WESTERN BLUEBIRDS - RETURN OF THE NATIVE

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What is it about bluebirds that capture our imagination? Henry David Thoreau wrote his iconic journal entry about the dazzling songbirds in April of 1852: "The bluebird carries the sky on its back," he mused. And so it does with bright azure wings that seem to glide effortlessly through the soft summer air on San Juan Island.

HIGH SEASON FOR BLUEBIRDS

The sun rose over San Juan Valley in a watercolor washed sky of powder blue brush-stroked with strands of creamy pearl. July's Blue Moon was still hanging high over the hedgerows when I arrived at Red Mill Farm. August was off to a warm start. The yellow jackets were already stirring under the shade of giant oak trees that defined the character of this island retreat once owned by Ernie and Dodie Gann and now, thanks to their generosity, part of The San Juan Preservation Trust's preserve system. I had come to spend the morning with western bluebirds. It was high season for them and things were looking good.

RED MILL FARM AND THE OAKS

Red Mill Farm Preserve spans 748 acres in San Juan Valley protecting open space and agricultural land in perpetuity. The environs surrounding the former Gann residence - now a field station for The Preservation Trust - supports another important habitat, an impressive grove of thriving Garry oaks.

Western bluebirds have become a symbol for the conservation of this rapidly disappearing realm in western Washington as elsewhere. As oak prairies have diminished so have the bluebirds that historically used previously excavated woodpecker holes in the massive trees as nest sites. 

The oaks had an important place in early island culture. Coast Salish collected acorns and managed the ground beneath the trees with fire to promote the growth of camas an important foodstuff; the bark had medicinal properties. The decline of the oaks is not fully understood as there are poor records of their original extent according to the Land Bank's Doug McCutchen. Among the factors that contributed to their early demise were clearing for homesteads and agricultural use, loss of fire as part of the ecosystem, loss of predators increasing deer population and browse, encroachment of Douglas fir forests, and competition with introduced plant and animal species. We may never know for sure if San Juan Valley was predominantly oak or a mosaic of shrubby wetlands, oak associated wetlands and patched of forest on the margins, as Doug suspects. He recalled an old map or description that named the area "Oak Valley." That moniker evokes a splendid historical image of the scene.

While greatly diminished from its former abundance, Garry oak habitat is still found on public and private lands here and oak restoration projects like that undertaken by the SJC Land Bank's indomitable Oak Team lead by Shawn Hubbard and Thom Pence are proving highly successful.

TIMES GONE BY

Western bluebirds were once common residents in and migrants through the San Juan Islands. Like many songbirds, in addition to habitat loss, they fell prey by the mid-20th century to the vast invasion of European starlings that robbed them of nesting cavities here. According to Lewis and Sharpe's classic book Birding in the San Juan Islands: "... flocks of these birds were last seen migrating on the south and west sides of San Juan in the fall and spring until 1963. The last reported breeding pair was present on Lopez in 1964."

While bluebirds do not appear to have been present on the island during the era of the Pig War, they were noted by ornithologists as common summer residents on the south slopes of Mt. Dallas in the 1930s, and were residents at Deadman's Bay, False Bay, Mt. Dallas, and Mt. Finlayson into the 1950s.

BRINGING BACK THE BLUEBIRDS

Fifty years was a long time for the islands to be without the beautiful thrush. In 2007, the San Juan Preservation Trust partnered with the Ecostudies Institute, the American Bird Conservancy, San Juan Audubon Society, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in a five-year project: the San Juan Islands Bluebird Reintroduction Program. The goal was to reestablish western bluebirds as a self-sustaining population and integral part of our island ecosystem.

Kathleen Foley, Stewardship Manager for The Trust, coordinated the program. "We exceeded our goal. Ninety-two bluebirds were translocated establishing 38 breeding adults here by 2011. At least 238 baby bluebirds fledged from nestboxes on San Juan Island. We had thirteen territories at the end of the period. Oh wow, we thought. We are on our way," Kathleen recounted. The project marked the first successful reintroduction of a migratory songbird completed in the United States.

At the end of Phase I, they stopped the translocations to see how the bluebirds would do on their own. In 2010-2012 the islands were hit with extremely bad weather and the population declined dramatically. In 2013, only 14 western bluebirds returned to San Juan Island but there was a nearly 100% survival rate of nestlings. Still, the bluebird population clearly needed a boost.

Last year, Kathleen and The Trust, again in partnership with Ecostudies Institute, started Phase II of the project with an emergency translocation of three family groups to San Juan Island from Corvallis, Oregon and JBLM. The team experienced both success and disappointment but adult and fledgling bluebirds migrated from the islands last fall with the hope of a spring 2015 return.

That hope was realized in early April 2015 when a pair of western bluebirds were sighted in San Juan Valley in the vicinity of a nestbox that had been used the previous year. It was the same pair of breeding birds and they were accompanied with their male offspring. Bluebirds were sighted elsewhere on the island, too. What fantastic news! 

In addition to these returning bluebirds, three pair of wild caught adults and captive reared offspring were translocated to the island in June. After release of the fledglings in San Juan Valley and nearby, two out of three pair successfully renested and have raised more offspring to fledge.

The returning pair of bluebirds that nested at Red Mill Farm reared a first clutch of four fledglings in late April and early May and have been working hard late in the season on another clutch. These were the birds I had come to watch. I was anxious to get better acquainted with Sialia mexicana and I knew I was not the only islander who wanted to know how they were doing.

AT RED MILL FARM

I arrived early at Red Mill. There has always been a certain mystic to this place born out of the rich natural and cultural history of the broad expanse of sweeping San Juan Valley. Anyone living on our island for a spell knows the stories of early pioneer life here and of the Gann's later commitment to conservation. And those of us connected to Nature have long enjoyed watching the four seasons unfold across this land with a rich diversity of wildlife that makes ones heart soar. To say we owe a deep sense of gratitude to the Ganns for their great gift of perpetual protection for this realm would be an understatement. It seemed only fitting that the bluebirds should finally call this place home.

The hedgerows of Nootka rose, snowberry and wild blackberry bustled with butterflies as I drove up the road to the compound. There were dozens of oak trees, large and small, growing on mossy outcrops and grassy balds that adjoined the open space of the valley. A family of California quail scurried through the underbrush, towhees and wrens scattered, and a flock of goldfinch foraged in thistle. Collared doves cooed from their high perches in the old trees; swallows swooped noisily overhead; and yellow-faced bees busied themselves in grasses awash with Queen Anne's lace. Golden dragonflies darted, like sentries, across the road as I passed the small orchard of apple and pear trees riddled with red-breasted sapsucker holes. The scene was set for my visit with the bluebirds.

I settled into the gentle natural rhythm of the day by two large oaks that shaded the former Gann residence. I would wait for the bluebirds to come my way and avoid any possibility of disturbing their routine. 

The Garry oaks (Quercus garryana) were awesome - the stout, heavy bodied trees a labyrinth of dense, gnarly branches laden with mosses, lichens, and fungi that support a vast matrix of life. Shadows from the deep green and celery splashed leaves played on the disheveled turf under the trees. The oaks had aged gracefully and continued to thrive producing healthy crops of acorns each summer. Subtle red flags marked several spots beneath the trees where oak seedlings have broken ground later to be transplanted elsewhere on the property.

It was quiet. With breeding season over for most birds, the jubilant warbling songs of spring had given way to the gentle strains of occasional hushed call notes. The silence was broken only by the sound of soft breezes from False Bay clattering through the leaves of the oaks, alders and poplars. I scanned the yard for bluebirds noting a feeding station set up near the Salish Seed Project Nursery. Field techs left mealworms at the platform to supplement the diets of hungry adults and fledglings. Almost immediately, I saw a flash of bright blue wings levitating out of the tall grass in front of the caretaker’s cottage. It was a male bluebird flushing insects from the sun-parched substrate. He dipped into the grass three times, appeared to almost nuzzle the ground, then came up with a mouth full of insects and headed toward the orchard. I knew there was an active nestbox just behind an old pear tree and sure enough the male flew directly to the box on the split rail fence and disappeared into the cavity. Moments later he reemerged and flew off along the perimeter lined with more nestboxes.

Soon, a juvenile bluebird brushed past me at the oak tree and landed on a post by the barn. Another followed close behind. These were, I assumed, the fledged offspring of the returning pair of wild bluebirds I had heard about from Kathleen. The juveniles were active - flitting in short bursts from post to split rail to high atop a nearby apple tree and into the canopied layers of the oaks. They routinely checked the feeder waiting for the tech to arrive with mealworms. Their parents were busy with what I hoped was a second brood of chicks. 

Bluebirds are extravagantly colorful creatures, yet these juveniles' plumage was subtle and unfinished: soft brownish- gray with white-spotted breasts and backs, and hints of a rufous wash on the sides and breast and blue on the wings and tail. The fine lines would fill in soon enough on the males with bold ultramarine. For now, being understated was perhaps good camouflage.

BLUEBIRD COHORTS

While watching the juveniles, I heard a soft tapping on the far side of an oak. It was a young hairy woodpecker working the deeply furled trunk of the old tree. It used its fine long bill to pry moss and yellow lichens aside to get to good grubs in the deep folds of the tree. This young bird's plumage was not yet fully defined, either, and the soft gray lines on its back blended perfectly with the aging gray tree bark. Its presence here was a good example of oak habitat cohabitation. The hairy adult is a cavity nester and may sometimes drill in the oaks. It is hard to tell, though, as the nearby Douglas firs and dead snags and stumps likely had much softer wood for excavation.

Sunlight playing through the leaves was soft and scintillating. A brown creeper foraged in the next oak over spiraling up and down the trunk gleaning with its downturned bill, and a chestnut-backed chickadee made a quick pass through the canopy and was gone. Red-breasted nuthatches were there, too. I spied a cedar waxwing poking through the acorns. It glowed in shades of mustard and cinnamon brown and peered at me through dark eyes hidden behind its black mask. Band-tailed pigeons made a brief appearance nearby and, come fall, would return to take their fill of ripened acorns. All are important members of this oak habitat community.

Next to the waxwing an adult bluebird perched quietly among the clusters of deeply lobed oak leaves taking in the valley view. I had not seen it arrive and the tranquil thrush did not stir as I walked under the tree to get a better vantage point. Such serenity. Through my binoculars I could appreciate the subtle brilliance of its plumage: blue as the sky above, and "...the hue of the earth on its breast...” as naturalist John Burroughs wrote in 1871. Within moments I spied a second bluebird resting in the safe-haven oak. 

It was a training day for the birds. The juveniles were learning and practicing new skills: how to perch hunt from the madrones and alders; to hover over tall grass in ground forage; and to work the oaks picking bugs from the leaves and cracks in the bark. They took cues from an adult male in finding secure vantage points. The fruit trees were favorites. Meantime, the breeding pair took turns delivering grubs to the nestbox. They rarely made a sound except for subtle call notes. Their presence was statement enough.

There was only one moment of drama. A ruckus broke out in the sky as barn swallows mobbed an incoming merlin - a small dark gray falcon well known for its hunting prowess. The air was a riot of wild alarm calls and the adult male bluebird perched atop a pear tree immediately dove for cover. The lives of these songbirds are fraught with danger. Even the relative safety of Red Mill Farm may not protect them from the myriad natural threats of this wild world.

BABY BLUEBIRDS

At 10:30, Kelsey Green appeared. She worked with both The Trust and the Ecostudies Institute and was responsible for daily monitoring of the bluebirds and for transporting the families from JBLM to the island this spring. I joined her to check the nestbox. We waited for the female to leave and then Kelsey set a ladder up to take a look. She peered into the small wooden structure and with a broad smile announced the presence of four baby bluebirds recently hatched. I took a quick look. Oh my, a bundle of naked nestlings in a woven grass womb. Their wide yellow mouths gapped open for food. Tiny strands of thin feathery dark-gray down adorned their crowns and backs. They looked a bit like little punk rockers. Bluebirds hatched (perhaps) under the Blue Moon. Perfect. 

Satisfied that all was well, we left quickly. Kelsey put out mealworms for the adults who would be busy now with the new brood and for the juveniles who could still use the added nutrition. She prepared to head to another bluebird site to check on more nestlings and I could not resist going along.

As an end point to my visit, a brilliant male bluebird did a slow drift past me toward the tall grass near the split rail fence with bright blue wings wide open to the gentle breeze. An occasional, effortless beat kept the glide going as it seemed to float upon the grace of Red Mill Farm’s enduring legacy to wildlife.

MORE GOOD NEWS

We stopped at a grove of old oaks off Cattle Point Road. Close to a dozen juvenile and adult bluebirds foraged in the trees. Kelsey checked on more hatchlings at one of the nestboxes nearby. She removed two of the birds to monitor the progress of their emerging feathers still encased in blue sheathes and sent photographs of the birds to Kathleen for consultation. These nestlings were about eleven days old. The warm weather was supporting the rapid growth of the babies and soon it would be time to band them before they fledged. I bid adieu to Kelsey as she headed across the grove to another nestbox she learned was likely active, too. The season was going well and she had more good news to report by the end of her day.

BANDING BLUES

I rejoined Kelsey and Kathleen five days later to band those young birds. It was a cool, gray morning. After many years with bluebirds, Kathleen was a pro at the process. Four birds were carefully removed from the nestbox and quickly given their color-coded leg bands. She gently cupped each tiny charge in her hands to insure they did not get chilled in the moist air. While a simple process, it was still serious business and each move was carefully orchestrated to minimize stress on the birds. Kathleen had the touch and one baby blue fell asleep in her hand as the band was easily attached. In a few short days, these birds would be foraging about the oak grove and possibly moving out into other parts of the island. With the leg bands intact, the bluebird team might be able to keep track of their movements. 

I asked Kathleen if we knew where the bluebirds go in the winter. "We can only speculate," she replied. "We had a report via the identification from a leg band of them in the Willamette Valley in Oregon in November of last year. We can only assume that they were drawn to that part of Oregon and into northern California. But, generally, we still don’t know exactly where our San Juan population goes. " 

Migration for many breeding birds in the San Juans is already underway but the bluebirds will remain here into fall. "They linger like the last leaves on the tree," wrote naturalist Neltje Blanchan in Birds Worth Knowing in 1917. And so they do, much to our delight.

MORE BLUEBIRD SPRINGS

There is still plenty of time for islanders to enjoy watching western bluebirds, and to report their sightings to Kathleen. Young bluebirds and family groups may flock together on the island before they journey south. American Camp, Mt. Finlayson, and the gravel pit at Pear Point appear to be among the favored late summer gathering places. The adults will likely stay with the offspring through migration and perhaps during the winter before they separate ahead of the breeding season. And as Kathleen has learned, perhaps some offspring will remain with their parents and return together to San Juan Island in the spring of 2016.

Eight years ago a dream was imagined to reestablish western bluebirds in the San Juan Islands. The task has been daunting and the work tireless but the successes have been heartening. At this stage in the program the birds still cannot reestablish here in large numbers on their own - and they don't have to. With Kathleen at the helm, biologists like Kelsey and Andrew Munson in the field, and countless volunteers to support them, the native western bluebirds have a good chance of permanently reestablishing their home here. 

As islanders, we can watch these beautiful blue birds leading wild lives in their historic realm, take heart at their perseverance - and ours, and know that the world is still a place of possibilities. Sometimes, we can bring back what seems lost and look optimistically toward a future of more bluebird springs.

NOTE: Kathleen Foley would like to hear about your sightings of western bluebirds in the San Juans. Contact her at: kathleenf@sjpt.org and become a part of the team.


SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK BY SUSAN VERNON /WESTERN BLUEBIRDS - RETURN OF THE NATIVE. Text and photographs © 2015 by Susan Vernon. All rights reserved. Susan Vernon is the author of Rainshadow World - A Naturalist's Year in the San Juan Islands.


Susan can be contacted at susanvernon@sanjuanislander.com

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