Purple martins staging a ‘National Geographic moment’ in Wichita

Outdoorsman Daniel Smith knows the wildlife riches of Kansas. He’s seen the huge flocks of geese and sandhill cranes at Cheyenne Bottoms, and knows of remote places where coyotes, golden eagles and prairie dogs seldom see a human face.

Wednesday evening he shared what he thinks may be the best wildlife show in Kansas with four of his kids.

He took them to the parking lot at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, where the annual purple martin show has again begun.

The Smiths stood beneath a twirling mass of 10,000 acrobatic birds, some passing within a few feet in crack-the-whip flight patterns around, over, and eventually into the trees nearby.

“This is such a unique phenomena and so close, I felt we about had to come,” Smith said as the last of the thousands of purple martins gathered in the trees at near the hospital for the evening. “It’s so close to home and this is just a such a great place to see it, too.”

After a four-year absence, the purple martins, gathering before migrating to Brazil for the winter, are roosting in a line of ornamental trees east of the hospital, along Santa Fe Street.

Mark Schuyler, a local purple martin expert, first saw the birds in the trees Sunday evening. Most years, he said, the birds begin to gather around July 20-25. Past experience tells him their numbers will soon increase.

“We probably have 10,000, maybe a few more, now but that should double next week and then double again the week after that,” said Schuyler, who expects the roost to peak at up to 50,000 purple martins this summer.

He’s glad the birds have returned to the Via Christi parking lot, in a show he refers to as “a National Geographic moment.”

Sherry Hausmann, Via Christi regional president, said both the birds and those who like to watch them are welcome.

Things haven’t always gone so smoothly for the gathering birds, or those who like to watch them at dusk.

Not always welcome

Purple martins, which are nearly all born in backyard bird houses, are comfortable around people and buildings. Schuyler thinks they prefer to spend their nights in well-lit areas, like parking lots, because the lights may frighten away predators like hawks, owls and falcons.

In the past they’ve roosted near the Arkansas River in Wichita, on the campus of Wichita State and several locations at Via Christi.

Big problems came when the purple martins roosted in trees directly over the hospital’s main entrance. The hospital worried about a potential health risk if purple martin droppings were tracked into the building. Hospital staff removed the trees, and replaced them with shorter varieties that wouldn’t be as attractive to roosting birds.

Then, beginning in about 2009 the purple martins began their communal roost in the line of ornamental trees east of the hospital, to the delight of Schuyler and others who liked the easy access and safe area. A windstorm in 2012 damaged the trees, and enough limbs had to be removed for the purple martins to look elsewhere. The following year their roost was a few blocks to the east, in an area where most people didn’t feel safe after dark.

In late July of 2015, Schuyler found purple martins gathering to roost in six ornamental trees in Old Town, just east of Washington and south of First Street.

Like everyplace else they’d roosted, the birds created problems. The sidewalks underneath the trees and close to several businesses were covered in droppings. David McGuire, Wichita Superintendent of Park Maintenance and Forestry, said his department had to hose off the area after the birds left at daylight every morning.

Wichita’s not the only city to experience large communal purple martin roosts. John Kennington, president of Tulsa Audubon Society, said their communal roost can hold as many as 500,000 purple martins.

Kennington said there were several years when the birds roosted near a large downtown hotel, which embraced the birds and the hundreds who came to watch them fly into the trees at last light.

“A bunch of us would meet for dinner at (the hotel) so we could give them some business,” Kennington said. “They were very, very accommodating to the birds and the people. They put up signs by the roost trees saying they were a wildlife sanctuary. We’d go to the roof of their parking garage, so we were actually up with the birds. The (hotel) set up a little bar up on the roof and sold drinks. A lot of times we’d have a couple of hundred people up there. They even mixed up special purple martinis in honor of the purple martins.”

Since then the trees the Tulsa martins used have been trimmed or removed. A few years ago the birds roosted in trees within the confines of the walls of a city jail. This year they’re roosting out at the Tulsa airport. Kennington fears airport staff may have to drive the purple martins away to avoid airplanes striking some of the birds.

Wichita’s best roost location

This year’s Wichita roost, back at the edge of the Via Christi parking lot, seems to be about the best place possible.

Since the birds aren’t roosting near high-traffic areas, hospital staff said they won’t try to scare the birds into moving elsewhere. The staff will try to keep the area as clean as possible until the last of the birds head south in about three weeks.

Schuyler said the well-lit, spacious parking lot makes it easy for the public to watch the show.

In past years he’s seen at least 80 people, mostly parked at the south end of the parking lot, away from the hospital. Some sit on tailgates and watch the show, while others bring folding chairs and picnic as they wait for the bird to gather overhead.

Smith and his family were glad they made the trip from Valley Center.

“You see stuff like this on TV, like on the Discovery Channel, and it’s really neat,” said seventeen-year-old Holly Smith. “But it’s so much nicer when you can come out and see something like this for yourself. This is really cool.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

How to see the purple martins

Where - Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, 929 N. St. Francis. Look for the ornamental trees south and east of the main building, near the railroad tracks and along Santa Fe Street.

Parking - The hospital asks visitors to park far away from the building. Most people park at least four to six rows away from the trees so they don’t disturb the birds or get their vehicle “bombed.”

When - Arrive about 8 p.m. The birds begin massing overhead around 8:30, and the real action is usually between 8:45 and 9 p.m. The best viewing will be before Aug. 10.

What to bring - Binoculars. Some bring folding chairs. Others wear hats or watch the show from inside their vehicles.

Courtesy - Loud noises, like screaming kids, barking dogs and music, could spook the birds as could using the parking lot’s east entrance during the last 20 minutes of daylight.