Filming Eastern Bluebirds in Cobleskill, New York

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.

Recently hatched Tree Swallow chicks in on of Kevin's nest boxes.

Recently hatched Tree Swallow chicks in one of Kevin’s nest 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.

Kevin showing off his Sumac germinated from seed found in bluebird feces.

Kevin showing off his Sumac planted from seeds found in bluebird feces.

Nannyberry is another important winter food source for bluebirds.

Nannyberry is another important winter food source for bluebirds.

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.

A pair of bluebirds at a mealworm feeder on Kevin's property.

A pair of bluebirds at a mealworm feeder on Kevin’s property.

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.

The largest, healthiest American Chestnut tree I have ever seen.

The largest, healthiest American Chestnut tree I have ever seen.

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.

Female Eastern Bluebird about to feed her chicks.

Female Eastern Bluebird about to feed her chicks.

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.

Male Eastern Bluebird feeding his chicks.

Male Eastern Bluebird feeding his chicks.

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.

Kevin Berner on his bluebird trail.

Kevin Berner on his bluebird trail.


2 comments on “Filming Eastern Bluebirds in Cobleskill, New York

  1. I really enjoy this blog and I especially enjoyed the PBS program! There really is a bigger world out there and I know that but I continually learn to appreciate that fact.

    A friend of mine, call him John, is a founding member of SIMBA, Southern Idaho Mountain Bluebird Association. I believe that John is currently 92 and is a retired engineer. John was a former guest of the German Army after the Battle of the Bulge. German hospitality did not include appropriate medical attention for his wounds and he still suffers from them. On the other hand and until recently, John and his SIMBA fellows have installed bluebird trails over the past 35 years and would be perfectly happy continuing to do that, except for . . . the mileage problem.

    I love to pick John’s brains. He still has an active mind and uses it to live independently and pursue his hobbies. but taking care of his per project has become problematic. In the back seat of the Twin Falls Presbyterian Church, John and I were talking about milling equipment and the tolerances required to keep large high speed equipment working. The sermon was over and we were not gossiping, least wise bothering other folk. The conversation took a left tern and he mentioned that he just could not cover the miles required to take BB census and maintain nest boxes.

    I disclosed to John that I had two Civil Air Patrol Ground Teams ready to go and if he would train them (and me) we would accept a mission to perform an end-of-season census and maintainer check, which we did. There were 132 sites on 12 trails in the Monument Springs Bluebird Network; each member of the teams covered 35 miles on foot and every site was visited. When we returned to John’s house on the way back, he initially did not believe that we had actually finished the survey and he questioned the cadets.

    When John was satisfied that the task was complete, he complemented that cadets and mentioned that there were 400 more sites between Jackpot and Mt.Harrison ! I was one of the group that stood silent for at least 30 seconds. CAP will tackle the 400 this spring and summer between encampments, graduations and airshows.

    In compiling the census and maintenance notes, I compiled a spreadsheet in order to make notes readable and reproducible. One thing lead to another and the spreadsheet grew to include nest, egg, fledge counts with summaries by trail, and system wide. An accurate map-chart was generated in order to have a better location map; this became the background for a maintenance map. Finally the data was piped to a KML script imported into Google Earth so that all of the maintenance records could be represented in 3D. A “movie” was compiled so that the SIMBA folk could enjoy (with pop corn) the fruits of their labor and the maintenance task before them.

    More work remains to be accomplished on the spreadsheet for SIMBA but training manuals for bird and nest identification need to be compiled for the 2014 effort.

    • Great story Robin! We are happy to know there is someone else like Al in our great state of Idaho taking care of those Bluebirds. We are especially thrilled to see how you and the community have rallied around helping to keep the trails going. Much the same has been happening around Boise with regards to Al’s Bluebird trails. Keep up the great work.

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