Mark Schuyler describes it as a “National Geographic moment,” a spectacle of nature you really have to see to understand.
And for about another week, Wichitans will have their annual opportunity to see it for themselves.
The purple martins are back, meeting up and roosting as they prepare for their annual migration to Brazil. For the past week, they’ve been putting on an incredible nightly show at the south entrance to the Waterfront Development at 13th and Webb.
On Thursday night, a group of about 25 people, including local purple martin expert Schuyler, a few of Wichita’s most dedicated birders, some homeschooled kids and their mom, and several casual birdwatchers, gathered in the P.F. Chang’s parking lot to watch, armed with binoculars and long-lens cameras.
The show starts every night around 8:30, when birds appear from all directions and begin flying around overhead. Every few minutes, more arrive, then more and more. By about 8:45, thousands are swirling overhead in dramatic, tornadic formations. They zip higher, then swoop lower, as their collective chirping gets louder and louder.
They just keep coming from all directions. Suddenly, they begin diving like missiles into three ornamental trees in the median of the Waterfront entrance. Then just like that, the sky is clear, and the collective chirping birds crammed bird shoulder to bird shoulder into three trees becomes an overwhelming, otherworldly high-pitched roar.
“It’s one of those things where if you’ve never seen it, you’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh. Where have I been?’” said Schuyler, a local dentist and bird enthusiast who’s been tracking purple martins for 30 years.
The show should just keep getting better this week, Schuyler said, as more and more birds join those already roosting before they continue south. This week, he estimates, about 20,000 birds have been gathering, but it could get up to 50,000 before they leave town, likely late next week. The birds are usually gone by about Aug. 20 each year.
The purple martins, most of whom have spent their summers in nesting houses that have been erected by people as far north as Canada, gather in Wichita nearly every year around this time, and they often return to the same spot.
Schuyler and many local birders keep watch for them every year. Nobody could find them last year, he said, but for a couple of years before that, they gathered near the Hotel Old Town. Before that, they returned year after year to trees outside Ascension’s Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.
Last week, local birders were relieved to find the martins had returned but were surprised to discover they’d chosen a new roost near one of Wichita’s high-end retail and restaurant developments. The martins always choose a spot that’s near a brightly-lit, open area like a parking lot, Schuyler said. The lights and the humans underneath them help keep predators like hawks and owls away.
The birds spend their days feeding on fireflies all over town, he said, and the big firefly population is one of the reasons the birds like Wichita so much. By early evening, around 6 p.m., they start to line up on power lines, waiting for the magic moment when it’s time to return to the gathering spot.
Once they’re all in the trees, they’ll continue their raucous chirping for about three hours then quiet down around midnight. At dawn, they’ll all take off and start the process again.
Schuyler said he goes to watch the birds most nights they’re in town not only because he loves them but because he also feels a duty to educate spectators about them.
“I love watching them, but I’m also trying to sit there and protect them, to make sure no one’s messing with them,” he said.
Among the people gathered on Thursday to watch were Tessa White and her three children, who she homeschools.
Tessa had heard about the birds from a friend and decided it would be a good learning experience for her kids. She’d brought them on Wednesday, and they were all so amazed by the show, they came back on Thursday. The children, including 11-year-old Sonya White, brought paper and pencils to draw the birds while they watched.
Sonya said she was amazed by the martins’ show, which she described as “spectacular,” and shared theories about how they communicated with each other and why they chose the trees they chose.
She noted that while staring upward to watch, it’s best to keep your mouth closed.
“Last night, they pooped on my mom’s shoulder,” she said with a laugh.