2020 Summary Report

Executive Summary

This year we focused on nest box protection and on exploring new ways to connect with people. Our trail monitors looked after our nest box trails, collecting over 1000 observations on 188 nests of various species. Project staff increased the safety of the trails by adding predator protections to boxes and by removing boxes that were population sinks. Our outreach program took to the internet and the airwaves, with Zoom events, a Bird Babble Podcast and a new Instagram page being added to our media toolkit. Planned translocations of bluebird family groups were not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, leaving us with a smaller population.

Population Summary

Sightings:

  • Six individual, adult Western Bluebirds were identified throughout the Cowichan Valley during the 2020 breeding season. This small population consisted of two females and four males, all of which were born in the Cowichan Valley within nest boxes supplied by this project.
  • One female showed up in the Cowichan Valley early March and was then observed a little over a month later in Comox. She was seen with one of the males who had paired up with another female at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, and she was then observed paired up with a different male in Comox.
  • In Victoria, an unidentified pair was observed at Martindale Flats. Sightings within the greater Victoria region are particularly exciting as it demonstrates connectivity between the Cowichan Valley and San Juan Island populations. Connectivity between these populations may play a critical role in the long term viability of Western Bluebirds around the Salish Sea. Visit https://sjpt.org/ to learn more about the San Juan Island bluebird recovery efforts.

Nesting success:

  • Four nesting attempts were made on two nesting territories
  • Two nests were successful, producing seven fledglings over the season
  • There were two nest failures, one due to a House Sparrow attack and the other due to death of the female from unknown cause.

Nestbox Stewardship and Citizen Science

Upon taking ownership of the bluebird project in 2017, the CVNS developed a keen and skilled community of volunteers to monitor nestboxes.

  • Volunteers attend a monitoring workshop early in the spring and have regular access to project personnel for advice.
  • Monitoring nest boxes is a huge component to this project. Nearly 260 nestboxes are located throughout the Cowichan Valley. Over the breeding season of 2020, volunteers collected over 1000 data points on the occupancy and status of these nest boxes.
  • Much of this dataset contains information on the breeding status of many native passerines, such as the Bewick’s Wren, House Wren, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Chestnut-backed Chickadee and (of course) Western Bluebirds. This data collection will be submitted to the Project NestWatch database.
  • Additionally, supplemental mealworms were provided to nesting bluebird pairs on a daily basis, for up to 5 weeks per nest, by a group of highly dedicated volunteers.

Protecting Bluebirds

With the current population of WEBLs, even small, random predation events can be extremely detrimental to the recovery of this species. As a result, project personnel, nest box hosts and volunteers implement several predator-guarding techniques to deter carnivores and invasive species from accessing our nest boxes.

  • 55 nest boxes were equipped with a stucco-wire mesh guard on the roof functions to deter raptors (particularly owls) from harming nestlings.
  • 33 boxes were equipped with a sealed PVC sleeve that prevents mammalian predators (raccoons, cats, squirrels, etc) from climbing up and accessing the nest box. These efforts are critical in ensuring that our provided nest boxes provide a safe nesting habitat that will not increase the likelihood of predation.
  • House Sparrows continue to pose a significant threat to nesting bluebirds and thus we encourage monitors to remove HOSP nests amidst construction.
  • When bluebirds are nesting, nest boxes are equipped with a Sparrow-spooker that flutters on the top of the nest box and deters HOSPs from accessing the box and harassing the bluebirds.
  • Decorative boxes can become a danger for native cavity nesting species. We replaced these boxes with boxes recommended by the North American Bluebird Society.

Many of our protection techniques have been inspired by groups such as the North American Bluebird Society and Bet Zimmerman’s website www.Sialis.org, and have been refined by project staff over the years. The stucco-wire guarding technique was provided by Bruce Cousens and Charlene Lee of the Western Purple Martin Recovery Foundation who have had success with this method at deterring raptors from killing juvenile Purple Martins.

Victoria Activities

There is an established network of nest box trails in the Victoria area, including individual trails in the Blenkinsop Valley, Cordova Bay Golf Course, Uplands Golf Course and Sidney Island Air strip. Another trail is presently being added by Bryan Gates at the Highland Golf Course. Over 20 nest boxes were monitored throughout the breeding season by Victoria Natural History Society members and more than 6 new boxes are being installed.

Outreach and Education

 As over 95% of Garry Oak Ecosystems have been lost completely or significantly degraded, it is imperative that the remaining habitats are appreciated, studied and protected. The Western Bluebird is a very charismatic species that, through their conservation, draws attention to the many rare and often endemic plants, insects and other biota that thrive among Garry Oak Ecosystems. This year’s outreach was mostly moved online to keep everyone safe, with some small socially distanced outdoor events also taking place.

By inspiring the public to become involved in WEBL conservation, we hope to encourage the restoration and preservation of the remaining Garry Oak Habitat the Cowichan Valley is so fortunate to have. To do such, project staff and volunteers hosted (or presented at) 15 free, publicly accessible events in 2020 that include:

  • Zoom presentations through the Rocky Point Bird Observatory
  • Podcast on the Babbling Bird podcast site
  • Interview on CBC,  
  • Nature walks by Genevieve Singleton,
  • Trail monitor gatherings
  • End of season appreciation event online.

Discussions and presentations at these events focussed on avian conservation, natural history and the ecology of the imperilled Garry Oak Ecosystem. Through these events the bluebird project directly interacted with over 500 members of the project, all of whom met the project with support and interest. 

Sharing Information

Project staff wrote weekly blog posts that discussed project updates and interesting information. These updates were distributed through our email list (230 individuals), Facebook (330 followers) and website (up to 168 visitors per month). Staff and volunteers also attended Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable Meetings to share project updates to local stewards and concerned citizens.  Project personnel also published articles outlining recent project happenings that were featured in the CVNS’s Newsletter. We have added an Instagram page to our social media (cowichan_valley_bluebird) as well as a publicly available Facebook page (Bring Back the Bluebirds).

Community Building

This year was a challenging one for everyone and our usual community building activities were compromised by the pandemic. We had to cancel our annual Beer and Burger Fundraiser and End of Year Appreciation Event for this year and look forward to restarting these events next year in better times. We are grateful to those who have offered items for the silent auction.

Project Partners

This marks the ninth consecutive year the Bring Back the Bluebird Project has operated within the Cowichan Valley. In 2017 the project was transferred from the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT) to the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society (CVNS). In late 2019 the project was then transferred from CVNS to the British Columbia Conservation Foundation (BCCF). Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) were extirpated from Vancouver Island by the mid 1990’s. Due to their extirpation, the species recovery relies extensively on the translocation of family groups from a healthy population in Washington State. This international project is supported and advised by Gary Slater, Ph.D. of the Ecostudies Institute. Gary is an experienced ornithologist and reintroduction specialist focused on conserving at-risk songbird populations. The last time translocations occurred was in 2016. They were set to resume at the beginning of the 2020 breeding season, however due to Covid-19 and travel restrictions the translocations were canceled.

A very special thank-you to our volunteers and supporters

In 2020 our volunteer community contributed over 1300 volunteer hours to the success of the Cowichan Valley’s Western Bluebirds. Additionally, 68 nest box hosts contributed to Garry Oak meadow stewardship. A huge thank-you to Gary Slater, who volunteered all the hours he contributed this year and to Genevieve Singleton for helping so much with the transition of the project. Thank-you to our entomologist, Ted Leischner, for his many hours culturing high-quality mealworms to feed our bluebirds. We greatly appreciate our many trail monitors, mealworm feeders and other field-workers: Carol Blackburn, Carol Milo, Barry Hetschko, Hazel Nielsen, Angela Atkins, Bob and Helen Nation, Gill Radcliffe, Genevieve Singleton, Deb Cleal, Caroline Deary, Jim and Lyn Wisnia, Willie Harvey, Theresa Middlemiss, Jennifer Goodbrand, Dave Brummit, Barry and Joy Beck, and Ron and Moira Elder. Thank you to both our past and present staff, including Brielle Reidlinger, Ryan Hetschko, Hannah Hall, Braden Judson, and Julia Daly. Thanks to the VNHS volunteers who monitored their nest boxes and responded to the bluebird sighting in Victoria, including Ann Nightingale, Bryan Gates, Jody Wells and others.

Acknowledgements

We would like to extend sincere thanks to the following funders for their financial contributions that supported this project in 2020: TD Friends of the Environment Fund, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, Victoria Natural History Society, Municipality of North Cowichan, BC Ministry of Transportation and numerous private donors. Many local supporters donate supplies, storage space and in-kind support including: Polster Environmental Consulting, Ecostudies Institute, CopyCat Printing Ltd., Pacific Northwest Raptors, the Cowichan Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the North American Bluebird Society, the Cowichan Bay Pub, and Keating Heritage Farms. Without such support, this project would not have been possible.

BCCF 2020 Summary Report written by: project staff Brielle Reidlinger and Jacquie Taylor

For additional information visit www.cowichanbluebird.ca or contact us at cowichanbluebird@gmail.com.

You can follow us at https://www.facebook.com/CowichanValleyBluebird  and you can also donate to the project online at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/bc-conservation-foundation/

To learn about the history of the project, visit: http://www.goert.ca/activities/bluebirds/ and to learn about the work of Ecostudies Institute, visit: https://www.ecoinst.org.

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