Eyes turn to the sky for bluebirds’ return to Vancouver Island

There will be bluebirds over the meadows of the Cowichan Valley this week and hopes are high that others will be flying in shortly. It’s the first sign bluebirds are returning to Vancouver Island.

Three pairs of Western bluebirds flew into the sunset Monday evening after being released from aviaries in the Somenos-Quamichan Lake area. The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team is asking for help spotting the brightly coloured birds.

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“It would be wonderful to have people looking out for them,” said Carolyn Masson, the team’s communications co-ordinator.

The latest releases are part of a five-year effort to reintroduce Western bluebirds to Vancouver Island. The birds thrived on the Island until the 1950s, when their numbers started to decline. They have not nested successfully on the Island since 1995 and are considered locally extinct.

Last year, four adult pairs and nine juvenile birds were brought in from Washington state. The biggest success came when one of the pairs, brought with nestlings, went on to raise a second clutch — the first Western bluebirds known to have hatched on Vancouver Island in 18 years.

Project organizers and birdwatchers are now keeping their fingers crossed that those birds will return to the Cowichan Valley.

“They could be passing Victoria and the Gulf Islands along the way,” Masson said optimistically.

“They were seen hopping around here until late October and their older siblings were teaching them how to hunt.”

The new arrivals rapidly scattered in different directions Monday.

“The first pair, released in the East Somenos Lake area, flew up high to the top of a Douglas fir snag, surveyed the terrain, then flew in the direction of some good habitat to the northwest,” Masson said.

The second pair flew in the direction of the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, which has nestboxes and where it is hoped last year’s babies might return. The birds were seen hunting and perching.

“It was promising to see them engaging in natural behaviour in good habitat,” Masson said.

The third pair flew east towards Quamichan Lake.

Three more pairs will be brought in from Washington later this week and will spend two or three weeks in aviaries before being released. Several pairs with nestlings will travel to Vancouver Island in June.

The project is led by the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team in partnership with the province, Ecostudies Institute, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Cowichan Valley Naturalists. The aim is to re-establish a breeding population.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

FOR THE BIRDS

Western bluebirds are smaller than robins and the males have a bright blue head, wings and back with rusty-orange on the breast and parts of the upper back. Females are less brightly coloured. All the birds are wearing coloured leg bands.

Anyone seeing a bluebird is asked to report it by emailing bluebird@goert.ca or calling 250-383-3427.

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