Author Archives: RayHales

35 years of Operation Chough at Paradise Park!

To celebrate the 35th birthday we thought we would take a look back in time…

Red-billed Chough at Paradise Park
Red-billed Chough at Paradise Park

In 1987 Operation Chough was officially launched. Much work with Red-billed Choughs had been done at Paradise Park and the Tropical Bird Gardens, Padstow (now closed), before this time. Paradise Park’s founder, Mike Reynolds, became very interested in choughs and the first birds came to the Park in 1973. They were captive bred and originally from Welsh stock. This date was very sadly also the time when the last wild birds from the original Cornish population disappeared after decades of decline.

Much of the early work at Paradise Park involved developing breeding methods and improving aviary and nest box designs. Although we preferred to have parent-reared chicks, this also involved hand-rearing some, which proved to be extremely difficult, but some successes were achieved.

Chough chick getting a health check
Chough chick getting a health check

Nest boxes were fitted with inspection hatches and cameras to monitor eggs and chicks – this proved to be invaluable.

Parent Chough feeding chicks on nest camera
Parent Chough feeding chicks on nest camera
Chough chick being fed and weighed by Ray Hales
Chough chick being fed and weighed by Ray Hales

We produced a ‘Red-billed chough captive management and husbandry manual’ and a version of this was published in Zoo Biology with lead author Dr Malcolm Burgess.

Back in 1987 we sponsored a five year long study by Richard Meyer on the feasibility of the re-establishment of the chough in Cornwall. As well as researching historic sites in Cornwall, he used chough populations in Wales for much of his research.

A trial release of captive-bred birds took place in 2003 on the north coast of Cornwall.

In 2010 we developed a partnership with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, where Red-billed Choughs had been extinct for over a hundred years.

Initially two pairs bred at Paradise Park had been flown to Jersey for the breeding and release project, and by 2013 a total of eleven birds.

First Class flight to Jersey
First Class flight to Jersey

Birds bred at Paradise Park and at Jersey Zoo were released over 6 years. Within 2 years they had bred in the wild and now there are 43 birds, about half of them hatched in the wild.

Two released choughs enjoying the Jersey breeze
Two released choughs enjoying the Jersey breeze

Our focus now is on establishing new release projects in southern England. We are working with partners in Kent (choughs used to live along the white cliffs of Dover), also the Isle of Wight and Hampshire coast. In the long term these have the potential to spread along the coast, join up and re-establish the chough in parts of England where it has been missing for two hundred years.


Chee-ow!
Chee-ow!

Nest Cam 2022

The Operation Chough webcam is back!

Spring has sprung and birds everywhere are starting to carry twigs and nesting materials at the start of a new season. Our breeding choughs have now been moved into secluded aviaries, and are happily building nests.

Click here for the live stream.

This year we have six breeding pairs. Our choughs are in great demand as there are exciting new developments for chough conservation underway. This could lead to releases, along with habitat restoration projects, in the UK in the next few years.

We monitor all the nests and choose one to show, depending on the activity going on at any particular time.

Chough Release Supervisor – Kent

Job Description

Job Title: Chough Release Supervisor
Responsible to: Director of Conservation and Rewilding at Wildwood Trust
Responsible for: Responsible for care, release, and post release monitoring of red-billed chough in Kent working with Wildwood Trust, Kent Wildlife Trust and other project partners.

Closing Date: 1st March 2022
Salary: £24,000
Printable Job Description .pdf file – click here

The chough reintroduction project is an exciting partnership project that seeks to restore a thriving population of red-billed chough back to Kent through multiple releases. This project aims not only to restore the birds themselves but for these charismatic individuals to act as a flagship for wider habitat restoration and engagement in environmental issues. This reintroduction will be implemented under a Natural England Reintroduction licence (already granted) and guided by a well-developed feasibility plan. We hope that through this project we will catalyse a number of further projects to enable the recovery of the chough across southern England. This is a multi-faceted project which in addition to the restoration of a lost species touches upon a wide range of issues including soil health, land management, cultural identity and ecotourism to name but a few.

1. Principal Duties

The red-billed chough reintroduction project to Kent is a collaboration led jointly by Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust. This role will be hosted and managed by The Wildwood Trust.

Oversee pre-release selection and daily care of chough sourced from the breeding programme, at the release aviary in the Dover area of Kent:

• Report directly to the Director of Conservation at Wildwood Trust

• Work alongside project partners at Paradise Park, Jersey and Wildwood to assess and select birds for release in Kent

• Work with animal training officer at Wildwood to develop and deliver ongoing bird training and recall for post-release supplemental feeding and management.

• Work with Wildwood Trust Senior Keepers to deliver daily care for birds in the release aviary, and with hand rearing as required within the release aviary.

• Work with Senior Keepers and authorised personnel to capture, handle, fit leg rings, electronic tracking devices and harnesses, and collect samples for health and disease monitoring as directed.

• Implement and maintain health and disease management practices at the release aviary.

• Collect daily records of behaviour, health and condition of birds and coordinate with Senior Keepers to evaluate management action where needed.

Implement and coordinate Post Release Monitoring and management:

• Implement and oversee red-billed chough releases in Kent working mostly in the field.
• Monitor birds post release using technologies including GPS tags and VHF transmitters in addition to visual monitoring of birds using individual leg ring identifiers
• Liaise closely with bird training officer at Wildwood to deliver consistent recall and supplemental feeding of chough within the release aviary and other sites as and when needed.
• Track daily movements of chough post-release using GPS/VHF tracking devices to evaluate post-release survival and dispersal. Collect field observations of bird behaviour, foraging, use of supplemental food, health and condition, dispersal, roost sites, and interactions. Collect basic field data of habitat types. Record, manage, and analyse data including GIS analysis of post-release movements. Desk space will be available at Wildwood although the majority of time will be spent based at and around the release area.
• Coordinate with Senior Keepers on health and condition of released birds and evaluate management action where needed.
• Provide regular reports on post-release monitoring.
• Coordinate with Wildwood Rangers to ensure appropriate maintenance and functioning of the release aviary.
• Coordinate site selection and installation of roost and nest boxes in the field as required
• Adhere to safe and lone working practices in the field as required.

Support project development

• Work closely with communications teams at WW and KWT to assist with filming requests and media interest related to the above project
• Liaise directly with communications team, fundraising and appeals managers to facilitate effective project communication
• Provide project information and updates for communication, interpretation, people engagement and education teams in collaboration with project managers at WW and KWT
• Attend the Chough Working Group meetings and regular project planning and implementation meetings with external partners as directed by Director of Conservation at Wildwood
• Work closely with chough coordinator at Jersey Zoo to review and expand existing protocols
• Promote Wildwood and the project partnership and licensing bodies in a professional and efficient way
• Provide presentations as and when required for project awareness and reporting for funders and stakeholders
• Work closely with public engagement and education teams at WW and KWT to facilitate community engagement

Work with land owners and the public:

• Coordinate and cultivate a positive relationship with the landowner of the release site. Adhere to agreed on-site access and working practices.
• Liaise with KWT and other project stakeholders to develop relationships with landowners and land managers to enable access for post release monitoring.
• Under the direction of Director of Conservation at Wildwood liaise with KWT Farmer Cluster Officer to build trust and effective relationships with White Cliffs Countryside Partnership and other land managers to promote chough friendly land management practices and conservation grazing.

Support chough research:

• Under the direction of Director of Conservation at Wildwood liaise with KWT and academic partners and students to assist in the development of pre and post release research and behavioural studies to inform the Kent and future reintroduction projects and to improve our understanding of chough ecology. This research programme will include but not be limited to: chough personality assessments; dispersal, movement ecology, foraging behaviour and success; breeding site selection and success.
• Promote collaboration with other researchers and practitioners working with chough and chough habitat to improve on chough management techniques in Kent and expand existing chough research
• Prepare research summaries for reports to Trustees, funders and licensing authorities as required

Supervisory responsibilities:

• Supervise and manage a P/T Kent Chough Release Technician
• Coordinate with WW and KWT’s volunteer programme to recruit volunteers to assist with post release monitoring of chough.
• Supervise volunteers in the field and coordinate volunteer data collection and management for reports and research purposes
• Oversee research students in the field

2. Skills, Knowledge & Experience

This post will ideally suit someone wishing to develop their career as a species reintroduction and translocation professional. We are looking for a practical team-player with a ‘can do’ attitude and a passion for the restoration of British wildlife.

Essential
• Educated to degree level in a relevant subject or minimum 3 years’ experience in the conservation sector.
• A sound understanding of ecology and conservation and an empathetic view of animal management
• Skilled at maintaining and developing relationships with project partners and with land owners and land managers.
• Experience in dealing with members of the public in both a proactive and responsive situation.
• Excellent communication and organisation skills.
• Confident and dynamic, flexible, able to carry out tasks independently, able to work effectively in a team context, competent in safely working alone in the field.
• Excellent written English and report writing skills.
• Have experience with remote monitoring technologies such as VHF or GPS trackers.
• Ability and experience of systematic collection, recording, management, and reporting of field data, and conducting simple data analyses.
• Be confident in bird capture, handling, and an understanding of bird ringing.
• Have a full, clean driving licence

Desirable
• Experienced in species reintroduction and post release monitoring (particularly with a speciality in birds)
• Experience in project management in a land management or conservation role
• Experience working as a conservation professional within the private sector, governmental or non-governmental organisation.
• Hold a current BTO ringing license
• Familiarity with GIS software.
• A demonstrable passion for and ecological knowledge of British wildlife and its conservation.
• Be competent in vermin exclusion and control methods if required
• Supervision and management of staff, volunteers, or students.

3. Other Considerations

  1. The post is advertised as full-time post on a rolling annual contract. It should be noted that there will be periods of high demand following the releases which may require weekend and evening working.
  2. Understanding of Wildwood’s role as a conservation body would be helpful.
  3. No person shall be treated less favourably than another on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, marital status, race, ethic or national origin, religion, colour, age or disability. As an equal opportunities employer, applicants for staff vacancies shall be short listed for interview and appointed purely on the grounds of their suitability for the post as laid out in the advertised job description.
  4. Wildwood operates a no smoking policy in the park and in its offices.
  5. The post holder will undertake additional project work as and when directed by Director of Conservation and Rewilding

4. Employment Package

  1. The salary for the Chough Release Supervisor is £24,000.00
  2. Normal working hours are a 40 hours per week. Due to the nature of the work you will be required to work bank holidays and some weekends. Overtime is not paid, but time may be taken off in lieu. The holiday allowance is 30 days a year pro rata, this includes statutory holidays.
  3. Wildwood offers access to a stake holder pension, details of which will be supplied on confirmation in post.

5. Procedure for Applicants

Applications

Application is by C.V. and must contain the following information:
• Name, address, contact phone numbers
• Personal Statement
• Employment history
• Educational history
You should include a statement of the relevant skills and experience that you believe you will bring to the job, paying careful attention to the requirements of the job outlined above.
You should give two referees to whom we can turn for a confidential reference, one of whom should be your current or most recent employer. References will only be taken up for those candidates chosen for interview or, with regard to current employer, on offer of contract.
Applications will not normally be acknowledged.
Applications should be sent to Laura Gardner, Director of Conservation, Wildwood Trust, Herne Common
Herne Bay, Kent, CT6 7LQ. Laura.gardner@wildwoodtrust.org

Interview & Selection Procedure

Interviews and selection assessments will be held at Wildwood offices at Wealden Forest Park, Herne Common by arrangement.

All go for 2021

2021 Nest Cameras Go Live!

The Operation Chough webcam is back! All the nestboxes have been fully refurbished and pairs of birds in their individual aviaries on 23rd March, back from their winter flocking enclosures.

We are breeding Red-billed Choughs as part of our long-term project to conserve and expand the species, which has been pushed to the fringes of its former distribution.

This year we have nine breeding pairs – four more than usual. Our choughs are in great demand as there are exciting new developments for chough conservation underway. This could lead to releases, along with habitat restoration projects, in the UK in the next few years.

We monitor all the nests and choose one to show, depending the activity going on at any particular time.

Click here to view webcam

Fostering and Feuding

Fostering…

Our five nests produced fifteen eggs. Eight of these have hatched and all eight chicks are doing well – after a couple of hiccups…

On May 10th, we noticed the third chick in nest five was very small (16 grams), and in danger of being pushed to the bottom of the nest by its siblings. There were four overdue (infertile) eggs in nest three, so we decided to foster the small chick to this nest. The female in nest three was still patiently sitting, and she was expecting to see eggs hatching. We gave her what she wanted.

Chick from nest five being put into nest three along with egg shell
Chick from nest five being put into nest three along with egg shell

We put the chick in the box using the hatch at the back – Ali was in the aviary putting in live food and distracting the adults. The parent birds both went on top of the nest box, as they have been conditioned to do.

As well as the chick, we added a piece of egg shell. This mimics real-life events, and the normal reaction of the female should be to come in and take the egg shell away. If she did this, we would know that she would accept the young chick as her own.

Female removing eggshell - Success!
Female removing eggshell – Success!

As soon as Ali had left the aviary, the female returned to the nest and very gently removed the shell. Moments later, the male hopped into the nest to inspect the new arrival and left. The female then came back in and started to brood the chick. Success!

The chick is now over two weeks old, and is progressing well – getting food from both parents, and gaining weight.

Feuding…

Events were not as joyful in nest two. On the evening of May 15th the male parent became very agitated and started to attack the female – and the three young chicks. Luckily, we had spotted this while monitoring at home, and decided something had to be done.

Male attacking female and chicks in nest two

It was getting dark, and soon we would not be able to get into the aviary without disturbing all the other nesting pairs nearby. However, staff were on hand (staying on site due to the lockdown), and got in quickly to catch the male. He spent the night in solitary confinement, and was relased the next day into the large polytunnel group.

On checking our records we found this male had done exactly the same thing in 2015 – on the exact same date – very bizarre!

We believe male choughs at this time of year are “pumped up” and ready to spend sixteen or more hours a day searching for food in the wild. This is something we try to replicate in the aviaries by hiding food, giving the males some distraction.

Nest Totals

Nest 1 has two chicks. One egg did not hatch

Nest 2 has three chicks. One egg did not hatch. Mister chough has left home.

Nest 3 has one adopted chick from Nest 5. Four eggs were infertile.

Nest 4 has no eggs.

Nest 5 has two chicks (plus the third which is in Nest 3). One egg did not hatch.

Total to date is eight chicks, most being two weeks old.

Fifteen Eggs

Fifteen Eggs – So Far

Our first chough egg was laid on April 9th. Since then four nests have been filled up with clutches of various sizes. Choughs will lay up to five eggs in a clutch, with sizes diminishing with age of the adult female.

Fifteen Eggs
Four chough nests with eggs

Nest 1 started on April 12th, and now has three eggs.

Nest 2 has four eggs, laid between April 15th and 21st.

Nest 3 has four eggs, laid between April 9th and 15th.

Nest 4 is still being constructed – there may not be eggs forthcoming.

Nest 5 has has four eggs laid between April 13th and 18th.

We know that our captive choughs (and probably choughs in the wild) start incubating full-time when the third egg is laid. This delays the development of the first two eggs, so as many chicks as possible can hatch together. This means they are of similar size, and have more equal chances of survival.

Using the 18 – 19 days of incubation estimate, our first chicks should be hatching on May 3rd or 4th.

First chough egg of 2020

Easter Eggs!

Yes the Red-billed Chough breeding season is off with Mrs No.1, the female currently featuring on our webcam, laying her first egg at 11am on Easter Sunday. They are a very reliable pair, producing chicks for many years, and are grandparents to ‘Dusty’ the first chough chick to be bred in the wild on Jersey after the re-introduction.

First chough egg of the 2020 breeding season

There are four other pairs, of varying ages and reliability, with nests right now so we will bring you news of these soon.

What strange times these are – Paradise Park is closed to visitors for the first time in 46 years. The Keepers are being brilliant in making sure that all the animals are as well looked after as ever, and with this warm weather the breeding season for many species is underway. We have started our first ever fund-raiser so if you can donate a small amount to keep us going through the covid-19 crisis it would be most welcome.

We have lots of stories about things going on here via Facebook. As well as the chough webcam, we have one that keeps on eye on the daily life of our Humboldt’s Penguins and have just added one on our flamingo group as they should soon be building their mud nests.

Keep safe and keep positive!

Ray & Ali Hales

Two young choughs in a larger group of adult birds. Picture R Hales.

2019 July Breeding Report & Round-up

Possibly, not one of our best years for chough breeding at Paradise Park. However, the lack of choughs bred in captivity here has been eclipsed by the success of the new population on Jersey, and the wild birds in Cornwall.

Paradise Park
Here at Paradise Park, although we had plenty of eggs, four of our five pairs did not produce chicks. The honours were once again taken by nest number one, which produced three chicks – all of which are males. These have now been moved out into the large 30 metre flight \ socialisation aviary, where the youngsters are getting used to life in a flock. The young birds are now very similar in size and colour to the adults, the main difference being the paler bill and legs. (There is, of course, a difference in behaviour – they tend to follow their parents, begging for food. The parents do their best to ignore them).

Two young choughs in a larger group of adult birds. Picture R Hales.
Two young choughs (front left) in a larger group of adult birds. Picture R Hales.

Jersey
The news from Jersey is very encouraging, with the population steadily increasing. This year there were 13 pairs building nests. Most of the nests were close to the release site at Sorel, or in the quarry nearby.

However, one pair did raise a chick away from the release site, and with no interaction at all with any feeding stations. This chick could be regarded as the first truly “wild” chough chick produced so far, with no support from the release program. The parent birds have managed to find feeding sites of their own.

The 13 nests produced 13 chicks in total, with most nests reaching egg or chick stage. More news can be found on the Birds on the Edge website.

There were also two parent-reared choughs produced at Jersey Zoo (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), adding to the potential of the captive breeding program.

Cornwall
The ongoing resurgence of the chough in Cornwall continues. This year there were 12 successful breeding nests, which produced 38 fledged choughs in total.

The resident birds are now spreading around the coast, and can now be seen from The Lizard all the way round the coast as far as Newquay. The location of the nests is still subject to a degree of secrecy. Large groups of choughs can now be spotted regularly in West Cornwall. The current population is now close to 100 birds.

This is excellent news for all involved in the monitoring and conservation work. More news can be found at the Cornish Choughs Twitter feed.

May 2019 Breeding Report

At the end of April, four of the five chough nests had eggs. Nest 4 was a ramshackle affair, but a good attempt for a new pair. Of the other four nests, only one pair laid fertile eggs – our “go to” pair in nest 1. The totals are as follows:

Nest 1 – three eggs, all fertile. Three chicks hatched
Nest 2 – two eggs, laid in partially finished nest. Both eggs broken.
Nest 3 – four eggs, all infertile. Female incubated but eggs thrown out by parent.
Nest 4 – no eggs.
Nest 5 – Three eggs, all infertile. Female incubated, then removed eggs.

Our hopes for this year are all on nest 1, and the three chicks are now two weeks old. However, the nest is already starting to fall apart – something which normally happens after four weeks, due to the movements of the “teenage” chicks inside.

Three chough chicks being fed by parents
Three chough chicks being fed by parents

The nest box now contains more rocks than before. This is due to some quick rebuilding by myself, as the young birds were seen to be scrabbling about on the floor of the box. This is not good for younger birds, as their feet may not develop properly.

We decided to intervene, and made the nest space smaller by adding four small rocks to the front of the box. This was done during one of the daily weighing sessions – where Alison goes into the aviary to feed and distract the birds, while I sneak the chicks out of the inspection hatch. The parent birds then return, and continue to feed the youngsters. I think the female was slighty suspicious after the rocks had been installed, but the drive to feed overcame any fears.

We also added small twigs in a lattice pattern, to allow the chicks to grip onto something. This is easier to do, and the parent birds accept this much more readily.

We have repeated this, with rocks being added to the sides. So far, so good…

Chough chicks daily weigh-in
Chough chicks daily weigh-in

The chicks are weighed daily, and the weights can be compared with results we have built up over the years. During the first week a daily percentage increase of 20% to 30% is not uncommon, which gives an indication of the remarkable rate of growth.

In the second week, the rate slows to between 10% and 15% per day. As can be seen in the image above, the chicks now have their eyes open, and are beginning to “feather up”.

The two chicks hatched a day before number three, will always be at an advantage. They will always be heavier, and their eyes opened first – a huge advantage at feeding times.

As an example, the weights today (May 22nd) are: 179g, 146g and 123g. Our strategy to overcome this, is to give the smaller birds supplementary feeds when being weighed. This gives them every chance to catch up with the heavier bird.

The third week now moves into monitoring for potential infections and gapeworms…

Female incubating eggs in nest number one.

April 2019 Breeding Report

The first chough eggs of the year have been laid. After a staggered start all five pairs have built nests. The new pair (nest four), were slow to start, but have now caught up.

Female chough about to lay egg number two - note the male in attendance.
Female chough about to lay egg number two – note the male in attendance.

The first eggs were laid in nest number three on April 13th and 15th, followed by more on the 17th and 18th. Nest number one was filled with three eggs on April 15th, 17th and 19th. Nest number five was last with three on 21st, 23rd and 27th. Unfortunately, two eggs were laid in nest number two, but were broken – the nest had not been completed, and the eggs broke against the nestbox floor.

Nest number three, with a clutch of four chough eggs.
Nest number three, with a clutch of four chough eggs.


We were approaching the point where we would “candle” the eggs to see how many were fertile. Unfortunately, the female in nest number three had other ideas…

Female chough removing an egg.
Female chough removing an egg.

Yesterday Morning – April 30th – we came in to find only two eggs in nest number three! The female had gently removed two of the eggs early in the morning. At 11 o’clock she removed another, and we went into the aviary to investigate.

We found the two eggs. Both were infertile. Both were also very pungent. Obviously, the female had realised the eggs were not going to hatch, and took them out. She removed the final egg overnight, and this too was infertile.

So, our current tally is six eggs. We are still hoping that the birds in nests four and two will lay. The birds in nest number two may go through another cycle, as can be the case when the initial cycle of egg laying is not quite right.