What to watch for in July: Purple Martin Parties and Chimney Swifts
Roosting Purple Martins
On Friday and Saturday evenings in July join Travis Audubon to witness one of Austin’s famous phenomena – a Purple Martin migratory roost – which may have 300,000 to 400,000 birds. Before our largest swallows head to South America for the winter they stage here. The juvenile birds that were born this year use this time to improve their stamina, and all the birds need to fatten up for their long flight. For years the roost was at Highland Mall, but in recent years it has moved. No one knows why. Nor does anyone know how long any individual bird stays at the roost. Some may just be here overnight, while others stay a week or two. Some birds were born locally but others have flown a distance to join the roost.
This year the birds have chosen to roost by Texas Land & Cattle at the junction of IH 35/ 290. (Please park on Clayton Lane, not in the restaurant parking lot.) You will be treated to an acrobatic hurricane of birds as the Purple Martins “swirl” in the skies above the roosting site each evening. It’s better than the bats! Binoculars are optional. Lawn chairs, picnic blankets, cameras, and hats are highly recommended. Learn more.
Chimney Swifts also gather in migratory communal roosts (of up to 10,000 birds), but generally this occurs in September. In July the young of the year are newly-fledged, leaving their nest sites in chimneys, incinerators and hollow trees to learn to hunt on the wing. Chimney Swifts, like Purple Martins, are aerial insectivores, capturing flying insects. Unlike Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts do not perch. You will never see them lined up on a wire. Instead swifts cling to vertical surfaces when at rest. Chimney Swifts have small cigar-shaped bodies only 5.25 inches long, and incredible 14 inch wingspans. Compare this to the Purple Martin’s 8 inch length and 18 inch wingspan.
Both Chimney Swifts and Purple Martins are chatty birds. Often you will hear them before you see them. Chimney Swifts chitter and twitter, sometimes with hard chip notes. Purple Martinshave a fuller, throatier sound.
Chimney Swifts and Purple Martins use human-provided housing in the form of brick chimneys and gourds respectively. Travis Audubon has a preserve for Chimney Swifts in the Apache Shores area, occasionally open to the public in the summer months. There you can see several housing examples, including the sanctuary stewards’ home, which has double chimneys built for the birds. Travis Audubon also offers an early spring class for would-be Purple Martin landlords.
Travis Audubon Field Trips— Beginners welcome. Learn more about central Texas birds by going on a free field trip. July is hot but the birds are still out there. Check the Travis Auduboncalendar for details.
Saturday, July 15, 7:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Over 330 species of birds have been seen at this famous east Austin birding location. No registration required.
Sunday, July 16, 6:30 a.m. The Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park has a restored 40 acre prairie that supports grassland birds like Dickcissels and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. The wildflowers and native grasses attract butterflies too. This popular walk requires registration.
Travis Audubon Classes
July is a good time to be an indoor air-conditioned bird watcher. If you are a hummingbird lover, learn how to identify them in a two-part class coming up in mid-July. There is an optional field trip to west Texas in August where you can practice your skills. Backyard birds are the focus of a late July offering. A three-part specialized class on shorebird identification also begins in late July. Shorebirds do occur in Austin, landing here to rest and refuel as they travel between their summering and wintering grounds.