Purple Martin Majesty

If I have any regrets in life, it is that I didn’t become a birder sooner. I suppose birding took its place in my life right when and how it was meant to, but when I think about all the birdy opportunities missed in my earlier years… well, there’s a twinge of sadness there.

I grew up on a small lake in Akron, Ohio, and do you know how many times since becoming a birder that I’ve heard about cool birds that have shown up there? Loons and osprey and eagles and a freaking kelp gull! It slays me to think of all that passed through as I was cavorting around the lake on our pontoon boat or lounging on the back porch or sunbathing on the dock. (Yes, it was an idyllic childhood, and I was certainly appreciative of the nature around me—which undoubtedly helped shape the aspiring naturalist I’ve become. Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

And then there are the purple martins. At Nimisila Reservoir, a few miles from my childhood home, a purple martin phenomenon was happening every year, and I was completely oblivious. Each August, thousands upon thousands of purple martins congregate at dusk in the skies above a large reed bed in the middle of the lake, gathering to roost for the night. This happens every night for weeks, and draws folks from all around the area to witness it.

Purple martin (female) in flight. Photo by P.W. Chen / Wikimedia.

I learned about this several years ago, shortly after I became a serious birder, from a woman I had befriended on a birding trip and who lives near me in Columbus. She told me about how she was heading up to Akron to take a pontoon boat ride out to the reed bed to view the martins coming in for the night. I was like, “I’m from Akron! I know that lake! I want to go!” And so a few nights later, my birding bestie (and BWD advertising director) Kelly and I took a quick road trip and found ourselves on a pontoon boat near dusk floating around Nimisila, waiting for the martins to come in.

The “Twilight Boat Rides” are organized by the Portage Lakes Purple Martin Association and take place every evening starting on August 1 until the birds finally depart for their 5,000-mile migration to South America sometime in early September. The pontoon rides serve as the organization’s main fundraiser for their efforts of supporting and protecting the martins upon their arrival each spring. (Stay tuned for an article about that in a future issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest!)

Nothing can really prepare you for the sights and the sounds that unfold in front of you on the water. Gradually you start to see handfuls of martins swooping overhead, chittering as they go, the numbers picking up as you glide closer to the island of reeds. All of a sudden, you look up and the sky is FILLED with what feels like a zillion black blurs zipping through the air, rising high and swooping low, some even buzzing your head! It’s dizzying, and you wonder how so many birds can move seemingly so arbitrarily and yet never collide into each other. And how do they know when it’s time to move in unison, as they swirl and glide in murmurations?

Photo by J. Vaughan.

The sound of their wings slicing through the air is almost deafening, like the unceasing roar of a waterfall. All you can do is stare, and gasp, and try to take it all in. (And yeah, try to remember not to look up with your mouth open, because, well, you know…!)

Eventually, the birds collectively decide it’s time to dive into the reeds, and they buzz low in waves, some diving in, some pulling back out and circling around again… and again… and again… It’s a process, the dropping out of the sky, the settling into the protective cover, safe from foxes and raccoons and most other predators in the middle of this suburban lake. Yet even as you watch the reeds come to life, swaying from the weight and shifting about of the birds, the incessant chattering amongst themselves, new waves of martins dive in, unsettling the ones that were settled… and you look up and see still thousands more martins in the sky! It feels like the movement and noise will never end… and you don’t want it to.

Suddenly, the sun and its last rays are gone, the night is settling in, and so are the birds. The darkened sky has emptied, save a few stragglers. The chirping has diminished to a small roar, and you have to squint a little to make out the silhouettes of the birds dotted throughout the reeds. It’s time to head back to the dock, your mind swirling like the martins, trying to process all your senses took in over the past couple hours.

I have since gone to see the martins two more times, the most recent being this past week, and my favorite experience of the phenomenon yet. Two of my closest childhood girlfriends, Sally and Caroline, have recently become birders (I’ve written about how happy this makes my heart here!), and we decided we needed to have the martin experience together, but on kayaks.

Photo by J. Melfi

We all pushed through our workday, and I hit the road to meet up with them in time for a picnic dinner from my favorite pizza place ever before we headed out onto the water. Caroline, an outdoor adventure enthusiast, had secured us kayaks and gear for the evening ahead. (Glow sticks tied onto the ends of the kayaks—brilliant!) We launched and wended our way over to the reeds, handfuls of martins beginning to swoop overhead and lead the way. A number of kayakers were already present, and the pontoon of course, and we joined them, pulling our kayaks close together to share the awe of this experience.

Photo by J. Vaughan

As you can hear in the video above, we had a little bit of fun… we always do. I have to digress a bit to wax poetic about how much I love these girls, who have loved me hard through the most difficult—and also beautiful—year of my life. To be out there on the water with them, witnessing their wonder… well, their joy was my joy. It is such a gift to have soul friends who share your passions, who are up for impromptu weeknight adventures, who keep you steady when life swirls around you like 10,000 purple martins coming in to roost for the night.

I highly recommend soul friends, and I highly recommend seeking out an opportunity to witness roosting purple martins on a perfect August night.

Photo by J. Vaughan

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