It was a chilly but sunny “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” kind of morning on the Tenalquot Prairie adjacent to Fort Lewis.
But Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird weren’t landing on anyone’s shoulders.
Instead, biologists Gary Slater and Bob Altman set up nearly invisible “mist nets” of lightweight nylon near a cedar nest box.
Two Eastern bluebirds watched from halfway up a nearby tree. Hunkered down behind another tree, Slater turned on a recording of various Western bluebird calls and waited.
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The trap was set.
“It’s their territory,” explained Altman, who’s with the American Bird Conservancy in Corvallis, Ore. “They get upset with (the sound of) other bluebirds.”
Within minutes the male bluebird flew over to investigate and quickly became entangled in the soft net.
Slater sprinted to the net to untangle the bird so it wouldn’t hurt itself. He held the blue, red and black bird by its feet and placed it in a small cage near the nest box. It quickly attracted the female, which also flew into the net.
BOUND FOR THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS
The biologists already had bagged one pair of bluebirds that were caged and ready for the drive to Anacortes and ferry ride to Friday Harbor. The birds will become part of the five-year-old San Juan Islands Bluebird Reintroduction project.
Biologists hope they will nest and breed in native oak woodlands on San Juan Island.
This is the third year of the relocation effort. So far, Altman said, 21 pairs have been relocated to the island. Last week’s capture added three more.
The program appears to be succeeding. Altman said five pairs from last year’s catch have nested on the island, and four of the pairs have raised broods. The goal is to relocate 45 pairs.
The project is a unique collaboration by the American Bird Conservancy, the San Juan Preservation Trust, the San Juan Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Ecostudies Institute of Mount Vernon and Fort Lewis.
Slater, with the Ecostudies Institute, said the project is modeled on his successful relocation effort to bring Eastern bluebirds back to Everglades National Park in Florida.
The project costs about $50,000 a year, plus many hours of volunteer time and in-kind work from other agencies. A major donor is the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.
Why are bluebirds important?
“They are part of the ecosystem (on the island) that has been lost,” Altman said. “There has been a lot of effort to restore the oak-prairie system. This is one component of that system.”
ARMY MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Without Fort Lewis, bluebirds might have disappeared from the Puget Sound area.
The post and nearby prairies are the last place in the Puget Sound region where the birds survive in adequate numbers, thanks to efforts dating back to the late 1970s by Fort Lewis biologists.
The post now has 215 nest boxes and an enviable population of the birds.
Once as common as robins, Western bluebirds like a prairie-oak habitat and need tree cavities to nest. Suburban growth, fire suppression efforts and safety concerns have reduced the number of snag trees and consequently the bluebird population.
The nest boxes have proved a successful substitute.
Fort Lewis biologist Jim Lynch credited Dave Clouse, Fort Lewis’ fish and wildlife manager, with beginning the nest box program in the early 1980s. At that time, about 50 pairs of the birds were left on Fort Lewis. Today’s population is unknown, but each year 100 new pairs are captured and banded, he said.
The nest box program has expanded to purple martins, wood ducks and kestrel falcons, Lynch said.
Schoolchildren have become a prime supplier on San Juan Island and in the South Sound area. The Nature Conservancy owns the 100-acre Tenalquot Prairie north of Rainier and is restoring the natural habitat, said Eric Delvin, South Sound coordinator for the conservancy.
Students have built and installed 14 bluebird nest boxes on the prairie.
Prairie restorations also are under way in the islands, Fort Lewis and the South Sound area.
BLINGING THE BIRDS
Back at Slater’s vehicle, Slater and Altman carefully weighed and measured the two bluebirds and attached silver-colored identity bands to one of their legs.
The birds remained relatively calm. Slater said bluebirds are good to relocate because they tolerate capture and are easy to work with.
Once on San Juan Island they will be kept in a temporary aviary for up to two weeks or until they grow accustomed to their surroundings by showing signs of breeding, such as making a nest, Slater said.
Then they are released.
In addition to the identity band, each bluebird gets a unique set of color bands on its legs. The bands make it easy to distinguish a bird from a distance, Altman said.
The male bluebird got red, white and blue bands.
“Patriotic,” quipped Slater.
Grace Diehl, the Nature Conservancy’s steward for the Tenalquot Prairie, laughed.
“He is going to be blinging,” she said.