By Catie Dull
Every year in late February, strange birdhouses and painted gourds perched high in open areas appear around Wrightsville Beach, then mysteriously disappear in August, along with their inhabitants. The special bi-continental birds that occupy these particular kinds of birdhouses are called Purple Martins and many choose to spend their time in Wrightsville Beach as part of their yearly migration cycle.
But it’s not just the birds that look forward to the return to Wrightsville Beach, as many residents go to special effort to care for, observe and appreciate the bird’s return visits. Frank Conner, a resident of Wrightsville Beach on W. Asheville St., has had the same Martin house for 40 years, coming to cherish the Purple Martins that moved in and returned year after year.
“I love to get up with my cup of coffee and sit on the porch and watch and listen to them chirping. They do a great job with eating all of the bugs. You can tell a distinct difference on when they get there and when they leave. When they come, they get them all. It almost makes you cry when they leave,” Conner said.
Purple Martins can be identified by their deep purple plumage and slightly hooked bills. They are the highest-flying member of the swallow family, and can be seen flying around during the day near their nests feeding on a variety of insects. The birds spend half of their year in the southern hemisphere, in several different countries of South America.
Courtney Rousseau, president of the North Carolina Purple Martin Society expanded on some of the Martins’ habits.
“The oldest adult birds are the first to return to the same colony site they (successfully) used last year; they exhibit high site fidelity. The younger birds return a few weeks later. This characteristic is one reason why it is important to maintain your Martin housing and keep it in good repair, as those Martins are flying thousands of miles each year to come back to your site.”
Rousseau also explained some of the details about maintaining a Martin house.
“Quality housing consists of either a Martin house or gourds on a pole that can be raised and lowered on a cable and winch or rope and pulley for inspections, clean-outs, and maintenance. Poles should be equipped with predator guards four feet up on the pole to keep out raccoons and snakes, and should be placed in the most open spot in your yard, at least 40 ft. away from any nearby trees,” Rousseau said.
Many of the residents at Wrightsville Beach have embraced these birds, as dozens of Martin houses can be spotted along the Intracoastal Waterway. Purple Martins have come to rely primarily on man-made housing for them, so each house that is put up each year makes a difference.
“My next-door neighbor Henry von Osen put it up 40 years ago. He put it up and never even said anything about it, must have thought it was his yard,” Conner chuckled.
It might seem peculiar to some to put so much effort into maintaining Martin houses. However, any Martin enthusiast would be quick to tell you how well worth the trouble is.
“Martins are also very personable. They get to know ‘their’ people, and are very tolerant of nest checks and close observation. They have beautiful plumage and a unique song that is easily distinguished from any other backyard species. They are a joy to have in your back yard, and the NC Purple Martin Society (NCPMS) encourages everyone who has the right open habitat to consider putting up housing for them. This species is almost completely dependent on man to provide housing for them, so your colony site does matter to the preservation of the species,” Rousseau said.
Right around this time of year is when the Purple Martins start making their long journey back to their part-time homes in South America, Rousseau said. Some lingering mothers and late blooming baby birds can still be seen, but many of the birds are already well on their way back down south.