Bluebirds bring colour, song and joy to Black Mountain

Every year, FoBM volunteers with an interest in birds set up and monitor a series of wooden boxes that are specially designed and placed to attract bluebirds to build their nests. The objective is to support the region's population of two species of bluebirds -- Mountain and Western. Led by FoBM Board Member Carol Millar, team members regularly check the boxes in order to track bird numbers.

 

It is critically important that these birds not be disturbed, so please do not approach any of the nesting boxes, and always keep your dogs on leashes. We have put together this page to help you better understand the bluebird nesting project -- its history, purpose, challenges and results.

 

To read Carol Millar's Summary of the Bluebird Watch for 2020, click here.

For this year's latest blog posts, please scroll further down this page.

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Disappointing and Concerning Season
Bluebird Update July 2022

By Carol Millar

The bluebird season at Black Mountain - sntsk'il'ntən Park was disappointing and concerning. Ultimately, only five Western Bluebirds fledged. It seems only a single Tree Swallow fledged and there is currently a House Wren tending to a new nest, which may have some luck.

 

The lack of success this year could be in part due to the weather. One box of Western Bluebirds that hatched early during the dry and cool spring all died close to their fledging time after a heavy rainfall. One nest of Tree Swallows laid eggs later and seemed never to have hatched. 

So we need to ask ourselves, what else could be the explanation for the deaths and the very poor turnout of hatchlings? 

Could it be excessive noise from the heavy equipment in the vineyard next door? Could it be due to fewer birds migrating to the area due to environmental factors such as the heat dome and fires last year? Could it be due to predators? (Although, if the birds are dead in the nest, then it seems they weren’t eaten.) Could it be due to decreased insect populations at the time the birds were growing? Could it be due to Avian Flu? (Although I understand it has not yet been found in songbirds.) 

The big question is, what can we do to improve our Bluebird Trails?

One idea might be to again move some of our nest boxes. Bluebirds like open grassland spaces, but if they are not getting insects when needed, berries are a food that can supplement their diet through hard times, according to the Cornell Lab, as described in the summer issue of the North American Bluebird Society’s magazine. Elderberry, which grows in some places in the park, is one type of food bluebirds feed on. Others are sumac, mountain ash and red cedar. 

 

Although grasslands are important to bluebirds, being closer to open Ponderosa Pine forests can also be advantageous to them. I was so gratified this year to see a pair of Western Bluebirds nesting in a tree cavity in an open forested area close to the park’s grasslands.

I hope through reading and talking to others who have bluebird trails that we might have more success next year. 

The Bluebird Project on Black Mountain

Black Mountain - sntsk’il'ntən Regional Park boasts a variety of habitats, most notably a large expanse of precious grasslands — the kind of open area where bluebirds are most likely to nest. While bluebird populations have been severely threatened across British Columbia, the diligence of a handful of local volunteers has helped boost the populations of these beautiful birds.

History

 

About 20 years ago, people noticed that the bluebird population on Vancouver Island had declined so much that the bird was considered locally extinct. The evidence pointed to invasive bird species (starlings), pesticide use, a shortage of dead trees for natural nesting, and a loss of grasslands as the contributing factors in this unfolding tragedy.

 

Fortunately, a determined group of people set up special nesting boxes, which helped reestablish a bluebird population. This success encouraged others: There are more than 5,000 bluebird nest boxes in British Columbia today.

Some years ago, bird lovers Doreen and Lou Wirenga set up a “bluebird trail”, which is a series of nesting boxes along a line of fencing, in what is now Black Mountain Regional Park. They had some success, but the work of monitoring and safeguarding the boxes was proving too much. In response, members of Friends of Black Mountain took up the torch and have been installing and monitoring new boxes in the park for the past five years. 

FoBM Picks up the Torch

Starting with 12 boxes, we chalked up some success in our first year! We were delighted when Western Bluebirds claimed a handful of the boxes for their nests, and we watched their young ones hatch, grow and fledge. 

But our task was not without its challenges. 

Cattle from a nearby ranch got into the park, and in some cases mamas and their calves found themselves on opposite sides of the fences. Wanting to be together, they walked along the fence line, knocking off boxes as they went. So we raised the boxes higher. 

Then heavy equipment began to alter the natural lands to the west of the fence line, in order to turn them into a giant vineyard. The RDCO fence posts supporting the bluebird boxes were pulled out and replaced with 10-foot-high deer fencing. While the boxes were saved, a few were roughed up and broken. The boxes were repaired and reinstalled high up on the sturdy new posts. Despite ongoing construction work, the Western Bluebirds came back. 

Tree Swallows

In some years we’ve found tree swallows nesting in our bluebird boxes. These bird species are compatible in that they warn each other of impending predators, and bluebirds don’t like to nest too close to other bluebirds — housing densification does not work for them! Last year we witnessed a rather physical battle between a western bluebird and a tree swallow. Ultimately, they worked out a truce and managed to nest in boxes about 15 feet apart and successfully breed.

Current Situation

Our program has continued to grow: we now have 19 boxes in the grasslands area. 

Over the past two years we are happy to report that Mountain Bluebirds have also successfully nested and fledged. 

Unfortunately fewer boxes were used this year than in the past, possibly due to the blasting, drilling and hauling of large boulders in the adjacent vineyard, spitting distance from several boxes.

On the plus side we now have a dedicated team of volunteers who are monitoring the birds according to the protocols set out by the Southern Interior Bluebird Association. With time we hope that we will continue to see an increase in the population of these beautiful birds.

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April 3rd, 2022 Eco-watch

By Carol

I had a lovely walk in the Park this week, while checking the nest boxes. No activity in the nest boxes, but I enjoyed seeing many bird species, including several Violet Green Swallows, Tree Swallows, Meadowlarks, Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and a Red-tailed Hawk.

 

There was a pack of coyotes about, just east of the knoll adjacent to the ephemeral pond. They were yipping and howling and barking, but mostly yipping. I also saw one trotting down the knoll within the fenced area. I scooted by as quickly as possible. There were some lovely wildflowers out, including yellow bells, spring beauties and buttercups. The Balsam Root will be coming out soon; I saw some in bloom at Kalamoir Park a few days earlier. 

 

Bluebird Meeting in Vernon on April 2nd

By Carol

An excellent PowerPoint presentation on bluebirds was given by Margaret MacKenzie. A couple of photos were shown, depicting predators in the boxes, including a Gopher Snake and a Weasel! That’s why it is suggested you check boxes from the side and tap lightly with your finger nails to alert any predators, before you open the box. 

I learned that one reason bluebirds tolerate Tree Swallows in nearby boxes is that they don’t compete for the same food source. Bluebirds find food in the grasses (bugs etc.) whereas Tree Swallows catch insects on the fly. Bluebirds have tidy nests made of grasses; Tree Swallow nests have feathers on the top; Wrens have lots of sticks piled up to the top and produce dummy nests to fool predators, and Chickadees and Nuthatches have mossy nests. 

A sticker was produced by the Northern Bluebird Society saying “Bluebird Recovery Project”, which can be put on boxes. I thought this was a good idea. Someone I talked with in the park didn’t know that some birds nest in the ground, which is why we try to discourage people from allowing their dogs to run all over during nesting season. He said we should put up a sign explaining this to people. I told him we were working on it and thanked him for putting his dog on a leash.