Bring Back the Bluebirds

Project update courtesy of Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team

The Bring Back the Bluebirds project is excited to report the first confirmed Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) nest in the Salish Sea area since 1995. A re-introduced bluebird has laid four beautiful blue eggs at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve (CGOP) near Duncan.

The eggs are in a nestbox claimed by an adult pair of Western Bluebirds that was released at CGOP on June 11th. This is the young pair’s first breeding season, and they’re already working on their second brood. Meanwhile, they continue to provide food for the four fledglings from their first brood (the entire family was translocated from Washington on June 6th). The fledglings are often seen perched in a small Garry Oak tree near their parents’ new nestbox.

Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) Nestling
One of four Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) nestlings at Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve (CGOP). Photo © Bill Pennell, used with permission.

“This breeding attempt by the re-introduced pair is a measurable mark of success for the Bring Bring Back the Bluebirds project and is the first step in re-establishing a population on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. We anticipate that if the nest is successful and produces young, the young will return to the area next spring to nest on their own,” says project partner Gary Slater of Ecostudies Institute.

Once a common species within Garry Oak ecosystems on Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) thrived until the 1950s, when their numbers began to decline. Since 1995, they have not been known to nest successfully in this region, and are considered extirpated (locally extinct). Some possible reasons for their absence include the reduction of insect prey due to pesticide use, loss of Garry Oak habitat, removal of standing dead trees, and competition for nest holes with exotic bird species such as European Starlings and English House Sparrows. Western Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they cannot build their own nest cavities, and depend on old woodpecker cavities, natural holes in trees, or nestboxes.

Banded Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) Nestling
July 22, 2012: Banding day for the first Western Bluebirds to hatch on Vancouver Island since 1995. Photo © Bill Pennell, used with permission.

The five-year Bring Back the Bluebirds project, led by the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, Ecostudies Institute, and the Province of BC, began this spring with the translocation of four breeding pairs of Western Bluebirds (two with nestlings) from a healthy population in Washington State. The project aims to re-establish a self-sustaining breeding population on southeastern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands.

After a temporary holding period, the birds were released to find their own nesting locations. Although there have been sightings of the first two pairs since their release, their nesting locations have not been determined. The remaining pair, with their fledglings, has stayed nearby and may also nest again.

Banded Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) Nestling
Banded Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) nestling. Photo © Bill Pennell, used with permission.

This pilot year would not have been possible without funding from the Victoria Natural History Society, North American Bluebird Society, and the Southern Interior Bluebird Trail Society. The Nature Conservancy of Canada also made this first year possible by providing major logistical support and the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve as a bluebird release site. Members of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists have been instrumental in watching for and reporting bluebird sightings, and hosting nestboxes.

Western Bluebirds are one of more than 100 species-at-risk in Garry Oak and associated ecosystems. In Canada, Garry Oak ecosystems are present only in a narrow coastal strip of southeast Vancouver Island, in the nearby Gulf Islands, and in two areas of the Fraser River Valley; land conversion for agricultural, residential, and industrial development has vastly reduced the extent of Garry Oak habitat and they face additional threats from alien invasive species. The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team and our partners work to protect and restore these ecosystems and the many species that depend on them for survival.

The public can report possible bluebird sightings to bluebird@goert.ca or 250-383-3427. To learn more about and support the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project, see www.goert.ca/bluebird. The latest GOERT news on the project can be found at http://www.goert.ca/news/2012/07/a-bluebird-summer/. You can also check out the project’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/garryoakeco.

Photos courtesy of Bill Pennell and used with his permission.

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