The Purple Martin Spectacle

By Glenn Olsen, GO Birding Ecotours

July on the upper Texas Coast is hot–too hot for many of us to enjoy getting out and birding. However, the early mornings and early evenings can be bearable, and provide an opportunity to see some of the birds that will soon be leaving us. Fortunately, we have our resident birds to enjoy and, come fall, our wintering birds will begin arriving. But that means the birds we consider our “summer birds” will soon be departing and will not return until next spring. A few of these include the Chimney Swift, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Common Nighthawk, Barn Swallow, Mississippi Kite, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and many others.

One of our iconic summer birds is the Purple Martin, our largest swallow, and the only swallow we have that is all dark. While it is called a Purple Martin, this bird is more of a blue-black with some purplish sheen when the sunlight hits the feathers at a certain angle.

Many birders anticipate the early arrival of “scouts,” a term used for the arrival of older males. However, they are not truly scouts, but rather more experienced birds returning to establish prime territory. Devoted bird lovers put up Purple Martin houses for the much desired birds to nest, and hope that they will return in future years.  Historically, this species nested in old woodpecker holes, natural cavities of old beech trees, cavities in cliffs, and banks. Now, in the eastern U.S., they are thought to nest only in man-made martin houses and gourds.

When near active Purple Martin houses, one can hear the almost constant chatter of the colony.  Looking skyward, these graceful and aerobatic flyers are entertaining to watch as an individual flaps its wings rapidly, then glides effortlessly, then flares its tail brakes, in an instant turns sideways to catch some beetle, fly, moth, or other insect, and quickly resumes a smooth glide in search of more insects. Flying over our neighborhood, a colony can consume thousands of insects per day.

Even more exciting than the arrival of the early scouts is the spectacular fall “staging” for migration, which is also known as migratory roosting. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the amazing opportunity right here in Houston to experience the amassing of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Purple Martins as they prepare for fall migration back to various countries in South America (although most of them winter in Brazil). This staging is a type of communal roosting where Purple Martins gather to socialize, rest, and fatten up before their long migration.  Prime migratory roosting takes place over a period of about 6 to 10 weeks, typically towards the end of July and through the end of September, more or less. Individuals and groups of birds move in and out of the roosting area, but more continue to arrive and the numbers can grow to thousands. Smaller numbers and later migrants may also be seen at these roost sites outside of the prime period.

My first experience of this migratory roosting was on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana many years ago. There were Purple Martins lined up on the bridges and thousands more in the air. But, we do not have to go far to experience this inspiring spectacle of nature. If you are looking for an adventure to break up the cabin fever of our times, I invite you to discover this extraordinary scene by going to the Fountains Shopping Center (12634 Fountain Lake Circle, Stafford, TX) between the end of July and the end of September for the prime time of Purple Martin migration and staging. (You can also join Houston Audubon and fellow bird-lovers at a socially-distanced Purple Martin Watch Party this summer!)

This amazing event is a traveling show that happens annually, but be sure to end this summer with a bang by attending this spectacular performance!

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