Western bluebirds feed on grubs in the Cowichan Valley (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Western bluebirds feed on grubs in the Cowichan Valley (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Bringing back the bluebirds

Western bluebird (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Western bluebird (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Western bluebirds were once a common sight on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Harbingers of spring, their song would be heard as the weather turned warm and the vibrant wildflowers began to bloom in Garry oak meadows and woodlands.

But western bluebirds disappeared from this area in the mid-1990s, likely due to habitat loss and competition from introduced species, among other factors. In 2012, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) partnered with a group of conservation and naturalist groups to bring western bluebirds back to their former range on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. The epicentre of the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project was the Cowichan Valley, and NCC's Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve became the first site to host a translocation. Since that first successful translocation, bluebirds have been a steady presence at the preserve.

"Since 2012, bluebirds have nested on NCC property every year, with that land producing at least 22 juvenile bluebirds alone!" said project director Ryan Hetschko, who we caught up with recently to talk about last year's success and what is in store for the bluebirds in 2017. 

Western bluebird eggs (Photo by GOERT)

Western bluebird eggs (Photo by GOERT)

"Last year 2016 was another successful year for the Cowichan Valley’s bluebirds," said Hetschko. "As of September, we had a total adult population of 28 bluebirds who had 11 successful nests. From these, the Cowichan Valley saw its biggest baby boom yet, with 96 eggs (we really wanted 100!) and 67 juveniles successfully fledged. Due to funding and regulatory issues, we were not able to translocate as many birds as we had hoped, though we were able to bring up three pairs with nestlings from Joint Base Louis McCord in Washington State to join our population."

New for 2017

Now in its sixth year, Bring Back the Bluebirds is being headed up by the Cowichan Valley Naturalists' Society (CVNS), which has been an integral partner since the beginning. The original lead organization, the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, passed the mantle to CVNS in the fall of 2016.

Western bluebird at a feeding station (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Western bluebird at a feeding station (Photo by Ryan Hetschko)

Most of the Bluebird Project field activity happens in the spring and summer when the birds are building nests, mating and rearing their young. But in the fall and winter there is still a lot of preparation to do for the upcoming breeding season.

"Unlike in previous years, we have decided not to conduct translocations this year. Instead we will focus on monitoring and supporting the current population," said Hetschko. "Further translocations might be possible in subsequent years."

Also new this year, much of the field work is going to be done by the CVNS’s keen volunteers. Trained and dedicated volunteers will be responsible for the monitoring and maintainence of one of our 18 trails and then reporting data on nest-box use.

"The volunteers have all been trained on proper monitoring protocols and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring to get out there looking for bluebirds!" said Hetschko. "Some volunteers have already been out through the winter to see if any birds have stayed over, and we believe 10 bluebirds braved the chilly weather."

Anyone can get involved in this project by keeping an eye out for western bluebirds in the Cowichan Valley. Report any sightings to project coordinator Genevieve Singleton at cowichanbluebird@gmail.com or 250-746-8052.

Bluebirds at In Bloom

In Bloom Wildflower Festival (Photo by Tim Ennis/NCC)One excellent opportunity to see western bluebirds in person happens each year at the annual In Bloom Wildflower Festival. This special event takes place on the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve each spring, and is a once-a-year chance to visit the normally closed-to-the-public preserve. Ever since bluebird translocations started in 2012, the sweet songbirds have joined us and delighted visitors at the festival. This year's In Bloom is on Saturday, April 29. Visit the In Bloom Wildflower Festival webpage for more information.

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