June was anything but flaming. With over 100mm of rain it was wetter than May, April and most of March combined with northerly winds dominating the month. Near drought conditions in early spring coupled with such an unsettled lead in to summer are far from ideal conditions for chough breeding, but breed they did and with good success.
To recap - we had 10 breeding pairs this year, the second highest on record after 11 pairs last year. Unfortunately 3 of these pairs failed. Two were weather related, the other due to raven predation. The good news is the remaining 7 pairs were apparently unaffected by the unseasonable weather fledging a healthy 20 chicks between them
Adult feeding begging fledgling on one of Ramsey's drystone walls
To start at the beginning we need to go all the way back to winter. Most of our birds hold territory year round and on our frequent winter stock check visits we encountered familiar faces bounding around their territories from January onward. Loud cries pierce the winter gloom as the pair transform their bodies into torpedoes and hurtle at speed into the bay that holds their breeding cave, at the last minute pulling up as if on a roller coaster and repeating all over again. This signals to any rival birds that this territory is taken.
There surely aren't many, if any, available territories left on Ramsey now. We have had 18 sites used over the decades but never more than 11 in one year. The text books say each pair requires a 1 km radius but each breeding site is different and on Ramsey there are several sites much less socially distanced than that. The rich, bountiful food supply on Ramsey as a result of our conservation farming no doubt helps to pack a few more pairs in.
Chough fledgling (behind) watches and learns from mum or dad - nearly a month out of the nest for some and the yellow bill is becoming more orange (as the adults blood red breeding colour fades) - look carefully at the bird behind though and you just about still see the hint of a gape
In March our birds begin to nest build and this year the first record of such activity was 20th March at a traditional and well established west coast site. Records then flowed over the next week with the final site confirmed on 2nd April, a site that was used for the first time in 2019 which fits in with the later start date for what are probably a younger pair.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the pair that nest built first were also the first to be confirmed as incubating on 12th April. Up to 5 eggs are laid with incubation lasting around 17-21 days. The female does all the incubation with the male making frequent trips back to the cave, enticing her out, feeding her and then flying off to forage for the next visit.
Once we start seeing 2 birds going in and out together on a regular basis we know the eggs have hatched and both adults are busy finding food for their young chicks. The female broods the new born chicks so the behaviour between incubation and early chick rearing is not always easy to differentiate but after a period of time (some for only a few days, while other females brood more than a week) the chicks are old enough to be left alone.
The chicks grown steadily in the nest for the next 6 weeks, being fed on regurgitated soil invertebrate larvae and ants. These feeding trips vary with chick age but every 20 mins is an average time during peak growth. As we enter early June the feeding rate drops; adults spend more time at the cave entrance calling to the chicks in a bid to entice them out. The first chicks to fledge this year did so on 11 June. Some years they all fledge within a week of each other but it was a more protracted affair this year with the last site not fledging till 24th.
Most sites break their young into the brave new world gradually. After 6 weeks in a cave coming face to face with your first peregrine, raven and great black backed gull on day 1 might seem too much! Instead they undertake a period known as 'bouldering'. The newly fledged young swap the cave for a nearby area of boulders and hide out in there while the adults are away foraging. Gradually they build up confidence and explore their surroundings more and more. Within a week most have left the sanctuary of cave and boulders and can be found learning to feed for themselves with the adults in the islands sheep grazed pasture. The incessant sound of begging chough fledglings being the sound of summer on Ramsey
Of the 7 successful sites, one fledged a very healthy 4 chicks, four fledged 3 chicks and two fledged 2 chicks giving a more than respectable 20 chicks in total.
Now in July we are already seeing family groups merging together in the fields. Coupled with groups of young non breeders we have logged over 60 birds on Ramsey in recent days including impressive flocks of over 40 birds at a time
Family groups will stay together for most of July and August but by September this year's young will have learnt to fend for themselves and the class of 2020 will have to stand on their own two red feet. As we creep into winter younger birds begin to disperse, seeking more sheltered feeding on the mainland leaving the breeding stalwarts of the island to defend their precious territories ready to do it all again in 2021.
(click on photos to see them at full res)
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