Another day, another bluebird trail for Mr. Alfred Larson. Yesterday Wild Lens accompanied the Bluebird Man on yet other bluebird trail in southwest Idaho. Al has several trails, but the two big ones we’ll be documenting for our film Bluebird Man are in the Owyhee Mountains and Prairie, Idaho. Yesterday we visited the Prairie trail, where Al has had up to 155 nest boxes. Prairie is a remote “town” located in a beautiful valley along the south fork of the Boise River between Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch Reservoirs. What a gorgeous area, and we had a great day of filming.
A bluebird box along the Prairie Trail. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
The Prairie Trail is different from the Owyhee’s in that we find Western and Mountain Bluebirds in the same location. Roughly 30% of Al’s nest boxes in Prairie are occupied by Western Bluebirds. At one Western Bluebird box, we noticed some interesting interaction between the Tree Swallows and bluebirds. We trapped a female Western Bluebird in her box (she was brooding 4 young chicks), and while Al was placing a numbered leg band on her, a pair of Tree Swallows swooped down and tried to claim the box as their own. What a pair of aggressive birds these were!
A Tree Swallow swooping in to claim a bluebird box. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
A Tree Swallow at a nest box with bluebird chicks inside! Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
However, the male bluebird would have none of it. On two separate occasions he flew in and literally tackled the smaller swallow to the ground right in front of the nest box! After two passes, and after we placed the female back in the box, the Tree Swallows finally relented on gave up on taking over the box. High competition for nest sites indeed!
A female Mountain Bluebird defending her nest box. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
Throughout the day we managed to trap 6 different female bluebirds in their boxes. Two of them already had numbered leg bands on them (stay tuned for more information on these individuals), but 4 did not. Being able to see these female birds in the hand was fantastic, and we hope they continue to have a successful breeding season.
The brood patch of a female bluebird. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
Adult female bluebird in the hand. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
We will have another update on this trip soon as too many exciting things happened for just one blog post!
In order to tell the story of the complete nesting-cycle of bluebirds in Bluebird Man, one of the critical scenes we needed to capture was bluebird copulation. At this early stage in the breeding cycle, male and female bluebirds pair up together and occupy a territory that contains a nest box or natural cavity. It is here that they begin to build their nest, and that instinctual hormonal drive tells the male he needs to begin reproduction. Yesterday, we were able to capture this crucial life-history stage in the Mountain Bluebird.
The female we were observing was perched atop a stunted Juniper tree, and as the male made passes overhead, she began to shake her wings, presumably as an invitation for the male to proceed. This series of still images from our video documents what happened next. The male flew in and landed directly on female’s back, and in that split second copulated with her. It only takes songbirds a very short amount of time to do this.
Male Mountain Bluebird landing on the females back. Still images from video by Neil Paprocki. Click on the image for a larger view.
But, if you look closely enough, it appears as if the male passes off a piece of food to the female while copulating with her! It is unclear if the male actually gives the piece of food to the female, or if he is just using this as a tactic to mate with her. In animal behavior circles, this is called a “nuptial gift” or “courtship feeding”, and occurs when a male passes along a piece of food or other ‘gift’ to the female just prior to, or during, copulation. Presumably, the gift entices the female to mate with the male, and also may provide the female with a measure of how fit and strong her male is.
Male Mountain Bluebird passing along a ‘Nuptial Gift’. Still images from video by Neil Paprocki.
The reason I say it is unclear if the male actually gives the female food while copulating is because just after the male hops off the female’s back, she takes a piece of food from his mouth. Did the male provide the female with two small pieces of food? Or did he bait the female into copulating first, and then gave her the food? It appeared to me as if the latter happened. Either way, it was extremely fun to capture, and we were excited to document this behavior for the film. Doesn’t it appear as if the male and female are “kissing” in the picture below?
Male passing along a piece of food after copulation. Still image from video by Neil Paprocki.
You can find more information on the Bluebird Man website or ‘Like’ us on Facebook!
Summertime is starting to creep into the remote Owyhee Mountains of southwest Idaho. At sunset, one might see a “venue” of Turkey Vultures soaring on the last air currents of the day before settling down to roost for the night. Mornings are still relatively bereft of birdsong, but if one listens closely enough, they might be able to pick out the song of an early Black-throated Gray Warbler or Vesper Sparrow. More difficult still is the quiet, unassuming song of the Mountain Bluebird, which sings vigorously well before sunrise, but only for a short period. Once daybreak comes though, the spectacular sight that is the male Mountain Bluebird shines through above all else. These birds are truly spectacular, and I for one don’t think Idaho could have chosen a better state bird!
Male Mountain Bluebird. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
The North American Bluebird Society could not have chosen a better ambassador to represent the struggles of all secondary-cavity nesting birds. Fellow Bluebird Man producer Matthew Podolsky and myself spent last Wednesday night and Thursday filming in the Owyhee Mountains for the movie which we hope can inspire future generations of cavity-nesting-conservationists. We hope you don’t tire of seeing pictures of these sky-blue birds of the west. We know the subject of our film, Al Larson, hasn’t tired of it as he is entering his 36th year of bluebird nestbox monitoring!
This past weekend Bluebird Man director Neil Paprocki and I drove out to the Owyhee Mountains with the Bluebird Man himself, Al Larson. This was our first day of shooting in the Owyhee’s, and it was Al’s first visit of the season to his bluebird trail. It was also my first time out in the field with Al, and I was very excited to see Al in his element.
Al with Bluebird Man director Neil Paprocki. Photo by Matthew Podolsky.
The Owyhee’s are Idaho’s forgotten mountain range. They are not as tall as the Lost River Range and not as rugged as the Sawtooths, but they are even more remote and full of history. For Al, returning to the Owyhee’s each spring is like a return to paradise. Al spent much of his childhood in these mountains, and remarkably, they don’t seem to have changed all that much in the many years since the Great Depression.
Al checks a nestbox along his bluebird trail in the Owyhees. Photo by Matthew Podolsky.
The Snake River Valley is quite a different story however. Al has spent almost his entire life in Southwest Idaho, and has been witness to many changes in the landscape of the Snake River Plain. As we drove out towards the Owyhee’s on Sunday morning Al pointed out many of the changes that he has seen over the years, including new agricultural developments and a dramatic increase in roads and highways throughout the area. We chose a route heading southeast from Boise on I-84 to avoid the traffic that is encountered when driving through Meridian and Kuna. Once we got off the interstate we didn’t see many other cars, but each time we did Al would crack a joke about the weekend traffic.
Once we got off the paved road and started to climb up into the mountains Al had a story at every turn. He told us about performing breeding bird surveys with his wife Hilda, and shared which bird species he had seen nesting in the area during each of the previous five seasons. Once we got up onto the bluebird trail there was a story for every nest box. He could tell us which of the cavity-nesting species (aside from Mountain Bluebirds; House Wrens, Mountain Chickadees, Tree Swallows, Violet-green Swallows and Ash-throated Flycatchers have all nested in Al’s boxes) had used each box in previous years, and how many chicks they had successfully fledged. He also explained how he had selected the locations for each box, and why he had decided to change the position of certain boxes. Al doesn’t like to replace a nest box unless there is no possible way to repair it, and many of the boxes on his trail have been there for over 30 years.
Many of Al’s bluebird boxes are attached to the trunks of Juniper trees like this one. Photo by Matthew Podolsky.
Although most of the nest boxes that we checked were still in the nest building stage, we did encounter a few boxes with full clutches of eggs, and one box that had three freshly hatched chicks! These were the first bluebird chicks that Al has seen this season, and we were all excited (and a bit surprised) to see chicks hatching this early.
A nearly complete bluebird nest with four eggs. Photo by Matthew Podolsky.
Female Mountain Bluebird watching anxiously as we check the status of her nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Al has over 130 nest boxes in the Owyhee’s, and although we didn’t have time to check all of them, we made it through well over half and were satisfied with our effort. When 4 o’clock rolled around we decided to start the drive back to Boise and all three of us were exhausted by the time we made it back. Al bands his bluebird chicks when they are between 8 and 14 days old, which gives him a two week window to return to the Owyhee’s to band those first chicks. We agreed to head back out in two weeks time and parted ways after a satisfying and successful first trip.
Wild Lens is excited and proud to be partnering with the North American Bluebird Society on the production of Bluebird Man, our new half hour documentary about Al Larson and bluebird conservation. The North American Bluebird Society (NABS) was founded in 1978 in response to declining bluebird populations, especially those of the Eastern Bluebird. Thanks to the efforts of NABS founder Dr. Lawrence Zeleny and other bluebird conservationists, nest box trails across the country have aided in the recovery of bluebird populations. Wild Lens is thrilled to be collaborating with NABS, and we’re excited that this organization’s rich history of bluebird conservation will be a part of our film.
To capture the unique perspective of the North American Bluebird Society, we will be heading across the border to Canada in just a few days! For the better part of a week, we will call the Okanagan Valley of southeastern British Columbia home. This is where NABS president Sherry Linn resides on a small piece of property with her very own bluebird trail. Wild Lens will be interviewing Sherry and getting a tour of her bluebird trail. This will be an important interview for the film as we hope to gain valuable information from NABS about the history and continued success of conservation efforts for the bluebird and other cavity nesting species. This will also be our best chance to film Western Bluebirds, as Al’s bluebird trails in Idaho being occupied mainly by Mountain Bluebirds. We hope to update everyone while we are shooting in beautiful British Columbia, and will have a full report on the trip once we return after April 26th.
Mountain Bluebird. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
This trip also marks the official start of production for Bluebird Man, and we are excited and hopeful that this film project will be a successful one from start to finish. Wish us luck, and we will keep everyone updated with photos, videos, and blog posts throughout the entire production process. We will see you across the border!
Now that Scavenger Hunt has been released for purchase on DVD by Cinema Libre Studio, Wild Lens is excited to announce our next film project: Bluebird Man, which will begin production in late April 2013. Check out the new website for more information on Bluebird Man. Here is a brief synopsis of the film along with a short teaser trailer:
For over 30 years, 91-year old Al Larson has monitored 300 bluebird boxes in southwestern Idaho: Can we help inspire the next generation to continue his legacy of environmental stewardship?
In Idaho, local legend Al Larson has become synonymous with bluebird monitoring and conservation. Al grew up in the remote Owyhee Mountains of southwest Idaho in the 1930s, and developed a love for birds and wildlife while working as a ranch hand. Al dropped out of school after completing the 8th grade and the remote wilderness of the Owyhee’s became his classroom. Al still vividly remembers the first bluebird that he saw while working on a ranch in this remote corner of Idaho. Although he didn’t know the species name at the time, this sighting would stick in his mind for decades to come.
91-year old Al Larson. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
Many years later, Al was inspired to return to the remote mountains of his childhood by a National Geographic story about bluebird conservation. It was here in 1978 that he set up his first bluebird boxes. 35 years later at age 91, Al is still monitoring his bluebird boxes in the Owyhee Mountains. Al monitors every stage of the breeding process from egg laying, to hatching, to the fledging of the bluebird chicks. When the chicks reach a certain age, Al bands each one with a uniquely numbered federal aluminum leg band. Al has banded almost 27,000 bluebirds in the past 35 years.
Male Mountain Bluebird on a juniper. Photograph by Neil Paprocki.
As Al begins to think about his legacy, he wonders what will become of his bluebird trail once he is no longer able to care for it. Can he inspire the next generation to have the same dedication and enthusiasm he has carried with him all these years? We hope to answer these questions and more through the telling of Al’s unique life story.
What we need from our supporters:
- We need your help to raise $11,500 by May 15th, allowing us to begin production on Bluebird Man. Scavenger Hunt was funded almost entirely on private donations from devoted followers, and Bluebird Man may be no different. We have already secured $5,000 in seed money from previous projects, but we still need your help! As of March 1st, all donations received by Wild Lens will go directly towards the production of this film until it is funded. Individual donation and corporate sponsorship levels can be found on the Bluebird Man Website.
- To help spread the word, visit our new Bluebird Man Facebook page and Like us!
Additionally, we have established partnerships with the North American Bluebird Society and the Golden Eagle Audubon Society, and will be working closely with both of these organizations throughout the production process. We are deeply honored to be working with these well-established organizations, both of which have played critical roles in bluebird conservation efforts. These partnerships will undoubtably make Bluebird Man a stronger film.
Stay tuned for more soon as we will have regular production updates for everyone once filming starts in the next month.
I love piñyon-juniper country. Period.
Having spent a considerable amount of time working in the Great Basin, you gain an appreciation for the simple, dominating presence of the piñyon pine/juniper woodlands dotting the landscape. Walking through this country, the smell of sagebrush and juniper mix together to create perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing scent imaginable. This scene plays out along the Owyhee Bluebird Trail of southwest Idaho. Many of you may have heard of Al Larson, known simply as the Bluebird Man, who has been a fixture in Idaho for decades managing over 300 bluebird boxes all over southwest Idaho. I had the privilege of accompanying this man for a day of bluebird banding along his stretch of nest boxes in the Owyhee Mountains.
Checking nest boxes. Photo by Al Larson.
This particular stretch of nest boxes houses Mountain Bluebirds, although House Wrens, Tree and Violet-green Swallows, and Chickadees will occasionally take up residence. Mountain Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning they rely upon other organisms such as woodpeckers to create nesting cavities. In this case, they have taken a liking to the artificial cavities constructed by Al Larson in the form of wooden nest boxes nailed to juniper trees.
Our mission for the day was to check nest boxes that could potentially have nestling bluebirds around 8-14 days old, as this is the best age to band nestlings before they reach fledging age. Most of the boxes we were checking contained second broods, as much of the bluebird population completed their first round of breeding in May and June. Getting a brief glimpse into the life of this beautiful bird was a great experience.
A nest full of bluebird nestlings. These guys were a little to young to band. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Many of the nest boxes containing nestlings had two attentive adult bluebirds very nearby. The parents were clearly unhappy with our presence, and would sometimes flutter feet over our heads, trying to figure out exactly what we were doing. A few males even flew straight at our faces in a game of chicken before veering away inches before collision! Our slight disturbance however, was quickly forgotten soon after we left the area.
An adult male Mountain Bluebird defends his nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
The passion that Al has for these bluebirds after an astounding 30+ years of work and over 25,000 bluebirds banded is truly amazing. Being in his early 90s, he has begun to look for ways to sustain this important monitoring beyond his lifetime. While he is certainly starting to slow down, his energy level is amazing, and following a full day of checking nest boxes I was dead tired, while he was still raring to go! After only one day in the field, I could certainly appreciate the allure of these birds, and have no doubt that Al will find a capable home for the continuation of the fine work he began over 30 years ago.
Thanks for the great work you’ve started Al, and our generation will do our best to continue down the path you have created.
Adult male Mountain Bluebird. Note the band on the right leg. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Adult male Mountain Bluebird. Photo by Neil Paprocki.