The Joys and Despairs of Bringing Back Bluebirds

We live in interesting times. Times when a person could come to hate the word “unprecedented”. It is at times like these when you might stop and wonder why we choose to put hope in the things we do. Why protect this species, why fight for this group of trees, why join this particular climate action?

My moment to question came when no Western Bluebirds were sighted on Vancouver Island this spring. This was not shocking, numbers have been decreasing over the past few years. The population desperately needed more translocations but border closures due to Covid prevented us from bringing more bluebirds across from the healthy population in Washington. Our population needs to reach a critical level before it has any possibility of sustaining itself and it clearly wasn’t there yet. Many caring naturalists in both the Cowichan Valley and Victoria have worked for years on this project and I needed to remember why.

The answers came to me over the summer, bit by bit. When I saw that the boxes we replaced on one nest box host’s property were now housing Violet-green and Tree Swallows instead of House Sparrows. When I watched numerous nests of local species go from eggs to fledglings, nests that wouldn’t have had a cavity without this project. When we spoke with community fair goers and heard their delightful tales of backyard stewardship and were able to support them with the information they needed. When we had the encouragement of seeing one of our Cowichan raised bluebirds nesting on San Juan Island, someday these populations may help to sustain each other as birds travel back and forth.

I was also buoyed up by the successes of others who have done this work before us. The San Juan Island Western Bluebird Project has gone through this before; they brought Western Bluebirds from Washington for years only to suffer a population collapse when translocations were paused. But they persisted with more translocations and have now had a stable population for three years after stopping translocations. Eastern Bluebirds in Ontario were once listed as a “species of concern” as their numbers declined to dangerous lows. Nest box trails were established and succeeded in bringing the population back up to the point where it is no longer listed as a concern.   

The biggest moment of joy this season came as we released a family of Western Bluebirds, one pair and their six nestlings, to a beautiful patch of Garry Oak habitat in the Cowichan Valley. In the big picture, this translocation is a small thing. One family does not rescue a population. But it was a good reminder that successes are built of many small things sustained over time. Not one of us alone has the power to fix the problems we face. We need everyone to bring their own skills and passions to sustain their own small things, we need everyone to choose hope.

2021 Summary Report

Executive Summary

This year we completed the first translocation since 2016. This marks the beginning of a second round of translocations to revive the population. We continued to improve, maintain and monitor the Nest Box trails established to replace lost nesting habitat. Our trail monitors and staff collected 1825 observations and found 75 nests of various native bird species using our boxes. To promote stewardship of the Garry Oak habitat so important to the success of Western Bluebirds, we reached out to the community both in person and online this year. We cherished the ability to get our message out in person again but also loved being able to reach a wider audience through podcasts and Zoom events.

Population Summary

Sightings:

  • One of the Cowichan raised female Western Bluebirds was found nesting on San Juan Island this year. This is a great sign for the future as one of the goals of reintroducing Western Bluebirds in the Cowichan area is to re-establish connected populations throughout the Georgia Strait area. Visit https://sjpt.org/ to learn more about the San Juan Island bluebird recovery efforts.
  • No sightings of returned Western Bluebirds were recorded this year in the Cowichan Valley or Victoria Area. This points to the importance of renewing our translocation efforts to bring the population to a sustainable number.

Translocation:

  • One pair of Western Bluebirds along with their six nestlings were brought to the Cowichan Valley from a healthy population in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
  • These nestlings all successfully fledged and the released family are currently residing in the Cowichan area.
  • Due to the stress added to the birds during what turned out to be a very lengthy delay at the border, further translocations were postponed until next year when we hope that the border restrictions will be lifted.
  • Supplemental mealworms were provided to the translocated bluebirds on a daily basis, for 7 weeks.

Nestbox Stewardship and Citizen Science

Upon taking ownership of the bluebird project in 2017, the Cowichan Valley Naturalist Society (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 2021, volunteers collected 1825 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.

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.

  • 24 nest boxes were equipped with a stucco-wire mesh guard on the roof functions to deter raptors (particularly owls) from harming nestlings.
  • 10 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 isan established network of nest box trails in the Victoria area, including individual trails in the Blenkinsop Valley, Cordova Bay Golf Course, Uplands Golf Course, Sidney Island Air strip and Highland Golf Course. Over 26 nest boxes were monitored throughout the breeding season by Victoria Natural History Society members and more boxes are being installed this fall.

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 a mixture of online and outdoor as safety permitted. By inspiring the public to become involved in Western Bluebird 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 events in 2021 that include:

  • Zoom presentations through the Rocky Point Bird Observatory,
  • Podcast on the Babbling Bird podcast site,
  • Wildwings Festival,
  • Cowichan Exhibition,
  • Nature walks by Genevieve Singleton,
  • Presentations at Junior Golf Camp
  • Trail monitor gatherings
  • End of season appreciation event.

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 regular blog posts that discussed project updates and interesting information. These updates were distributed through our email list (230 individuals), Facebook (330 followers) and website (600 visitors over the year).  Project personnel also published articles outlining recent project happenings that were featured in the CVNS’s Newsletter. We have an Instagram page (cowichan_valley_bluebird) as well as a publicly available Facebook page (Bring Back the Bluebirds).

Community Building

While the indoor Beer and Burger fundraiser had to be postponed one more year, we were delighted to host our End of Season Appreciation Event outdoors with only a little well needed rain that not one person complained about.

Project Partners

This marks the tenth 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.

A very special thank-you to our volunteers and supporters

In 2021 our volunteer community contributed over 300 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, whose efforts to bring bluebirds across the border this year were met with incredible challenges and to Genevieve Singleton for helping so much with our outreach. Thank-you to our entomologist, Ted Leischner, for his many hours culturing high-quality mealworms to feed our bluebirds. We greatly appreciate the Cowichan Valley Naturalist Society and our many trail monitors, mealworm feeders and other field-workers: Alison and Grace Rimmer, Bruce Coates, 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, Bary and Joy Beck, and Ron and Moira Elder. Thank you to both our past and present staff, including Helen Anderson, Brielle Reidlinger, Ryan Hetschko, Hannah Hall, Braden Judson, and Julia Daly. Thanks to the VNHS volunteers who monitored their nest boxes and are helping us to expand our Victoria Trails including Ann Nightingale, Bryan Gates, John Costello, 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 2021: Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, Sitka Foundation, McLean Foundation, Victoria Natural History Society, BC Ministry of Transportation, Thrifty Foods 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 2021 Summary Report written by 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/dn/58165 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.

Free Flying

The Bluebird family has been released! It was a beautiful breezy evening when we released the hatch on the roof to let them fly away. I think I was expecting a big rush of birds out the hatch when we opened it but that was not how it went at all. At first nothing changed, then gradually after a few minutes the parents recognized the open sky and flew out to a nearby Garry Oak. Shortly after that, a few of the fledglings gathered the courage to join them. Then we waited….and waited. Two more fledglings took their time, after about an hour they took flight as well. The last little one was scared, it called out to the others but stayed put and refused to move. With a little helping hand from Helen, the last one finally took to the sky and was seen landing in the family’s tree. I was delighted to see the parents both checking out nest boxes and hunting for insects in the grass. My heart was filled with joy to see bluebirds in the oak trees once again. Thank you to Shanna Baker for the beautiful photos!

Larry opens the hatch
Two of the fledglings taking a look around before they go
The last little one getting a helping hand
Despite the little one’s reservations, they made it all the way up to the Garry Oak branch first try

Translocation!


I have exciting news to share!

For the first time in five years we have translocated a family of Western Bluebirds to the Cowichan Valley. Six baby Western Bluebirds plus their parents arrived yesterday through the heroic efforts of Gary Slater, our project ornithologist and his field technician Jerrmaine Treadwell. Crossing the border is still no picnic (3 1/2 hours in customs and nearly turned away!) and we are looking forward to next year when we hope to bring many more bluebird families over with fewer obstacles. We hope to brave one more translocation this year in a couple of weeks.


With no Western Bluebirds having returned this year, this family represents a new hope to the re-introduction efforts. Our sister project in San Juan Island went through a similar drop in population after the first round of translocations and after a second round has now had a stable population for three years in a row. It is a reminder that species recovery is a long process with many ups and downs. I will cherish this small victory and, with all of your help, build on it in years to come.


Thank you for all your stewardship!

Photos by Helen Anderson

Translocation preparations

Thanks to this hard working group of volunteers, we are one step closer to being ready for the newest Western Bluebird arrivals. This is an aviary where the family will be temporarily housed until they have settled in to their new location. Once the little ones fledge, there is a hatch on the roof that will be lifted for the family to fly out and explore their home.

May 28 update

Hello to all our Bluebird fans,

The upcoming translocation of a Western Bluebird family has us fussing like new parents, fixing up the nurseries (there are over 250 of them!) and fretting over the details. The due date is the last week of June, we will be sure to send out pictures of the new family as soon as we can!

In the meantime, there are a number of local species busy raising families of their own in the nest boxes. Tree Swallows, Violet-Green Swallows, Chickadees and even a Bewick’s Wren pair all have little nestlings demanding love and attention and above all MORE FOOD! We have been experimenting with hole reducer plates to find the right size to allow as many of our native cavity nesters as we can while excluding the invasive House Sparrows. We await the results of these experiments with curiosity.

While no Western Bluebirds have been on spotted Vancouver Island yet this season, one of our Cowichan raised Western Bluebirds has been spotted on San Juan Island! She has found a mate and is raising a clutch there. It is great to see these populations mingling as this will help the long-term survival of Western Bluebirds in the Georgia Strait area. San Juan Island has seen bluebirds from both Cowichan and from Washington. They may prove to be an important corridor connecting our population with the mainland.

Looking out for Western Bluebirds, we had the opportunity to sight a Lazuli Bunting. While I may have a personal bias towards bluebirds, the Lazuli Buntings are undeniably very pretty and a rare site around here. We love to hear about any sightings you have!

An important announcement for Thrifty Smile Card holders: June 15 is the last day to raise money for the Bring Back the Bluebirds project using the Smile Cards. You can spend money that you have loaded on the cards any time but only money loaded on the cards before this date will raise money for the project. For every $100 you put on your card, Thrifty’s will give the project $5 of their money.

With Covid restrictions starting to ease, I am looking forward to seeing much more of everyone. Maybe this year we can even enjoy our annual End of Season Appreciation Event?!

This female Western Bluebird was hatched in Cowichan in 2019 and is now nesting on San Juan Island. Photo provided by Kathleen Foley of San Juan Preservation Trust

May 19 update

While these scraggly muppets may not be much to look at now, we have three native species with newly hatched chicks waiting to someday dazzle us with their beauty. It is wonderful to see the project providing habitat for all these species. Can you guess which nest belongs to which species? Scroll down to the bottom to find the answers.

A
B
C

Answers: A-Tree Swallow B-Bewick’s Wren C-Chestnut-Backed Chickadee