A Purple Martin Story by Stan Kostka
17 August 2003. During the past several months, the days have been filled with outings around Puget Sound, on wheels, on foot, and afloat, looking and listening for sights and sounds of North America’s largest swallows. Mid August now, and the earliest Purple Martin breeding season in five years is ending. Following several days in and around Jefferson County, a Port Townsend ferry sailing provides a pause. Pages of data and observations wait to be entered into the computer. Banding equipment goes from field vest into storage case, the apparent end of another season. As the ferry glides into the fog approaching Keystone, I have no idea that the beginning of the most memorable event to date in my years of chasing martins is just a couple hours away.
By all accounts to date, past recovery efforts combined with the warm dry summer of 2003 seem to have produced a banner year for martins in Washington State, noted breeding in Skagit and Whatcom counties for the first time since the 1960s and 70s respectively, and on Lake Sammamish (Kevin Li pers comm) and Whidbey Island for the first time since the 1980s. Elsewhere, numbers are up at some long established breeding sites, newly established sites have been reported, and previously unknown sites have been discovered.
The martins near the north end of Whidbey Island are just where you would expect to find them, based on their distribution throughout the Sound. Nestboxes went up on marine pilings this spring, and a solitary second year (SY) pair was noted there in July. Five eggs were laid and hatched, and on 5 August the healthy brood was banded at the age of 11 days. Now one last observation was needed to confirm the presence of nestlings at 23 days, and thus probable fledging.
Objectivity and data aside, SY martins that establish new colonies have a special place in my heart. What is it that draws a colonial species into a new locality, when surplus nestsites exist at nearby colonies with multiple pairs ? These pioneers risk nesting alone, and often experience reproductive failure. So today was a good day when this new solitary pair was observed regularly feeding their young.
Nothing in my experience, what I’ve read, or what I’ve been told would have prepared me for what happened next. The occasional chortles and chirps of the martins were suddenly replaced with distress and alarm calls. A martin was in the water next to the dock, its mate furiously alarm calling overhead. The swamped bird tried to fly, got up about a foot and went back into the water, all the while distress calling. Again it tried to fly, and went back into the water. A fledgling in the water was my first thought. Again the bird leapt from the drink, and back into the Sound it went. Out of nowhere, a Bald Eagle appeared, and made a few low passes over the swimming martin. Dropping binoculars and sandwich, I ran down the pier, just as the martin was being hauled out of the water, on a fishing line ! Somehow, either totally by accident, or perhaps as the result of mistaking the midair smelt and herring jig for a flying insect, bird and hook came together and down they went. Without hesitation I cut the line. The person next to me, perhaps the first fisherman in human history to land a Purple Martin, must have seen the fire in my eyes, and did not protest my action. The bird was hooked in the breast, soaking wet, and soon to be hypothermic. I held it against my cotton shirt, trying to dry it and keep it out of the wind. A small crowd was now gathered around, and I was shaking more than the bird. “Oh this is just great”, I thought, “the only known breeding martins on Whidbey Island in nearly two decades and this happens ?” Fortunately the bird was only bleeding slightly, the hook was set shallow, and with care was pushed out through the skin to expose the barb. Someone offered their wire cutters, the barb was snipped off, and the hook extracted. I carried the bird up to my truck, and continued to warm and dry it inside the cab, in the warm sun out of the wind. At first glance, although its plumage was wet, it appeared to be the female. I made a mental note and did not further attempt to sex the bird, which now had begun trembling. I placed it inside a paper grocery bag, in the warm dark.
In a short time the trembling stopped, and I removed it from the bag, and it perched on my hand. As it warmed it became more active. Concerned that it would fly into the window, I held it in a loose banders grip, as its plumage began to dry. Eventually it began to struggle a bit, and so I took it outside and held it on the palm of my hand. It did not fly, but rather walked up my arm and sat on my shoulder, before jumping into the grass and running under a parked car. Without much trouble it was recaptured and back into the truck it went. After some deliberation, we decided to band the bird, in order that its eventual fate could be confirmed. In that moment, this nameless individual became A567.
Shortly thereafter, A567 was placed high up on top of a nearby sign between the parking lot and the beach, where it sat in the sun, and started to preen. Along came an investigating crow, and the martin took off, flew to the south out over another nearby pier, pursued by four snapping crows, trying to snatch it or force it down. The crows were quick to spy this disabled prey, and I was furious at myself for not foreseeing this possibility. The martin dodged three times as it headed west out over the bay. I took my eyes off it just long enough to bring up the binoculars, but it was gone. The crows returned to the pier, and I was relieved to see them martinless, now haggling for possession of a dead fish. No gulls were involved in the pursuit, and none were in the water out where the martin flew, an encouraging sign.
Throughout these events, the mate continued to alarm
call over the site, but disappeared momentarily when A567 flew off. Soon the
mate returned, and continued its calling, perching intermittently at the
entrance to the nestbox, but not feeding the young. We remained for another
hour, and the scene remained the same.
During my drive home, I considered the possibilities. A567 could be dead, and if not, may not return to feed her nestlings. Would her subadult mate continue to feed ? Subadults have the potential to be poor parents compared to after second year adults, and in my experience among subbies, the females seem to carry most of the feeding load. What would become of the five nestlings, so close to fledging ? The earliest martins can successfully fledge is 25 days old, so at 24 days, they would most likely jump before they starved. If they stopped getting food delivered to them, there was still a chance they could survive.
18 August. This morning the young are being fed, and surprisingly the feeding is being done by an apparent SY female, unbanded. After scoping this bird during multiple feedings, Im convinced it is a female, and therefore conclude I was mistaken about the sex of A567. Several hours go by and the female continues to feed. No sign of her mate, and I assume A567 is either dead or has abandoned the site.
19 August. Four martins are over the site this morning. The female is feeding the young. Suddenly I see a banded bird deliver food to the nestlings ! Then again, and it perches on the mast of a nearby sailboat. In short order I scope its band. A567 is back ! Now with dry plumage, I see the telltale signs of a subadult male, the occasional purple feather on the throat, breast, belly, and or crissum. The other two martins were an unbanded subadult male of unknown origin, and a banded hatch year bird, already far from its natal colony it British Columbia. Perhaps one or both of these visitors will breed here next year.
No doubt, the more time spent in the field, the more likely we are to witness rarities and extraordinary events, but being in the right place at the right time often seems to be a matter of dumb luck. A Purple Martin caught on a fishing line is incredible. Even more amazing to me is the fact that I happened to be there at the time to observe and intervene. I look forward to seeing A567 in my scope in future years.
My thanks to Lynn for remaining calm throughout, and to that unknown fisherman who volunteered his wire cutters, who was gone before I had the chance to thank him.