Purple Martin Staging Area Discovered: The Ralph Bell Roost
Purple Martin Preservation Alliance
On August 23, 2005, at 3:00 PM, Purple Martin Preservation Alliance staff members Ken Kostka and Duke Snyder set off for Waynesburg, PA, where a large group of Purple Martins had been discovered gathering on the electrical wires at Rohannas Golf Course. Martins come together to form large groups at the end of the breeding season, prior to migration. These collections are known as roosts, and are believed to form in order to provide the martins protection from predators. The area where martins gather just prior to settling in for the night is known as a staging area, and it can be located anywhere from 0-5 miles (or more) from the roosting area, which is where the martins actually sleep. Purple Martins use the staging areas to preen and socialize, and there can be multiple staging areas for each roost. For example, one of the largest roosts in the Northeast forms at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. The martins gather on the electrical wires of several beaches along the shore beginning 2-3 hours before dark, then fly to the base of the peninsula, over five miles away, at dusk, and settle into the reedbeds there. The reedbeds are the actual roosting area.
Once at Rohannas, we met George Blystone, known as "Bly", the husband of a descendent of the famous J. Warren Jacobs, the ornithologist and martin birdhouse manufacturer who lived in Waynesburg around the turn of the century. We also hooked up with Ralph Bell (photo below left), another legendary birder from the Waynesburg area, for whom this roost is named. (Ralph got his hair cut as a boy in the same barbershop as J. Warren Jacobs, and remembers meeting Jacobs on several occasions. Cool!) Ralph, Bly, and a small group of volunteers had been searching for the exact roosting area of the Rohanna martins for several weeks. To search, the volunteers would break up and station themselves with binoculars at various distances (1-5 miles) around the area of the golf course in the direction that the martins always departed just before dark, in hopes of witnessing the martins settle into their night-time digs. This could be anything from a cornfield to a reedbed to a stand of trees. The group had to date, been unsuccessful in pinning down the location of the roost.
I was glad Duke and I had arrived at the Rohanna staging area several hours before dusk (8:00 PM). It gave me several hours to search for leg bands with my high-power spotting scope. Although only a small fraction of martins was banded, the hundreds of martins perched on the wires allowed for excellent band reading, and I wanted to determine if any of these martins came from colonies near - and to the north - of Pittsburgh, PA, where we conduct most of our Purple Martin research and management. Martins continued to arrive, and at the peak time of the early evening, there were about 700 martins present. While I was only able to read at least a portion of the alphanumeric code on 12 different colored legbands, 10 of these bands told a very interesting story. As it turned out, these 10 banded birds came from seven different colonies within a 129 mile radius of Waynesburg. (See map below) One of the banded birds was from the colony of Andy Troyer, 129 miles north of Waynesburg. Andy is only 25 miles south of the Presque Isle Roosting Area in Erie, PA, where many of his martins (understandably) are spotted. Another martin at Rohannas was banded at a colony in Ohio, over 90 miles away. Several were from my main research colony - the Saxon Golf Course colony, only seven miles from my residence.
I contacted the PMCA, which monitors the Presque Isle Roost. They hadn't seen any of these bands, which suggests that the Ralph Bell Roost was not just a stopping over area for martins departing the Presque Isle Roost. Rather, it appears that the Ralph Bell Roost draws a unique collection of birds from quite a large area. Bly informed me that at peak times during mid-August, there are several thousand martins staging at Rohannas. Around 8:00 PM, the search team took off in their cars to station themselves for the roost search. Unfortunately, the roost was not found that evening. They would continue the search the next day. Late in the season, the team did locate what appeared to be the roosting area - a stand of trees less than 1/4 mile from the staging area. However, at this late date, the number of martins had dwindled to the point that uncertainty about this being the main roosting area existed. In any case, the trip was a great success, and we were able to establish that martins gather here from a very large area.