Keep on the lookout for flashes of blue in Garry Oak meadows and savannahs near you! Report any suspected Western Bluebird sightings to the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project.
Check here throughout the Western Bluebird breeding season (February – September) for frequent population and nest success updates (approx. once/month) and photos. For archived Bring Back the Bluebirds articles, visit our news blog.
After completing my third year of studying Environmental Sustainability at the University of Victoria, I was offered the opportunity to return to the Bluebird Project as the summer student for a second time. Continuing on our work from the previous year, I was able to assist in further increasing the bluebird populations as well as taking on other projects as a result of this being the last year of staff-led nest box monitoring.
Beginning in 2017, the GOERT network of some 270 nest boxes throughout the valley will begin being monitored by a team of indomitable volunteers from the Cowichan Valley Naturalist’s Society. Much of the second half of my season, once the aviaries (translocations) were complete, was spent on organizing this transition to volunteer monitoring. Morgan, project technician, and I organized training events for the volunteers, engaged & coordinated volunteer bluebird feeders for the first time, as well as an assortment of other outreach events. I also took charge of creating a ‘how-to’ document for the proper methods of nest box monitoring which included everything from how to distinguish a bluebird nest from a chickadee nest, to how to avoid cows, to using an iPhone’s GPS feature to find the actual nest boxes.
Though same in title, this season and position did not bear much resemblance to the previous one. This season we had more bluebird nestlings than ever before which meant more birds than ever before for Morgan and I to band; the increased dissemination of tasks to volunteers along with the corresponding coordination; as well as the way in which we broke new ground on creating a volunteer-led monitoring network.
This season will certainly be memorable with lots of exciting moments such as finding a nest full of little blue eggs, trying to sight the bands of a new lone male, the arrival of new birds from Washington State amongst others. The aspect of this season I think I will cherish most is the way in which we were able to engage with volunteers and landowners/box hosts more than ever before. Without them, this project would not be possible and I’d like to take the opportunity to thank them all on behalf of GOERT and the CVNS.
Others I’d like to thank are our project coordinator Alina Fisher, technician Morgan Davies, ornithologist Gary Slater, volunteer extraordinaire Genevieve Singleton, and all the other naturalists who donated their time and energy to the birds.
I’m very optimistic for the future of the project, each year we’ve seen an increase in overall population along with this year, for the first time, a returning pair establishing a brand new (previously unused, no GOERT nest boxes) breeding territory and successfully fledging a nest unsupported before we were able to catch up to them. Watching the way in which the birds have grasped those who have come in contact with them, especially our newest nest hosts, gives me hope that they’ll continue to be supported here well into the future. They call it the ‘bluebird effect’ for a reason! There isn’t any way we can predict the future of the population but after 5 years of hard work and growth I’m hopeful that the flashes of blue will start to become a much more common sight throughout the Cowichan Valley.
For the birds,
GOERT Conservation Assistant 2015/2016
The 2016 bluebird breeding season is coming to a close in Cowichan so now we can start to take stock of population changes. Only a small percentage of juveniles will return to breed the next year however 2016 numbers are looking good so far, and are similar to 2015 numbers. There are currently 3 active bluebird nests, most bluebird pairs are now looking after their second set of fledglings (chicks that have left the nest).
This season bluebirds have attempted 20 nests. In these 20 nests we’ve seen at least 96 eggs produced! The total number of eggs laid in 2016 is at least 96 because the bluebird team learned about a breeding bluebird pair after their first clutch of chicks had hatched and fledged. This pair had 4-5 unbanded fledglings when we found them but could have produced up to 7 eggs initially.
The average # of eggs per clutch was 5.1 in 2016, a number that the bluebird team is pleased with. The average number of young fledged per successful nest as of late July 2016 is 4.3, the exact same value as last year.
The project was able to complete three translocations of bluebird families in 2016. This involves working with the EcoStudies Institute to bring bluebird pairs and their nestlings to suitable sites in the Cowichan Valley from a healthy population in Washington state. We are so grateful to landowners who allowed us access to their lands to set-up aviaries to allow the birds to acclimatize. For the past 5 years the Aviary Amigos team of volunteers has been invaluable in aviary set-up, we are so grateful to them. Unfortunately, none of the 2016 translocated bluebird pairs re-nested this year however we still hope to see them return next year.
As things stand right now all but one nest will be empty by early August (unless any pairs try to lay a third clutch of eggs). Fledglings are dependant on their parents for 2-3 weeks for food after they leave the nest. This means the bluebird team (including dedicated volunteers, landowners and staff) will continue to monitor and provide supplemental food well into August.
This season some of the best moments for the bluebird team have been with the community. We had a new nest location reported to us from observant landowners, great bluebird blitzes with the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society (CVNS) and some awesome classroom presentations with school groups throughout the Cowichan Valley. We also were luck to participate in the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s annual In Bloom event at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve where we spoke to hundreds of locals and visitors about bluebirds and Garry Oak ecosystems. We look forward to working more closely with the CVNS as they prepare to take over the bluebird nestbox monitoring program in 2017.
Community members and volunteers can continue to support the bluebird project by reporting their sightings (or sending photos) to the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project. Birds receive a unique combination of 4 leg bands which can be used to identify and track the movements of individuals. Even partial band combinations help as siblings will often receive similar band combinations.
A full summer update coming soon but here is a taster:
The 5th year of the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project is off to an excellent and very busy start. As with winter 2014/2015 up to 15 bluebirds were sighted in the valley over winter 2015/2016.
As winter has turned to a very warm spring we’ve seen 24 adult bluebirds so far in 2016. Nine pairs of bluebirds have selected territories and built nests in nest boxes. The remaining 6 birds are all lone males who have yet to find female mates.One of the lone males is a bird nicknamed Cody who was one of the first birds involved in the project in 2012; we are very excited to report his return!
The 9 female bluebirds spotted so far in 2016 have laid an impressive 43 eggs! About 2/3 of these eggs have now hatched into chicks. Active nests have been guarded against predators and competitors, increasing the chances of successful fledging for bluebird chicks.
We hope to see chicks successfully fledge and a second (or even third) clutch laid before the end of the summer. Most of the clutches of eggs we have observed so far have had large numbers of eggs. The average number of eggs per nest in 2016 so far is 5.5 eggs. One pair laid seven eggs, the largest number of eggs that Western Bluebirds are know to lay in one clutch.
Once eggs hatch project staff and volunteers are providing daily feedings of mealworms. Mealworms provide a reliable source of food for adult bluebirds and their young.
The Bluebird Project Team is busy planning for the translocation of 6 more adult birds in late May/early June. This will consist of bringing Western Bluebirds from a healthy population in Washington to increase the size of the Bluebird population in Cowichan. Translocations are supported by a the EcoStudies Institute, our many supporters, and by the “Amigos Team” on the ground in the Cowichan Valley.
The Bluebird Project has been invited into several local classrooms to talk to kids about bluebirds and local ecosystems. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the excellent observations and questions of local young scientists.
We’ve also been lucky enough to have several community members report their bluebird sightings. Reports of sightings allow project staff to learn more bluebird movements and confirm sightings of new individuals. Please keep sending your sightings to the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project.
With the arrival of September comes the end to the 2015 field season for the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project. Many of the bluebirds had already begun to roam the Valley in August, and the rest of the population will soon join them as fall approaches. We are happy to see the end of fieldwork as this (much-needed!) rainy fall weather arrives.
Although we were set back with a few hurdles this season, we jumped right over them and into relative success. For instance, even though a delayed permit approval prevented 6 of 9 planned translocations, an unforeseen number of bluebirds returned to their Cowichan Valley breeding grounds this spring (some may not have migrated at all last winter). A total of 23 adult bluebirds returned to Vancouver Island this year, including 9 breeding pairs and 5 unpaired males. These pairs, along with a translocated pair, attempted 19 nests altogether – a new record for the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project!
Unfortunately, it’s a tough reality for nesting passerines that not all of their nests would be successful, and the record number of attempts brought a proportionate amount of failures. Over the course of the season, two females seemingly vanished, three females were found dead from unknown causes, and one female was confirmed as the victim of predation. Sadly, five of these six mortalities left behind cool clutches of eggs that would go unhatched. Nevertheless, this year we had 11 successful nests that fledged 66 juveniles, giving us cause for hope that these young, along with the adult birds that also comprise our bluebird population, may continue the upward trajectory in population that the project has seen since it began in 2012.
We hope that 2016 sees the return of many of this season’s bluebirds, and that the pairs have success in their nest attempts. As we are predicted to have another unusually warm winter this year, we are left to wonder if the bluebirds might migrate at all or if they will grace the Valley throughout the coming winter, as they did in 2014. Please continue to report any sightings to the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project so that we may know if the birds are spotted further south as they migrate or if they stick around the Cowichan Valley. As always, happy bluebirding!
The 2015 Breeding Season in Numbers:
Returned bluebirds: 23 (9 pairs, 5 unpaired males)
Translocations: 3 families (3 pairs and 14 young)
Successful nest attempts: 11
Failed nest attempts: 8 (5 due to female mortality, 2 abandoned, 1 due to inbreeding)
Mortalities: 6 adult females, 1 adult male, 5 fledged juveniles
Bluebirds fledged in wild: 52
Bluebirds fledged in aviary (and released into the wild): 14
Population at end of season: 6 adult females, 16 adult males, 54-61 juveniles
We are very proud to report that the last nestlings of the season have fledged! The youngest bluebirds in our population made their first flight this Sunday, August 9th. It was a bittersweet sign of the approaching season’s end to see these remaining young leave their nest, but it will be that much more joyous next year when they return as adults!
These last nestlings – 2 females and 1 male – were banded on August 2nd. We are thankful for every little bluebird that joins our population; however, with 10 unpaired males in the adult population this season, it is great to see a female skew inside of a nestbox! Hopefully the ratio of females to males will be more balanced next year.
Because it can take some time for bluebird young to learn to forage for themselves, we will continue to feed these 3 juveniles, along with another recently-fledged brood of 5 juveniles, until 2 weeks past the fledge date or until the young and their parents disperse into the Cowichan Valley with the rest of the population.
Our priorities for the rest of the month are to check the remaining nestboxes in the Cowichan Valley, work with new landowners with suitable habitat to mount nestboxes, and deliver presentations to schools and community groups so that we can teach more people in the Valley about Western Bluebirds and the need to restore and protect their at-risk Garry Oak habitats! We are hoping that more people will share in the opportunity to see Western Bluebirds first-hand as the population grows.
In the meantime, we have exciting footage of fledging bluebirds to share! For the first video, our Canada Summer Jobs student, Ryan Hetschko, put his technical abilities to the test so that we could capture a bluebird nestling’s first flight from the nestbox. The second video, also thanks to Ryan, shows a Western Bluebird parent feeding one of its nestlings. Be sure to watch until 0:35 for a surprise!
We are extremely happy that this season has seen the greatest number of bluebird nests since the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project began. However, the sad fact of increased nest attempts is that a proportional amount of those attempts are likely to fail. Since the last update we have had the misfortune of experiencing three more nest failures. Two of these were from the disappearances of two translocated females when they attempted second clutches after their aviary release. Unfortunately, as the two females were lost during incubation, they left behind clutches of cold eggs that could not hatch without them. The remains of one female were later found under a Garry Oak tree in what would have been excellent habitat for her young. We are left to wonder what has happened to the second female, whether she perished from disease, predation, or window strike.
The last nest failure is bittersweet: it was the nest of the miraculous bachelorette female that turned up mid-season, but she and her mate are still alive. The bachelorette ended up pairing with her son and laying a clutch of 5 eggs, 3 of which hatched. However, when it came time to band the three nestlings we found that only 1 was left in the nestbox and that it had developed abnormally slowly. This last little nestling just didn’t survive to fledging. Bluebirds tend to stick with the same mate when they both survive to the next season; however, we hope that this mother-son pairing returns as two separate pairs next year.
Meanwhile, the mystery of the bachelorette female’s origin may have solved itself. We found a deceased male bluebird on top of a bluebird nest during our end-of-season nestbox checks. The male was identified as the charismatic bluebird that flew to the Nanaimo airport last year, later returning to the Cowichan Valley to successfully nest with a translocated female after he chased away the original male she was translocated with and after helping the female feed her translocated young. Who was the translocated female this male nested with? The bachelorette! We speculate that the two may have attempted to nest together this year but that the female abandoned the site when the male passed.
The rest of the news is, happily, good news! Of the several active nests left in the Cowichan Valley, three have fledged since the last update, adding up to 12 juveniles to the growing population. One of two nests with nestlings is expected to fledge early next week while the other is expected to fledge in the first week of August. This last, late nest is an attempt made by the remaining, third translocated pair. We hope to see these young fledge successfully and share the valley with their translocated American siblings!
Older juveniles have begun dispersing around the Cowichan Valley, and so will the adult bluebirds as the breeding season winds down. Please continue to report any bluebird sightings to the Cowichan Bring Back the Bluebirds Project. Happy bluebirding!
Just before the third and final Western Bluebird family of the season arrived from Washington and were released into their temporary aviary, we installed a nest camera atop the nestlings’ nestbox. Although we were only able to film their first week before encountering technical difficulties, in that time we captured the little bluebirds as they were fed, slept, preened, and grew inside their cosy quarters. After more than three seasons of wondering what goes on inside the nestbox, we finally get to catch a glimpse of the secret world of nesting bluebirds…
Dinnertime – June 18th, 5:15 pm
Bedtime – June 19th, 1:45 am
Early birds – June 19th, 6:20 am
This family of bluebirds was released on June 26th, just 2 days after all the nestlings had fledged the nestbox.
Check back for more footage throughout the summer, as we move the camera around the breeding territories of this season’s many bluebird families!
It is with heavy hearts that we write this bittersweet project update. Over the last two weeks, the population has taken a hit with the loss of a recently-fledged juvenile male and two breeding females.
Unfortunately, the first female that was found dead (cause unknown) on a landowner’s lawn, within her breeding territory, had been incubating her second clutch of 7 eggs, which has now failed. This female was translocated and introduced to the population with a mate from Washington last spring and over the course of the two seasons she raised broods of 6, 2, and 7 young to fledging. Needless to say, she made a substantial contribution to the recovery effort and we are sorry to lose her.
The second female that was found dead had been nesting at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve. This was her first breeding season, having hatched in the third nest of a pair translocated last spring. She had disappeared only two days before her nest of 6 young fledged, and her body was discovered by a neighbour several days later. Fortunately, her mate, “Cody,” has been a diligent single parent and has continued to raise all 6 of their young, which fledged June 12th.
As hard as it is to lose any individual in this small, recovering population, it is particularly hard to lose a still-more-rare breeding female. We must remind ourselves that songbirds are near the bottom of the food chain, and are vulnerable to a host of threats, particularly during the breeding season. All landowners can do their part to help reduce songbird deaths by keeping cats indoors or in outdoor enclosures during the spring and early summer, by not spraying toxic insecticides, and by placing decals [external site] on large, reflective windows to prevent strikes.
Thankfully, there is more positive news than negative to report this week. Three broods have been banded and all have fledged successfully, adding 16 more juveniles to the population. At other territories, two females have built themselves second nests; one is incubating a clutch of 5 eggs, while another is feeding a brood of 3 nestlings that hatched yesterday.
All three translocations occurred as planned on June 8th and 12th. The first family to arrive consisted of a breeding pair and their three (all female!) nestlings, brought from Fort Lewis, Washington. The three nestlings fledged in their aviary two days ago and today the family was released, taking their first flight of freedom into a beautiful oak tree nearby. Now that we know they have decided to stay at the release site, we will be keen to observe any nesting behaviour from this pair in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the other two families, which consist of breeding pairs and their broods of 5 and 6 nestlings, are settling in well in their aviaries and should be released within the next week.
Finally, in a most remarkable turn of events, an apparent bachelorette was discovered two days ago! A female, translocated as an adult with her nestlings from Washington last year, was discovered with her son at the territory where the deceased female was found last week. We are searching for any sign she has a nest on neighbouring properties, and in the meantime we hope she finds an unrelated mate from our selection of Cowichan bachelors if she is unpaired!
The past week has been a busy one for the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project! Two more nests have fledged and two pairs of adults (of the three pairs with fledged nests) have already finished laying a second clutch! There are a total of 12 eggs in these two nests. The remaining three nests with nestlings will be banded in the next couple of days, and are expected to fledge next week.
We continue to prepare for the three Western Bluebird families that will be translocated and then released this month. Three aviary sites on volunteers’ properties in Duncan have been selected and translocations are set to begin next week. Our wonderful volunteers from the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve nursery have already set up an aviary for the first family and two more will be built by next week. If all goes as planned, we will be welcoming a bluebird family on Monday June 8th, and two more on Friday June 12th, safely delivered by our Washington partners at Ecostudies Institute [external site].
On another note, a big thank you is due to everyone who volunteered for or attended the 2nd Annual Bring Back the Bluebirds Burger and Beer Fundraiser, sponsored by the Cowichan Valley Naturalists [external site] and held at the Cowichan Bay Pub [external site]. The fundraiser, which included live music by Al Eskelson and The Cat’s Meow and live and silent auctions, was a huge success, raising over $3000 for the project.
This has been a wonderfully eventful week for Vancouver Island’s Western Bluebird population:
The first nest of the season fledged last Friday when the juveniles were 21 days old. Since then, the parents have been kept on their toes feeding their seven(!) juveniles, all well camouflaged in a nearby Garry Oak canopy. Although it is a bit too soon to be certain, this pair may begin to re-nest shortly, as a small amount of woven dried grass was found in a nestbox they had been peeking into on an adjacent property.
In other good news, a total of 8 nestlings were banded in two different nests last week. These nestlings are expected to fledge within the next week. The three nests that had been in the incubation stage hatched within a span of 2 days last week, which means that all of the bluebird eggs have now hatched, producing as many as 24 nestlings.
The exact dates for translocation of three bluebird families (breeding pairs with their first brood of nestlings) in June have not yet been set, but planning is underway and the early haying of properties in the Cowichan Valley provides optimal habitat for aviary sites. We can’t wait to share this beautiful valley with new bluebird families this summer!
This week was highlighted by the first banding event of the year. We were happy to confirm that all 7 eggs had indeed hatched (unless they are removed, one by one, from the nestbox, it can be difficult to confirm the total number of nestlings when they are young, small and piled on top of each other; we try to minimize handling by doing this count only once, at the time of banding) and that all 7 nestlings in this uncommonly large brood appeared big and healthy, with emerging flight feathers.
So that they can be identified once they leave the nest, each nestling is given a unique combination of 3 coloured plastic leg bands, as well as an obligatory numbered aluminum band from Environment Canada’s Bird Banding Office. Each brood member has one leg combination in common to further help with identification. The banding event is timed to occur when the nestlings are just old enough that their legs are roughly as thin as an adult’s (yes, their legs get thinner as they grow!) but young enough that the disturbance of banding will not cause them to fledge prematurely. At 15 days old, these nestlings are expected to fledge within the next 3-6 days. Now banded, they can leave the nest whenever they are ready!
Another highlight of the past week was a very exciting volunteer survey event, during which an unpaired male responded to our call playbacks – a first for our volunteer surveys this year. Although he had been previously identified, it was still a great opportunity for volunteers to learn about call playback surveys and practice their bird (and bird song) ID skills.
Today, a new bluebird was discovered near a nesting pair. The sighting of this returned male gives hope there may yet be more unknown bluebirds roaming the Cowichan Valley!
In the coming days, we will band the other 2 broods that are expected to fledge next week and look forward to the hatching of the 3 clutches that are in their last days of incubation. Fortunately on May 12th we welcomed a summer student, Ryan Hetschko, onto our field team as the project’s new Conservation Assistant. He will help our Western Bluebird Field Technician, Reanna Shelling, with the big task of tracking , monitoring, and caring for this growing population.
Over the last two weeks, the project has suffered two heavy blows. On May 5th, a nesting female who had been incubating a clutch of 6 eggs failed to appear during the routine daily feeding and did not resurface in the following days. Her eggs and nest were found intact and her mate was on site, leading us to believe that her disappearance was not the result of nest predation, but some other event that happened away from the nestbox.
Sadly, just one day later, another nesting female was discovered dead on her nest. She had just begun incubating her clutch of 5 eggs. Mysteriously, there were no signs of injury or other cause of death and no signs of damage to her nest or eggs. Her body has been sent to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative to determine the cause of death, if possible. Having escaped the fate of their mates, the surviving males become the 5th and 6th known unpaired males in the population.
Fortunately, there is also good news to report: the first nestlings of the season have hatched! On April 30th, one day earlier than expected, 7 nestlings hatched from a large clutch of 7 eggs. On May 6th, also a day early, 3 eggs hatched in a second nest. Then, as if in honour of Mother’s Day, a third brood of 6 hatched on May 10th. Suddenly, the Western Bluebird population has grown with the addition of 16 young! The parents of these broods are being kept very busy with feedings. Meanwhile, the three pairs who had been taking their time nest-building have finished laying a combined total of 16 eggs.
It is hard to believe that the oldest nestlings of the season (hatched on April 30th) could fledge as early as next week. Later this week, when they have grown big enough, they will be quickly colour-banded and returned to the nest so that they can be identified after leaving the nest and during subsequent breeding seasons.
With all 6 remaining breeding pairs incubating or feeding young, we are being kept on our toes monitoring progress and providing the supplemental food that will help ensure nesting success. Thankfully, the weather remains warm and dry and we have welcomed a summer student, Ryan Hetschko, to help assist our Western Bluebird Technician with the monitoring and care of the Cowichan Valley’s growing bluebird population.
Since the last update, the number of Western Bluebird eggs in the Cowichan Valley has more than doubled! There are now 21 eggs in 4 nests, up from 10 eggs in 2 nests last week. Later this week, the first clutch of the season, containing 7 eggs, is expected to hatch! Four or 5 unpaired males continue to be resighted throughout the reintroduction area and, apart from a brief chase at one territory, appear to be leaving the breeding pairs alone (one male, hatched in 2014, continues to help his parents at their territory).
This week, the focus of the Bring Back the Bluebirds technician and volunteers has been on doing what can be done to protect established nests from predators as the 8 known pairs continue nest building, laying, and incubating. While a great variety of effective predator guard designs exist, the guards we use are budget-friendly, flexible, temporary, and, when piloted last year, appeared effective. Nestboxes on freestanding posts are being guarded with tall, inherently slippery PVC sleeves, while plastic cones help protect nestboxes mounted to posts along fencelines. In territories with numerous House Sparrows, we have also attached “sparrow spookers” atop the nestbox to scare off potential avian attackers.
Nests guarded, we monitor nesting pairs, provide supplemental food on cool rainy days, and eagerly look forward to the first juveniles of 2015 and to eggs being laid in the remaining nests. Check back soon for an update on this growing population!
The first eggs of the season have been laid! There are already 10 bluebird eggs in the Cowichan Valley: a clutch of 7 eggs is being incubated in one nest while 3 eggs have been laid in another – with the possibly of more to come.
Daily surveys continue to be a priority so early on in the season, as new bluebirds continue to appear around the Cowichan Valley. This week, in addition to discovering an unpaired male found in an area where bluebirds nested last year, we confirmed that 2 pairs have formed at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve! The unpaired female has selected her mate from among the 2 third-year males and “Cody” appears to have found a mate in a female that fledged last August. This brings our count of breeding pairs to 8, for a total of 20 returned Western Bluebirds!
The first of three ‘Bluebird Blitzes’ was held on Wednesday, April 15. The event, hosted by the Nature Conservancy of Canada and guided by the Bring Back the Bluebirds team, is a volunteer-driven survey that covers priority locations throughout the reintroduction area. Although we did not discover any new Western Bluebirds, it was a great opportunity to share our work and introduce some of the known Western Bluebirds to the 12 volunteers that attended.
Stay tuned as we look forward to potentially finding more pairs and to known pairs laying and incubating in the coming weeks!
What a busy start to the 2015 season! Thus far, after only five days of surveying, we have confirmed 6 breeding pairs and 4 as yet unpaired males and 1 unpaired female, with many former territories and other ideal habitat areas still to be searched. The known population of 18 returned bluebirds consists of a mix of translocated and island-hatched individuals representing multiple generations — the greatest accomplishment of the recovery effort to date!
A couple of the pairs have started nest building and others appear to be laying claim to nestboxes. A distinct pair has yet to form from among the bluebirds at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve. Wherever pairs are established, supplemental food is being provided during periods of unfavourable weather.
The behaviour of the many unpaired males varies between keeping to themselves and asserting themselves at other males’ territories. At one territory, the fight between two males was lengthy and aggressive, with one male pinning the other to the ground! Thankfully, the conflict ended before any serious damage was done.
The coming months have much in store for the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project as we continue searching for pairs, monitoring nest building, and anticipate the first eggs of the year…
After only two days of combing former nesting territories and release sites for Western Bluebirds returning to their breeding grounds, our project technician has confirmed: 3 males and 1 female at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, 3 established pairs prospecting for nestboxes on private properties north of Quamichan Lake, and a fourth pair prospecting for nestboxes near Somenos Lake.
We are delighted to learn that “Cody,” a fourth-year male, has returned to the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve for his third breeding season. Cody had been translocated to Vancouver Island from southern Washington as a nestling with his family in 2012 – his parents were the historic pair that stayed to nest and raise the first Island-hatched nestlings since the species disappeared from Vancouver Island in 1995. Released as a fledgling on the preserve in 2012, Cody has returned to the site each year, even mating successfully in 2013. In addition to his impressive history, Cody is also impressive to see — even for a bluebird — as the plumage colour of males deepens with age and he is one of the oldest males in the population. Returned to the Preserve along with Cody are 2 third-year males; one is his offspring while the other was hatched on a neighbouring property in 2013. The female is the youngest of the group; she hatched last June in the nest of a pair released on a property north Quamichan Lake. It does not appear as though this female has chosen a mate from among the 2 third-year males that are “courting” her.
Nesting nearby, on properties north of Quamichan Lake, are several relatives of the female discovered on the Preserve. Her parents (translocated last year) have returned together to their former nestbox and have begun nest-building, while her sister (from the pair’s second nest) has paired with a third-year male (brother of one of the males at the Preserve) and is inspecting nestboxes on properties just across the road. Still further down the same road, a pair originally reported on a property in March was found at the same property, still prospecting for nestboxes.
Not far away, on the edge of Somenos Lake, a fourth pair has been discovered: an older female (translocated last spring) and a younger male that hatched on a neighbouring property last summer.
As territories are defined and nest-building begins, supplemental food dishes will be erected so that our technician can provide supplemental food for the pairs during periods of cold, wet, or windy weather. This will hopefully improve the female’s fitness and, once nestlings hatch, reduce the chances of the pair abandoning their young for lack of food.
Western Bluebirds of the Salish Sea region are thought to migrate to warmer Garry Oak habitats along the western US states of Oregon and California to overwinter. This year, however, it would seem that a surprisingly large number of the nearly 70 adults and juveniles counted in the reintroduced population last season did not migrate at all.
After we received confirmed reports of a few western bluebirds in Duncan in November and early December, followed by a sighting of two western bluebirds in Metchosin in December, we began to suspect as much, but there could be no mistaking that many were overwintering in the breeding area when a flock of 8-14 Western Bluebirds were reported at Mount Tzuhalem Ecological Reserve in Duncan. A similar-sized flock was reported in the Ecological Reserve by another observer in mid-February, and after that the reports of sightings came flooding in. As March progressed, the sightings of Western Bluebirds came increasingly from landowners in proximity to past breeding territories, suggesting that individuals were prospecting for nesting opportunities among the network of nestboxes that we had mounted throughout the area in recent years.
The photographs that were included with many of the reports from local birders partially captured the unique colour band combinations used to identify each bird, giving us hints about their identity. Piecing the information together, we have determined that there are at least 3 females and 6 males — the highest return rate since reintroductions began in 2012 (a total of eight bluebirds returned in the spring of 2014) – making up the returned population. It may be that the altered migratory behaviour of the past winter has resulted in greater survival across the population and greater natal site fidelity among the youngest females, who have a tendency to pair up and remain with males they meet along their migration route.
Now we can’t wait for the field season to begin on April 2nd so that we can search for nests and find out what these bluebirds have been up to. Who knows, there could be even more Western Bluebirds yet to be discovered!