Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Report on the Bluebird Trail at Gunston Hall

by Ann Elise Sauer
Gunston Hall Docent
with adaptations of information provided by the Virginia Bluebird Society at

From colonial times and into the early 1900s, the Eastern Bluebird was one of Virginia’s most common songbirds. Over time, agriculture and development, which destroyed much of their natural habitat, and several harsh winters resulted in a severe decline in the bluebird population. Today, bluebirds are enjoying resurgence due to the efforts of many volunteer organizations and individuals who have established and maintain bluebird trails that provide protected nesting sites in areas with adequate food. The Virginia Bluebird Society is one such organization.

The Eastern Bluebird belongs to the thrush family. The male is brilliant blue with a rusty breast and throat. The female is gray blue with a buff breast. Their diet consists of mostly insects and wild berries when insects are not available. Fledglings have spotted feathers until the fall molt when all bluebirds grow dull feathers for protection from predators, regaining their color by spring.

Bluebirds are secondary cavity-dwellers that nest in the holes in trees made and subsequently abandoned by woodpeckers. Bluebird boxes along trails mimic tree cavities and provide extra protection for bluebirds from predators, such as snakes, raccoons and foxes, and aggressive birds, such as starlings and house sparrows. Since its inception, the Virginia Bluebird Society has recorded
120,924 new bluebirds in the State of Virginia.

So why have a bluebird trail at Gunston Hall?

Gunston Hall’s bluebird trail supports a songbird that was very prevalent in George Mason’s day and provides visitors an opportunity to explore the extensive grounds that were part of his thriving plantation, including the beehives, graveyard, and deer park and wharf sites, and to see the mansion from many new aspects. The trail also provides a new educational opportunity for visitors, especially school children and Scouts, who can learn about and participate in protecting and preserving Virginia’s bluebirds and our environment.

I am told Gunston Hall had a bluebird trail many years ago, with boxes the staff built with the help of the legendary Buck, who worked at the Plantation for many years. But the bluebird boxes were removed at some point, and the trail was abandoned. Early in 2013, Mark Whatford and the staff discovered some of the old boxes in one of the outbuildings and re-installed them around the grounds. Somehow, my neighbor, Kim Thompson, who is an experienced bluebird monitor, got involved in monitoring the re-installed trail, and she recruited me to help her. And that’s where my love of bluebirds began!

Kim and I took care of the bluebird trail all last summer. We monitored 10 boxes that were, to put it kindly, in varying states of disrepair. Some had termite damage or stuck doors; none had guards or baffles to keep the predators away from the bluebird eggs and babies. And they were installed on trees, fence posts, and other structures rather than metal poles – making the bluebird families very vulnerable to many dangers. Nonetheless, we recorded over 30 bluebird babies who successfully fledged (left the nest) – a great record for a new, somewhat haphazard trail.

Kim shared her expertise, teaching me how to check the boxes, clean out ants and wasps and other predators, remove infested nests, remove destroyed nests and eggs, and even handle the eggs and live bluebird chicks, when necessary. I will always remember the day I held 5 tiny blue eggs in the palm of my hand while Kim removed their ant-infested nest, cleaned out the box, and built a new nest for these little bird eggs. And when that family of bluebirds fledged a few weeks later, I became a bluebird Mom!

We decided to approach Mark and asked if we could do some fundraising to improve the trail – and the chances of survival for the bluebirds of Gunston Hall. He quickly agreed, and with generous donations from the regents, staff, docents, and neighbors of Gunston Hall, we successfully raised $1,300 to buy 21 professionally built bluebird boxes, with baffles, guards, and poles.

The “winter that wouldn’t end” delayed installation of the new boxes until early April 2014, due to frozen ground and nasty conditions. Male bluebirds start selecting their territory as early as February, females select mates in March, and the female starts building the nest in early April. So we were cutting it pretty close, getting the boxes installed at the very last moment.

But once the new boxes were in place (and the old ones removed), I started training the nearly 20 people – again, docents, staff, and neighbors – who volunteered to take care of the trail during the nesting season. Nesting season extends from early April through mid- to late August, when the last of two or three broods of chicks have hatched and fledged. Bluebird boxes need to be monitored weekly during nesting season to check on the health of the eggs and chicks, clean out the boxes after each brood fledges, and conduct research on the number of eggs and fledglings.

With the help of information and illustrations from the Virginia Bluebird Society’s website, these volunteer trail monitors learned how to tell the difference between a bluebird nest and eggs, and the nests and eggs of chickadees, tree swallows, wrens, and house sparrows – all birds that are likely to claim one of these boxes for their home. They learned about the life cycle of bluebird babies, which is approximately 37 days from the date the egg is laid in the nest until the baby birds fledge, and how to estimate the age of the eggs or chicks. They learned how to approach a box, open it, assess its condition, fix problems, and how to manage different circumstances all the necessary skills to monitor a bluebird trail.

We started monitoring right away, on April 12, walking the entire trail which covers 2.25 miles of Gunston Hall Plantation. The first monitoring walk was disappointing to the new trainees – just two boxes with partial or full nests. But since the boxes had only been in place for a week, that was understandable.

Newly hatched bluebirds at Gunston Hall.
Today, after just a couple of months monitoring the new Gunston Hall bluebird trail, we have had 40 bluebirds babies successfully fledge, as well as 22 tree swallows. We have at least 11 eggs in nests. I guess the birds got a late start, too! With only 6 or 7 more weeks in the nesting season, and possibly another nest in each box, we will probably have more than 70 baby bluebirds born at Gunston Hall this year. That would be fabulous!

Visitors to Gunston Hall are welcome to walk all or part of the bluebird trail. It is free and you will see much more of the beautiful and extensive property that was George Mason’s home. But unless you’re a trained bluebird monitor, please do NOT open or disturb any of the boxes! And if you want to become a monitor of Gunston Hall’s bluebird trail, feel free to call Gunston Hall at 703-550-9220, or email us at

No comments:

Post a Comment