Loyal visitors return for their sunset shows
Meet some of the most loyal Outer Banks visitors of the past 30 years: purple martins. Every year about 100,000 of the birds travel 2,600 miles from Brazil to Manns Harbor to nest.
Their annual “time shares” are under the William B. Umstead Bridge and in bird houses built specially for them.
A wonderful opportunity to witness the birds as they assemble for the night is the sunset Crystal Dawn purple martin boat tour, which is a fund raiser for the Purple Martin Society.
Capt. Jeremy Russell took us from Pirates Cove Marina along the Roanoke Sound, sailing through the 6-foot channel. Sixty-five-feet long feet and two stories high, the Crystal Dawn is spacious — and tall enough for a bird’s eye view.
The boat was filled with locals and visitors. People brought food, drinks and lots of laughter.
Jumping fish and soaring ospreys made the tour exciting before we even got to the bridge, where the purple martins would settle in for the night.
Alisa Esposito, vice chair with the Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society, filled us in on the purple martins. When she took a break, the captain entertained us with stories about the crab pots, the Lost Colony and the late Andy Griffith’s house as we passed by them. The last one really got everybody’s attention.
We arrived at the bridge around 8 p.m. Mate Immie Miles lowered the anchor to hold the boat steady for snapshots on a windy, choppy evening.
As the sun set in spectacular style, some passengers began wondering if the martins would appear. Esposito remained cool. And they didn’t disappoint her or the passengers.
The martins put on their evening show when a “tornado” swarm returned to the bridge. The spectacular aviators darted in tight jukes and turns; it is a wonder there were not a dozen midair collisions.
Swooping and circling in the dwindling light to a symphony of self-composed bird-songs, they finally gathered to roost under the bridge. They jostled for precious space for a well-earned rest before another day of hunting and aerobatics.
We said goodnight to them and headed back to the Pirate’s Cove Marina.
The first martins arrive in Manns Harbor as early as March and many linger through September before beginning their southward migration. However, martins put on evening shows from mid-July to mid-August after they’ve raised their babies in gourds and martin bird houses.
Bird houses or gourds are recommended to be white so the birds can be cooler in the hot summer months. Plus they are easier for the birds to spot. Entry holes are one inch above the floors the houses, which sit 10 to 20 feet off the ground as protection against predators.
The houses are designed to be raised and lowered. Human caretakers, “landlords,” frequently inspect the houses to check on martin nestlings and evict nest-site competitors. Nest checks will not cause martins to abandon their homes or their colony site.
“Each and every bird present at the bridge was raised in a martin house that a caring bird-lover erected in their yard,” says Alisa Esposito, vice chair and educator of Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society.
Martin parents fledge their young to their roost colony because they feel safer with more eyes watching out for predators. The European starling and the house sparrow are their worst enemies because of the competition for nesting sites. Other enemies of purple martins include predators such as raccoons, snakes, cats, hawks and owls.
Purple martins are one of the largest members of the swallow family in North America. They are 7½ to 8 inches long. Male purple martins have dark blue-black feather colors. Female and nestlings are brown-grayish on their backs and lighter colors on their chests. Some have few purple feathers on their chests and heads. They have black eyes and beaks.
They are aerial insectivores. They eat only insects that they catch while “on the wing,” including grasshoppers, flies, moths, and, with deep appreciation from all Dare County residents, mosquitos.
Female purple martins lay two to seven small white eggs. Mothers keep the eggs warm for 15 days before they hatch.
“It takes them about three weeks before they can start to fly around their bird house,” said the president of CCPMS, Michael Gary.
Male and female martin partners build the nests together and take turns feeding their martin nestlings. Martin parents teach their young to fly, eat, drink and swim. They feed only during the day.
The Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society was founded in 2006 by Alisa Esposito, Michel Gary, Robin Mann and Cyndy Holda.
The organization was founded to raise awareness about the number of deaths of the birds due vehicles traveling on the William B. Umstead Bridge. Even going the speed limit, traffic posed a grave danger to the birds. Statistics from 2005 showed that more than 3,600 birds were hit by cars that year.
The group’s first action was to petition for a reduction of the speed limit during birds’ peak activity around dawn and dusk. They worked with Dare County commissioners, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and former state Sen.Marc Basnight to get the speed limit reduction approved and install flashing signals at both side of the bridge.
This special 20 mph zone was created for the periods of dusk and dawn from July through early September.
In 2005 Alisa Esposito, other purple martin landlords and volunteers organized a festival at the Roanoke Island Festival Park to raise awareness.
“It was quite successful for the first festival. More than 500 people from three counties came to festival and enjoyed many educational activities,” Esposito said.
Educational programs are offered at the new Bebop’s Pier in Manns Harbor, on Thursdays. The last one is Aug. 9.
“It’s free to walk on the pier and the best time to see the birds is during sunset and on windy nights,” Esposito said.
The president of the CCMPS, Michael Gary was at the pier talking to people and passing out educational materials about purple martins.
Near the beginning of the pier, there’s a big purple martin house sponsored by the Outer Banks Community Foundation. Gary lowered the house and opened the doors of each box for us to see baby martins.
The martin nestlings looked comfortable in our presence. Flashing cameras and human voices didn’t seem to bother them at all. But our presence kept their parents away. Once we moved back, the martin parents returned home and got settled for the night.
On the same Thursdays, the Crystal Dawn takes passengers on the tour.f The boat leaves at 6 p.m. and returns at about 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 per person. To book your reservation for any tour or fishing trips, visit the Crystal Dawn website at crystaldawnheadboat.com.
CCPMS is in need of more board members to form committees. The plan is to organize another purple martin festival.
The society hopes to hire an intern to do another mortality count because the numbers seem to be decreasing again, Esposito said.
The information will be used for future recommendations on management action at the bridge. CCPMS will also be studying human interaction at the roost and other factors affecting roosting behavior.
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