03/08/13 3:00pm

JIM COLLIGAN PHOTO | An Eastern Bluebird with a tasty (for him) treat at Mashomack Preserve.

Twelve years of providing nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds at Mashomack Preserve have helped increase the Shelter Island bluebird population by over 300 percent from 2001 through 2012. Many who rarely or never had seen a bluebird now see them in the meadows of the preserve routinely. They have frequently been reported in areas such as Shell Beach and other sites around Shelter Island.

An East End vineyard put up nest boxes in the spring of 2012 in an effort to use fewer pesticides by encouraging the insect eating bluebird and tree swallow to help do the job. They had bluebirds and tree swallows nest that first year. East end farmers who have seen bluebirds are also putting up nest boxes. People with enough space to place a nest box are finding that bluebirds are finding and nesting in them.

The bluebirds swoop down and get their insect meals from the ground while the tree swallows fly up and search the sky above their nest boxes for their insect meals. A one-two punch at the insects and a successfully shared habitat for the birds! What a wonderful conservation project — a sensible way to promote bird conservation, habitat restoration and pest reduction.

In these 12 years, volunteers at Mashomack Preserve who make weekly trips around the preserve’s meadows as they monitor the nest boxes, have the opportunity to observe bluebirds throughout the season: As they select and build their nests in nest boxes in early Spring, see the first blue eggs appear, and see the hatchlings mature into fledglings which join their families in the open meadows and forest edges. Bluebirds usually have two nestings a season. Along with their bluebird companions, those great aerialists, the tree swallows begin their nesting a little later in the season and raise their young right next to the bluebirds as the nest boxes are often paired and stand 12 feet away from one another.

Nest box monitors here on Long Island, along with volunteers throughout New York State and the country, have helped restore the Eastern Bluebird population, bringing it back from near extinction in the 1970’s by providing nesting sites in the form of man-made nest boxes. The natural nest cavities which bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds use — old woodpecker holes, openings created by broken off tree limbs, etc., are rare to find today due modern urban/suburban landscaping practices. So, by providing nest boxes — well and properly designed—we have provided safe nesting sites which the bluebird readily accepts.

You can learn more about this great conservation project and participate as a volunteer and travel the fields of Mashomack, as we monitor the nest box trail. Come and learn about the eastern bluebird and tree swallow and how you can contribute to bringing them back to Eastern Long Island.

Join us Thursday, March 21 at 5:30 PM at the Visitor Center of Mashomack Preserve. Refreshments will be served and, you may win a nest box! Call 631-749-1001 to let us know you are coming, or with questions about the project.

Dr. Bill Zitek

Dr.  Zitek is on the Board of Trustees for The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve and the coordinator of the Nest Box Project.