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Where to catch a glimpse of Alberta's mountain bluebird this spring

Friday, May 14th 2021, 8:44 am - The bluebird trail along Plummers Road features dozens of nesting boxes

It's an ideal time of year to spot a mountain bluebird in Alberta, and if you've never caught a glimpse of one, birdwatchers are willing to let you in on a secret.

Along a scenic stretch of Plummers Road, which is about 50 kilometres southwest of Calgary, there are dozens of nest boxes where mountain bluebirds now make their homes.

It was one of the first bluebird trails in the province. It was started by Calgarians Don and Andrew Stiles, a father-and-son duo with a passion for birding who first began building the boxes over 40 years ago.

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The bluebirds on the trail are now nesting, which means the fathers will be guarding the birdhouses, the mothers will be coming and going on rare breaks from incubation, and lucky birdwatchers are in for a treat.

"It's basically like looking at the sky, it's one of our most stunning birds," Andrew told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday. "It's a work of art."

CBC: The sky-blue members of the thrush family are on the smaller side, and are described as lookers — not singers. (David Gray/CBC) The sky-blue members of the thrush family are on the smaller side, and are described as lookers — not singers. (David Gray/CBC)

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IMMEDIATE INTRIGUE

Andrew's interest in birding sparked when his father, Don, signed him up for a birdwatching course at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in the 1970s.

A naturalist at the course displayed a huge pile of birdhouses, and explained they would be used to try to increase the population of the mountain bluebird.

CBC: Those who venture to Plummers Road or the foothills to scout a bluebird should keep a reasonable distance, but enjoy them, says Andrew Stiles. (David Gray/CBC) Those who venture to Plummers Road or the foothills to scout a bluebird should keep a reasonable distance, but enjoy them, says Andrew Stiles. (David Gray/CBC)

The small, sky-blue members of the thrush family are native to Alberta and are described as lookers — not singers.

And although the birds had ample fields for grasshopper-hunting, Andrew said naturalists suspected their low numbers in the province could be attributed to a missing piece: nesting habitats.

Starlings and house sparrows had taken over many of the old woodpecker holes bluebirds would normally frequent, and so the houses were built as substitutes.

"I was immediately intrigued. I said, 'Count me in, I will build 50!'" Andrew said.

"We put some up on Plummers Road, and to my surprise the bluebird population started very slowly increasing."

A HUGE DIFFERENCE

The project first consisted 50 birdhouses in the Calgary area, and about 20 on Plummers Road.

The first year, the houses attracted a single bluebird, Andrew said. The next year, two families moved in.

Today, the grassroots conservation effort includes volunteers known as the Calgary Area Nest Box Monitors Society. The society helps to oversee 5,000 of the birdhouses along back roads across Alberta.

Andrew says about 20 per cent of them are occupied every nesting season.

"There's no doubt that the nesting habitat of those birdhouses has made a huge difference," Andrew said.

Birdwatchers who venture to Plummers Road or the foothills looking to scout a bluebird should keep a reasonable distance, but enjoy them, Andrew said. It's his favourite bird, and a harbinger of spring.

As for what Andrew is up to this weekend, that's a no-brainer.

"I'm going out with my dad this weekend to check our birdhouses."

This article, written by Hannah Kost, was originally published for CBC News. It contains files from the Calgary Eyeopener. Click here to listen to the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

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