Monday, July 25, 2016

Purple Martin update from Knox Preserve 2016

By Beth Sullivan
On this beautiful summer evening, I took my binoculars over to the colony at Knox Preserve to enjoy Martins at sunset. I was rewarded with lots of song and chatter as I realized I was witnessing a special event: Fledging! It was a perfect time for the “godmother “ of this colony to reflect on the season.

Rough start

We had our first scouts at Knox earlier than past years, so the gourd housing went up mid- April rather than a week or two later. We had at least eight birds inspecting the site right away, off to a great start. Then came the wicked spell of cold weather in very early May. Insects did not fly and the martins, unable to eat seeds or berries or man -made offerings, had to huddle for warmth and survival. All across the area Martins died. We found one, a bird banded in a Clinton colony, dead on the preserve. We all worried. But a second wave of migrants arrived, the weather warmed, insects hatched and took to the air, and the Martins were happy.
A perfect nest, lined with leaves and seven eggs.

Nest making followed quickly and we could tell egg laying was imminent when we watched them bring their green cherry leaves in to add the final lining to their nests. Then came the eggs, sweet, pure white. The average clutch was about five eggs, but one nest had seven.
Hatching day. A parent will remove the egg shells.

The birds are very tolerant of human disturbance, and each week I lowered the gourds to peek in and count eggs. The first were laid on June 1, but the action continued through June 24th. We had quite a wide span which meant that hatching would be spread out as well. Several times over the first weeks we lowered the gourds, checked on the young, cleaned nests if they were infested with mites (only a couple were infested this year) and recorded our numbers. We ended up with a grand total of 68 eggs. Of course, not all would hatch, but it was a great starting point.
Nestlings are transferred to containers to wait their turns.

The DEEP Martin banding team schedules their efforts when the young are big enough to band (about a week old) but before disturbance might cause them to “jump” or fledge prematurely, around 23 days.
On July 5th, on a sweltering hot afternoon, the team came to Stonington. Volunteers from Avalonia helped out at Pequot Golf Course where the colony is very well established and very productive. At least 80 young were banded there.
The young are aged against a photo chart.

At Knox a tent was set up out near the field where neighbors and friends joined the effort as each gourd was checked. The young were removed safely to hi-tech, cloth- lined “cool whip containers “ for transport to the banding table. Each was labeled accurately so we were assured that each nestling returned to the proper nest. The young were aged against very detailed charts, they were weighed, and had bands affixed: a metal federal band with a long identification number, unique to each bird. Then two plastic color bands were placed on the other leg. The colors are easy to see and enable an observer to record and then determine which colony the bird came from. Ours at Knox have Orange/green bands.

Successful afternoon

At the end of the afternoon we had banded 47 of our youngsters, with one nest full still too young to band and another nest of eggs still not hatched. We also banded 28 from our neighbors , technically considered all a part of the same colony.
Fledgelings still need to be fed. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Over the last weeks since banding, I have not lowered or opened the gourds. It is a sensitive time, and the birds close to fledging can be startled into jumping too soon. So all I can do is watch with binoculars.
Tonight was a treat. There were at least two families of Martins in trees close to the houses. Parent birds still bringing food to their newly fledged young. But what was also fun was observing all the little faces and beaks, peeking out of the entry holes, maybe not quite ready to make the leap, maybe waiting for one more cozy night, but maybe tomorrow could be their big day.
An almost-fledgeling trying to decide if the time is right to make the big leap. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Like a true “godmother” I wished them safety, soft landings and strong wings as they make that leap of faith.
With luck, you can spot the color bands on one of our birds. Photograph by Rick Newton. 

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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