A striking male Mountain Bluebird.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to head back out on the Owyhee Bluebird Trail with the Bluebird Man himself, Al Larson.  This was Al’s first visit of the season to the Owyhee trail, which always makes the trip particularly exciting – you really have no idea what to expect when you open up a nest box!  Although most of the boxes that we checked just had nests in various stages of construction, there were quite a few boxes with eggs already laid, and two boxes with young nestlings already hatched!

Joining Al and myself on this trip were longtime bluebird trail volunteer Cathy Eels, as well as the director of the Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership, Chris McClure.  Chris and I joined the board of directors for the Golden Eagle Audubon Society this past year, and have agreed to collaborate on a new effort to turn Al’s bluebird trails into a graduate project at Boise State University.

4-day-old Mountain Bluebird nestlings.

4-day-old Mountain Bluebird nestlings.

This was Chris’s first trip out on Al’s bluebird trails, and he was clearly impressed by the data being collected.  The American Kestrel Partnership is essentially a large scale citizen science project focused on studying another of North America’s secondary cavity nesters, the American Kestrel.  As the director of this program, Chris has gained a lot of experience managing large scale citizen science efforts, and he immediately recognized  that Al is a citizen scientist of a different caliber.  Al is extremely precise in his measurements, and very rigid in his method of data collection – characteristics that are hard to come by in the world of citizen science.  While this will make the continued monitoring of Al’s trails more challenging, it also highlights the value of the dataset, and the importance of keeping Al’s bluebird trails going.

Al measures the wing chord of an adult female Mountain Bluebird.

It was a beautiful, but particularly windy day up in the Owyhee Mountains on Saturday.  The wind provides an opportunity to collect one particular type of data out on the trail – trapping adult female bluebirds.  Females are solely responsible for incubating their clutch of eggs until hatching, and if it’s windy they often won’t hear the Bluebird Man approach their nest box to peer inside and check the status of the nest.  This is why the first thing that Al does when he approaches a nest is to cover the hole with his hand.  Al then opens the front of the box just a crack and reaches his hand inside to feel around and see if there is an adult female incubating eggs.  If the female is in there he carefully puts his hand around her and removes her from the box.

A certain percentage of these adult females are already wearing one of Al’s bands, but if their legs are bare, they will get a uniquely numbered US Fish and Wildlife Service leg band.  We trapped more than ten adult females on Saturday, and all but the last one were unbanded.  This was an aspect of the bluebird trail that I had failed to mention to Chris beforehand, and he was excited at the prospect of using this recapture data that Al gets from trapping adult females to try and calculate a population estimate for the region.

A banded adult female Mountain Bluebird.

A banded adult female Mountain Bluebird.

Although we were out on the bluebird trail for the better part of the day, we checked less than half of the nest boxes that Al has on the Owyhee Bluebird Trail (he has over 130 boxes on this particular trail).  This brings into sharp focus the scale of the effort that Al has undertaken these past 38 years – if often takes multiple trips just to have time to check all the boxes on one of his five bluebird trails.

Al determines the timing of his return trip based on the age of the oldest chicks that he observes on the trail.  One of the central tenants of his work on the bluebird trail is Al’s goal of placing US Fish and Wildlife leg bands on every single bluebird nestling before they fledge, and these bands must be applied sometime between 8 and 14 days of age.  On Saturday we had one box with 4-day-old nestlings, so Al will have to return sometime between 4 and 10 days from our Saturday visit.

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