The Jamestown Audubon field trip committee organizes some pretty cool trips. I don't usually go, though, because after putting in a 40-hour week, I usually have a list of things a mile long that need to get done.
But this time, since I'm getting into birds (reluctant though I am), and since we had a very interesting presentation at Audubon last spring on Purple Martins and learned about their roosting at Presque Isle in Erie, Pa., and since I suggested the committee arrange a field trip to see the phenomenon, and since the weather was perfect, and since oh well it just worked out to go so I went!
After meeting up and getting some dinner, we went with one of the researchers, Tim, to Beach 11 where he set up some speakers in his van to play the Purple Martin dawn songs in hopes of calling in some of the birds. It didn't take long before the birds started to arrive. One or two at first. Then half a dozen at a time. Then dozens at a time. Eventually, we estimate there were 300 to 500 birds on the wire.
Photo by Jennifer Schlick
Pat Spicer and Toni Kelly enjoy the field trip to see the martins.
At times, the birds were content to sit in the evening sun and preen. When they did, we could put a spotting scope on them and see that some of them had bands. Tim was even able to discern that some were banded by other than his team of researchers.
There were lots and lots of juvenile birds in this flock, but we did spot a few mature males, too. Mature males are all bluish-black, where the females and juveniles have white or grayish bellies.
As sunset approached, Tim asked us all to follow him to a second site where we would be able to watch the Martins settling into their roost for the night. This had already been pretty interesting. But OK. We'd follow him.
He took us off of Presque Isle, to the east just a bit where the water treatment plant is located. From this point, we had a good view of two cattail "islands" in the bay.
What happened as the sun went down was crazy, stunning, ridiculous and something I will never forget. Imagine looking up into a dimming sky and seeing it speckled as if someone out of sight were sprinkling pepper on us. As the flakes of pepper get closer, they get bigger and turn into bird shapes that swirl and circle and chatter to one another.
The islands seemed to be magnets or vacuums pulling the birds down. Some resisted and flew back out, not ready to go to bed yet, I suppose. If we saw 300 to 500 birds on the wire at Beach 11, we saw 30,000 to 50,000 birds here. No lie. It was incredible.
As aerial insectivores, Martins feed on the wing. Prior to fall migration, Purple Martins gather into enormous flocks, reportedly to take advantage of late summer insect hatches in coastal and other wetland areas. Presque Isle is one of the well-known and well-researched staging areas where birds will come from hundreds of miles. They will be at Presque Isle roosting at night like this for maybe another week or two. Then they will take off for South America for the winter.
When spring returns, the Martins do, too. However, in spring they return in much smaller groups to find breeding areas.
Audubon's next field trip is to Zoar Valley on Saturday, Sept. 20. Life-time Zoar Valley resident Rick Cain, who has been a preserve monitor since the mid 1980s, will be the guide. The fee is $6 for members and $8 for non-members. For more information or to register, call Audubon at 569-2345.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, one quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. You can read about us at our Web site at www.jamestownaudubon.org or at our blog at http://jamestownaudubon.wordpress.com.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon and keeps a birding blog at http://jensbirds.wordpress.com.