A challenging year for Cornish Choughs

After a successful 2016, with a fantastic number of pairs and fledging chicks, 2017 has been ‘challenging’ for the Cornish choughs.   An unfortunate combination of some breeding adults lost, young inexperienced pairs and predation, has meant the number of breeding chicks and fledging pairs have been lower than hoped. We have also seen low productivity due to a cool spring when eggs are laid and needing to be kept warm and a very dry period, affecting access to their food supplies.

Choughs also known as ‘digger’ birds, use their long red bills to dig in the ground for invertebrates but would struggle in hard dry ground to do this. Their next source of food would be via the invertebrates found amongst cow pats which proves how important in these times of climate uncertainty, grazing cattle on the coastal fringes is vital for choughs.

Six pairs were successful and most nests have fledged now. 14 chicks in total is still a pretty amazing result, although everyone involved in supporting chough conservation in Cornwall is aware that the population is not at a sustainable level yet and there is work to do to keep them safe and secure.  We estimate that there are approximately 30 adult birds currently across Cornwall.

Volunteers from RSPB and National Trust have spent hundreds of hours protecting and monitoring nests, those lucky to see the young fledging have been rewarded by glimpses of parents feeding their chicks and first tentative flights.

This is a great time to see good numbers of choughs in the skies as the family groups are now flocking together and are venturing further as they explore the Cornish coast.

If you see any of Cornwall’s choughs in the wild, please let us know via cornishchoughs@rspb.org.uk

Photo by Barry Batchelor courtesy of the National Trust.

Can choughs find a home in North Devon?

North Devon AONB as part of their Coastal Creatures HLF project, very kindly organised and funded a two day boat survey along North Devon’s coast to look for potential chough nest sites and help with our habitat assessment of the coast.

We are looking at how to encourage choughs that already come over from south Wales to stay more than a day or two, and wanted to assess what the nesting opportunities are as historic data on choughs in the area is limited.

Much of the North Devon coast is not visible from land especially between Lynmouth and Morte Point. Once at sea it was particularly obvious how unspoilt and undisturbed and beautiful the coast is. Calm seas and a RIB that could eat up the nautical miles made for two mornings of productive surveys.   Colleagues from National Trust and Natural England were also on-board which was helpful in understanding what the habitat and management was like on the cliff tops.

Western Atlantic hanging oak woodland clothes some stretches from cliff to sea in multi shades of green, hidden seabird colonies came to life, and incredible geological features reminiscent of a flaky pastry disaster made for an experience few get to see.  It was a real privilege and a nice change from land based survey work.

Over the two days, although we saw some very good habitat to support choughs with cattle grazing, pockets of arable and nice shorter swards, there were disappointingly very few places that shouted ‘chough nest site’.  No caves to speak of, few crevices that had potential or chough-sized holes in safe places.  With the sandstones and shales being in the main either unstable or unsuitable  it’s not going to be easy for choughs to recolonize – although they used to breed along this coast in the 19th century.

But, we have a plan…

Given good habitat and few nesting sites, we talked about building chough homes.  Housing issues are not restricted to us humans although choughs are easier to accommodate, they just need a box (albeit a specially designed box).  In Wales, choughs have been using boxes put up for them along the coast for decades and a good proportion of the Welsh population use them so we know they work if the choughs find them (and they do). Another benefit of boxes is that they can be sited where the habitat is suitable; often choughs nest in areas where they end up foraging a considerable distance away – a win-win scenario!

The AONB and Natural England have very kindly said they will look at funding to support this box initiative.  How to get them sited on the sheer cliffs is the next challenge.  Anyone know some intrepid climbers up for a challenge?

Thanks to Jenny Carey-Wood and Cat Oliver from the AONB for their support.

The choughlets are here!

I have been delayed posting this news for reasons to follow but what I want to start with is that we are pleased to let you know that five wild chough pairs have successfully fledged thirteen chicks to add to Cornwall’s chough population.   These are pairs from the Lizard to St Ives:

To that reason that has delayed us in writing the news of fledging….

…We are still waiting for one nest!  However, it is an unvisited nest site where the male disappeared at some point during the breeding season but the female is coming and going to the nest as if she is feeding chicks.  We have learnt that choughs will still go through the motion of each breeding stage and have no chicks to show for it.  We are hoping this female surprises us but we are still waiting and watching…

When we know for sure about this nest, we will post again the full breeding season ups and downs in more details.

Thanks to (in order) Dave Flumm, Paul Mason, Geoff Rogers and Sarah Measham for the above photos.

UPDATE:  Well…a few hours later a young choughlet said hello to the outside world. She did it! Some point in the middle of May after she had finished incubating, she lost her partner and gained a new one – maybe in a week!  A one year old male has done his best to bond with her and is now a step dad!

Total is now at 14 choughlets.

Thanks to Geoff Rogers for the above photo.

PLEASE:  If you see a young chough, give them space.  They are at a very vulnerable stage where they are learning about dangers and how to fly and feed.

Celebrating Cornwall’s specialty species – choughs and seals!

By Sue Sayer, Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust
(Republished From West Briton)

The annual Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) conference was held last weekend. Themed as ‘Working in Partnership for Nature’, inspiring talks were followed by field trips. Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) partnered with National Trust’s Cat Lee and Nicola Shanks from RSPB Chough Watch to deliver a field trip around Lizard’s Southerly Point looking for Cornwall’s specialty species – choughs and seals. Embedded in Cornish culture, it is obvious why choughs are a Cornish speciality – but why grey seals?

As a globally rare species, grey seals are protected by the Bern Convention, the Conservation of Seals Act and in Sites of Special Scientific Interest legislation. Whilst the UK has 38% of the world’s population of grey seals, there are surprisingly fewer grey seals in the UK than red squirrels, so we are incredibly lucky to have them on our doorstep and people travel from all over the world to get a glimpse!

If we want people to protect other rare species such as African Elephants for us then we need to protect grey seals for the rest of society and future generations. This is the role of CSGRT and its huge number of amazing volunteer citizen scientists who routinely survey their local stretch of the southwest coastline all year round for years. CSGRT is an evidence based conservation charity using research findings to inform policy and management by giving seals a voice.

This is exemplified by our Lizard team who we visited for the field trip. Alec and Enid Farr and Terry Thirlaway joined in 2014 and survey seals here every single day, all year round. Similar to the rest of Cornwall, seal numbers here appear to be stable despite healthy pup numbers suggesting that survival rates are low and mortality from anthropogenic impacts is high – which is worrying. It seems that the highest rate of entanglement for any phocid seal species anywhere in the world is taking its toll, combined with high disturbance rates and ongoing effects of marine pollution.

CSGRT have their work cut out to get their key messages out to protect grey seals: Admire from a respectful distance; always leave seals as you find them; never feed wild seals; never return beached seals to the sea; pick up all looped items from beaches and only eat sustainable, local line caught fish and potted shellfish. If you are concerned, call our partner organisation British Divers Marine Life Rescue (01825 765546) as they will assess and rescue injured seals for Cornish Seal Sanctuary rehabilitation and always report your seal sightings to sue@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk to add to our body of knowledge about our Cornish specialty marine species.

Photo by Alec Farr.