Nature Notes: Rise of the Bluebird

Bluebirds were a principal focus of the South Fork Natural History Society in its formative years in the mid-1980s

It’s that time of year again when all of the local birds finish raising and weaning their second broods. The migrants among them have already flown south, and the year-round residents are out foraging and mapping the locations of all of the feeding stations in preparation for winter. 

One of the great trackers over the last decade and the first half of the present one has been Joe Giunta. Without his and his helpers’ work each spring and summer we would have very little idea about the success or failure of eastern bluebirds and four other hole nesters on the South Fork.

Bluebirds were a principal focus of the South Fork Natural History Society in its formative years in the mid-1980s. There were only a couple of pairs in East Hampton then: one in Springs near the cemetery on Accabonac Road and one in Montauk at the edge of Hither Woods. The New York State bird was in sad neglect, as was the osprey, and the thought of bringing them back was a great challenge for the neophyte group.

It just so happened at that juncture that a new bluebird nesting box had been developed in the Midwest, and Kimball Hicks of Montauk was one of the first on eastern Long Island to hear about it. Kim was a stalwart conservationist of the old school as well as a seasoned craftsman when it came to working with wood. He immediately set about making bluebird boxes in the style of those being put up in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Karilyn Jones, then Karilyn Sabin, was one of the founders of SOFO and especially interested in bringing bluebirds back to the East End. She and other members began censusing the existing bluebird population on a year-to-year basis while simultaneously creating bluebird-box trails where they seemed to hold the most promise. One such bluebird trail created in 1987 at the edges of the East Hampton Airport proved to be an excellent choice. Six boxes were erected and two became occupied by breeding bluebird pairs shortly after.

We learned from that moment on that there were more bluebirds passing through the area than nesting, but that there was a shortage of suitable tree holes for them to occupy — other birds like woodpeckers, house wrens, house finches, and house sparrows took them over as soon as they became available. In those days there were a few people putting up bird boxes in their yards, but none were putting up the specially designed boxes that Kim Hicks was making.

For many years running Karilyn and her volunteers managed the bluebird trails put up in East Hampton and Southampton Towns east of the Shinnecock Canal. What began as just a few pairs by the year 2000 became almost 100 pairs breeding locally and almost three times that many tree swallow pairs. Tree swallows catch mosquitoes on the wing, so they were a welcome addition, especially around wetlands and salt marshes where mosquitoes bred. In good years, several pairs breed more than once.

When the work became too much for Ms. Jones, Joe Giunta appeared and took over the routes with the help of some of the original volunteers who had stayed on. This year turned out to be a very productive one. One hundred successful nestings of bluebirds bred and 288 of tree swallows were tallied. The East Hampton Airport trail turned out to be the most productive trail of all, with 61 bluebird nests and 86 tree swallow nests. The Barcelona golf course area and its surroundings came in second, with 20 bluebird nests and 46 tree swallow nests.

Early on it was discovered by Joe and co-workers that some nests were vandalized by raccoons, so raccoon guards were installed on the nest box posts to deter that kind of predation. More recently another marauding mammal entered the scene — the southern flying squirrel, which established a beachhead on the South Fork a few years into the new millennium. It turned out that the boxes at the airport which were along the tree line had to be moved out into the field 15 or more feet, that is, beyond the range of the flying squirrels’ glide path. Thus the rebound in the nesting success during the 2016 season.

It is not an easy job accounting for all of those boxes — as many as 500 — and they have to be maintained from year to year, which means a rigorous cleaning. The house finch population has been down for several years after a peak in the mid 1990s, so they and other interlopers from out of the area have not been such a problem in recent years. However, native house wrens are problematic competitors for the boxes, and 2016 was a big year for them. There were 74 house wren box nests counted, 43 of them at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.

House wrens are particularly obnoxious, as a pair will nest in one box while maintaining several others by continually depositing their telltale sticks in them, thus keeping other would-be hole nesters at bay. Black-capped chickadees are also hole nesters and they nested in 10 of the airport boxes in 2016.

Several years ago, I was approached by an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture, which is charged with managing bird populations at Federal Aviation Administration-sanctioned airports to prevent bird-plane collisions. He was told by that individual to get rid of the boxes, as they were a nuisance. He forgot to! 

 


Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.