Rube Johnston Bluebird Trail

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Bluebird Trail Reports

Maintained by Rob H. on behalf of The Vegreville Wildlife Federation


Rube Johnston Bluebird Trail 2021 – Spring Setup

The weather had warmed substantially, melting the snow, so on March 18 through 20, 2021, I prepared the bluebird trail nest boxes for the season. I did the boxes north and west of town on March 18, the boxes south of town on March 19, and boxes east of town on March 20.
Compared to last year and other years, there was not much snow remaining along the roads and in ditches. Surprisingly, I saw no male Mountain Bluebirds. There are usually a few by this time. It could be that weather further south in North America is slowing the bird migration.

I did see one Red-tailed Hawk on March 19 being harassed by a resident Raven. On March 20, I found that Bald Eagles had returned to a nest east of Vegreville. Otherwise, I only saw a few European Starlings and Canada Geese on that weekend.

Spring nest box preparation includes fastening the box bottom in place, tightening all mounting and top screws, and making any repairs needed. On Akasu Hill, I was surprised to find the box that I thought was missing. Unfortunately, it had been torn off the post, leaving only the back plate attached, so will need fixing.

Now all we need is those bluebirds and swallows to find their way back to the nest boxes.


2020 Bluebird Trail photos                        Pre-2020 Bluebird Trail photos

A Photographic Tale – 2020 Nest Boxes

I did manage to get a few photos this year, even though I was only on the trail at the start and end of the season. Tree Swallows (TRSW) insisted on nesting in my yard again, so I reinstalled a nest box on the fence by my garden. Each year, House Sparrows and House Wrens try to interfere. To prevent this occurring, I devised a simple and inexpensive way to reduce the entrance hole size, to keep House Sparrows out. A House Wren showed up after the TRSW had laid eggs, but it did not persist. Usually the male TRSW would chase off the intruders.

Tree Swallows nested in all three Roeben horizontal boxes. Each Roeben box had differing results. One was chock full of feathers, almost as if there were two nests. One had minimal feathers, and one was later filled with spruce twigs by a House Wren. There are a few more photos showing nest structure and one of an abandoned TRSW nest full of eggs. Most of the photos are from late August. I inserted labels for all photos for clarity.
Rob H

2020 report to VWF by Rob H.

Mountain Bluebird: 4 nests, 19 fledged. Tree Swallow: 58 nests, 309 fledged. Total nest boxes: 66
The year 2020 is the twentieth year that I have been maintaining this nest box trail. Where did that time go? It has been a strange year with the Covid 19 restrictions, yet a seemingly normal year for the birds that use the nest boxes. I kept my nest box monitoring travel to just the Spring setup and late summer windup.
Spring setup (bottoms in place) was accomplished between March 13 and April 15, depending on when I could access the boxes, due to variations in snow cover and water-filled ditches. I added a nest box to my backyard fence in late April when a Tree Swallow pair insisted on having a nest there. They were successful in raising four fledglings, even though House Sparrows and a House Wren tried to interfere.
I made the end of season checks between August 20 and 24. This includes assessing the nest to see which species (or intruder) had occupied the box, looking for unhatched eggs or dead birds, then pushing the used nest out the bottom. Both top and bottom open on these monitoring boxes. The top is re-attached and the bottom is left open to prevent mice from nesting. I re-marked all box identifiers.

Mountain Bluebird (MB) – I saw the first MB (a male) on April 13. There were likely some returned by late March. There were no second egg clutches this year. Total nests – 4, fledged juveniles – 19, only one unhatched egg.

Tree Swallow (TS) – Most TS had returned by April 30. Total nests – 58, but 2 were abandoned, juveniles fledged – 309, 21 unhatched eggs. House Wren disturbed five boxes. House Sparrows disturbed 2 boxes.
I also look after 12 nest boxes at the Giebelhaus property at the edge of Vegreville. These are small boxes suitable for Tree Swallows (TS) but not Bluebirds. There were 5 TS pairs with 23 young fledged, 4 empty boxes, 2 boxes with House Wrens, and one box disturbed by House Sparrows. This brings the total boxes to 78.

The three Roeben horizontal design boxes were successful again with 18 Tree Swallows fledged, but House Wrens filled one box with spruce sticks after the TS vacated the box. Box SR3 was full of feathers, whereas box R10 only had feathers at the back of the box.

I photographed all three boxes showing the nesting results.

Unfortunately, vandals (uncivilized humans) damaged two nest boxes on Akasu Hill. One box was missing (so presumed stolen), and one was ripped from the fence post (which I replaced). I am thinking of removing all four boxes on that road.

2020 "spring" report to VWF by Rob H.

The nest box bottoms were set in place starting in March and into April. 14 boxes remain to be done as well as 1 box needs the top replaced. The snow drifts are still frozen hard enough to walk on.

The spring arrivals encountered so far are Mountain Bluebirds, Robins, Western Meadowlarks, Song Sparrows, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough Legged Hawks, Horned Larks, Canada Geese, Crows and Starlings.


2019 report to VWF by Rob H.
Estimated number of juveniles fledged:
Mountain Bluebird (MB) – 29, Tree Swallow (TS) – 332

The nest box bottoms were set in place starting on March 21 and 22 when the first returning Mountain Bluebird males arrived. Boxes that were not readily accessible due to deep snow, or water in roadside ditches, were finished from March 31 to April 18. Testing of the three horizontal nest boxes designed by Hans continued.

Results are determined by preparing boxes at the start of the nesting season, letting the birds nest in the boxes, then return in the middle of August to see which species have used the boxes and estimate fledgling numbers. I do not count egg numbers to minimize disturbance to the birds. Each species has a method of nest building. For example, Mountain Bluebirds use thin bladed grass and make a compact cup nest. Tree Swallows use thick bladed grass and devise a feather canopy to cover eggs and hatchlings. Mountain Bluebirds keep a very clean nest, removing any hatchling excrement. Tree Swallow nests are messy with excrement.

Mountain Bluebird summary: 5 total nests all successful, 1 nest had two clutches. There were no unhatched eggs and I saw no dead hatchlings. Average number of fledglings per box was 5.8. Total fledged 29. There was later competition from Tree Swallows that possibly prevented second Mountain Bluebird broods.

Tree Swallow summary: 60 total nests, total eggs 351 (4 to 9 per nest, average 6.2). Estimated number fledged 332 (average per box 5.5). A nest with 8 or 9 eggs may involve two females laying eggs in the same nest box. The Roeben design test boxes all had successful Tree Swallow nests.
House Sparrows (HS) nested in one box. HS use a wide variety of materials for nest building, including man made items, animal hair, as well as grass and other plants. House Wrens (HW) showed up late in 4 Tree Swallow boxes, filling the box with sticks, but did not disturb the Tree Swallow nesting. I encountered mouse nests five times when I cleaned out the boxes.

All nest box numbers were re-applied when I cleaned out the boxes. Two boxes were damaged by cows which had pulled the tops off, which I repaired. One box was ripped off a post by roadside mowing, which I replaced. 


2018 report to VWF by Rob H.
3 nestboxes of a different design were tried this year.
The new design boxes were built by a Vegreville resident.
The new design is a larger box with a flat roof.
They also have a piece of foam mounted inside them for the birds to place their nest on.
2 boxes were placed on the fence line across from the Vegreville Buck for Wildlife property located on Rng Rd 152 by Hiway 16, and 1 box was located along the roadside near the VWF outdoor range.
The swallows arrived on April 26 and tried the nest boxes but had trouble entering the boxes with the entry hole placed on the bottom front of the boxes. Perches were added but these did not solve the entry problem either. The lower holes were then covered and a new hole placed higher up on the box fronts. Within a day the swallows were entering the boxes and nested in all three.
Fledging of young was completed by July 4 and the boxes were cleaned out on July 15. These boxes were later sealed for the winter.
Results of the new boxes were:
- a large amount of grass and feathers was used in all the boxes.
- 2 had nests built by the hole, not on the foam.
- the third box had 2 nests built in it, of which only one had been used for egg laying and nesting.
- the new boxes are larger and heavier than normal boxes thus can be mounted only on the thicker posts.
- the new boxes protrude from the posts quite a bit furthur than the normal boxes.

VWF will stay with the original designed box - the "North American Bluebird box" design.


2016 report to VWF by Rob H.

Number of birds fledged: mountain bluebird 44, tree swallow 307
Pest bird species: house wrens in 8 boxes, House sparrow in 1 box

Mountain Bluebirds first arrived on March 27. 8 pairs laid 52 eggs with 3 pairs double-clutching with one second clutch failure. There were 8 non-viable eggs, resulting in 44 fledged juveniles. Bluebirds prefer pasture land.

Tree Swallows normally arrive in late April and claim the nest boxes not used by bluebirds, usually around the field crop land such as wheat or canola. This year there were 54 pairs laying 318 eggs with 307 fledged juveniles.

House Wrens arrive even later than tree swallows and usually do not interfere with bluebirds or swallows. They will occasionally insert sticks overtop of finished swallow nests. This year found 4 unhatched wren eggs in a full nest overtop of a successful swallow nest.


2015 report to VWF by Rob H.

Number of nests and fledged young mountain bluebirds and tree swallows estimated from nest evidence evaluated between August 23-25, 2015 found a total of 64 nest boxes.

Mountain Bluebird: 4 nests, 25 fledged, one nest had two clutches, Average 6.5 per box.

Tree Swallow: 53 nests, 298 fledged. Average 5.6 per box.

House Sparrow: nested in 1 box.

House Wren: disturbed 6 nest boxes. In most cases the wrens moved in late, after the swallows were finished nesting, but did displace 1 swallow family.

Many other birds, geese, rodents and a herd of mule deer also dwell, thrive, and stroll through this property. There is a blind on this site (bird watching station/hut). Please keep it clean and treat it with respect.

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