It was an interesting and nearly comical spectacle to encounter: around 50 people of all ages – some with umbrellas – gathered on a small patch of grass in an Embassy Suites parking lot directly off of Interstate 35 Frontage Road on a hot summer evening. What could they possibly be doing, and why the umbrellas?
They were there (myself included) to watch the Purple Martins. These large, iridescent swallows roost in enormous numbers in Austin for a couple of months, as they migrate north from South America. They return year after year, and the local Audubon chapter celebrates their return by hosting “Purple Martin Parties” on the weekends (read their informational poster here). The Embassy Suites Hotel also embraced their presence this year by selling “Purple Martin Martinis” with sangria (clever, and delicious!). They even put cones on the parking spots under the roosting trees in order to prevent their customers’ cars from getting plastered with bird poop (hence the umbrellas…mental note: don’t forget the umbrellas next time).
I had heard a lot about this phenomenon but still didn’t really know what to expect – I certainly couldn’t imagine the sheer number of birds I was going to see. When we noticed the first flush of birds high in the sky I was amazed, and every ten or so minutes the number seemed to increase exponentially and so did my amazement! My mom can attest to this, because I called her on FaceTime during the height of my excitement.
Not only did they pepper the entire sky but they filled the air with their chattering. I overheard one man telling a young boy to put cup the backs of his ears with his hand to amplify the sound (which I did as well). I was impressed by how much of a difference it made!
Just before the sun tucked itself in for the night, waves of purple martins started swooping down (within a few feet of our heads!) and into three or so live oaks. For birds that seem so spastic when flying solo, they were surprisingly coordinated in this effort. Ultimately, I think there were just as many birds on the tree as there were leaves. Rob Binder was with me and took a video of them in action (below)!
Video by Rob Binder
It was an evening well spent and it filled my heart that so many people dedicated their Saturday night to watching such an amazing natural phenomenon. It was a great testament to urban wildlife and the importance of connecting people to nature – and ultimately other people! I will definitely return next summer and will hopefully remember an umbrella.