For several years we've gathered by the scores to watch purple martins gather by the tens of thousands this time of year in downtown Wichita.
It's literally been awe-inspiring to see the birds gather in tiers of squadrons as high as the eye can see, then barely yards above our heads pour themselves into a line of ornamental trees into which we'd swear they'd never fit.
But based on what I witnessed Wednesday evening, I'm wondering if one of the best wildlife shows in Kansas will ever be the same. The popular little birds gathering from local bird houses before they head to South America for the winter aren't doing well switching from last year's roost to another.
Because of well-lit parking lots and dense, bushy trees, the town-loving birds have again settled around Via Christi St. Francis. For the last several years it was at the southeastern edge of the hospital's main area, in a parking lot normally about void of evening hospital visitors or cars.
Those who came to watch the martins came as families with picnic suppers in crowded mini-vans and successful seniors in luxury cars who'd dinnered in Old Town, then headed to watch the avian show for dessert. People walked dogs, tossed Frisbees and struck up new friendships with those parked nearby as they awaited the show that never seemed to get old.
I talked to locals who came several times a week until the birds left in mid-August, and met a couple who'd made the 150-mile round-trip. Some stayed in their cars while others got out and marveled how often the birds seemed to be passing nearly within touching distance as they rocketed by.
But that row of trees along the little used lot have been pruned quite a bit, and the birds must think them too bare. Roz Hutchinson, Via Christi spokesperson, said the trimming was done to remove storm-damaged limbs and for normal tree maintenance.
The hospital certainly didn't ask to become the center of the local purple martin scene. Years ago the birds arrived to roost in trees over the hospital's main entrance. The trees were removed, since hundreds of people a day tracking bird droppings into a place dedicated to healing isn’t wise.
Overall, Via Christi was pretty accommodating when the birds next moved to the edge of their grounds. Other than a few half-hearted attempts to drive the birds on, they tolerated the thousands of martins and the many people who sometimes about filled the parking lot to enjoy the evening show.
But with those trees so altered, things are much tougher for the birds, those who watch them, and the hospital.
On Wednesday evening, Mark Schuyler, whom I'd met at the roost in the past, found the birds' new roosting spot. Martins by the thousands sat shoulder to shoulder on nearby powerlines, and flocks nervously milled about as dusk approached. Finally, they started whirling into trees in a packed employee parking lot and others near a main entrance Both are on the hospital’s west side.
With that parking lot gated, fenced and crowded with cars, the closest we could get was at least 100 yards away. The show was nowhere nearly as good as when we’d been directly below them as per the last several summers.
The last of the 10,000 or so martins had just settled into the trees when Schuyler and I heard sounds we fully expected to hear: the sharp banging of boards as Via Christi staff tried to dislodge the martins from their new summer home. The next morning Hutchinson confirmed that birds roosting in such areas with high human traffic means the same problem of dirty, possibly diseased, droppings getting tracked into the hospital.
Well after dark, the board-slapping and whirling masses of confused purple martins continued. As we were leaving we watched a flock of a few hundred birds head into the trees they’d used last year, at the edge of a parking lot with few cars and possible poo-tracking feet. Within a few seconds they were gone again, flying around in confusion.
Hopefully the birds will find a place that suits them and the hospital, though I doubt the location can suit the public as well as recent summers. As of Friday evening, Schuyler reported the main mass of about 15,000 martins was nervously fitting into a few trees north of Broadway and Murdock, in an area well posted as off limits to the public.
Maybe the pruned trees in that once great roost will grow quickly over the next several years, and the birds will eventually return to where they’re so accessible and easily enjoyed.
Until then, what’s still a good show will be disappointing.