I was very lucky to have to opportunity to meet up with SUNY Cobleskill professor and former Research Director for the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) Kevin Berner. I traveled to Cobleskill with my mom Candy, who I recruited to assist me on this important shoot. I drove with my mom out to Cobleskill directly from Northern Vermont soon after completing a hiking trip along the Long Trail.
Kevin lives with his family on a beautiful piece of land just outside Cobleskill. Kevin grew up in this area and his familiarity with the region was very apparent. We met up with Kevin at his home where he maintains about a dozen bluebird boxes. All of his nest boxes are paired, meaning that he has placed two boxes next to each other at each site. This is done to provide nesting habitat for other native secondary cavity nesters such as tree swallows and house wrens. Although none of the nesting bluebird pairs on his property were caring for chicks at the time of our visit, he had one box that had recently fledged chicks, and several pairs that were incubating eggs. Kevin explained that a number of his pairs’ first nesting attempts of the spring had failed due to a long stretch of cold wet weather. We did see several tree swallow and house wren pairs that were actively caring for chicks in Kevin’s boxes.
As we explored Kevin’s property it became apparent how important it is to him to develop an understanding of the complex ecological systems that surrounded us. We walked past a thriving patch of sumac and Kevin was eager to explain why he planted this shrub patch. Occasionally bluebirds will stick around for part of the harsh upstate New York winter and use Kevin’s boxes for roosting. When he goes around to clean out his next boxes in early spring Kevin will collect the bluebird fecal matter that has accumulated at the bottom of the boxes. He then attempts to germinate the seeds that have passed through the digestive systems of his bluebirds, and plants the resulting shrubs in his yard to provide additional winter food sources for his birds. The sumac trees that we saw in his yard are plants germinated from seeds found in this bluebird fecal matter. This experiment also had the benefit of teaching Kevin about the winter diet of Eastern Bluebirds. The three most common plant species that he found in the bluebird feces were Sumac, Nannyberry and Poison Ivy! Apparently the fruits of the Poison Ivy are an important food source for bluebirds, although Kevin chooses not to encourage the growth of poison ivy on his property like he does with the sumac and nannyberry.
Throughout the day Kevin talked quite a bit about the devastating effect of invasive species on the environment and the importance of active stewardship in maintaining an ecological balance point. For bluebirds, Kevin was very clear that starlings and house sparrows, both invasive introduced species, are one of the most serious threats and likely the most significant cause behind the species’ dramatic decline. He explained that in many areas it is solely the efforts of volunteers and bluebird lovers that are keeping bluebird populations at close to historic levels. Eastern Bluebirds especially have become almost completely dependent in many areas on humans to provide nesting habitat, and if these volunteer efforts were to cease, bluebird populations would almost certainly crash.
Starlings and House Sparrows are not the only invasive species that Kevin is concerned about however. While walking through the yard, Kevin pointed out the largest and healthiest looking American Chestnut tree that I have ever seen. The American Chestnut was once one of the most common canopy tree species throughout eastern forests, but was almost completely wiped out within a shockingly short time period after the introduction of an invasive fungal blight. This fungal blight was first introduced around 1900, and within roughly 40 years American Chestnut trees were almost completely eliminated throughout their once enormous range. Although Kevin’s relatively large chestnut will likely contract this deadly fungal blight eventually, he has been experimenting with blight-resistant strains of the species, and has over two dozen saplings that he has planted on his property over the past few years. There are a number of organizations across the East coast (check out the website for the American Chestnut Foundation) that have been working to develop completely blight resistant American Chestnut trees with the goal of eventually re-introducing this important and once common species.
After exploring Kevin’s property, we set out to check on some of the other bluebird boxes that Kevin monitors and maintains; he monitors a trail of approximately 90 nest boxes in Schoharie County. As we drove to one of his nest box sites, Kevin expressed his pride over the efforts of the Schoharie County Bluebird Society in generating community support for nest box programs. Schoharie County in upstate New York has extremely high participation rates relative to its population size in its volunteer next box program and Kevin talked a lot about how receptive people from all walks of life are to the program.
We found a nest box along the edge of a cemetery that had a bluebird pair caring for chicks that were probably 14 or 15 days old. This is not quite old enough to fledge, but old enough that the chicks were very vocal in their demands for food! Whenever either of the adults would approach the box with an insect or caterpillar in its bill the chicks would poke their heads out of the box and vocalize quite loudly! I spent several hours shooting footage of this pair and their chicks, often using headstones to hide myself from view.
Overall I was very pleased with how this shoot went and was extremely thankful to Kevin for being so hospitable. Although Bluebird Man will focus on the story of Al Larson’s bluebird trail, there is clearly a story behind every bluebird trail, and it was largely the Eastern Bluebird that inspired the initiation of the North American Bluebird Society’s (NABS) large-scale citizen science project that ultimately resulted in the bluebird’s recovery. It is also important to note that Kevin and Al have met a number of times at NABS conferences and have a great amount of respect for one another. Kevin made it quite clear how impressed he was by Al and his bluebird trail when he visited Boise for a conference a number of years ago, and Al has spoken very highly of Kevin and was very pleased that we decided to interview him to get our Eastern Bluebird perspective for the film.