Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bluebird Quest

Of all the birds a gardener could choose to attract, the bluebird is the quintessential helpful garden bird. Gardeners go to extreme lengths to attract and keep them in the garden for their advantageous properties. Bluebirds are voracious insect consumers, quickly ridding a garden of insect pests...Wikipedia.
Who wouldn't feel lucky to see a bluebird at home, or in a favored habitat? It's the ethereal promise in "Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly" and the jaunty companion in Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah's "Mr. Bluebird's on my shoulder." It used to be more common in New England. 

Ed Jylkka of Rockport is one of the birders enthralled by this member of the thrush family. When we went out recently on a winter reconnaissance of bluebird venues, and to the shop where he fabricates bluebird nesting boxes, Ed related  his first-hand adventures around the quest to enjoy bluebirds locally.
Eastern bluebird, male, Sialia sialis
Chris Jylkka photo
Ed Jylkka
Bluebirds do come to Cape Ann. I've seen them at Loop Pond meadow. That's perfect because it's a large open space fringed by trees. I've heard of them at Johnson's Quarry.
Ed Jylkka evicting mice from bluebird box
I've tried at Halibut Point but I haven't seen bluebirds there yet. I check the boxes periodically but all I've done is evict white-footed mice. Virtually every box I clean out at this time of year has a white-footed mouse nest in it.

I have to tell you about one discovery that I had, visiting my son down in Weston about five years ago. He has a piece of property with a pond, pretty much surrounded by woods. He said he'd love to put some houses up. It was late fall, they won't nest, but I had read they will use them for shelter. Sure enough, one day he saw a bluebird going in in the winter. He opened the door. There were nine in there keeping warm. They've nested there ever since. 

Bluebird female
Chris Jylkka photo
Like robins, they get by in the winter here on berries--privets and multiflora roses that are invasive species, but provide food for birds.

I make nesting box kits, put the boxes around in different areas, and help people assemble kits at a Trustees of Reservations workshop over at Ravenswood. Ideally the boxes should be placed about 5 feet off the ground, on a stake or tree in an open area. That height seems to discourage English sparrows that are the chief problem for taking over bluebird nests, or even killing them. Five feet is generally too low for the sparrow's liking. 

The boxes have a little ladder cut in to help the babies climb up to the opening.

 Our common grey squirrels will typically enlarge the hole of a wooden box and take over. One of the inventions I'm proud of is this piece of PVC pipe, just the right diameter, press-fit in there snug. It keeps the squirrels out.

Ed Jylkka photo
One day I saw something when I went to empty a house. It had big black eyes looking out at me. I rapped on the box and out came a flying squirrel. He jumped out and glided away. I came back with my camera. This time when I knocked he went up on the tree and I got a picture of him.

Flying squirrel
Ed Jylkka photo

I didn't know we had them around here. I researched it and found out there are two types in Essex County, the northern and the southern. They differ mostly in habitat. The northern likes big pine trees and forests. The southern likes it more open.

Most people have never seen a flying squirrel because they're nocturnal, and they don't go poking around in the right places. That explains their bulging black eyes. They have great night vision. Sometimes they colonize house attics to keep warm in winter, if they can find a way in, which obviously doesn't take much.
Red-winged blackbird
Ed Jylkka photo
My interest in nature goes back to kindergarten. In fact I think it was something I was born with. My grandparents came over from Finland to work the quarries. I grew up in the woods around here. 

I used to accompany a gentleman named Courtney Worthington, a neat name, on bird walks with John Kieran, Dick Hale, and a bunch of others. They asked me to consider joining the Friends of Halibut Point State Park. And I did. That was at least twenty-five years ago. I've been the vice-president for probably twenty years.
Tree swallows
Ed Jylkka photo
The public can and always will be able to go to Halibut Point and see birds and indulge in natural things. I've led a lot of walks, nature walks, bird walks, wildflower walks. I'm interested in just about everything, but I'm not an expert at anything. Interested enough to learn. I do it out of gratitude for the place.

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