Our shared experiences in birding sometimes opens doors to unexpected opportunities. Such was the case this April, when we received an email from Susan Church, an avid naturalist, indicating that the nest-boxes at Big Hill Springs Provincial Park were in need of a monitor. Knowing that the nest-boxes would be attractants for Mountain Bluebirds, our “dual crippler”, we promptly volunteered to take on the task this birding season.
In short order we became members of the the Calgary and Area Nest-box Monitors Society (CANMS), eager to learn more about the three species that would most likely use the nest boxes: Mountain Bluebirds, House Wrens and Tree Swallows. Bob Cooper, Vice-President of CANMS, shared the history of the society with us. “CANMS started in the late 1970s. Today this informal group has about 75 members who monitor the 100 nest-box trails stretching from Stavely to Innisfail. Currently there are about 5000 nest-boxes that are checked by the 75 monitors.”
While meeting with Monty (previous monitor) at Big Hill Springs on April 24th, he showed us the location of the 15 nest boxes, throughout the park. Sage advice was shared as well: “I always wear a hat. Those tree swallows tend to swoop you while you are checking the box.” On this day, all 15 nest-boxes were empty.
During the coming months and into late August we would make 16 trips to the park, usually very early in the morning. We hoped to arrive at the park about 8AM, well before the day-use visitors arrived. Our plan after checking the nest-boxes was to bird the park itself, visit Oxyoke Nature Conservancy across the road followed by Dewitt’s Pond just west of Airdrie. Our last stop just north of Chestermere would be McElroy Slough. All in all, each round trip would be just over 80 miles, with birding, sunshine, fresh air, incredible scenery and monitoring being the gifts of the experience.
On May 2nd we made our first solo adventure west of Airdrie to check on the nest-boxes. Equipped with a hammer, screw driver, wire clippers, wire, notebook with pen and of course a hat, “Team Bluebird” was ready. Stopping at the turnoff to the park, our first nest-box had a bird perched nearby. A tree swallow! Ignoring the tree swallow, Elaine’s attention was focused on Box 2. There a perfectly blue male Mountain Bluebird was perched on the barbwire fence. Wondering how ferocious a Tree Swallow attack might be, I found the courage to mount the slope up to Box 1, cringing ever so slightly. Gingerly lifting the nest-box top I peered inside. A nest and no eggs. After inspecting each box over the next 45 minutes, we knew our decision to volunteer was the right one. Five boxes had Tree Swallows preparing nests, while three boxes were homes for pairs of Mountain Bluebirds. One box held 3 preciously beautiful eggs. Our months long adventure had started.