FORT LEWIS — Tuesday was moving day for a small segment of the Western bluebird population that has grown by leaps and bounds at this sprawling Army post the past 25 years.
The pre-breeding rituals of three adult pairs of bluebirds were interrupted long enough for them to be captured, banded and transported to San Juan Island as part of the first bluebird relocation project attempted in the state.
All but given up for lost, the colorful, medium-size songbird has staged a remarkable comeback in the remnant prairies of South Sound.
The objective is to use some of the South Sound birds to repopulate the San Juan Islands, where the bluebird population succumbed to habitat loss and development in the early 1960s.
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“The time is right, the stars are aligned,” Bob Altman, regional coordinator of the American Bird Conservancy, said of the $40,000, five-year pilot project financially supported by his group, the Disney Wildlife Conservation and the Norcliffe Foundation of Seattle.
“This is all part of a larger effort to restore and preserve oak prairie ecosystems.”
The South Sound bluebird recovery work began with Black Hills Audubon stalwarts George Walter and Jack Davis, who used to sneak onto the military base and tack up bluebird nest boxes in the early 1980s, bolstered by the belief that the 20,000 acres of prairie habitat at Fort Lewis was prime bluebird country, if the birds had more places to nest.
Their theory proved true. Fort Lewis officials soon agreed to adopt the bluebird nest box program as part of its official fish and wildlife program at the 86,000-acre Army post.
From three or four pairs of bluebirds in 1981, the Fort Lewis population has grown to about 120 pairs, said Dave Clouse, Fort Lewis fish and wildlife program manager.
Couple those birds with ones living in tree cavities and nest boxes on other private and public prairies in South Sound, and the overall population could be 200 pairs, Clouse estimated.
The bluebird relocation project shouldn’t harm the South Sound population, Walter said.
“I’m completely comfortable with it,” he said, and he added that he and Davis always envisioned that the birds might gain a wider foothold on the prairies of Western Washington, if they had more nest boxes to use.
Joined by Gary Slater, research director for the Mount Vernon-based Ecostudies Institute, Altman used a 60-second recording of bluebird songs to attract each pair to a nest box area surrounded by netting in a small cluster of black locust trees surrounded by open prairie with Mount Rainier serving as a sun-splashed backdrop.
The soon-to-be parents thought someone was invading their territory so they swooped in to check it out, only to be captured for transport to their new home.
“You want to get them before they are nesting, but already paired up,” Altman said.
In the San Juans, the birds are eagerly awaited by members of the Audubon Society and San Juan Preservation Trust, groups that have placed about 100 nest boxes around San Juan Island for this year’s nine pairs of birds to choose from.
In the course of five years, about 90 birds will be released on the islands.
The birds were weighed, measured and banded before being transported. They will be held in an aviary in Friday Harbor for three or four days before release, a technique called a soft release to increase the chances of survival, Altman said.
“We’re hoping for zero mortality,” he said of the relocation effort. “We’re taking every precaution possible to ensure their safety.”
The bands will help researchers determine where the birds go and if they migrate off the islands.
“I bet they’ll migrate,” offered Sam Agnew, a retired educator from Spanaway who volunteers hundreds of hours at the Army post, cleaning bluebird nest boxes, monitoring nest activity and banding baby birds.
By looking at his records, he confirmed that one of the males captured Tuesday was banded as a baby June 18, 2005, near the Army’s artillery impact zone.
“This bird’s nest box was right near the area where the artillery shells go bam, bam, bam,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem to bother them at all.”
The Nature Conservancy has worked with Fort Lewis for more than 10 years to improve prairie habitat for a variety of plants, butterflies and birds, noted the conservancy’s Mason McKinley.
The work on the Army post, which is part of the larger, South Sound prairie restoration effort, demonstrates that it is possible to enhance habitat for imperiled species while still meeting the training goals of soldiers, McKinley said.