By Beth Sullivan
Having been the grandmother to the Purple Martins at Knox preserve for about seven years, I really look forward to every season and have come to know the stages of development that take place inside the secrecy of the nests. The miracle is just too wonderful not to share.
|The scouts stayed with their parents, properly distanced and masked. Photograph by Rick Newton.|
A little different this year
This year, with all the Covid concerns, just two of us have been monitoring the nests, and we haven’t been able to share the experience with anyone else. But last Sunday, everything aligned just perfectly, and I was able to introduce a new generation of Cub Scouts to the newest generation of Purple Martins on the Knox Preserve. Pack 37 of Stonington, under the leadership of Matt Ferrier, has helped out Avalonia on several occasions. With extra muscle from parents, they planted seedling trees on the Woodlot Sanctuary and have helped restore walls, make brush piles and clean up in Hoffman Preserve. It was time for their reward. With only a short notice to determine the weather would be ok, and several families would be available, we set a time to meet.
Five Scouts, each with a parent or two, and even a grandmother, arrived right on time. They spread out , properly distanced, and I was able to give them the first guidelines: listen, stay distanced, and always keep your mask on as there would be times when I would be close to them. We walked out the path to the colony site, and the martins could be seen soaring against the perfectly blue sky. We could watch them capture butterflies and dragonflies and return to their nests to feed their young. I had monitored them closely enough to know the age and stage of development of the nestlings in each gourd, so after watching me crank the winch to lower the set up, the boys could barely contain their curiosity. One by one, with their own parent, they carefully climbed the step ladder to be at the perfect height to peek into the first nest. Last time I checked, there were still eggs; this time there were three eggs, and one tiny pink nestling, just hatched. One of the scouts actually found the eggshell on the ground. Everyone, parents included, took a turn. Just amazing.
|The first peek inside a nest. Photograph by Sandy Alexander|
|The first nest was amazing. They got to see a brand new hatchling.|
|Behind the mask they were grinning ear to ear. Photograph by Rick Newton.|
|By comparing the live bird with the chart we could determine its age.|
A hands-on experience
Then we moved to the next nest. Here the birds were about 9 days old. Using the growth chart provided by the Purple Martin Conservation Association, we were able to compare the live bird with the photos and look at feather development on its wings and tail to determine its age. Then, several of the scouts got to hold this bird. Ever so gently they cupped the creature inside their hands. They could feel the warmth, touch the stiff pin feathers and even see the holes in the head that are the ears. Over their masks, their eyes just popped with wonder. During the next half hour or so, others had a chance to hold different birds, use the chart to compare, ask questions and beg for more turns. They were hooked. As Scouts, they were ready and willing to help, so as we finished the first set of gourds, they stepped up to help me crank up the winch to raise the set high on the pole.
There were even more birds of various stages in the second set. More opportunities to peek inside. And when we found a wonderful nest of 4 newborns on the upper level, their parents helped lift them up to look. When the nest was jostled, the birds would raise their heads and open their really huge mouths, hoping for a morsel. Even with such large mouths, we were all wondering how a parent could deliver the biggest dragonfly we had ever seen, into one comparatively small mouth.
After they helped me crank up the last set, we all sanitized our hands, and they had a Scout mini-meeting in the field, still well distanced from each other. Before they left the field, each turned to witness that the parent birds returned very quickly, not at all disturbed by our activities, to feed their hungry young ones.
With a few adjustments, this event went on as it might have at any other time. The sun was shining, it wasn't too hot, and the sky was a beautiful blue. The birds and insects carried on as normal. It is so reassuring to know that some things do not change.
|The Scouts listened well to instructions and held the birds very gently. Photograph by Rick Newton.|
|We wondered how the little birds could eat a dragonfly this size, even without its head. Photograph by Sandy Alexander.|
|The parent birds waited patiently with their beaks full. Photograph by Rick Newton.|
Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.