July 22, 2012

Purple martins rule their roost at Wichita’s Via Christi hospital on St. Francis

Mark Schuyler is getting to enjoy his “National Geographic moments” about two weeks ahead of schedule this summer.

Mark Schuyler is getting to enjoy his “National Geographic moments” about two weeks ahead of schedule this summer.

That’s what he calls standing in the parking lot of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, watching tens of thousands of purple martins swirling in waves high overhead, then streaming into a line of nearby ornamental trees at dusk.

Thursday evening Schuyler and others estimated they watched upwards of 40,000 purple martins fly to roost in the trees that have been a pre-migration gathering spot for several years. Kevin Groeneweg, an accomplished area birder, said martins begin gathering at the roost shortly after chicks are big enough to fly.

Eventually they’ll head to wintering grounds in Brazil in large flocks.

Most years Aug. 1 is about the peak time for the Via Christi roost. This year they’re ahead of schedule. John Jenkins, a Wichita purple martin aficionado, said martins were gathering at the roost as early as July 4. “When you wake up some morning and you don’t hear your purple martins in your yard, this is where they’ll be,” said the man with dozens of martin houses above his yard and house.

Groeneweg said the early attendance is probably due to last year’s catastrophic conditions.

“Last year because of the severe heat, most birds that fledged just didn’t make it, they almost all died,” he said. “That means we only had (older) adults nesting this spring. They always arrive earliest in the spring.”

Most local birders with martin houses are pleased with this year’s nesting success. “We had higher than normal numbers of eggs and more hatched,” Groeneweg said. “That is probably because we had more adult birds that were doing the nesting.” This summer’s heat also isn’t quite as severe and began a few weeks later than last year.

A well-traveled birder, Groeneweg considers Wichita’s downtown roost one of the top spectacles of nature in Kansas. The past few summers scores of people have gathered in the parking lot in the evenings to watch the birds gather high above downtown and form into huge swirling clouds of tiny birds.

In past years Schuyler and Jenkins have seen elderly couples and families with young children sitting on cars or folding chairs. Jenkins brings his family almost nightly, and watches from his convertible.

Groeneweg said Wichitans are fortunate to have such an opportunity. “I’m not aware of any other roosts like this in central Kansas or western Kansas,” he said.

But the annual gathering isn’t pleasurable for everyone.

Roz Hutchinson, Via Christi spokeswoman, said the hospital is constantly concerned with keeping the bird droppings cleaned from a sidewalk that passes below the dozen or so trees. As well as being messy, the droppings could become a health hazard if not taken care of.

Several years ago the hospital removed some trees near the front entrance that were being used by crows, starlings and purple martins. The location of the roosting birds meant unhealthy things might get tracked into the hospital. After the trees were removed, the purple martins moved their roost to the east side of the parking lot.

Hutchinson said the hospital has no plans or desire to remove the roosting trees, but would like to work with local government and conservation groups to find ways to keep the area clean.

Schuyler has been working to find some possible partnerships, and thinks it won’t be a problem because so many people care deeply about purple martins. Groeneweg agrees many feel a special bond.

One reason is that purple martins can be seen in most neighborhoods throughout the spring and summer. Many people also invest significant amounts of time and money caring for purple martin houses in their yards. The birds rely about 100 percent on man-made structures for nesting.

“The neat thing is, every bird you see down here was raised in somebody’s backyard,” he said, while watching the last of the birds rocket down from darkness, across the glow of the parking lot lights and into the trees. “I like to think that my birds are up there somewhere. A lot of people like to come down here and say good-bye to their birds before they leave.”

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