Monday, August 13, 2018


by Beth Sullivan
It happens to all species. Kids: you give birth, take care of them, feed them, clean up after them, teach them whatever you can, wish them well and then they are out the door. Sometimes they hang around a while. Sometimes they need more instruction, or just can’t find a place of their own, so return to roost.
Lest I get too far with this and you think I am talking about my own offspring…no, it is my Purple Martins again. This is the sixth year we have hosted Purple Martins at Knox preserve. Each of the first two years we were the recipients of an Audubon CT grant that funded the two lovely set ups of 12 gourds each, made especially for the Martins. Each year our colony has grown and each year has been very unique in one way or another. Each year I learn more about them, and each year there are surprises.
This year the birds arrived on time but actually began nesting earlier and in those first nests, eggs were laid a full week earlier than previous years. However, there were still stragglers. The youngsters from the previous year, or from other colonies, that arrive later and take what is left for space, get started later. That made for a colony that had a very wide span of ages of young once they began hatching.
A wide range of ages existed in the colony. These were about 11 days old on the same day the next door nest was just hatching.

Our Tree Swallow nest has three young in their feathery nest.

These four seem fully feathered and should be able to fly, but stayed put when the door was opened. Photograph by Mariano Librojo. 

Different nest building this year

Some of the nests were very unusual this year too. Most Martin nests are quite light and loose. They are created on a base of pine needles that I supply and are supplemented with other grasses, sometimes small twigs, and always lined with green cherry leaves which indicates egg laying is imminent. This year I discovered several nests were created with a lot of mud. Mud itself is not uncommon, but the volume used in these nests was surprising. Nearly half of each gourd was filled with it and straw embedded into the mud, before the green leaves were added. This didn’t seem to cause any problem for the birds, but for me as the care taker it was a challenge. Usually, when the young are about 10 -15 days old, it is advised to check them for mites, since these can be so numerous as to kill young birds with their blood sucking habits. I would do complete nest changes, removing old infested material and replacing it with new clean needles and green cherry leaves. But it was absolutely impossible to remove the jam packed mud. These nests did have insects living in them and as the heat of the season built up, these mud nests seemed to hold the heat and moisture making what I would think was a very uncomfortable environment. These nests, by the end of the season, were filled with excrement and insect parts. I’d want to fledge or flee from that home too!
This year the DEEP did not have the staff or funding to band our colony. In previous years they came and processed all our birds, checking age, condition, and outfitting them with aluminum federal bands as well as green/orange color bands. This provides a visual identification that birds with the green/orange come from our colony. This year I noted only one returning adult with our color bands. I did, however, notice three adult males who made their home here, who had only silver colored federal bands and no colored ones to help identify their colony or origin.
If you look closely you can see silver bands on on the legs of several of the dark males on the left.

Sometimes first flights are not successful, and a young one lands in the grass. 
This was our late nest but watching them hatch was a small miracle.

Most have fledged

We did do nest checks through the season and photographed the stages that are so amazing to witness. On the last day I checked them, August 4, most of the nests were empty. The young had gone. But in two nests, a few full-sized young birds huddled together as I opened the door, they didn’t move. I could touch their sleek feathers, and I wished them well. I wondered whether they had not taken their first flight yet, or if, like some youngsters, just returned to the comfort of home after experiencing the real world.
If you hike at Knox over the next weeks, you can still see the Martins soaring over the fields, catching insects and in some cases still feeding young perched in the trees. Their chatter is unmistakable. All too soon, they will be gone for good. Off to South America for the winter season. Then I will have to figure out how to clean out those huge, smelly mud nests.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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