By Alexis Puchek
Andy and Julia Balinsky are Travis Audubon’s go-to experts and landlords for Austin’s Purple Martin colonies.
Andy is the son of two World War II refugees who fled their countries from different European dictators. He was born and spent a good part of his childhood in South Africa. When he was eight, his family immigrated to the American Midwest, and he spent his time growing up in Iowa. Andy’s first job brought him to Texas in the early 1990’s, where he worked in technology and volunteered with conservation organizations like the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, where he now serves as the Chair.
Julia hails from Spokane in Washington state. When she came to Texas, she stepped into the role of kindergarten teacher, and met Andy through contra dancing in 1998. Andy was already an avid birder at this time, and Julia fondly remembers her first experience of being able to identify a bird by herself with a field guide and binoculars: a Pileated Woodpecker.
We’re here today to hear the incredible work that Andy and Julia put into their roles nurturing Purple Martins and getting the community involved with advocacy and volunteering.
What got you into birding?
Andy got his start with birding through his parents. His dad was a bird fanatic before he passed away, and Andy’s mother got him a bird book to keep the interest alive. After Andy left grad school, birding is what he did with his free time on weekends, evenings, and everywhere he went. His time in the Air Force put him in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he had ample access to the coastlines, Louisiana swamplands and lowland, and forests. Andy really leaned into solo birding, where he could crack open a bird book to find a certain kind of bird and make a clear identification (remember: this is pre-phones, apps, and universally accessible internet).
Julia admits that her interest in birding stemmed from her love for Andy which was tied inherently to his love for birding; she was going to fit into that world, or not. Quickly she found that she quite enjoyed it herself, and they began attending beginner birding classes through Travis Audubon and traveling the state and the world to see birds. On one of their birding trips to Peru, she was a bit out of her depth, but found herself sitting on a beautiful porch at their lodge with a variety of birds right in front of her. She dug into her birding book, and found a real sense of accomplishment in being able to figure out what birds she was looking at without being told.
What are Purple Martins and why are they important?
Purple Martins are a bird that needs human assistance, and they’re one of the only wild birds you can actively manage. You can put up their houses, do nest checks, make sure their space is clean, and help keep predators away – all as welcomed activities by the birds. Helping to house and manage the birds also allows Julia and Andy to collect scientific data to report statistically on how the species is doing.
Andy let me know that Purple Martins are North America’s largest swallow. They, like all birds, have inherent value and like many birds today their numbers are declining due to climate change impacts on insects (their food source) and fewer people are expressing interest in helping the species. There was a kind of fanfare publicity about Purple Martins in the 1950s, with books and civic associations to garner interest in the birds and create advocates for taking care of them. Today, that knowledge and practice is fading away and the Purple Martins are feeling the repercussions.
What do you do for Purple Martins?
Julia mentioned that when she moved into their house in 2000, there was a gourd rack for Purple Martins that they were going to put up. They heard that creating this housing was something that you could do for Purple Martins, and once the job was completed, they learned a bit more about the specifics that go into suitable housing. Unfortunately, their property had too many trees to attract the Purple Martins, who require open space around their nests.
With their house eliminated as an option, they began assisting Jenny Rasmussen in tending a Purple Martin colony at Hornsby Bend, learning tricks of the craft and techniques for becoming good Purple Martin landlords because working with Purple Martins is a crafty business. After some seasons of volunteering, Jenny handed the reins over to the Balinksys who took over the effort.
Julia and Andy spend the months before Purple Martin season cleaning the gourds and then readying them for the birds. Julia tells this great story about how a year ago during Covid, they went out to Bastrop with an empty car and asked a few homeowners if they could fill their car with bags and boxes of pine needles, and then had a wonderful Christmas walk after their car was full. It’s these efforts that give them the materials to make a suitable starting nest for the Purple Martins in their gourds. Once they have the gourds cleaned and readied, they modify the doorways in makeshift ways to make them Starling proof (and snake proof!), keeping an eye on them to see if their efforts have thwarted those predators.
And then January and February come along where the Purple Martins come in and they start building and laying eggs. “Every time we go, there’s this little spark of new magic that’s happening, and we get to watch it, touch it, look at it, document it, and hear their beautiful song. We learn something new every year doing it and we get to mentor new people who are interested.” Julia almost tears up as she tells me a story about a Girl Scout Troop with close to 20 seven- and eight-year-olds who helped pull a nest down to see the brand new hatched Martins inside, and upon seeing the new babies, the entire troop encircled the box and began singing happy birthday.
Julia and Andy monitor and take care of 90 gourds every season, and over the years, Andy has said that they’ve cared for 2,500+ Purple Martins in these colonies. Julia reflects with, “we had no idea that 20 years ago, our lives would be so filled with Purple Martins.”
Andy and Julia are amazingly dedicated and care so much for the Purple Martins. If you’re interested in learning more about Purple Martins, hearing how you can see and celebrate the birds at Purple Martin Parties with 100,000-400,000 birds present, or volunteering with Andy and Julia to help with their effort, they can always take anyone interested under their wings. Keep an eye on Travis Audubon’s events or reach out and see how you can get connected with the Balinskys.
“Come and have some fun with us in Purple Martin land.”