Western Bluebirds are delightful little thrushes with cobalt blue backs and rusty orange chests. Thanks to a group of Tehachapi volunteers, led by the dedicated and tireless Karen Pestana, an astounding 3,649 baby bluebirds have successfully fledged from two bluebird trails that were first established 23 years ago.

The effort started when my brother George and I built more than 50 cedar nest boxes, using plans developed by the North American Bluebird Association. Some other members of the Tehachapi Mountains Birding Club also built boxes, and I used 3/4-inch water pipe to create mounting poles that would be very difficult for would-be predators to climb. We ended up with about 70 nest boxes and poles.

My friends Robbie and Barbara Schultz then generously gave us permission to put bluebird nest boxes on their property at the 500-acre Indian Hill Ranch in Upper Brite Valley, and we also got permission from the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District to put some nest boxes in the vicinity of Brite Lake.

TMBC members then had a workday, scheduled in late winter so the boxes would be in place before nesting season started, and we went around and installed all the bluebird boxes, using a T-post pounder to drive the mounting poles into Tehachapi soil and then bolting on the boxes.

Karen Pestana then began her fantastic citizen science project of more than two decades, maintaining and monitoring the nest boxes, and collecting data on each year’s nesting results. This data is then submitted to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch database and is used by scientists to study bird populations and how they may be changing over time.

From April through June, participants in the Western Bluebird Nest Box Program enjoy a one to two-hour, leisurely hike, two times per month, from nest box to nest box at Indian Hill Ranch and at Brite Lake.

Participants are trained ‘on the job’ and walk in the company of other enthusiasts, stopping at each nest box, all of which have a reference number, to log the bird activity on a data sheet (e.g. number of eggs, number hatched, number fledged). The boxes are designed to open, giving the participants close up views of nests, eggs, and baby birds in the nest.

Karen brought a wealth of experience to the project when she started it — she had lots of biology field work experience prior to taking the helm of the Bluebird Trail. Karen has a degree in biology from the University of Nebraska, and has worked for the National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. She has been involved in various research projects, including studying native and exotic plants on the Channel Islands, Great Plains prairie grasses, the Salton Sea, and she has worked at Edwards Air Force Base on desert tortoise and burrowing owl preservation.

The success of Karen’s bluebird nest box monitoring was evidenced when Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology ranked Karen's bluebird program among the top 20 citizen science efforts in the country — out of 1,500 different projects.

Karen has continued her work through the years with diligence and dedication. Last year a total of 176 baby bluebirds fledged from 68 nest boxes. Other bird species also use the boxes occasionally, and last year’s fledglings included Oak Titmouse, Violet-Green Swallows and Ash-Throated Flycatchers.

Karen’s little group of nest box volunteers has waned in recent years, and she is looking for some more assistance, as well as to train another bird enthusiast as co-coordinator to help share the responsibility for the project.

The nest box program welcomes new participants to help carry on this long-term study. No special skill or knowledge of birds is necessary to participate; however, the hikes require walking on steep, uneven terrain. The program coordinator attends the outings and instructs new participants.

If you are interested in helping Karen with this interesting and gratifying project to help one of our most beloved local bird species, she can be contacted at 661-972-6897, or better yet at kptehachapi@sbcglobal.net.

Karen Pestana is a great example of a community contributor and a citizen scientist, and she deserves our appreciation for all she done for many years. I am proud to be her friend and I’m thankful for her, and I know that hundreds of pairs of devoted bluebird parents and their 3,649 babies have had reason to be grateful to her as well.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 40 years. Send email to tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

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