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A wonder close to home

  • Published Sunday, July 31, 2011, at 2:54 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 31, 2011, at 7:56 a.m.

The purple martins returning to roost in trees at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis remains one of the top wildlife events I've seen in 30 years of traveling.

It's that special.

Except for a few starlings, the skies were pretty empty when I arrived at about 7:30 one night last week. Fifteen minutes later, a flock of about 100 martins made an appearance, gliding high from the north before disappearing from sight.

They gave me confidence I'd again be in for quite a show.

For the last several years, purple martins have gathered to roost in about 20 ornamental trees along the east edge of Via Christi's main parking lot for about two weeks in late July and early August.

The martins, probably raised in elevated martin houses all across the area, gather near the hospital before heading to South American wintering grounds.

Like most who arrive to enjoy the amazing event, I parked in the middle of the parking lot and leaned against my car.

A thousand-or-so starlings, who also roost in the trees, were already shoulder to shoulder on nearby power lines.

The real show began at about 8:30, when vast sheets of martins appeared as tiny specks far across the sky. A check through binoculars showed even more birds above those seen with the naked eye.

From barely above light poles to three times the height of the hospital's dome, clouds of martins milled overhead.

Most just seemed to glide back and forth at their set altitude. Occasionally a flock of several hundred twisted and turned their way together through the feathered cloud above.

At the roost in 2009, an expert estimated about 40,000 martins using the trees. I have to count my grocery cart three times at the express checkout line, so I'm clueless about Monday's numbers.

But I know by 8:40 there were many thousands with large flocks beginning to break from the chirping cloud overhead and making fast dashes toward the trees before pulling up and again climbing high.

Ten minutes later it took binoculars to see the huge flocks still above the glare of parking lot lights.

It was easy and thrilling to see long strings of martins shooting from the darkness above like pressured water from a firehose, pulling up to pass only a few yards above cars as they washed into the trees.

At about 9:05 it was if the spigot had been closed and the show was instantly over.

A father and son nearby agreed the display was as good as in years past. Like them, I'll probably make another trip or two to the roost this week.

Watching great things in the natural world never seems to get old, even when they're practically in our backyard.

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