Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts in Austin

by Shelia Hargis

Purple Martins Galore

If you think summer isn’t a good time to go birding in Texas, please reconsider. Yes, it is very hot, but the birding can be spectacular! And it can be a different kind of birding. For the first time ever (or at least in a very long time), Travis Audubon hosted several viewing parties at the Purple Martin roost at Highland Mall. The martins started showing up in June and were there in great numbers into August. Jake McCumber, Travis Audubon member and National Guard biologist, has been developing a method to more accurately count the number of martins using the roost site. His estimates for mid-July were 600,000 birds! A few martins would be flying high above the mall at 7:30p when we arrived to set up. Then, as the evening progressed, more and more would come in to swirl overhead. The numbers would usually peak around 8:45p. By 9:00p, most of the birds would be perched in the trees, shoulder-to-shoulder, chattering among themselves. The last “teenagers” would usually perch by 9:10p.

We got the word out via several community calendars and KXAN did a short story on the event, http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/local/austin/like-a-scene-from-the-birds. The publicity brought out birders and non-birders alike. We had Purple Martin and Travis Audubon information available. Everyone was awe-struck and many people learned something new about these amazing birds. Several people told me, unprovoked, that this was better than the bats because the birds swirled around and put on a show instead of just flying away! The birds definitely put on a show! Numerous people got pooped on. I tried to convince them that the poop on them was a badge of honor, and some even agreed with me. We’re thinking we will get t-shirts to sell for next year with graphics of several big splats of Purple Martin poop on them and something like “I got pooped on at the Austin Purple Martin roost, compliments of the birds and Travis Audubon.” What do you think? Will the t-shirts be hot items?

Check out Travis Audubon’s Facebook page for more videos and photos from the parties. Thanks to everyone who came out to show your support for the birds and for Travis Audubon. If you missed seeing the roost this year, mark your calendars for next July.

A Swift Night Out, Austin-Style

Purple Martins are not the only species gathering in large numbers at roost sites this time of year. Chimney Swifts are doing it too. Unlike the martins that roost in trees, the swifts roost in old chimneys, cisterns and towers built especially for them. The numbers of swifts at a roost site are much smaller than the number of martins, but it is still impressive to see 100’s of swifts circling overhead and then dropping into a chimney.

And it is quite a challenge to count them!

A SWIFT NIGHT OUT is a continent-wide effort to raise awareness about and encourage interest in Chimney Swifts and Vaux’s Swifts and is a citizen science project of the Driftwood Wildlife Association and our own Paul and Georgean Kyle. The objective is to monitor Chimney Swift roosts during two weekends each year (August 10 -12 & September 7 – 9 this year), count the swifts as they enter the chimney/tower, and report the number to Paul and Georgean. The data from across the continent is entered into a database at chimneyswifts.org and helps researchers better understand population trends for the species.

Twenty-seven volunteers participated in A Swift Night Out in Austin during the weekend of August 10 – 12. Our volunteers monitored seven known roosts in the Austin area. The results for each site are listed below:

AFL-CIO Building
Sunday night (8/12/12): 575
Counters: Laurie Foss, Shelia Hargis

Becker Elementary School
Saturday night (8/11/12): 355
Counters: Dawn Dickson, Bruce Atwell, Cindy Atwell, Carly Atwell, Erik Atwell, Laurie Foss, Shelia Hargis

Brentwood Elementary School
Sunday night (8/12/12): 439
Counters: Frances Cerbins, Virginia Rose, Jean Martin, Carole Martin, Judith Bailey, George Kerr, Mary Alice Kerr, Ethel Kutac, Laura Lefler

O’Henry Middle School
Sunday night (8/12/12): 1025
Counters: Judie Tasch, Caroline Jones, Laura Legett

Ridgelea Kiosk Tower
Friday night (8/10/12): 41
Counter: Patti Gallagher

Travis High School
Friday night (8/10/12): 500
Counter: Marcia Sims
Saturday night (8/11/12): 788
Counter: Marcia Sims

Zilker Elementary School
Friday night (8/10/12): 191
Counter: Dawn Dickson
Saturday night (8/11/12): 166
Counter: Roger Smith, Jennifer Chapman
Sunday night (8/12/12): 200
Counters: Cindy Sperry, Bryan Sperry, Jim O’Donnell, Carol Edwards

ACC Rio Grande Campus
No one monitored this site.

This was only the second time that Travis Audubon has organized efforts to participate in A Swift Night Out. Thanks to the efforts of our amazing volunteers, there were more reports submitted for the Austin area than any other area of the country! We will be participating again on September 7 – 9. If you would like to participate, contact Shelia Hargis (shelia.hargis@gmail.com) to sign up for a location. You can count swifts on one night at one location or all three nights at different locations. The numbers will likely be even higher then, so don’t miss your opportunity to experience this amazing spectacle of nature and contribute to our knowledge of Chimney Swifts.

(Purple Martin photos by Shelia Hargis.  Chimney Swift photos by Laurie Foss.)