Posts

Bluebirds at Langley Fork Park Continue to Thrive

Feature photo: Bluebird nestling residents of Box 6 (May 21, 2022). What are they thinking?

Article and photo by FMN Stephen Tzikas

The 2022 Bluebird box monitoring season at Langley Fork Park in McLean was my second year, and first as its trail leader. The trail leader duties came unexpectedly, but it successfully concluded thanks to the existing and new trail monitors who helped me with this success. Although I wrote an article last year on the extraordinarily successful season at Langley Fork Park, in part due to the cicada bounty, I was pleasantly surprised that this year’s Bluebird fledglings approached very close to the number we had last year.

In 2021 we nurtured 63 total protected birds which included 26 Bluebirds. In 2022 we had 57 total protected birds which included 24 Bluebirds. This can be contrasted to the 5 years prior to that in which Langley Fork Park monitoring succeeded with about 40 protected birds per year which included about 5 Bluebirds a year. Since our efforts are on behalf of the Virginia Bluebird Society and the Bluebirds themselves, having about a 5-fold increase in Bluebirds these past couple years was phenomenal.

As trail leader, I had a closer look at the total 7-year record of data at Langley Fork Park in order to determine if any changes in the location of the Bluebird boxes were necessary to increase the effectiveness of the Bluebird program even further at Langley Fork Park. This data is part of the Nest-Watch database administered by Cornell University. I found the record-keeping in the years prior to 2021 to have some gaps, but this did not detract from the large increases recorded for the Bluebirds at the park. Nonetheless, the gaps were an interesting comparison that should not be ignored for a program’s quality control. Monitoring in prior years were not always on a weekly cadence, and it was not certain if preventive maintenance was rigorous. While I could infer final fledgling counts on what was recorded, these numbers could have been a bit higher and a good maintenance regimen could have made a nest box habitat resilient for an immediate welcoming of a new set of Bluebird parents during critical times for egg laying. This is contrasted to a strict weekly check on the birds in 2021 and 2022, and immediate attention to issues of concerns: wasp nests, ants, predators. For Bluebird monitors, I can’t emphasis enough how important these matters are. Bluebird monitoring trails should have an adequate number of team monitors to keep pace and avoid burdens with scheduling for a trail that has too few monitors.

With this analysis I did have enough data to make some conclusions for future planning. In the past 2 years, 3 of the park’s 10 boxes had successful Bluebird nestlings, while in the entire past 7 years, 6 of the 10 boxes were home to successful Bluebird nesting attempts. Considering that Tree Swallows are also a protected bird and the main successful competitor of the Bluebird boxes, our Bluebird attempts are good.   But can we do better? These are decisions for our trail that may help others in their trail decision-making too.

Before the close of the 2022 season, our team suggested that moving boxes 1, 4, 7, 9 might help the Bluebirds, because currently they had some issues with predators and intense competition.

The data showed that boxes 1, 2, 5, and 9 never had Bluebirds.   We also have the opportunity to add an 11th Bluebird box which will be determined at a later date. While boxes 2 and 5 may never have had Bluebirds, they are in good locations and have other active protected birds nesting here. These will not be relocated for now.

  • Box 1 is in a fairly hidden area. By moving it closer to the parking lot it may get more attention by the Bluebirds.  There is some playground equipment here, but on closer inspection it is for adults to exercise who are not likely to interfere with the box.  The location is more bushy, so it may also attract more House Wrens too.
  • Box 4 has had occasions of broken eggs from intense competition.  Moving it from the corner of the field to a more bushy area closer to some benches could improve it.
  • Box 7 may be too close to a tree with snake predators. Moving to a more bushy area a few feet away may help.
  • Box 9 is in a fairly active area with baseball activity, and relocating it closer to Box 8 may help. The advantage of the new location is that it is slightly less active and has more trees, but it is not necessarily a suggested 100 foot separation from Box 8.

The 2023 season will evaluate these adjustments.

Virginia Bluebird Society Conference, November 11th & 12th

Friday, November 11 & Saturday, November 12, 2022
6 pm Friday – 3 pm Saturday
Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge
2645 College Dr., Woodbridge
Registration on the VBS website in early September
Contact vbs@virginiabluebirds.org for more information

Virginia Bluebird Society be celebrating the 25th anniversary of their founding. Whether you are an experienced bluebird landlord or just beginning, they have breakout sessions both fun and informative planned with you in mind. You need not be a VBS member to attend.

Presenters include VBS’ own Anne Little on Bluebirding 101 and VBS Vice President Doug Rogers providing tips and tricks for the bird photographer. Jessica Ruthenberg, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resource’s Watchable Wildlife Biologist will advise you on creating backyard habitat. Wildlife rehabilitator Maureen Eiger will be joining us and we have two North American Bluebird Society directors providing answers to all your questions.

And while you may not have heard of their Keynote Speaker Julie Zickefoose, you will be “wowed” by her. She is a prolific artist and writer. On her website you can see her artwork, listen to her past lectures, and read her blog. She will be selling copies of her books and prints at the conference. Welcome to Julie Zickefoose.com

Knowledgeable Bluebird Monitors Sought to Help Staff the Virginia Bluebird Society’s Educational Table, August 6th – 7th

Photo: Virginia Bluebird Society

When: Saturday, August 6, 10am-7pm and Sunday, August 7, 10am-4pm
It would be best to have 2 people per shift; suggested shifts are:
Shift 1: Saturday 10am -1pm
Shift 2: Saturday 1pm – 4pm
Shift 3: Saturday 4pm – 7pm
Shift 4: Sunday 10am – 1pm
Shift 5: Sunday 1pm – 4pm

Where: Fairfax County 4-H Fair and Carnival https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/frying-pan-park/4-h-fair
Rides, games, food, animal exhibits!
Frying Pan Farm Park
2709 West Ox Road
Herndon, VA 20171

Contact: Glenys Mulholland glenysmulholland@msn.com for more information or if you are interested in volunteering.

Duties:

  • Answer questions from the public about bluebirds, monitoring, or trails.
  • Hand out VBS informational materials.
  • Help kids with crafts or educational games (materials will be provided).
  • Park supplies 6 ft. table, 2 chairs, and a tent.
  • Covid-19 guidance at the time of the Fair will be followed.


Record service hours under Birds – C034: Bluebird Trails — VA Bluebird Society.

Bluebird Monitor Coordinator Sought

Photo:  J. Quinn

The Virginia Bluebird Society is looking for one or two volunteers to join a small team that works together to fulfill the duties as the Fairfax County Coordinator. The job entails being the County Coordinator contact for some of the trails in the county, sending out reminder emails to trail leaders in the spring, collecting data from trail leaders in the fall, answering questions and providing advice about bluebird trails and monitoring, and helping to connect people who want to monitor with trail leaders. If you enjoy providing training/educational programs, that’s possible as well. Most of the work is computer based, but it can sometimes involve going out to a site. The time involved varies over the course of the year and occasionally/rarely exceeds one hour/week.

Please contact Carmen Bishop with any questions. – cjbish1@gmail.com

Improved Conditions Lead to a Significant Increase in Bluebird Population at Langley Fork Park

Article by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Reprinted from Virginia Bluebird Society The Bird Box, Spring 2022, with permission.

In 2021 I volunteered to be a bluebird monitor at Langley Fork Park in McLean, Virginia. It is one of many citizen science programs promoted by the Virginia Master Naturalists and managed by the Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS). As a Chemical Engineer I have various interests in the physical sciences and engineering. As I get older, I am interested in getting more exercise, and one way to do that is to combine it with a life science that requires outdoor exposure. Since I am partial to birds because of a childhood pet parakeet, I decided to monitor bluebirds. Monitoring a bluebird trail and entering the data into Cornell University’s NestWatch was a rewarding new personal experience. At the end of the season, about August 2021, I finally reviewed the NestWatch data and correlated it to my experience of monitoring the trail. It was an extraordinary successful season. I decided to speculate as to why the season’s success was extraordinary.

The Site and the Monitoring Team

Langley Fork Park is 52 acres with a latitude of 38.9 degrees and a longitude of -77.2 degrees. The 10 bluebird nest boxes in the park are evenly distributed along the perimeter of the tree/field boundary. They all have stovepipe baffles and Noel guards. I monitored this trail with Naveen Abraham (trail leader) and Cindy Morrow. We shared our findings every week and had plenty of interactive time with the nests and birds. Our trail leader started monitoring the trail in 2016, the year that data collection for the trail began in NestWatch. However, the trail had been monitored for 10+ years prior to that.

The Results

Author checks box 9. Photo: Ako Tzikas, 5/30/21

In the 2021 season, we had 3 types of nesting birds. Apart for one late but successful nesting attempt by house wrens, the season was dominated by eastern bluebirds and tree swallows. Since 2016, the only other species making use of the nesting boxes was the Carolina wren. The count of 63 fledglings was quite a successful number compared to that of prior years. The NestWatch site sums a total egg count, as well as the total fledgling count. Although we counted eggs and fledglings as best as we could, it was not always possible to count all eggs as the view was obstructed, nor could we always count fledglings accurately as they could be piled on each other. The total number of fledglings, therefore, is a minimum counted number. It could be slightly higher, as indeed it was evident from the bluebird egg count, which was 29 eggs compared to the 26 recorded fledglings. Although we lost a bluebird egg due to predation, one can see a remaining discrepancy of 2, which I believe favors 2 additional fledglings. Likewise, the count of tree swallow eggs (16) were obviously undercounted because of obstructions like large nest feathers. Although we lost 4 eggs due to predation, the total number of fledglings was 33. This leads to small inconsistencies in the NestWatch data and the automated calculations. For this reason, I would recommend that nest monitors make a good effort to count precisely, as well as document in the NestWatch comments the perceived situation for the benefit of other researchers. Nonetheless, the small discrepancies did not prevent an analysis. Finally, together with the accurate count of 4 house wren eggs and a corresponding 4 fledglings, one arrives at the sum of 63 fledglings. We had 17 nesting attempts at the 10 boxes.

For context, the six seasons of monitoring (2016 through 2021) saw 77 next attempts for the 10 boxes, with a sum of fledged at 208 for all species. Of these fledged species, bluebirds accounted for 48, tree swallows for 127, and the balance between house wrens and Carolina wrens. Consequently the 26 bluebird fledglings in 2021 represents 54% of all 48 bluebird fledglings since 2016. This was indeed an outstanding success.

Analysis

Bird populations have been decreasing worldwide, and along with it important ecosystem processes such as pollination and seed dispersal. To date, the number of birds is estimated to have been reduced by up to 25 percent in overall numbers. It is encouraging then when organizations like the VBS help boost those populations. The VBS trains and organizes volunteers to monitor nest boxes. was fortunate to be able to experience the success of the 2021 bluebird season at Langley Fork Park. As I speculated on the reasons for the success, my investigation consisted of the following areas of review: trail leader management; weather; and food availability.

Last year (2020) was a very disappointing year at Langley Fork Park as there were no successful bluebird nests. Almost every box had tree swallows to start, and later in the season there were a couple of house wren nests. There was only one bluebird attempt, but that attempt was ended by a house wren which poked holes in the bluebird eggs and removed them from the nest. In 2021 we moved a few boxes by a little bit in the beginning of the season. This made all the difference in helping to create a more favorable nest site habitat for the bluebirds. We discussed some possible standard types of actions that could improve the locations for nesting. We decided to move boxes #3, #6, #7, #8, #9 and #10. Afterwards, it was these boxes that the bluebirds embraced, i.e., boxes #3, #6, and #8. Bluebirds also nested in box #7 initially, before a tree swallow evicted the bluebird with the loss of an egg.

When I started monitoring the bluebird trail, I noted everything I saw, including other nearby wildlife, such as foxes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I

Box 9 Sparrow spooker. Photo: Stephen Tzikas, 5/5/21

was documenting potential predators. But the noticeable issues of predation came from other bird species instead. We lost a male bluebird in Box #8, though we were not sure how it was killed when we found it’s body in the nest box. Nor did we know what species of bird was responsible for it. We don’t know if the bluebird was attacked in the nest box, or sought refuge in it after a struggle outside the box. As noted, we also lost a bluebird nest box with 1 egg when it was taken over by a tree swallow family. Finally, one tree swallow nest was abandoned when its eggs were attacked and damaged. Other than that, we did not have much predation except for some assertive house sparrow attempts at competition in the beginning of the season. To frighten the sparrows away, we successfully used a spooker. Finally, the last aspect of this season’s trail management was the quick elimination of an ant infestation in a couple boxes.

Weather in the form of temperature, precipitation, and snow can clearly play a role in the health and number of birds. With Langley Fork Park being about 3 miles from the Washington DC boundary line, I reviewed historical weather data from Washington, DC from the NOAA and National Weather Service. A precipitation link offers monthly, seasonal, and annual average data back to 1871, plus a comparison to the norm. It shows a significantly wetter season in 2021, and the data can be accessed here: https:// www.weather.gov/media/lwx/climate/dcaprecip.pdf. A temperature link likewise offers monthly, annual, and seasonal data at https://www.weather.gov/media/lwx/climate/ dcatemps.pdf. A review of the annual data shows that Washington’s seasonal temperatures had not been significantly different than prior years or the norm. For those who live here, the finding may be a surprise as it seemed to be a more mild winter in 2021. However, when the snow fall data is reviewed, the trend is different. Many news articles can be found on the internet focusing on how little snow precipitated in the 2021 season, and the general trend of less snowfall over the past few years. Indeed, the lack of snowfall in the 2021 winter was quite noticeable and extraordinary for local residents. I did not have to check the records on this to validate the observation, but I did so anyway. The Washington Post edition of 1/14/2021 reported that as of 1/14/2021, it had been 694 days in a row without at least a half inch of snow in Washington (and the season was still ongoing). This is a record. Apart from the next highest records in 1999 and 1973 at 693 and 617 days respectively, the next 7 longest streaks varied from 428 to 357 days. The Washington DC snowfall norm is 13.7 inches for the season. The 2020-2021 (Jul-Jun) was only 5.4 inches. The data may be reviewed at https://www.weather.gov/media/lwx/climate/dcasnow.pdf.

Hungry Bluebird mouths wide open at box 3. Photo: Cindy Morrow, 6/21/21

A robust bird population will be dependent on an abundant food supply. Food supply too can be correlated to adequate rainfall and soil fertility. While there were no negative determinants on the food supply in 2021, there was a bounty with the 17 year cicada life cycle emergence, en masse, of the cicadas. Consequently, birds had a new and plentiful food source in the environment. Growth rates of the nestlings were healthy and many of the nest boxes were used twice.

Conclusions

The Virginia Bluebird Society’s Langley Fork Park Bluebird Trail had a successful season in 2021, in great part due to a mild winter, active management, and a once in 17 year cicada ample food source. A total of 63 birds (33 Tree Swallows, 26 Bluebirds and 4 House Wrens) fledged at Langley Fork Park Bluebird trail.

 

 

References

· Stanford Report, January 10, 2005, Bird populations face steep decline in coming decades, study says. Mark Shwartz
· Population limitation in birds: the last 100 years. Ian Newton
· 17-year Cicadas: Bird Buffet or Big Disturbance? May. 18, 2021. Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. https://
nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/news/17-year-cicadas-bird-buffet-or-big-disturbance
· D.C.’s lack of snow over the past two winters is making history. Capital Weather Gang. https://
www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2021/01/14/washington-dc-snow-drought/

FMN CE Hike: Bluebird Box Monitoring — Awesome!

BB nest feature photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Have you ever wondered what’s inside those white boxes on poles standing in open fields? They are Bluebird boxes paid for and erected by Bluebird Societies to provide habitat for Bluebirds, native cavity nesters. Trained personnel regularly monitor the boxes to record data for scientific research. A Fairfax Master Naturalist group recently explored the inside of 12 of them with Larry Meade, Northern Virginia Bird Club President and volunteer with the Virginia Bluebird Society. I was reminded of the carol The 12 Days of Christmas as Larry carefully opened each “gift” for a peek inside.

Organized by FMN Barbara Saffir, we met at Clark’s Crossing in Vienna on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Larry tapped the side of each box first to warn the parent bird of our approach. Their departure from the box was our first clue to which species was inside. The boxes are intended for use by Eastern Bluebirds but the conservation groups don’t mind if they are used by Tree Swallows (TS), Chickadees and other native cavity nesters. Nesting by other species, such as the non-native House Sparrow, is prevented by removing nesting material before it is completed. The opening is too small to allow entry by European Starlings.

Larry then unscrewed the side of the box, lowered it and we’d look inside. What follows is the day’s official report, enhanced by Larry’s astute birding observations and comedic interludes:

TS nest by Julie Ables

Nest 1 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Tree Swallows use feathers to “feather their nests.”

Nest 2 – BB nest – 3 eggs
Tidbits: Bluebirds use pine needles to make their nests. Larry was logging eBird sightings and “birding by ear.” He wryly noted “butterflying by ear” doesn’t work.

Nest 3 – TS nest – 4 babies ready to go
Tidbit: We viewed quickly so parents could return and resume feeding these voracious eaters.

Nest 4 – BB nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: Larry used a mirror so we could see the babies tucked deep in the nest. This is the second brood in this box for the Bluebird pair.

Nest 5 – TS – 4 babies

Nest 6 – TS nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: Parent was agitated and circling us. We moved on quickly.

Nest 7 – TS nest -4 big babies
Tidbit: Box monitors remove a nest after the babies have fledged so parents can build a new one. Turkey Vultures are known as TVs. What is a pair called? A TV set.

Nest 8 – TS nest – 5 babies

Carolina Chickadees by Marilyn Parks

Nest 9 – Chic nest – 3 Babies
Tidbit:  Carolina Chickadees! Parents use moss to make the nest. Chickadees are native species and left alone.

Nest 10 – empty
Tidbit: In nearby trees we see a juvenile Orchard Oriole! Larry notes that seeing a new bird is like seeing a movie star.  So true!

Nest 11 – TS nest – 3 babies
Tidbit: We discover a nearby mulberry tree and taste some of the berries. No wonder birds love them!

Mulberry photo by Barbara J. Saffir

Nest 13 – BB nest – 5 eggs
Tidbit: The nest is about 3 times as high as the other BB nests we’ve seen.

If you are interested in volunteering to monitor bluebird boxes, contact the Virginia Bluebird Society. Monitoring season runs from the end of April to early August each year. The excitement and joy of opening the boxes will enhance your contributions to citizen science!

FMN Quarterly Chapter Meeting and Bluebird Box Monitoring presentation, Mar. 16th — CANCELLED!

Hidden Oaks Nature Center
7701 Royce St., Annandale VA
Monday, 16 March 2020
7:30 pm

The Fairfax Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists will hold a short quarterly chapter meeting which will be followed by a presentation from volunteers who monitor bluebird boxes. They work on behalf of the Virginia Bluebird Society which was founded in 1996 to promote bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. Volunteers record data and ensure that boxes are clean and free of pests to promote bluebird breeding success.

The meeting is free and open to the public. Please join us to learn about this worthwhile project and how you can become a nest box volunteer.

Parking at Hidden Oaks is limited, but there is overflow parking at the Fred M. Packard Center, 4022 Hummer Rd., Annandale, VA 22003. It is just a short walk along a wooded trail to the Hidden Oaks Nature Center from the parking lot.

Master naturalists earn one hour of continuing education credit for the presentation and can record service hours under code C034: Bluebird Trails if they participate in the project.

Learn all things bluebird, conference Nov. 16th

Dorothy Hart Community Center
408 Canal St, Fredericksburg, VA
Saturday, 16 November 2019
8am – 3pm

The Virginia Bluebird Society’s 2019 Biennial Meeting will be an all day bluebird fest. The keynote speaker will be Bet Zimmerman Smith, a North American Bluebird Society board member and Life Member of NABS. Her highly regarded and hugely popular website, sialis.org was ‘developed as a resource for people interested in helping bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters survive and thrive.’

The registration fee ($40 VBS-members, $50 non-members) includes continental breakfast, lunch, programs and door prizes.

View the breakout session topics and register here.  Master naturalists, earn 3.5 hours of continuing education credit.