Bluebirds used to be a favorite of San Juan Island bird watchers as their bright colors and cheerful warbling sounds could be enjoyed near most farms, orchards, and woodlots. Unfortunately, these beautiful thrushes completely disappeared over large portions of their former range across North America, including Washington’s San Juan Islands.
Bluebirds were victims of the invading European starling hordes and were quickly overwhelmed in the competition for nesting cavities. Prior to the introduction of starlings, western bluebirds were formerly common breeders and migrants and uncommon winter residents of the San Juan Islands. Birding tours could see them migrating on the south and west sides of San Juan Island in fall and spring up until 1963. The last reported breeding pair was present in 1964.
Western bluebirds have returned to Washington’s San Juan Islands after a 40 year absence thanks to biologists of the Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project. For the past five years, they have translocated 45 breeding pairs of western bluebirds from healthy surviving colonies in Washington. The project includes the American Bird Conservancy, San Juan Preservation Trust, San Juan Islands Audubon Society, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy of Washington.
The project’s bluebirds have produced 212 fledglings with some returning to breed in successive years. In 2011, fifteen pairs migrated back to San Juan Island but had only fourteen successful nests. If spring weather hadn’t been so extremely cold, each pair would have successfully nested twice over the breeding season. “Fifteen pairs is by no means a large enough population to be considered secure” said Bob Altman, project leader with American Bird Conservancy. “So we are exploring ways to enhance it beyond the initial five-year period.”
Back in 1989 an ill-fated attempt was made to reintroduce bluebirds to San Juan Islands by Mark Lewis of Friday Harbor, Washington, the author of Birding in the San Juan Islands and birding tour guide for Sea Quest. His project involved inserting two dozen fertile bluebird eggs into donor nests of violet-green swallows. Unfortunately, the one year project failed due to weather conditions even worse than those of spring 2011. The miserably wet and cold spring prevented the foster parents from finding enough insects to feed any nestlings.
You can help bluebirds of all species anywhere in their range by putting up bluebird nesting boxes. These must be built to dimensions that exclude starlings from entering and evicting the bluebirds. Declines of bluebirds in many regions have been halted and reversed by local bird watching groups using nest box campaigns.
Thanks to the modern reintroduction project, western bluebirds in the San Juan Islands are now rare migrants and locally uncommon summer breeders with the best chances for finding them from February through October. Come join Mark on a birding tour of the San Juan Islands in Washington state and enjoy these sapphire gems yourself!