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Friday, March 3, 2017

What's up with bluebirds on San Juan Island?

Last night the San Juan Preservation Trust held a fireside chat about their western bluebird reintroduction project, which is entering its 11th year. Some people may wonder why this project is still going on and what it's future may hold. We learned answers to a lot of questions last night, and in case you weren't able to make it, I thought I would post a summary.

Pair of western bluebirds on San Juan Island
There are historical records of western bluebird populations all throughout the greater Puget Sound region, including the San Juan Islands, from the 1800s into the early 1900s. Throughout the 20th century, however, primarily due to human development leading to habitat loss, many of this historic populations were extirpated. A strong population still exists near Olympia, but the large urban area of greater Seattle lies between that region and other areas that could still support bluebirds, like San Juan Island. When you have patchy habitat like this, it's unlikely the birds will expand and re-find the San Juans on their own; what's their incentive to cross Seattle? That's why the bluebird reintroduction project began, the first such effort for a migratory passerine species in the United States.

Relocation of birds from elsewhere in Washington happened over the first five years of the program, and a decent population took hold, having breeding success. Pairs and families who were "soft released" here after being held in aviaries were successfully breeding and rearing young, who were all banded so they could be tracked.

Banding a western bluebird nestling

After five years of reintroductions, the program entered a two year monitoring phase to see if the population was healthy enough to maintain itself. Sadly, this coincided with two El Nino years that led to very wet springs, leading to a population crash of our newly established but still fragile population. Not only did these rainy springs take a toll on our bluebirds, but western bluebird and swallow populations throughout the state experienced big fatality events. It was terrible timing for the island's bluebirds, and emergency reintroductions were started again to help support the population. It was decided that five more years of supplementing the local population would occur, to see with better luck if they could gain a foothold. 2017 and 2018 are the last two years of this second round of reintroductions.

Male western bluebird with worm
So far, things are looking pretty good. A sister program in Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is helping bluebirds take hold in the region, and birds are beginning to move back and forth between these two pioneer colonies. The local population was about 30 birds last year, with one pair attempting to nest on Lopez Island for the first time. This past winter, for the first time on records, a small group of bluebirds actually overwintered on San Juan Island, being seen regularly on the west side and south end of the island, even despite our numerous cold snaps. 

Community enthusiasm was initally high about this project, but it's hard to maintain that momentum when efforts take a decade or more of work. Volunteers are needed now more than ever, however, to keep the program going, not only during these last two years of reintroduction efforts but to keep monitoring going beyond that. First of all, you can help by reporting any bluebirds you see. They bird are just starting to return now and more should arrive in the coming weeks, and it's hard to keep eyes out there everywhere to determine where exactly they might settle down to nest. Be aware though that mountain bluebirds might also be out there; they'll stop here on their migration but won't nest locally. They're often seen at the sound end of the island in March and April and are a more brilliant blue with no brown on them:

Mountain bluebird at American Camp

There are plenty of other ways to get involved, too. As outlined at the meeting last night, the Preservation Trust is looking for three types of volunteers:

1. Searchers, to help regularly survey likely spots birds will return in early spring
2. Nest box monitors, to make regular checks on nesting birds and their fledglings once pairs of settled down
3. Aviary assemblers, available at the last minute to help erect temporary aviaries for birds being translocated to San Juan Island

If you see any bluebirds, or are interesting in helping out by volunteering in any of the above ways, please contact Kathleen Foley at Please consider getting involved to help support the return of this beautiful little bird to the San Juans!

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