As spring approaches and temperatures climb on Vancouver Island, migratory birds are returning to Port Alberni.
Several of them will have new homes, thanks to a habitat restoration project by a few Alberni residents.
Volunteers from the Alberni Aquarium and Stewardship Centre and the Port Alberni birding community worked together to install five birdhouses on Ducks Unlimited property on the Somass Estuary on Saturday, Mar. 10.
The boxes, said birder Sandy McRuer, are specially designed for swallows, which have been in decline in the Alberni Valley for some time.
“All over North Ameria, they are in decline,” said McRuer. “It’s because of habitat change.”
McRuer says it’s not clear what is driving habitat change, but it could be a combination of things. Less forest means that there is less opportunity for woodpeckers to carve the tree cavities that swallows usually nest in. Swallows are also aerial insectivores, meaning they catch their prey on the wing, and the insect population is declining.
“By doing this, we’re enhancing the habitat for them,” said McRuer.
The boxes, built by McRuer, are numbered so that swallow activity can be recorded. Each box is fitted with a hinged door so that they can be cleaned out each season, in order to prevent disease. Port Alberni’s birding community will be following the nesting success.
This is not the first time McRuer has participated in such a restoration project. He installed several boxes for purple martins, another type of swallow, at the Harbour Quay marina a few years ago.
“Now the martin population is reasonably healthy, but entirely dependant on those boxes,” said McRuer.
The estuary, explained McRuer, is a good habitat for tree swallows (recognizeable by their blue backs) and violet green swallows (recognizeable by their green backs).
“[Swallows] like to nest near water,” he said. “They’re not a forest bird, they like the open spaces. It’s also very biologically diverse.”
The Somass Estuary is known by birders as one of the biggest “hot spots” in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District — it’s a good place to see many different kinds of birds.
Birds can be more easily tracked across the continent — and the world — because of a number of technological advancements. A website called eBird (which also has an app) makes it easy for birders to record the species they see in the field.
“You can keep track of how many different birds you’ve seen,” said McRuer. “It’s a very powerful tool. Thousands of people are writing in.”
Port Alberni’s birding community has been going strong for a number of years. Members meet at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Victoria Quay.
“We go somewhere every weekend,” said McRuer. “We have to start thinking of ourselves as a club now, because we’ve done something together.”
McRuer isn’t sure when they will see the results of their work, but with spring arriving, he hopes to see the birdhouses being used soon.
The swallows should start to arrive anyday, he explained.