Purple Martins at Highland Mall – What a Show!

(Photos courtesy of Shelia Hargis. Click any image to view larger.)

PUMA Party 072013 001“What are they doing here?” “Why are they [swirling around in a big group]?” “How many birds are there?” “Are these the same birds as last weekend?” “Why here?” “Are there other roosts like this in Texas?” “Where did these birds come from?” “Where are they going?” “How long has this been going on?” “Why are we just now hearing about this?” “Are those bats?” These are just a few of the questions Travis Audubon volunteers answered (or tried to answer) during the Purple Martin Parties at Highland Mall this summer.

Then we had questions of our own.

“Is this your first time to see the roost?” For many people, the answer was “Yes”, even for some of our Travis Audubon members! For a few, the answer was “No, I’ve been coming to see this for years.”

PUMA Roost 070513 008“Are you familiar with Purple Martins?” For many, the answer was “No.” For others, they were familiar with the breeding part of the Purple Martin’s life cycle but not the roosting behavior. And for some, the answer was “Yes, I’m a Purple Martin landlord.” For the landlords, I always followed up with “Do you see your birds here tonight?” This usually brought big grins and a quick look up!

“What do you think of the show?” Responses included: “It is amazing!”, “This is better than the bats!”, and “I’m coming back tomorrow night with my family and neighbors!”

“Are you familiar with Travis Audubon?” Overwhelmingly, the answer was “No.”

PUMA Party 072613

This summer was the second summer that Travis Audubon has held Purple Martin Parties at the Purple Martin roost site at Highland Mall. We had an informational display about Purple Martins and their roosts, and we had a Travis Audubon table with information on all the cool experiences we provide, as well as an opportunity for individuals to join at a discounted rate. In addition to answering many questions about the martins, volunteers listened to cool bird stories that folks wanted to share and provided a way for the attendees to express their awe and excitement about the birds and the roost spectacle. As the questions above highlight, attendees were VERY inquisitive and wanted to know more about the birds and the behavior they were witnessing. In addition to the many non-birders in the audience, quite a few of our local birders visited and even some birders from out-of-town came specifically to Austin to see the roost.

Some of the highlights from the summer include:

Pictures and videos:
PUMA Party 072013 006They say a photo is worth a thousand words. In this case, to get the full effect, you really needed to witness this spectacle for yourself. Photos don’t do it justice. Videos are better but still not the same as being there. Knowing that didn’t stop us and many others from taking photos and videos. In addition to the photos in this article, you can enjoy more at Travis Audubon’s and Austin Swallow’s Facebook pages. While you’re there, be sure to “like” the pages if you haven’t already.

Outreach and education:
Early in the season, Victor Emmanuel invited Mike Leggett, Austin American-Statesman staff, to join him at the roost site to see the show. On June 30, Mike did just that, and on July 3, his article about the roost appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

On July 5, Kris Betts, KVUE reporter, and Matt Olsen, KVUE photojournalist, visited the roost, interviewed me and several others, and filmed the show. The article/video appeared online later that night.

080412 PUMA Roost 013On July 19, Richard MacKinnon attended for the first time and was very impressed with the birds. Rich has connections with many people including 900 Facebook friends. He was so impressed that he wrote a very eloquent FB post and then immediately created a FB page (Austin Swallows) and website, both specifically for raising awareness of the roost. He realized the value of getting ACC Board members and others out to see the roost and he sent out a FB invite encouraging everyone to attend a “Squawk Party” on Friday night, July 26, to show the ACC folks the level of support and interest that exists in the community for the roost. As you’ll see from the attendance numbers below, his efforts paid off!

On July 26, Alan Fisher, TPWD Video Producer, was in attendance. Alan is working on a Purple Martin video that will be shown on TPWD’s PBS program. He had been talking with and filming Andy and Julia Balinsky as they went about their Purple Martin landlord duties at Hornsby Bend. He interviewed/filmed me and we talked about the roost behavior, the spectators at the roost site and Travis Audubon’s efforts to get the word out about the roost and to protect it.

Attendance – people and birds:
PUMA Party 072013 003(numbers of attendees are approximate, estimates of bird numbers are VERY rough approximations)

7/05/13 – 100 attendees and 15,000 birds
7/06/13 – 250 attendees and 100,000 birds
7/12/13 – 150 attendees, estimate of birds not available
7/13/13 – 200 attendees and 300,000 birds
7/19/13 – 200 attendees and 400,000 birds
7/20/13 – 320 attendees and 400,000 birds
7/26/13 – 350 attendees and 400,000 birds
7/27/13 – 400 attendees and 400,000 birds

Rescued birds:
On July 13, one bird was rescued from under the roost trees. A wildlife rehabilitator was in the audience and took the bird. The bird is recuperating nicely. On July 26, another bird was rescued from under the roost trees. Kat Ross, volunteering at the Travis Audubon info table, took the bird and delivered it to Wildlife Rescue the following morning. (Kat also volunteers for Wildlife Rescue.) It was later determined the bird was suffering from head trauma. On July 27, another bird was rescued from under the roost trees. Laurie Foss and I took the bird and delivered it to Wildlife Rescue the following morning. The initial evaluation indicated the bird was very skinny with no obvious injuries.

Protection for the birds and the roost site:

PUMA Party 070613 001In mid-July, Laurie Foss and I met with the Austin Community College Facilities & Construction Executive Director and two representatives from the development company, RedLeaf Properties. We met to talk about the roost site and the development plans for the campus. They were very open to working with us, and we’ll continue the conversation with th

em to hopefully find a solution that works for the birds and for ACC/RedLeaf Properties. The development of the area around the roost trees is not scheduled to commence for a couple of years, so we have some time to work something out.

A different type of protection happened on July 28 when the Hornsby Bend Purple Martin landlord team (Julia Balinsky, Andy Balinsky, Barbara Vinson, Duwane Vinson, Julia Heskett, Hemant Kulkarni, and Chaitra Mutalik) installed predator guards around the roost trees. On numerous occasions, free-roaming cats had been observed climbing the trees and grabbing birds which they killed and ate. The predator guards were installed to prevent this and consisted of metal flashing around most of the trees and chicken wire around one very large branchy oak. Broken tree limbs were also removed from the ground to eliminate hiding places for the cats. Approximately 280 martin wings were found on the ground under the trees.


080412 PUMA Roost 012

The flashing will be removed after the birds have migrated and will be reinstalled next summer before the birds return. Broken limbs will continue to be removed until the birds leave.

Future activities:
The Purple Martin Parties were great fun for everyone who attended. They were also a wonderful outreach opportunity to educate Austinites and others about Purple Martins and birds in general and an opportunity to get Travis Audubon’s name out in the community. As the organizer of the parties for the last two years, I think it would be great if we commit to making this an annual event for Travis Audubon and maybe even improve our image by purchasing a professionally designed display about the birds and Travis Audubon. Mark your calendars next summer for the Purple Martin Parties on Friday and Saturday nights in July. Watch for other activities too like maybe a Purple Martin festival! Contact me at shelia.hargis@gmail.com if you would like to help make the parties happen next summer.

PUMA Party 072613 001Conversations with Austin Community College and RedLeaf Property will continue regarding the development plans for the area surrounding the roost trees. In addition to that conversation, we’re looking for an ACC instructor who will see the opportunity to use the roost as a living lab for his/her students. Contact me if you know an ACC professor that you think might be interested in this project.

A big thanks goes out to the numerous volunteers who helped make the Purple Martin Parties a great event: Judith Bailey, Marc Bernat, Valarie Bristol, Frances Cerbins, Donna Edar, Victor Emmanuel, Laurie Foss, Joan Foster, Shelia Hargis, Lynn Hill, Caroline Jones, Clif Ladd, Laura Legett, Caroline LeGette, Carol Ray, Kat Ross, Julie Sanford, Judie Tasch, Peggy Tavakkol, Jane Tillman, and Julia Youngblood. (I apologize if I missed anyone.)

Another big thanks goes out to the Hornsby Bend Purple Martin landlords who protected the roosting birds from the free-roaming cats: Andy Balinsky, Julia Balinsky, Julia Heskett, Hemant Kulkarni, Chaitra Mutalik, Barbara Vinson, and Duwane Vinson.

-Shelia Hargis