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Nest boxes at the Oregon Golf Club help western bluebird reclaim its natural habitat

by:  VERN UYETAKE - According to Russell Vandehey, just like humans, some bluebirds are neater than others. “In April ... the male and female get to courting. He feeds her worms, and she gets all ruffled up and cute. But once they have babies, there’s none of that. It’s all work.”

It might not be the best way to woo a human, but on Petes Mountain — romance is for the birds.

Elaine Newland is a bird bander. As part of her volunteer work for the Prescott Bluebird Recovery Project, she monitors and attaches scientific tags to western bluebirds in the West Linn area.

This year, Newland was kept pretty busy. In 2012, more than 162 fledgling bluebirds were tagged by banders in the Petes Mountain area, with comparable numbers reported for 2013.

Instead of using natural nesting cavities, almost all the bluebirds born on the mountain used artificial nesting boxes. Newland said 20 of these boxes — and 40 of this year’s fledglings — came from the Oregon Golf Club.

Course Superintendent Russell Vandehey explained why the nesting boxes — essentially small wooden rectangles with cutaway circular entryways, mounted on a metal pole — were necessary.

“There was a trend of, ‘Hey, let’s cut down all the dead trees’ in the area,” Vandehey said. “Their habitat was getting taken away, like snags (dead trees) or holes made by woodpeckers.”

According to Vandehey, encroaching urban boundaries, increased construction and destruction of the birds’ natural habitat all contributed to the declining bluebird population. Officially, the western bluebird is listed as a “sensitive species” by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It got so bad that by 2002, when Newland first started monitoring western bluebirds on Pete’s Mountain, there were less than 10 fledglings born each year.

And even though the nest boxes were installed soon after the course’s opening in 1992, Newland said it wasn’t until Vandehey stepped up as chief groundskeeper in 1997 that the recovery project — and the nest boxes — began to thrive.

“Unlike other golf courses, Russ is a real success story. I think it’s his love of Mother Nature,” Newland said.

Vandehey supplied a more modest line of reasoning. He said the club’s elevation, around 600 to 700 feet above the surrounding area, was key to the bluebird’s revival.by: VERN UYETAKE - Superintendent Russell Vandehey tends to the bluebird nesting boxes at Oregon Golf Club.

But Vandehey admitted that his daily inspections of the nest boxes during mating season, between April and June, also helped the birds reclaim their native habitat.

“Well the monitoring (of the birds) is important,” Vandehey said. “You can’t just put (the nest boxes) up and say, ‘OK, let’s have some birds.’ ”

The hatch sites have to be watched closely to establish when the first clutch of eggs is laid. Incubation typically takes 13 to 14 days. Ideally, Newland bands the birds 12 days after that. Any later, and the fledglings might be out of the nest.

But Vandehey’s responsibilities don’t end there.

Every winter, the superintendent cleans out each nest box. After that, Vandehey coats the roof of each artificial nest with beeswax, which helps deter yellow jackets from occupying the box during the colder months.

The nest boxes’ entry holes have to be a certain circumference — preferably an inch and a quarter. Any larger, and European starlings and house sparrows will take over the avian abode.

But there’s still more upkeep.

“I like to make sure (the birds) are staying dry inside,” Vandehey said. “So I spend some time putting new roofing material on them or caulking them. So they’re not just a drafty wet box.”

Heavy rains can also be a problem during the beginning of hatching season.

Like their cousin the robin, bluebirds are primarily ground eaters. They prefer spiders, crickets, ants, grubs and small worms for meals. by: VERN UYETAKE - Russell Vandehey and bird bander Elaine Newland check out another avian abode.

If it rains through April, bluebirds have trouble finding enough food for themselves and their young. To supplement them, Vandehey likes to leave a few mealworms on top of their nest boxes.

Vandehey’s efforts have helped the Oregon Golf Club maintain its certified status with the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, an environmental standards organization for golf courses around the world.

Last year, in recognition of his efforts, Vandehey received the Michael S. Hindahl Enviromnetal Stewardship Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

“You have to do it,” Vandehey said. “There’s no reason that you wouldn’t want to do it. And once I found the enjoyment of it, once I got going, it just sort of started to spread.”

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