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They're back! Western bluebirds return to Valley

Once locally extinct, a program to bring the western bluebird back to southern Vancouver Island is seeing significant success with seven birds already returning to the Cowichan Valley this year.

"I think it's going really, really well," said Kathryn Martel, a conservation specialist with the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team Society, which is spearheading the project.

In total, 26 adults and 20 juveniles have been released in the Cowichan Valley to date, with three new pairs to be released this week and more in the years to come.

With those numbers, seven returnees to the nesting area may not seem like a particularly impressive tally, but Martel said it's reason for optimism.

In 2013 five pairs of the birds nested successfully in Cowichan, raising a total of 31 babies.

"The survival rate of the juveniles is really quite low, which is true of all songbirds," she said, explaining that these young birds migrate to southern Washington

in the winter and due to their size they are prey for bigger birds, cats and other animals.

The project to bring the bluebirds back to the area has been modeled on a successful project on San Juan Island. The numbers Cowichan is seeing are on par with that project, Martel said.

"To have these birds return this year, and for the juveniles to be coming back and nesting as well, this really is proof that together, we can restore a lost piece of our rare ecosystems," she said.

"It's also still early in the season," Martel said.

She's further encouraged by the level of interest from the community and local landowners, as their buy-in is key to the longterm success of building a stable

population, as people have to want to host habitat and nest boxes and the like.

"They do tend to show up right back at the nest box that they hatched out of last year," she said.

Though the group is working to create a strong core population in Cowichan, eventually they'd like to see the birds spread across the southern Island. On that score, things may be a little ahead of schedule.

"Birds don't always do what you tell them to do," Martel said, noting that a male western bluebird from the Cowichan batch has been spotted in Nanaimo, and a pair has been spotted in Metchosin.

The lone male did make his way from Nanaimo back down to Cowichan by Sunday morning, Martel noted with relief, as he has a much better chance of finding a mate here where there is a larger population of the birds.

Existing breeding pairs may commit to a nest box in the next week, she said, but the young ones will continue to cruise around and check out habitat and potential mates for the next month or so.

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