The wind and rain have been battering the aviary a lot this month, so the keepers have been kept hard at work carrying out regular aviary structure checks, keeping the hatch wires tight and tying down and fixing any loose panelling. With all these strong winds, the aviary definitely has a low groan, while still standing strong. Thanks to the strong winds and heavy downpours it’s been a month of aviary surprises. As you will see in the photograph, one of our release hatches broke at the hinges – just goes to show how windy it has been! Thankfully, it wasn’t a hatch that is regularly used so it didn’t cause any harm to the keepers or the birds. The hatch was fixed but will eventually be replaced with a new one in the New Year. Considering the aviary was built almost 10 years ago, it is surprising that it doesn’t have more wear and tear and, despite the terrible weather, it is quite clear that it doesn’t stop the choughs from having fun!
It has come to that time of year when colour rings start dropping off our choughs; this is most likely caused by the drastic change in temperature making the already long worn colour rings brittle enough to fall off. This in turn can bring identification concerns, but nothing a catch-up and re-ring can’t fix! If we can catch them that is. We have recently had a few of our adults fly into the aviary with colour-rings missing but thankfully these are some of our pairs and, therefore, it’s easy to know who’s who by identifying the other bird in the pair. We can just be thankful though that they’ve been lost and haven’t caused any ring-related issues. As choughs are relatively large birds, we use ‘wrap-around’ plastic rings which can, luckily very rarely, trap toes and/or claws; but in most cases, other ring options can have similar problems.
When a chough has its toe and/or claw stuck in a colour-ring, it doesn’t worry the keepers too much as this is a common occurrence for some birds. Furthermore, trapped digits are often more common in female choughs during the breeding season as their rings get stuck while they’re incubating. However, the birds generally manage to correct themselves without the keepers intervening. At the moment, however, we have a two adults in the flock that have their digits stuck in their colour rings, which we are closely monitoring. So far, they’ve not shown any signs of injury, but it may be that they will be caught up in the near future if the problem doesn’t naturally correct itself.
An attempt was made at the end of November to catch some adults with plastic ring issues; however, as ever, the adults outsmarted the keepers and flew away before they had a chance to set up! As we had arranged a ‘back up’ of other happy helpers to the aviary, we took the opportunity to catch some unsuspecting juveniles that let their hunger get the better of them by entering the aviary. So, five of the thirteen 2022 chicks were caught in the aviary. Although the newest additions to this wild populations have already been given names, we took blood samples from the briefly held juveniles to find out their sexes! The first five choughs caught, and blood sampled were: Willow, Liberty, Pine, Sallow & Birch. The blood samples themselves will take a few weeks to be processed and for us to receive the results. However, on visual observations, some choughs are more obvious through sexual size dimorphism than others. Male choughs are generally much heavier and larger than female choughs. On close inspection it became very clear that Sallow is a very large bird and most likely a male, it was the largest of all five caught. Portelet, a female which hatched in 2020, has been warming to Sallow of late and was spotted waiting outside the aviary for Sallow’s release. This brings great hope for a new pairing of Sallow & Portelet in the near future. Birch was quite average in size, however, but like Sallow & Portelet; Chewbacca was also seen waiting outside the aviary for its release so there could be another pair on the horizon. In the meantime, watch this space!
Jersey’s annual Great Garden Bird Watch returned some interesting results this year. Held on 5th and 6th February, Islanders were asked to spend an hour in their garden and list all the birds they could see.
For the first time in its twenty-one year history, choughs were recorded. Not only that, they were spotted on a bird feeder filled with peanuts, sunflower hearts, maize, pinhead oatmeal and millet.
A pair of choughs demonstrating how resourceful corvids can be. Photo by Robert Graiger.
After digging a little deeper, we discovered that some of the choughs have been visiting this garden since 2020. The photos submitted identified breeding pair Trevor and Noirmont, prior to that, we know a young female has also visited with the pair.
Whilst surprising, it is not unheard of for wild choughs to use bird feeders. There are a few of reports from Cornwall and Wales of chough opportunistically feeding from garden bird feeders. In each case including Jersey, the gardens are not your typical urban estate fenced-in garden. Trevor and Noir have been visiting property at Grantez which surrounded by grazed land (sheep, horses, and donkeys). From Grantez’s vantage point, you can see the entire west coast from L’Étacq to Corbière, both areas favoured by choughs.
Donkey-grazed grassland is not your typical garden view. Photo by Liz Corry.
The interesting information from this report is the type of food they are eating. Pinhead oatmeal forms part of the supplementary diet provided to Scottish choughs in Islay. Its not considered as typical wild chough diet, but does suggests there is something in the mix that the birds are looking for. We are hoping to carry out research into diet preferences in the near future. This exciting discovery is certainly food for thought.
Foraging further afield
As mentioned above, the choughs have been visiting Grantez. In addition to the garden report, the National Trust Rangers have seen choughs foraging near the dolmen on Grantez headland.
Choughs are also visiting Corbière, Les Mielles dunes, and potentially back at Crabbé where a pair roosted in 2020. The gun range, sheep-grazing, and now goat-grazing, provide great habitat for choughs to find food. Farm structures and cliff faces offer ample nesting opportunity for a pair looking to setup a new territory.
Someone looks very warm out at Crabbé on a cold February morning. Photo by Liz Corry.
We are also keeping our eyes peeled around Trinity again. There is a good chance Pinel might try to set up a territory again this time with his new female. The roost site used in 2021 is surrounded by horse paddocks which provide foraging opportunities and nesting material – choughs sometimes use horse hair!
Choughs have been visiting the dolmen at Grantez. Photo by Liz Corry.
Catch-ups with the choughs
We finally managed to trap the elusive Bo and Flieur in the aviary to replace their leg rings. I say elusive, but I could equally use stubborn/clever/annoying/uncooperative… This is the pair who always fly to the aviary with the others yet refuse to go inside when they know we are trying to catch choughs. Bo in particular keeps both eyes firmly fixed on staff. Flieur might break once in a while and tempt fate, but flees at the first inclination that the hatches might be about to close.
I struck lucky on Monday 7th when all thirty choughs turned up for the feed all showing signs they were hungry. Typically had to be the day I was working alone although maybe that is why Bo’s guard was down.
I replaced Bo’s missing plastic ring and swapped Flieur’s faded pale grey for something more obvious. It felt wrong. No one likes change. Flieur has been grey since she arrived at Sorel. Grey is her identity.
It’s also a really stupid colour to use in the wild in a climate where grey skies prevail. So out with the grey in with the mauve.
Flieur’s new mauve leg ring sets her apart from the other 2014 (blue) hatched birds. Photo by Liz Corry.
Storm damage at Sorel
The Island has seen its fair share of storms this year. February’s Storm Eunice and Franklin delivering devilishly strong winds (55-63 mph or 89-102 km/h). Yet somehow the aviary miraculously remains standing.
Choughs arriving for the supplemental food. Photo by Liz Corry.
The winds did create new rips in the netting and annoyingly re-opened ones we had sealed last month. Another trip to Sorel with the Henchmen ladder is in the pipeline. We have budgeted for new netting to be fitted later in the year. Hopefully the current net will hold out until then.
What didn’t remain standing was the Birds On The Edge sign at Sorel car park. Cue a phone call on my morning off followed by a spot of coastal ‘carpentry’. I couldn’t unscrew the sign from the posts to fit it in the car so the logical solution…saw off the posts! In my defence, they were rotten at the base, and we reused the wood at the aviary. The sign and fencing will be replaced by the Countryside Rangers in the near future.
It was like that when I got there your honour! Photo by Liz Corry.
Grazing returns to Sorel
Very pleased to see the return of the Manx loaghtans to Sorel this month. Perfect timing for the choughs who will soon need wool to line their nests.
The sheep have returned to graze Sorel and Devil’s Hole. Photo by Liz Corry.
It also means we should hopefully see the return of dung invertebrates (aka chough food) who depend on the sheep faeces. Not sure which made me more excited, the choughs foraging in amongst the sheep or the return of mating dung flies. If you haven’t already, please checkout our article about Dung Beetles for Farmers.
A pair of yellow dung fly making the most of the fresh dung. Photo by Liz Corry.
Avian influenzas confirmed in Jersey
Two wild buzzards have tested positive for avian influenza: the first confirmed cases in Jersey. This was followed shortly by the death of a red-breasted goose in the Zoo who also tested positive for the strain H5N1.
Choughs are considered to be at low risk of infection, and we do not foresee any major changes in how we manage the supplementary feeds. To reduce the chance of transmission between field sites and the Zoo, we have set up a disinfectant foot bath at the aviary with dedicated footwear. We continue to maintain high hygiene standards at the aviary and have separate footwear for in the Zoo and out in the field.
We will of course monitor the situation and consult with the States Vet if any changes occur.
At the start of September, a group of Durrell volunteers responded to the call for help at Sorel to remove bracken alongside the aviary and patch up holes in the netting.
Volunteers removed bracken at Sorel, ruining Dot’s game of hide and seek. Photo by Emily Hewinson.
The weather was less forgiving than anticipated with soaring temperatures and no shade other than the shadow of the choughs occasionally flying overhead. Fuelled by caffeine, cold water, and chocolate digestives they managed to finish the tasks in time for the choughs’ supplemental feed.
Sewing skills were put to the test on the aviary netting. Photo by Emily Hewinson.
The only real challenge that day was working out how many bags of bracken can fit in the back of a Dacia. Spoiler alert – its two. Which meant two trips to the burn pile at the Zoo as we had managed to fill four bags clearing the one tiny strip.
The project vehicle was put to the test this month transporting bracken. Photo by Liz Corry.
Having the holes in the netting closed up will allow us to start catching up choughs again to replace leg rings. We still have one youngster in need of a metal ring.
To catch a chough in the aviary first requires the chough to enter the aviary. Something the Jersey birds decided they didn’t want to do this month. At least not in front of staff.
We are hoping to setup a postgraduate research project next year that investigates the choughs’ use of the supplemental feed site with the help of RFID technology. From bank cards to cat flaps, the day-to-day use of chip reading technology is increasingly being applied to wildlife conservation and research.
We can potentially use the technology to tell us which birds are visiting the aviary, how often, for how long and what times of day, the list goes on. There is even the possibility of remotely weighing individuals and calculating how much food they take on, on an individual and group basis. The challenge is designing a setup suitable for choughs, their behaviour, and their environment. A perfect puzzle for a post-grad.
In the meantime, we are kick starting the study by finding out what size and shape antennae we could use to read the RFID chips attached to the birds as a leg ring. An off-the-shelf bird counter is available using a square antennae. Will a chough happily walk through this?
Instead of spending £800 up front to find out the answer is no, we are going to play around with hatch sizes at the aviary. They already pass through a 40cm by 60cm rectangle. Can they cope with 25cm by 25cm?
This means we need to spend lots of time watching, recording, and trawling through camera trap footage. It’s actually more entertaining than it sounds.
WildSnap! at Sorel
Speaking of camera trap footage…Durrell launched a nature connections programme in summer called WildSnap aimed at teenagers and their tech savvy brains. In partnership with My Naturewatch using a combination of Raspberry Pi electronics and Blue Peter magic, you build your own camera trap then go out and see what wildlife you can find.
The kit costs roughly the same price as a cheap bog-standard camera trap you can buy from the site that rhymes with Glamazon (especially if you live in a VAT-free country). Naturally we were keen to put one to the test and see how useful it could be on the chough project.
Image quality is equal if not better than a budget priced shop-bought camera. The design might not be the most robust, but it does the job taking video or photo.
For any non-teens who want to try building their own camera, check out the how to video below. Raspberry Pi products are widely available these days. Just remember to drop the ‘e’ when Googling!
Whilst staff attention focused on the aviary, the choughs decided September was best spent away from Sorel. Once again, Les Landes to Plémont became a popular playground as well as food source.
Portelet looking for food at Les Landes. Media by Jo Bramley/Jersey Wildlife Facebook group.
There were several consistent reports of choughs in the south west of the Island too. Enough to suggest a small group had made the visit their daily morning routine.
One colleague reported her delight in seeing the birds outside her window whilst staying at the Corbière radio tower. Quite an impressive view made even more memorable by the charismatic choughs.
Not so many reports from east of Sorel. It’s unclear if the parish of Trinity still has a resident chough or two. We are entering the time of year when choughs tend to disperse further afield. Residents in the other Channel Islands and the French coast should start keeping their eyes peeled!
The chough pairs have been busy at their nests. Wool, horse hair and moss were being transported between Sorel and Ronez Quarry at the start of March.
The few cold snaps, where temperatures went below 4°C look to have interrupted the normal progression of things and pairs were still moving nesting material at the end of March. We think that at least one pair began incubating this month though, based on pair behaviour at the aviary. Nothing is certain. As the following will show.
It might well be the Plémont pair that have been visiting the stables at Les Landes Racecourse. A friend sent a photo of a chough on the window ledge as she was mucking out. Nest prospecting, after lining material, or just popping in to say hello? Not sure, but it started a trend that week for horse-related chough news.
I found horse hair in the Sorel aviary on Monday afternoon (26th). On Wednesday came the report from Les Landes stables and, on Thursday, I took a phone call from a lady in Trinity who wanted to report choughs nesting in her stables. She had tried calling the day before, but the Zoo switchboard experienced technical issues. If she had got through, I would have been able to witness a flurry of twig movement in the empty stables and a shouting match between three choughs!
Choughs have been moving twigs around in a stables in Trinity as evident from the mess on the floor. Photo by Liz Corry.
We already knew about Bee visiting the Zoo and roosting somewhere nearby. Three days prior to the Trinity ‘battle of the twigs’, a pair was spotted feeding by Jersey Dairy late in the afternoon and I spent two hours after work the next day staking out the area to no avail. The next day, keepers spotted three choughs over the Zoo. Then twig-ageddon.
Jersey dairy HQ where two choughs were seen feeding this month. Photo by Liz Corry.
The Royal Jersey Showground is next door to Jersey Dairy and offers more foraging habitat for choughs. Photo by Liz Corry.
These must be the three choughs involved in the Trinity stables squabble? Exactly which three remained a puzzle. At least for a couple of days. Easter Saturday, at around 8am, I got the call that the pair were back in the stables. Having just got out of the shower, I raced over with breakfast in hand to….oh wait, this was now April. I can’t tell you until the next report!
We definitely have a nest at Plémont. As do the raven pair and peregrines. Talk about unwelcome neighbours! We are a bit concerned about unintentional public disturbance and whilst you can’t physically access the nest, you can walk close to it. A few reports have included that the pair fly out to defend the site when people or dogs have approached.
Plémont, home to a pair of choughs, adjoins foraging favourites Grosnez and Les Landes. Photo by Liz Corry.
As most of Jersey’s choughs nest in the very active Ronez Quarry, you would expect them to be used to disturbance. However, two cautionary points (1) this pair has never roosted/nested in the quarry and (2) disturbance is a regular 7am-4pm at Ronez with 1-2days off a week.
All we can do is monitor the situation and evaluate at the end of the season. There isn’t any signage at Plémont to raise awareness. Then again, it might just have the same effect as a sign over a big red button that reads “do not press”.
We’ve attempted several catch-ups this month to replace missing or broken rings. The choughs are understandably vigilant during the breeding season. That being said, we succeeded a couple times resulting in a surprising revelation.
Green, the ‘forefather’ of the Jersey choughs, paired up with Pyrrho at the start of 2020. She wears an orange and white ring combo. So, this year when the female turned up with only an orange ring we thought nothing of it. That was until we managed to catch up, check the metal ring number, and discover it was Vicq!
What have we learnt from this?
Green is really unlucky having now found himself with ‘wife’ number 4 since 2015
Vicq finally stands a chance at breeding, having spent the last two years in a female pairing
Never make assumptions where choughs are involved!
The other solved mystery involved two choughs sporting only a yellow leg ring. We knew that one was Dingle as he is busy nest-building with his partner Red. The other, once caught, turned out to be Jaune so we replaced her missing cerise ring.
Tupperware party @ Sorel, 3pm
We have phased out the use of ceramic dishes for the supplemental feed. I’ve managed to find suitable sized Tupperware boxes with robust lids into which I drilled holes (16-19mm dia.). The holes allow slender chough bills to get to access the food. Spillage, aka rat food, is stopped by the lid. As too is rain, well light rain at least.
New food stations for the choughs to stop spillage and limit thieving magpies. Photo by Liz Corry.
The choughs initially ignored the Tupperware hence phasing in rather than completely switching. Once confident they were not a trap, the birds happily tucked in. The containers are screwed into the food stands for stability and easily removed for cleaning.
Release aviary modifications
We have bought aluminium sheeting from metal fabricators Raffray Ltd. They have cut and bent to shape the panels we need to attach to the aviary to stop rats climbing up and getting inside. The order arrived this month and will be fitted sometime after Easter.
Raffray’s aluminium panels have arrived for the release aviary modifications. Photo by Liz Corry.
Rewild Jersey wheels
Another modification underway this month saw the project vehicle transform to Rewild Jersey featuring an agile frog and a chough. The new signage is all thanks to the design team at Durrell and Signtech.je. Fingers crossed we don’t scratch it on the brambles driving down the Sorel track.
Speaking of amphibians, the toads returned to the chough aviary in the Zoo (also known as SORG), and spawned in the shallow pond. Pond is probably too grand a term. Not that the toads seem to mind. The chough student, who services SORG each morning, has been keeping the water levels topped up and we now have tadpoles. I’m not sure which we will be more excited to see this year, chough chicks or toadlets?
British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) Conference 2021
The choughs fought off stiff competition to secure a poster presentation slot at the 2020 BOU conference. Then Covid hit and the conference was cancelled. Not to be defeated, the entire event was transferred online via Zoom, Slack, and Twitter and held this month over three days.
For those of you on Twitter, search #BOU2021 and #chough or @Corry_Liz for the six tweet poster presentation thread. The poster itself can be viewed here:
Choughs arriving for the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.
By Liz Corry
Ahead of the Island census next month we have taken account of Jersey’s chough numbers. We are missing several birds from the Sorel feeds. It is becoming increasingly harder to conclude that a chough missing at the feed means a dead chough. The chough in France is testament to that! However, the chances of them being alive are very slim if we don’t have any sightings elsewhere, there has been a long and consistent absence from Sorel, and/or their partner has re-paired.
With that said we have nine birds who have become ‘missing presumed dead’ over the last six months. This potentially brings the Jersey population down to 34 from 43 and one female in France.
Flieur looking a bit dubious about the makeover Bo is giving her. Photo by Liz Corry.
I have managed to carry out one catch-up to replace missing rings. We now have a few more birds with missing or broken rings. This adds to the confusion of who is present or not.
The situation at Plémont has been a bit of a mystery. Beaker has still not been seen despite the female, Beanie Baby, regularly showing up for supplemental feeds. Only one chough was seen at Plémont. Then towards the end of the month, two choughs were flying around. This coincided with Beanie Baby preening and foraging with a new male at Sorel!
We need to confirm which birds are at Plémont. Gut feeling says Beaker is no more, Beanie has found a new partner, and is having another go nesting at Plémont.
Beanie Baby (Green/Black) surrounded by male suitors. Photo by Liz Corry.
Another curve ball…the female hanging out at Corbière has not been seen in a long time. Her partner, Minty, has been at Sorel every afternoon for the feed. Here is the ‘fun fact’, Minty is now paired with Beanie Baby.
Choughs have been visiting the Zoo again. One in particular. In fact, of all the times we have been able to identify leg rings, it has been Bee or Bee with Pinel a young male. She visited the Zoo last year when she was paired with a different male, Mac. Whilst never confirmed, we assumed Bee and Mac were the pair regularly spotted around Trinity and St Martin.
Bee renewed her membership to the Zoo so she could visit the chough aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.
Mac has been missing for a while. Bee might be visiting the chough aviary in the Zoo looking for a new partner. There are still three single males in with the breeding pair. She might simply be looking for free food whilst away from Sorel. She has been observing the keepers and now tends to arrive shortly before a feed is due then disappear until the next feed. The Zoo choughs get three feeds a day.
Bee making herself comfortable on top of the Zoo aviary. Photo by David Mulholland.
Breeding pairs for 2021
We have ten pairs going into the 2021 breeding season. We only have twelve males in the flock, two of which are only one year of age, so ten is good going. Half the pairings are proven, having produced one or more broods in the past.
Hopes for a Trinity nesting pair now seem very slim. Plémont still has promise although unintentional public disturbance could be an issue if the 2020 nest site is used. As always Ronez Quarry will be the stronghold and the focus of our monitoring.
Observations at the supplemental feeds suggest the nest building or, for some, nest-refurbishment started this month. We think at least one female has started egg laying. Could we have Easter chough chicks?
Cappy in Carteret
Cappy is still alive in Carteret and starting to gain followers in France.
France and the Écréhous (foreground) are visible from Jersey’s north coast (through a 60x zoom!). Photo by Liz Corry.
Keepers managed to catch-up the three boys from the display aviary in the zoo and move them to an off-show holding area. This allows Tristan and Penny to start breeding without territorial disputes.
A very happy keeper (Cian) after a tricky catch-up in the Zoo chough aviary. Photo by Bea Detnon.
All three males looked healthy and were implanted with transponders for ID. All of the captive-bred birds have them. They will be exported to Paradise Park when travel permits.
A Jersey Zoo chough getting a transponder fitted under the skin for identification purposes. Photo by Bea Detnon.
Whilst travel doesn’t permit…
I have attended several online planning meetings over the past few month regarding proposed chough work in the UK. I tend not to mention them as they are quite heavy going, tedious things…
Sheep and choughs reunited at Sorel for the new year. Photo by Liz Corry.
By Liz Corry
January got off to a flying start. For the choughs at least. We, however, are still grounded in lockdown.
Jersey has experienced some outstanding days of clear skies and sunshine. The type that provides perfect flying conditions for choughs. Then we’ve had the horrendous downpours. The type that provides perfect conditions for staff and student to question their career choices.
Let’s start the year focusing on the positives!
News from Carteret
After a nervous few days of not seeing her, Yann happily reported Cappy to be alive and well. She is still in the same location. A good sign perhaps if she is confident with her surroundings; familiar with the good foraging spots and has secured a safe roost. We don’t really know right now. Counting down the days until we can visit. January’s skies provided teasing glimpses of French shores.
Coastline of France visible from Sorel car park. Photo by Liz Corry.
Coastline of Normandy visible from my neighbour’s garden. Photo by Liz Corry.
New year, new bling
There have been three attempts this year to trap choughs in the aviary to replace missing or broken leg rings. Third time’s a charm! We changed tactic for 2021 and sat in front of the aviary posed ready with the hatch wires.
The first time was inevitably going to fail. The birds knew something was afoot and refused to enter the aviary in our presence. Throughout the next week of feeds, observations were carried out from this position without any movement of hatches. By the second attempt the birds were a little more relaxed. A few of the bolder adults like Chewbacca, Lee, and Green went inside. Most of the group would then follow having seen the survival of the ‘sacrificial offerings’. Any sudden movement or unfamiliar noise and the entire flock fled.
Another week of undisturbed feeding meant that the third attempt trapped 24 of the 29 choughs present that day. It still meant a good thirty minutes of sitting patiently in the dead bracken due to hyper-vigilant Bo and Betty. These were two we needed but kept landing on the shelf, walking in and out of the open hatches, always keeping an eye on me.
Vicq was caught up to replace her broken Jersey flag ring. Photo by Liz Corry.
The weather on that day wasn’t as nice as the photos make out. High winds kept blowing the hand net back in on itself giving the birds the advantage. That said, we achieved a lot. Betty, Flieur and her youngster Iris had their missing colour rings replaced. Betty and Vicq were given fresh red and white striped rings as their existing ones had shattered. We swapped Portlet’s pale blue for a new style of pale blue that makes it easy to distinguish from the whites and greys of the flock.
Finally, Dingle was caught up simply because he was unlucky. Trying to isolate five from a group of 24 in a confined space is guaranteed to result in by-catch. All six looked well and had healthy body weights.
Away from Sorel
A few unidentified choughs evaded capture which was a shame as there are a couple of outstanding cases to deal with. Clearly, with a population of 42, several were absent from Sorel that day.
We are still seeing choughs in Trinity Parish, Plémont, Les Landes, and the south west of the Island. Rather worryingly, we no longer get reports of pairs, just of single birds.
Twice in one week we have seen a chough fly over the Zoo. The first time was in the rain. It looked rather laboured in flight and called frequently. The second visit was again on a damp, grey day. This time it was spotted taking a break perched atop a leafless tree by the macaque enclosure. It was, sadly, unclear if it was the same individual.
Beaker, one half of the Plémont pair has not been seen of late at the feeds like his female has. A roost check confirmed only one bird going in to roost. We need to continue monitoring this as it implies we are down a breeding pair and territory for the 2021 season.
There are growing concerns too for a couple of other birds which may mean we have lost two more breeding pairs.
COVID, and corvid, conundrum in the Zoo
One pair who have not changed are the Zoo pair. Tristan and Penny will want to start nest building towards the end of February. This means we need to move their three juveniles out before Dad gets, well, violent. No other way of putting it.
The default move would be to export them to the UK to join the captive breeding programme supporting the pending Kent reintroduction. COVID travel restrictions set the ferry option back until April and commercial flight option to a similar date.
Plan B then becomes holding them in an aviary at the Zoo until Plan A is feasible. However, thanks to the knock on effect of COVID postponing 2020 exports, and our breeding success of species with similar housing needs (e.g. hornbills) we find ourselves in a Battle Royale for aviary space.
There is a Plan C formulating – release the juveniles. Very much dependent on whether staff can dedicate sufficient time to ensure the best chances of success. Then we have the ongoing rat problem which would really pose a threat if you want to keep birds captive whilst conditioning them for release.
Rats caught on the camera trap at the aviary (for scale, it climbs half inch squared mesh).
A Jersey supplier has been found for the rodent-proofing aluminium mentioned in the last report. I’m not confident that this can be supplied and fitted in time before Tristan kicks off. Watch this space!
Another month coming to a close at Sorel. Photo by Liz Corry.
Fledged chough chicks joined the flock at the supplemental feed. Photo by Liz Corry.
Summary of the 2020 breeding season
We have ringed a total of twelve chicks this year from seven different broods. Three chicks have unknown parentage although I can narrow it down to three possible options. We also know that five chicks died bouldering or shortly post-fledge which brings the 2020 total to seventeen chicks. No doubt we would have recorded more if COVID-19 restrictions had not prevented us for checking in nests. In a way it doesn’t matter. The twelve that fledged and continue to fly around Jersey are the important thing.
Last month’s report sounded like we had a handle on which pairs had bred and which chicks had made it to the aviary for supplemental feed. We didn’t. Not entirely. None of the chicks had been ringed in the nest this year thanks to the pandemic situation. On some days there were numerous unringed, identical birds in the flock.
On 23rd June, Glyn opportunistically caught up two of the unringed chicks to pop on a plastic leg ring. Six days later I caught up four chicks with a licensed ringer including one Glyn had previously caught. We fitted them with the full complement of rings and took DNA for sexing.
Choughs very quickly wise-up to any catch-up plans. Repeated back to back catch-up attempts result in the birds avoiding the aviary. Which meant it took all of July (and the first week in August) to finish processing all of the unringed chicks.
As the month went on, we started to get a clearer picture on parentage. However, the longer you wait to ring a chick the more independent it becomes, i.e. feeds for itself. You need to see an adult physically feeding a youngster to know it is the parent. Of course, there is another risk with waiting. An unringed chick seen at the start of the month might get predated, fatally injured etc. and won’t be around by the end of the month. We certainly experienced that with Dusty and Chickay’s brood.
The twelve that survived bring the total wild population back up to 44 after the dip in 2019. We look forward to monitoring their progress.
One of the more memorable ringing events occurred on 16th July. I had completely different plans that day taking a film crew to Sorel along with a colleague, Dan, to film a piece for our Love your zoo LIVE event. As we arrived, I spotted an unringed chough in the aviary. Not only that, but it was also a new arrival. You can tell by their naivety when they are inside the aviary. Instead of navigating the open hatches and flying straight out they fumble around in blind panic if spooked. Trapping it and catching it up was super easy. There were no licensed ringers available at short notice to fit the metal ring, so we did the rest.
Dan was very excited especially when he found out he was going to be my glamourous assistance. I let him pick the ring colour with a caution of anything but pale blue or grey (hard to distinguish in the wild). He went with pale blue. Despite that we have named the chick Danny. The sexing result came back as a male just to add to the significance.
We spent two and a half hours filming out at Sorel that day. As expected, a lot ended up on the cutting room floor. Here is the video for those who missed it.
Zoo chicks take flight
The three youngsters left their nest box at the start of July. The first was out on the first! They look really good and follow mum to the ground looking for food. Still insisting mum feeds them, but watching and learning all the time when Penny is foraging for worms, larvae etc. We are lucky that the Zoo aviary is home to a few ant nests. As long as we time it right, we can turn over a stone and have hundreds of eggs available to the choughs. They just have to make sure they get to them before the ants have carried them away.
On of Penny’s chicks contemplating the big leap. Photo by Liz Corry.
Sexing results came back on the 17th confirming we have three males. Two firsts for the Zoo; three chicks fledged, no females. These boys will head to the UK early next year to join either Paradise Park or Wildwood‘s breeding programme.
Chough chicks fledge in the Zoo. Photo by Liz Corry.
Chough travel plans continue despite Covid-19
Beaker and Beanie Baby continue to visit Grosnez and Les Landes whilst roosting at Plémont. They even made an appearance at the Sorel feed on 28th July. Maybe supplies were running low over in the west?
Searching for choughs at Les Landes and Grosnez. Photo by Liz Corry.
Cliffs adjacent to Les Landes racecourse offer plenty of roosting and nesting opportunities. Photo by Liz Corry.
Someone is certainly enjoying the east of the Island. More reports from Les Platons, Bouley Bay, Trinity, and flying over St Martin’s cricket pitch. We have Dave Buxton to thank for the latter. Licensed ringer and avid cricketer.
The pitch certainly looks inviting to a chough with all that short grass. The question is what lies beneath? Juicy grubs?
Choughs have been spotted flying over Farmers Cricket Club, St Martin. Photo by Farmers CC.
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.
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.
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!
The grazing flock of Manx loaghtan sheep at Sorel have been confined to National Trust fields for the past few months.
The shepherds have been busy preparing for the lambing season, moving rams and ewes around Jersey.
Lambing season is now upon us.
As of last week, a large number have been allowed back out to roam freely between Sorel Point and Devil’s Hole. A reminder to our Jersey readers and anyone visiting, please remember to close gates behind you whilst on site. As you will see from the video below, sheep will be sheep. We don’t want them following you back to the car park.
And one last plea – do go and visit them at Sorel. Not only are they endearing, you get to see conservation in action too. Plus the science boffins have proof: Sorel sheep are good for the soul! Trust me, read these:
Flieur (grey over blue leg rings) a four year old female chough. Photo by Elin Cunningham
by Liz Corry
It was a wet and windy start to 2018 with storms Eleanor, Fionn, David, and Georgina all battering Jersey within a span of 24 days. Not surprisingly then, there is little to report in terms of chough antics. Even less in the way of photos since cameras were kept locked away in the dry.
Wind speeds, rarely falling below F8 throughout January, took their toll on the aviary. The poly-tunnel netting suffered the most. Constant rubbing along the metal poles wore down the threads and cable ties snapped. In some areas joins in the netting opened up or came away from the wooden frame and overnight a large split in the middle of the poly-tunnel appeared. Obviously reducing the effectiveness of trapping birds in the aviary if we had a need to do so. An ostrich could escape from that, never mind a chough!
Netting ripped open and posts broken as storm after storm pounded the aviary. Photo by Liz Corry.
Easily rectified by sewing and patching with extra netting, the tricky part was finding a day when weather conditions permitted use of a ladder for the harder to reach areas. Other damage has or will take longer to repair. Again this is because we are reliant on weather conditions favouring truck access to the site to take new timber and scaffolding.
As exemplified by this little incident on the one day it didn’t rain…
Toby from Ronez Quarry answered the chough SOS after the student’s 4WD failed miserably. Photo by Elin Cunningham.
Yes we did have 4WD on. No it obviously wasn’t working and we are eternally grateful to staff at Ronez Quarry.
My aviary and other animals
The aviary still functions as a supplemental feed station and roost site. As mentioned in past monthlies it is favoured by other wildlife. We probably have the complete compliment of Jersey’s small mammals visiting the aviary. This has pros and cons depending on your viewpoint. The owls and kestrels are very much in the ‘pro’ camp.
One afternoon our volunteer was shocked to find an owl flying around inside the aviary. As were the choughs! Normally we just find pellets. Earlier this month we thought we had stumbled upon a lost Damien Hirst masterpiece. Turns out it was just the neatly displayed insides of a rat.
We have also managed to film the culprit responsible for the defecation and destruction found in the keeper porch. Measures are underway to deter this behaviour.
We are experiencing problems using camera traps. A lot of the time they failed to even record chough activity. Fingers crossed we get more footage of the owl(s) if it or they return.
Camera trap photo taken at dawn of the choughs who chose to roost at the aviary.
Sign of the times
Despite the wind and rain the chough pairings are still clear to see. We are not far away from the time of year that the pairs start nesting. We are keeping a close eye on the existing pairs as well as the blossoming ones. Our two trios from last year will or have changed.
The death of Egg has forced Dusty to consider whether he becomes closer with Chickay or ditches her and starts afresh. Our young trio of Pyrrho and two wild siblings remains a close friendship. Pyrrho wants more. Will the young male feel the same this year now he is a year older with his hormones beginning to kick in?
Pyrrho (right) with her young male. Photo by Elin Cunningham
Who ewe looking at?
Apologies, but how else to entitle this section? The sheep are still confined to the field adjacent to the aviary. They started to take a keen interest in the grass surrounding the aviary but weren’t invited in! They have now been partitioned off to the next field. The choughs, however, make the most of the sheep’s field and the soil, dung, and hay there teeming with invertebrates.
The grass IS greener. Photo by Liz Corry.
The field gates are currently padlocked if you are to go and visit. Please be respectful of the sheep whilst they are up there: they are very friendly, but spook easily which tends to result in Usain Bolt sprints in all directions.
Advances in aviary design
Finally this month we have to thank John Corder, a follower of the monthly report, who answered a plea in December’s report. I had asked if anyone had suggestions for a more efficient way of building and operating release hatches. John linked us to a presentation made at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2016 conference describing the use of remote bird traps. These homemade traps incorporate remote central-locking systems used in cars and run off a 12v battery. A quick visit to eBay and a local hardware store soon had me set up to finally put my A-level in Technology to good use. The kit cost around £30. All that is needed now is to find a way of making it weather-proof and workable at Sorel. We hope to test this out in our zoo aviary first. Many thanks to John once again.
Efficient release hatches? We think not! Photo by Elin Cunningham