Purple Martins in Eastern Washington 2001

 There is great geographical and climatic difference between cool green maritime Western Washington (where Purple Martins have been increasing in recent decades following the introduction of nestboxes) and Eastern Washington, which is dry, semi desert in places.  I almost fell off my chair when I saw the posting below,  the first sighting of a martin well east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State in over a decade.

 -----Original Message----- From: David Beaudette
To: Inland NW Messages Date: Friday, August 17, 2001
Subject: Chelan County Purple Martin

     On August 16,  I went on my evening walk at Wenatchee Confluence State Park in Chelan County, WA. I spotted a single Purple Martin in a swarm of about 400 birds; mostly Common Nighthawks,  Bank and Barn Swallows, with a few Rough-winged Swallows and Vaux's Swifts,  over the lake off the south end of Wenatchee Confluence State Park.  As I worked through the gathering I identified a juv Purple Martin or possibly SY female Purple Martin in flight.  Looking for the status of this species in eastern Washington I checked these two good references: 1] The Breeding Birds of Washington State by Smith,  Mattocks and Cassidy, 1997. No breeding was indicated in eastern Washington with the following possible exception. There was a positive breeding record indicated for the southwest corner of Klickitat County/or southeast corner of Skamania County. By the way,  this publication is great for getting an overview of habitat usage by each species. I use it a lot. 2] Birds in Washington State: a county comparison, by Ken and Laurie Knittle, 2001. This publication has checklists for all of the 39 counties of Washington State with abundance codes. There is also a handy Spreadsheet Comparison including all of the species found in the state. The species are listed on the left side of this spreadsheet and the counties across the top, with eastern Washington counties listed as the first group and western Washington counties grouped next. The Purple Martin is listed for only two counties in eastern Washington: a code 5 for both Benton and Okanogan Counties. A Code 5 means less than 5 records for that county. Does anyone know of any more records for eastern Washington or could this species possibly nest somewhere along the Columbia River in north central Washington? How about inland BC or Idaho? Good Birding, David Beaudette , Wenatchee, WA drtbrdr@earthlink.net

Subject: Re: Chelan County Purple Martin <lynnandstan@earthlink.net> Date: Sun, 19 Aug 2001

 Hi Dave,

As noted in Knittle 2001, reports and records of Purple Martins east of the Cascades in Washington are very rare.   Counting yours,  I am aware of seven (not including Klickitat County). 

 (1) Three martins were sighted at Pateros in Okanogon County on the Columbia River, on June 8, 1944.  By early June,  some ASY martins in western WA are already on eggs,  most are on territory,  but some SY birds have yet to arrive at breeding sites.  So,  the Pateros birds could have been breeding locally, or in migration. This is likely the record noted in Knittle.

 (2) The only martin nesting record for Eastern Washington (again, not including Klickitat County) that I am aware of was in a tree cavity in Kittitas County, on the Columbia River in 1978. Although the record comes from a WDFW database,  there seems to be some question regarding its accuracy.

 (3) The first specimen record of a martin from Eastern WA came in 1979, when an ASY male was collected along  the Tucannon River in Columbia County.   The ASY male was sighted on 13 June,  and collected the following morning.   Since this bird was in the same area on two different days,  it seems reasonable to assume it could well have been on territory the second week in June,  when some Western WA breeders are already on eggs.  Seems rather ironic that this rare bird,  a potential breeder, was collected at the late date of 1979, while nestbox recovery efforts were ongoing in an attempt to rescue a perceived remnant population of martins in Puget Sound and on the lower Columbia River.

 (4) A martin showed up at Leslie Groves Park in Richland, Benton County,  on 4 Sept 1990, reported as either a non breeding female or SY male (or perhaps a wandering hatch year bird at this late date ? SK). This is likely the record noted in Knittle.

 (5) Your 2001 sighting is the first in over a decade.

 (6,7) Apparently there exist two other report/records  of martins in Eastern WA, noted in the account  of the 1979 Columbia county specimen,  for 22 June and 5 July,  with no info as to year and county. 

 Elsewhere in the region,  but outside of eastern WA, an ASY male was observed in northern Idaho at Mica Bay on Lake Coeurd'Alene investigating a snag cavity in 1974. Several sites in southern Idaho and one in eastern Oregon in the 1960's, 70's, and early 80's have martin records, but nothing known to me currently. In 1989 an ASY male was sighted NW of Milton-Freewater, Oregon,  near the WA state line.  Eric Horvath’s 1998 Oregon survey found martins gone from the Klamath region, where they had nested historically.  

 With the recent decades increase in martin populations along the lower Columbia River due to nestbox installations, it is not unreasonable to think they may be moving up the river.  As noted above, they have been recently documented breeding as far upstream as Bingen (in natural cavities),  beyond most, if not all, nestbox colonies.

 Martins range far post fledging, so your 16 August sighting could have been a distant breeder,  or a wandering and non breeding SY male.  Seems as though local nesting would produce a sighting of more than one individual,  and likely you would have observed martins during your previous evening walks.   In any case, this is an important event to add to the scant list of martin sightings that far east in Washington. Hopefully you will find a breeding pair somewhere over there soon.

 Stan Kostka, Arlington WA.  lynnandstan@earthlink.net

Post 2001 update.

(8, 9) An ASY male Purple Martin was sighted at Potholes Reservoir in Grant County on 24 March, 2002,  and again (not necessarily same bird) on 27 April.  I spent  a day at Potholes and the surrounding area in July,  specifically listening and looking for martins,  but found none.

 (10) A female or SY male was sighted at Othello in Adams county on 11 June 2003, bringing the list (that I am aware of) for Eastern WA (not including Klickitat) to ten reports/records.

 September 2004.  The past couple seasons have seen expansions of known populations of martins in the maritime Northwest,  most likely due to the unusually  warm  and dry  spring and summer weather.    Hopefully this increase will saturate established colonies along the Columbia,  and move some breeders  further up the river in 2005.  

Purple Martins in Eastern Washington 2005

Another breeding season ends, with two additional reports of martins in Eastern Washington.(11) An apparent adult pair was sighted in flight along a small creek near Woodhouse Road, south of Interstate 90, near Ellensburg in Kittitas County, June 1. No perching observed as the birds apparently foraged along the small waterway.(12) An adult male was reported in flight and calling, over the entrance to the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge in Yakima County on June 18. The nearest known breeders are in western Klickitat County along the Columbia River, some 70 miles to the southwest. Doesn’t seem likely the Toppenish male would be wandering this far, especially at the time adult males along the Columbia River should be mate and nest guarding. So, this sighting may be interpreted as an indication of probable breeding, either in the local area, or further north and west of the known breeders in adjacent Klickitat county. Based on what I have read, and in my experience, non breeders tend to be second year birds, especially males. Thus it's reasonable, for general purposes of establishing distribution and status, to assume all adult (after second year) males encountered during the breeding season are in fact breeders. Over the years of doing nest inspections and banding young, I have found that adults are already on territory by the middle of June here in the north Puget Sound, last year egg laying in the north Sound was underway by the first week in June, and earlier in Pierce county. How breeding may run on the east side is anyone’s guess, not necessarily the same or earlier. The possibility also exists that this bird was a displaced breeder, who lost his mate, nest, or nest site, to predation, inter-specific competition, human activity such as logging or piling removal, whatever. In this case, the bird could wander and remain a non breeder for the rest of the season. But, I tend to think not. Martins display a high degree of coloniality and are extremely gregarious. The most attractive thing to a martin during that time of year is other martins. I have seen displaced breeders, who lost their eggs to house sparrow competition , relocate and relay, and fledge young very late, banded at two weeks of age on September 1. So, I would not expect an adult male to have given up trying to attract a new mate, or establish a new nest , at the early date of June 18.

This date also seems much too early for post breeding dispersal, especially since martins remain in the vicinity of their breeding sites for many days or sometimes weeks , bringing young back to the natal cavity to roost each night.

In any case, it's certainly a noteworthy observation, to add to the handful of martin reports and records for eastern WA.

Not surprisingly, reports of Purple Martins in eastern Washington have come from localities on or closely associated with large bodies of water. Another interesting note is that the river courses of eastern WA account for nearly all the breeding range of White-throated swifts, known to breed in [non-birdhouse] cavities alongside martins elsewhere in their Pacific coast range. So, it seems reasonable that any breeding martins in eastern WA might well be using the same types of cavities in coulees and cliffs, as are White-throateds. And, since White-throateds are known to nest underneath bridges in eastern WA, as they do alongside martins in California and Oregon, bridges should be considered potential breeding sites for martins in eastern WA also.