At 10,000-plus, it was a noisy crowd that descended on Old Town around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Within less than an hour, most were quiet, trying to sleep off a day of eating juicy bugs in preparation for an upcoming flight to the Amazon area of South America.
Some Wichitans are enjoying the gathering while they can.
“This is a really good place for them to gather this year,” Mark Schuyler said as he watched swarms of purple martins pour from the sky and into five or six ornamental trees in the middle of Old Town.
“They have a lot of light so I don’t think (predators) will be a problem. Hopefully all the activity down here on weekends won’t affect them too much.”
For at least the past 10 years, flocks of up to 50,000 purple martins have gathered deep within Wichita, preparing for their annual southward migration.
For a few years they roosted in sycamores near Century II. For about four years they gathered on the grounds of Via Christi St. Francis, though they had to be persuaded to go elsewhere for fear of bird droppings getting tracked into the hospital. Last year they were in a small grove of trees a block east of the hospital.
Schuyler, on his annual hunt, found this year’s roost last weekend, between First and Second streets, just west of Washington.
“I knew to start looking (for the communal roost) when all of the martins left my houses on the (July) 23rd,” said Schuyler, who maintains five purple martin houses in his yard. “One day they were there, and the next they were gone. I figured they’d be somewhere down here again.”
He said the birds arrive in Kansas just in time to start nesting and leave not long after the new crop of birds has fledged.
Biologists say nearly all of the nation’s purple martins, America’s largest member of the swallow family, are hatched in special nesting houses put up by Schuyler and others. Historically the birds nested largely in the cavities of trees. But a lack of such cavities, and competition for those nesting areas with starlings and other invasive species, have forced the birds to rely more on houses.
Many who come to watch the birds as they gather at their annual communal roost hosted martins during the spring and summer, sometimes cleaning out nests of starlings and sparrows to make room for purple martins.
Lisa Cicchetti was on hand to watch the gathering Tuesday evening, finding out about the location from the Purple Martin Conservation Association website. Cicchetti said she has come to watch the communal late-summer roosts since she moved to Wichita about eight years ago.
“I’ve actually been a martin enthusiast for about 15 years,” she said. “That was when I moved from California to Indiana. I started enjoying them as soon as I moved to the Midwest.”
Cicchetti said she hosts about 12 purple martin families a year in her yard. Unlike many who use fancy houses, she puts out hollowed gourds for the birds to use for nesting. She said Native Americans did the same thing hundreds of years ago.
Charlie Cope, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism district biologist for the Wichita area, said that in addition to birds that nested in south-central Kansas, purple martins from states to the north are probably using the Wichita communal roost as they head south. Birds from there, and from other parts of Kansas, are why the Wichita roost is expected to grow for the next week or so before populations start to dwindle.
Schuyler said for the past several years the top population of martins has been in the first week of August. The largest population he can remember was estimated at 50,000.
As the birds migrate south, the sizes of such communal roosts often grow to amazing numbers. Some southern roosts are so large the mass of birds flushing from the trees at dawn shows up on radar.
Last year Schuyler traveled to Oklahoma about the time the Wichita roost started to dwindle and watched about 250,000 purple martins roost in downtown Tulsa.
“They kind of embrace them down there,” he said. “The hotel where they roosted sold quite a few rooms to people coming in to see the purple martins. People gathered for dinner before watching that evening.”
He hopes the same thing will happen in Old Town. He plans to make several trips to the roost in the coming evenings.
“I’ll be down as often as I can,” he said. “I like to watch the birds and make sure nobody messes with the roost. This is so special.”
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.