The bright blue flash of male western bluebirds gliding over dried prairie grass is a more frequent sight in the San Juans thanks to the Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project.
“The reintroduction project was kind of a risk for the San Juan Preservation Trust,” Kathleen Foley, San Juan County Preservation Trust stewardship manager, said.
Although the trust had not previously been involved in any project remotely like it, the staff and board still believed it was a chance worth taking, Foley said, and not just for the birds. Such a project would also raise public awareness regarding the importance of island Garry oaks and prairie land habitat, she added.
These insect-eating members of the thrush family thrive in a mixture of trees or fences with open grassland. From their perch, western bluebirds, Sialia mexicana, watch for bugs, quickly flying down to snatch them, Barbara Jensen, president of the San Juan Islands Audubon chapter explained. The birds are also able to spot predators and easily dip down into the grass to hide. San Juan Valley is a prime example of such a location and is one of their favorite spots, according to Foley.
Jensen noted she has also frequently seen these stunning birds early in the morning working the fence line around the historical buildings near the visitors center at American Camp.
Sightings of Sialia mexicana in the San Juans were documented up until the 1960s, Foley explained. Jensen said noted two key factors for the decline. Habitat changed as oaks were removed and grasslands were converted to farmland and urbanized, she explained. The introduction of starlings, who are known to take over other birds’ nests, also impacted the population.
The reintroduction program was originally organized in 2007 as a partnership including the trust, The American Bird Conservancy, Ecostudies Institute, San Juan Islands Audubon Society, Department of Defense Fort Lewis Military Installation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.
Then, just as the population was beginning to grow, 2012-2013 brought back-to-back wet and cold springs causing the budding population to crash once again.
“[The bluebirds] couldn’t find enough food,” Foley said.
The group decided to attempt five more years of translocations. Those reintroductions are now complete, and today bluebirds are on the rise.
“I’m feeling pretty hopeful. As long as we don’t get another setback,” Foley said.
She added that it would be disheartening should local bluebird numbers decline once more.
“If the population crashes again, I kind of feel like maybe the birds are trying to tell us something, that the conditions are no longer right here,” she said.
However, there is plenty of good news from this season, Foley noted.
Ten pairs of bluebirds — 20 individual birds — returned to the San Juans to breed, an increase of two pairs over last year.
“Every time I see one of them return I feel like it’s a miracle given the perils they face on their trek,” Foley said.
A total of 86 juveniles were banded by the end of this season, according to Foley. A local female juvenile was photographed on Vancouver Island by a citizen who then posted it online only one month after she had fledged.
“The reason that is exciting is it shows they are establishing their historical migratory patterns,” Foley noted.
Jensen explained that during the fall the birds move south — some come from Vancouver Island and stage, or prepare, in the islands before heading south — and go to places like the Willamette Valley and California. The adult males are early spring migrants, arriving in February, followed by females and the previous year’s fledglings.
Another highlight of this season was that several females triple-clutched, meaning, Foley explained, they had three separate nests of eggs. One of these females not only triple-clutched, but each of her clutches had eight chicks, so volunteers nicknamed her Octomom. The average clutch size for bluebirds is closer to six, she noted. Octomom went well above and beyond mama bird duty, she added. After seven of her chicks had fledged, staff and volunteers were heartbroken to discover Octomom’s deceased body.
“She didn’t have a scratch on her. She was not near any window or road,” Foley added. Her theory, she continued, is that the poor lady simply wore herself out laying all those eggs. According to Jensen, songbirds typically live for about seven years.
Only seven of the 24 were able to fledge, Foley said, due to raccoons and house sparrows destroying her nest. One of the biggest challenges is predators such as raccoons, house sparrows, hawks and cats, Foley explained.
Foley advocates keeping cats indoors, stating, “It’s the responsible thing to do if you care about songbirds.”
She added that she requests landowners with cats who have nesting bluebirds on their property please keep their felines inside, at least for the duration of the season.
“Bluebirds come to the ground to feed and when they are feeding their young they aren’t as focused on what is going on around them, making them vulnerable,” Foley explained.
In regards to house sparrows, Foley noted that if a landowner has house sparrows, they should not try to attract bluebirds, because the sparrows will kill them. House sparrows, she continued, are known for taking over other birds’ nests and killing their young.
Jensen noted that the sparrows have become a serious problem on the islands and one way for those homeowners with birdhouses to combat the aggressive sparrow is to get rid of sparrow nests immediately.
“They are not a protected species,” she noted.
The trust, according to Foley, is doing what it can to ensure key bluebird nesting areas are predator-proof.
“They have the same challenges as any other bird,” Foley said. “But because the population is so small, we are trying to mitigate losses.”
Islanders had the chance to view a nesting pair this year at Island Parks and Rec’s Lafarge Open Space, commonly known as the gravel pit, which Foley said was incredible. It gave community members a chance to observe and photograph the rare birds foraging and caring for their young. The public was respectful, Foley said, and genuinely curious.
Eventually, Foley added, she hopes the numbers will be stronger and the trust and volunteers won’t have to go through all the efforts they currently are to maintain the bluebird population.
Foley also expressed gratitude to the volunteers and landowners.
“They are the ones making this happen, and I hope more people will get involved,” she said, adding that she would love the community to galvanize around the project.
Foley encourages islanders to report any sightings of bluebirds so that the trust may gain insight as to where the birds go.
In identifying the birds, Jensen gave a few tips. Physically, the birds are smaller than their robin relatives. Males are a bright blue with a rusty bib on their chest, while females and juveniles are a more muted slate grey color. She said to listen for a delicate “kew kew kew” call. This time of year, she added, the calls will primarily be location calls, letting fellow flock members know where they are and if they are finding good food. Calls between juveniles and parents are also common during late summer and early fall. Jensen noted the local Audobon chapter has a Facebook page to report sightings, and there are experts checking the page to field any birding questions.
“The more people that become involved and take ownership of the project the more successful it will be,” Foley said.
To report bluebird sightings to the trust, or to become involved in the project, contact Foley at email@example.com.
For more information about the trust, visit sjpt.org.
To learn more about San Juan Island Audobon, visit sjiaudubon.org.