News

First translocations!

The first pairs of the season have been successfully settled in to their aviaries! Gary braved the Easter weekend traffic and ferry delays to bring two pairs of Western Bluebirds from Joint Base Lewis McChord (a healthy population in Washington) to the Cowichan Valley. In a couple of weeks we will release them and cross our fingers that they choose one of our nest boxes to start a new family. To minimize disturbance, I snuck these photos quickly while feeding them breakfast through the little door made for this purpose. It doesn’t make for the highest quality shots but if you look closely there is a pair in the background in each one.

April 10 update

Running around purchasing supplies to get started on the field season was a great reminder that funders are an important part of what makes this project possible.

I would like to take a moment to thank all those that have contributed financially to this season’s work:

We have a new funder this year! The BC Conservation and Biodiversity Awards Foundation has made a generous contribution to the project. They are a relatively new foundation created to support conservation based initiatives in BC.

Also contributing this year are: Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, Sitka Foundation, the Ministry of Transportation, the municipality of North Cowichan, Victoria Natural History Society. The TD Friends of the Environment hasn’t announced their grant recipients yet but have been generous supporters for several years.

I am also grateful to the many individual donors from our community, it all adds up!

Thank you all so very much!

Now…can I fit all this in my car?

April 1 update

So much to share this week, I don’t know where to begin!

I have to start with the news that the Western Bluebird family that we brought from Washington last summer has returned to the Cowichan Valley!

With our Trail Monitor Workshop that took place last Saturday, we can officially say that our field season has begun. It was so heartwarming to see the dedicated volunteers that monitor the project nest boxes in person this year as we stocked up on supplies, went over our goals and welcomed a new monitor to our group.

Then our aviary builders, Larry, James, Rodger and Warren got to work making a safe space for our translocated Western Bluebirds to stay while they adjust to their new home in the Cowichan Valley. No sooner had they completed the first aviary when the family of bluebirds we brought over last year showed up to remind us that this was their territory thank you very much! Larry and crew very generously moved the aviary to a new location on Monday and erected a second aviary on Wednesday.

The week finished with the exciting news that all of the pieces are in place for the first translocation to occur. On April 14 we will bring two pairs of Western Bluebirds across the border.

Our Trail monitors braving cool, wet weather to listen to Genevieve share about the beautiful Garry Oak ecosystems we work in. photo by Genevieve Singleton
New home for the first aviary after our bluebirds reclaimed the first location
Aviary builders hard at work on the second aviary

New trail!

The folks at Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture have welcomed the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project on their land as part of their aim to take care of ecological health while engaging in sustainable agriculture.

Many thanks to Jen Rashleigh, Keisha (in photo), and Ennie. Together, we mounted 8 new boxes in beautiful oak/meadow habitat.

Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture

First Western Bluebird Sighting of 2022!

Excited to share this post by Jeremy Gatten about the first sighting of a Western Bluebird this year!! The Western Bluebird is unbanded so not one of our translocated birds returning but a sign that Western Bluebirds will roam away from their birth territories. This is great to see because this kind of dispersal means that nearby populations can help support each other.

I was curious about the mixed pair of a Western and a Mountain Bluebird so I did a little research. Turns out mixed pairs do occasionally happen and sometimes produce fertile hybrids. It’s much too early to say that these two are more than just travelling companions though.

Post from Jeremy:

Today was marked with quite an extraordinary sighting for Vancouver Island. Seeing one species of bluebird is great, but seeing two species together in the winter… astronomical! I hope you all enjoy a shot of this rare encounter – here’s a female Mountain Bluebird with a juicy morsel on the left and a male Western Bluebird on the right.

Location: Blenkinsop Valley

Date: February 5, 2022

Season’s Greetings

While our bluebirds are off in search of the best winter berries, I hope you are all nestled somewhere warm and cozy with loved ones, enjoying the season. Looking forward to the return of the light and the return of our blue feathered friends that the New Year will bring.

Warm wishes for a Happy Holiday!

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.