learn about natural resources, coastal conservation, and of course the choughs. Any remaining money would go towards covering the costs involved in ringing and DNA sexing chicks (approximately £18 per chick).

Ronez quarry viewpoint image

Ronez Quarry

Wild nest updates

If all goes well then Han Solo and the boys will be joined by several wild-hatched fledglings in July. The day the judges visited the quarry was the same day we discovered the first chicks of 2018 had hatched.

Toby Caberet had found hatched egg shell near one of the known nest sites. Using a handheld endoscope camera we were able to confirm a record number of four chicks in a single nest.

Four recently hatched chough chicks in a nest at the quarry. Photo taken under licence by Toby Caberet.

This is amazing news as this particular pair are first time parents. The chicks are very young. They have a further six weeks before leaving the nest and, as we learnt last year, that still doesn’t guarantee they will make it to Sorel. As long as the parents can find enough insects they stand a good chance.

All the more reason to rejoice in the next bit of news.

(St) Mary had a little lamb, and St John and St Peter…

This month the Manx loaghtan lambs were moved from the farm in St Catherine’s to the grazing site at Sorel. They are now old enough to roam the cliff tops. Still very vulnerable. Bleating can be heard far and wide from ‘lost’ lambs whose mothers are two feet away hidden in the gorse. Please remember to close gates and keep dogs under control. Any mountain bikers, be alert! It might not be a brown rock on the path that you are about to ride over.

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Ewes and their lambs are now out roaming free at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

A new grazing site in St Peter’s Valley has become home to another flock of Manx loaghtan sheep brought in to graze the meadows and hopefully improve biodiversity in the area. You can see them if you visit Quetivel Mill, a National Trust property open every Monday and Tuesday (10am-4pm).

Lambs are now out and about at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.

And finally, we couldn’t sign off without including the following picture taken by Mick Dryden at Sorel Point. A rare spring migrant to the Island, a honey-buzzard, flying alongside one of our choughs. I bet that was a sight no one predicted they would see five years ago!

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Honey-buzzard and chough at Sorel Point. Photo by Mick Dryden.