Bird enthusiast Mary Helen Rosenstein found her calling when she moved to Sun City. She's a bluebird monitor, one of the many activities conducted by the community's Bird Club.
"It's very thrilling. I'm from New York State and the Eastern American bluebird is the state bird," Rosenstein said recently, "It was a real thrill for me to come down and take part in this program."
Don Woytowick, a Sun City resident and master naturalist, said the bluebird monitoring can begin as early as February.
"I usually go out and clean out the houses because they will cluster in there to keep warm on cold winter nights," Woytowick said. Woytowick is past president of the Bird Club; Rosenstein is the current president.
"They could start nesting in late March and are sitting on the eggs in mid-April," he said. "They like open spaces, big trees that offer suitable nest holes."
The flitting blue gems on the wing - known scientifically as Sialia sialis - can be seen year round in the southeastern United States perched on telephone lines, pasture fences and their nesting boxes.
How they work
Bird Club volunteers are assigned several of the nearly 200 boxes that dot the landscape and document the activity in them, listing when and how many eggs have been laid, how many hatch and when they fledge (are ready to begin flying).
The monitors are responsible for cleaning out the boxes between each set of eggs, sometimes as many as three in a summer, Rosenstein said. Occasionally other visitors take advantage of the real estate -- a chickadee or a tufted titmouse might lay eggs in the box.
"We clean out the old nest and then monitor to see if a second nest has been made once the first brood has been hatched and fledged," she said. "I have a box in my backyard and it has been pretty successful. My bluebird will start checking out the nest in January. You'll see the males checking it out, and I had two pairs fighting it out over my bluebird box."
Because the bluebirds will eat all kinds of insects, bird baths are more important than bird feeders because "they need that water," said Woytowick.
Sun City isn't the only spot where nesting boxes and the colorful residents are monitored. The bluebirds are among the diversity of wildlife observed at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.
Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history at the museum for the past six years, said a team of volunteers carries out similar bird documentation. The collected information helps museum staff keep an eye on the bird population.
"It's not like scientific data but it could be used to tell trends. If you compare over several years you might get a good idea about how the bluebird population is doing," Chacon said. "Based on my own observation, they seem to be doing well. When you do research, everyone seems to agree that the population has recovered due to the bluebird boxes."
Bluebirds suffered a serious decline in the 1950s and 1960s due to a number of factors, according to a U.S. Forestry Service report. Severe winter weather, a decline in habitat and use of pesticides were noted as the primary causes. The importation of invasive species such as house wrens, sparrows and starlings by early European settlers also impacted available nesting sites.
Since then, people have been putting bluebird boxes all over the place, said Chacon.
"It is a very colorful species. They are cavity nesters - not every bird uses cavities. They might find a hole in a tree that was made by a woodpecker," he said. "For the boxes, you can make smaller or larger holes - there are a number of birds who can use a box."
watch the birdies
One of the popular exhibits at the museum is an insider's view of a real nest.
"We have a camera in one of the boxes and in the spring when the nest is active, it's hooked up to a TV in the kids' zone at the museum's headquarters, which is called the Discovery House," Chacon said. "It's not too expensive to get the camera and very easy to install to a TV. It's one of our main attractions."
Chacon said the birds nest through spring and some into summer.
"In the spring and summer you see pairs or three. In the late fall or winter, it's possible to see a flock of 100 bluebirds coming into a field," he said. "All the birds play a role [in the ecosystem] but people pay more attention because the bluebirds are so beautiful."