Western Bluebird Reintroduction

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Female and male Western bluebird on San Juan Island (photo: Danny Herbert)

Spring  2015 Update


A pair of Western Bluebirds has returned to SJPT’s Red Mill Farm Preserve, and more have been spotted elsewhere in San Juan Valley on San Juan Island, as this early spring has brought bluebirds and other insectivores (such as Tree Swallows) to our island a bit ahead of schedule.  We are hopeful that more will arrive in the coming weeks, and we will be posting updates as we learn more!

So,  what’s ahead for this field season?  We will be monitoring existing populations of bluebirds and conducting “emergency” translocations as funding levels permit.  The population on San Juan Island is still very vulnerable and therefore, continued assisted movement of birds to the island is warranted to boost the once-growing population hit hard by a series of bad weather events in the last several years.

This year, more than ever, as existing funding sources have dwindled, we are seeking private funding sources.  You can help keep our bluebirds flying by clicking here or mailing a donation to SJPT, Box 759, Friday Harbor WA 98250.  Please indicate “bluebird” on the memo field so we can apply the funds accordingly.

Questions/sighting reports can continue to be directed to Kathleen Foley, Stewardship Manager, at kathleenf@sjpt.org.

Fall 2014 Update

One of our successfully breeding male bluebirds

One of our successfully breeding male bluebirds


Late this past July, the last two Western Bluebird juveniles successfully fledged and the San Juan Islands Western Reintroduction Project  wrapped up for another field season. As we now move into autumn, small flocks of bluebirds can still be seen roaming the island prior to their migration to southern wintering grounds. A big “thank you!” goes out to all who were involved this year; many folks helped out the project by hosting aviaries and nestboxes, reporting bluebird sightings, or allowing our 2014 field technician, Kelsey Green, to access their property to monitor nests or check and mark their nestboxes.

The project, launched in 2007, experienced many successes in first five years of the project (read below for some of our history!) Due to extremely wet and cool summers of 2010-12, however, the population decreased, a pattern observed in other bluebird populations in the Pacific Northwest. To address this decline, this year the team executed emergency translocations of three family groups from larger populations near Corvallis, Oregon and Olympia, WA at Joint Base Lewis-McChord military installation. While there was some mortality during the season, the project also experienced success, as we happily watched many fledglings take flight. The overall success of these additional management efforts will be apparent next spring when is the number of returning bluebirds is determined.

In addition to these efforts, a new phase of the project commenced this year: locating and cataloguing the existing nestboxes on the island. This assessment effort will help us evaluate the nest box program and pave the way to improve monitoring efforts in the years to come through volunteer participation. As most of the quality bluebird nesting habitat is on private land, landowner and community involvement is absolutely critical to the success of the project.

Western Bluebirds are thrushes, often identified by their bright blue plumage and distinctive call. Preferring open habitats for foraging, they can often be seen in areas with scattered trees, especially oak groves, and mid-story perches such as fence lines. On San Juan Island, bluebirds are often spotted on Cady Mountain and at American Camp early in the season as they migrate in, and most commonly choose nests in the San Juan Valley area. Calls from islanders who spot bluebirds are very helpful for monitoring purposes.

Check back on this page in 2015 to get the latest bluebird news!

Summer 2014 Update

The Translocations Continue!

2014 marks our 8th field season on the project, and after two years of post-reintroduction monitoring, where we discovered that the Western bluebird population was declining, we have re-initiated translocations of birds to San Juan Island.

Look closely and you’ll see a baby bluebird “pipping” the egg in upper right

–The spring migration yielded low returns (4 returning birds confirmed + 2 other birds spotted but whereabouts currently unknown).

– Although our nestling survival rate from 2013 was high, we were expecting these low return numbers.  Juvenile bluebirds will experience severe mortality rates in their first year (as is true of many migratory birds); with only 24 banded last year, we didn’t have high hopes for numbers of first-year birds returning.

–To date, the naturally returning pairs have produced four nestlings.

–Three family groups (adult pairs with young in the nest) have been translocated from the Ft. Lewis prairie in S. Puget Sound, and from the Corvallis area in Oregon to supplement this struggling population.

A juvenile bluebird shows his colors

A juvenile bluebird shows his colors

–After a brief period of time in a holding aviary, these family groups have been released, all on San Juan Island.   Some adults and juveniles have stayed near the release location.  Sadly, one female bluebird was caught and killed by a cat several miles away from the release location.

–Your best shot at viewing these beautiful birds is in San Juan Valley, and along the Cattle Point Road corridor.  Contact Kathleen Foley for the “inside scoop” on their whereabouts.  Some of these birds can only be viewed on private land and therefore permission from the landowner is required to see them.

The San Juan Preservation Trust, and our partners at The Ecostudies Institute, the American Bird Conservancy, and the local Audubon Society remain committed to our mission to restore a healthy and sustaining population of Western bluebirds in the San Juan Islands.  We are continuing to seek funding to help us continue this project (through all the highs and lows!) to see this goal realized.  If you can provide assistance in any fashion (monetary or labor) we would love to hear from you. 

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2013 Field Technician Kelsey Green (left) and Kathleen Foley set up a bluebird aviary on SJPT’s Red Mill Farm in San Juan Valley

Inquiries regarding this project can be directed to kathleenf@sjpt.org.



Fall 2013 Update

Ups and Downs


This male, hatched on San Juan Island last year, flew to Chilliwack BC earlier this spring.

2013 marks the 2nd year of post-reintroduction monitoring and our 7th field season on the project. It was an interesting year, full of highs and lows. 

Here is a quick summary:

–(A low): 14 Western Bluebirds returned to SJI this year, a marked decrease from the returns in 2012 (34).

– (A high): We had nearly 100% survival rate of nestlings: all birds who hatched survived to fledging, with one exception.


Bluebird fledglings delight in a fresh bath on San Juan Island (photo courtesy of Gigi Zakula).

–(A low): 24 nestlings were banded this year, down from 44 in 2012.

–(A high): One of our young females, hatched on SJI last year, flew to Vancouver Island and mated with a male there; the first recorded natural dispersal of these birds since the project began; a male (pictured above) also migrated to Canada.

–(A high): A female from the Ft. Lewis prairie made her way to SJI and mated with a male here, in another demonstration of natural dispersion.

–(A low): Both naturally dispersing females disappeared before young could be raised.

We well recognize that embarking on a project such as this will result in regular triumphs and frustrations. Our plan is to continue the post-reintroduction monitoring of our tenuous population to see if additional measures to augment it will be necessary.  Stay tuned!

Fall Bluebird Movement

A common question we get asked is “Where do the bluebirds go in the winter months?”


This unbanded male reached San Juan Island this spring…his origins unknown. He took a special interest in attacking car windows!

Our typical response is…”We don’t exactly know.”  We do know that usually they depart San Juan Island in October/November (depending on weather conditions).  We  had a suspected sighting of one of the San Juan population in the Willamette Valley in Oregon this past winter; its possible more go further south, or some may stay close by, potentially on Whidbey Island.  Regardless, they aren’t flying as far south as some of the southern populations of Westerns, as they do return quickly; sometimes as early as February.

Now is a good time to look for fall flocking activity, especially on the American Camp prairie and Eagle Cove, False & Kanaka Bay areas.

As always, sighting reports (especially during this time of year, where we are trying to track surviving juveniles) are greatly appreciated.

You may reach Kathleen on her cell phone at 360-298-1856 to report sighting info.


Spring 2012 Update

With the March winds came the bluebirds, and we are thrilled to see them returning. So far this spring, we have observed 13 pairs of adults (26 birds) on San Juan Island that are actively nesting. Some females are already incubating eggs, others are still building their nests. A few other birds have been sighted but have not been identified just yet.

Especially promising this year is an increase in the number of returning females that were hatched here on San Juan Island. Returning females and a balanced sex ratio are good indicators of a self-sustaining population.

This year Kathleen will be monitoring the populations and we’ll be keeping a careful watch to see how well our initial 5-year effort, with active translocations of birds from Ft Lewis and Oregon, will pay off.

The bluebird project continues north of the border! In an effort to restore Western bluebirds to the entirety of their northern range, two pairs of birds were successfully translocated from Ft. Lewis to The Nature Conservancy Canada’s Cowichan Preserve on Vancouver Island. This is the first translocation of the “Bring Back the Bluebird” project conducted by GOERT (Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, based in Victoria, BC) which was modeled on our successful project here in the San Juan Islands. Gary Slater of Ecostudies Institute coordinated the translocations. We will be anxiously monitoring to see how our neighbors (neighbours?) to the north carry the legacy of restoring the bluebird to their islands.

The numbers speak for themselves: 92 Adult Western Bluebirds were translocated from the Ft. Lewis, Washington and Willamette Valley, Oregon prairies. 238 baby bluebirds fledged on San Juan Island (possibly even more!). We have a current population size (returning adults) of 38. Over 600 nestboxes were placed on 10 different islands. 376 acres of current/historic oak prairie were permanently conserved. Over 300 community members became involved as volunteers and nest box hosts.

2007-2011 Project Accomplishments

After a 5-year run, the San Juan Islands Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project is wrapping up. We have a lot to celebrate.

Consider this:

  • This project marks the first successful reintroduction of a migratory songbird completed in the United States.
  • Releases and nest box placement were conducted almost entirely on private lands; nearly unheard of in reintroduction efforts of this sort.
  • All of our funding came from individual donors and private foundations; we received no government funding whatsoever for this project.


Western bluebird mother and fledglings

Bluebird family, San Juan Island (photo: Kathleen Foley)

Juvenile female western bluebird

Juvenile bluebird, San Juan Island (photo: Adrienne deLiso)

Although this first phase of the project is “over,” we have more to do. Although the translocations will cease, we will be seeking funding to continue monitoring the population for the next several years to make sure that the numbers of returning and breeding adults continues on its upward trajectory. We will be relying on islanders’ sightings and observations more than ever now that we will no longer have a full-time technician to scout for the birds.

For those who are hosting nest boxes, please remember to clean out your nestboxes each fall and continue to vigilantly remove English house sparrow nests before the young hatch (house sparrows are a distinct and very real threat to bluebirds). Keep those binoculars dusted off and ready to report the first returns in the spring. It will be imporant to continue tracking leg band colors (we know – this can be tricky), as it helps us identify the movements and survival of individuals.

Report any sightings and activity directly to Kathleen Foley at 360-298-1856 or 360-378-2461 (note that the “Bluebird Hotline” number has been disconnected).

These birds have come home. After a long absence of 50+ years, they are now part of our islands and ecosystem again. They will continue to grace our islands only with our help and good stewardship. Please continue to embrace and support their presence here and help us to ensure that they never disappear again. Thank you!

Western bluebird babies at Wolf Hollow

Nestling bluebirds

Western bluebird babies in aviary


(all photos: Kathleen Foley)

Western bluebird release at Blazing Tree

Holding aviary on San Juan Island


(Want to get caught up on what happened this past year? Download any of these Bluebird Updates from the 2011 season; or check out this great overview video created for us by Jane K. Fox.)

Bluebird Update Fall 2011

Bluebird Update Summer 2011

Bluebird Update Spring 2011

Origin Magazine – Bluebird article

Other Helpful Information About Bluebirds

Project Overview

How To Identify A Western Bluebird

I’ve Seen Western Bluebird…Now What Do I Do?


Primary Coordinating Partners

The San Juan Preservation Trust
American Bird Conservancy
Ecostudies Institute
San Juan Islands Audubon Society
Ft. Lewis Military Installation
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In Cooperation With:

Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
The Nature Conservancy
Pacific Coast Joint Venture

Principal Funding Sources

Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund
Zoo Boise Conservation Fund
Horizons Foundation
Norcliffe Foundation
Wildlife Forever Fund
American Bird Conservancy Donors
San Juan Preservation Trust