Monday, July 13, 2015

A Banner day for the Martins

By Beth Sullivan
The day we get to band our Purple Martins is the high point of the season. It makes up for all the observations and nest checks and messy nest changes of the last weeks.

This young bird is nearly ready to fledge.

This season has been an interesting one. As reported previously, our birds started earlier than last year. These were probably true experienced adult birds. These got down to business, laid their eggs, and as of banding day their young were close to fledging-about 26 days old. At the same time, a number of birds started later. These were likely the younger, less experienced birds, last year’s babies! On banding day we still had one nest with eggs in it!
Our colony on Knox Preserve.

Fresh nesting material provided

One of the housekeeping duties of a Martin landlord is changing out the nest material when the young are a couple of weeks old. Mom and dad are pretty diligent about removing fecal sacs, but accidents happen. And, as the babies get bigger, there is a lot more leftover food remaining: wings and legs and shells of various insects. Another revelation: the nests themselves are microhabitats for all sorts of organisms! As I removed layers of old nest material I discovered seething, moving masses of invertebrate life. That was not fun. But the birds do not mind being handled and seem to appreciate fresh pine needle bedding and added green cherry leaves, and I assume they don’t miss the bugs!
On July 8 the DEEP banding team led by Min Huang and Laurie Fortin, set up a tent for shade, work tables, and organized an assembly line for efficiency. A number of Avalonia volunteers joined the effort: more hands, faster process. I removed the birds from their nests and placed them in Cool Whip containers lined with cloth bags ( very hi-tech) . They were labeled with the gourd ID number and how many babies were inside. Those younger than about 7-8 days old were deemed too young to band. The rest were transported to the station where they were fitted with both the Federal band with a unique ID number, as well as two color bands that identify them as part of Knox Preserve Colony. In this case orange over green. Each bird was compared to a chart to determine its age and then was weighed carefully as a determination of health and feeding success. Knox has plenty of insect variety in the various levels of sky above the fields.
These siblings nestle in, waiting for their clean nest.

The nestling are compared to photos to determine their age.

Insects รก la carte

We have watched parents bring in HUGE dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, bees, spiders and flying ants. Amazing what is floating around up there. One nestling was discovered to have the biting mouth parts of a large ant attached to its beak! That ant never gave up! The ant mandibles were removed.
A parent returns with a large Dragon Fly.

The nestlings were returned to their own nest-now a bit refurbished and cleaned. The parents waited patiently with beaks full of food. We finished our colony after banding 36 and determining 16 more were too young to band. Our team of volunteers also did our neighbor’s colony, and then we all moved up to Pequot Golf Course to assist with their very successful and well established colony.
A great learning experience for all.

By color banding the birds, we are visually able to identify what colony they were born in and can determine dispersal patterns. Our colony hosts birds from the Golf Course, a Clinton colony and a Hammonassett colony. Martins are State listed as a species of concern. It is hoped that with better public support for the species, their population will rebound and they can be de-listed.
Band colors indicate this bird was born at Pequot Golf Course and makes his home at Knox.

A very good thing for a special species.

resources about Purple Martins:

Sightings of color-banded purple martins! If you see a purple martin with colored leg bands, please report it to and let us know 1) where you saw it; 2) when you saw it; and 3) the color of the legs bands. More information can be found here.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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