Michael Pearce

Time to enjoy the winged wildlife in Old Town

Purple martins swarm in the sky minutes before dropping to roost in five trees in Old Town on Tuesday evening. The flock was probably about 15,000 on Tuesday, but that could double within the next two weeks.
Purple martins swarm in the sky minutes before dropping to roost in five trees in Old Town on Tuesday evening. The flock was probably about 15,000 on Tuesday, but that could double within the next two weeks. The Wichita Eagle

They're baaaaaccckkk…

The annual gathering of purple martins, by the tens of thousands, in downtown Wichita is beginning.

Tuesday evening some friends and I estimated around 15,000 of the birds flew into four or five trees between about 8:45 and 9:05.

Mark Schuyler, an avid purple martin enthusiast/dentist, found the exact location of the roost in the midst of Old Town over the weekend. He knew to start looking for a communal roost when he noticed all of the adult purple martins, and their young, had vacated the martin houses in his backyard.

This year the birds are between First and Second streets, and west of Washington. They're in a small line of trees that run east and west, in front of some kind of police building, and just north of Old Town Law Offices.

Last night I parked in parking lot just north of Joe's Old Town Bar and Grill, and walked the 100 yards west to the roost. (Yes, you could probably enjoy an outdoor burger and brew at Joe's and see the evening show just fine.)

For at least 10 years purple martins have gathered up to about 50,000 in a roost in assorted places in the midst of Wichita. Biologists say they like to gather before migrations get going strong in August. The birds will probably end up in South America for the winter.

Since nearly all of the birds are hatched in backyard martin houses, they're comfortable around people. They also know roosting in areas with a lot of buildings and lights makes them less susceptible to predators, like sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks.

For a few years they gathered to roost down near Century II, then moved northward to the grounds of Via Christi hospital. For at least two years people could park in the lot just south of the main entrance and watch the birds swarm in to trees along the east sidewalk. They also tried roosting one year in the big parking lot on the hospital's west side. Unfortunately lots of bird poo, and thousands of people walking into what's supposed to be sterile environment daily, didn't mix well.

Last year Schuyler found them about three blocks east of the hospital, in some trees near a vacant lot. It took him a few nights to figure where the birds were staying this year.

As long as weekend crowds, and local business owners, don't disturb the birds too much this year he thinks they'll do fine with their Old Town roost.

He's hoping people in Old Town embrace the birds as a way to draw more people to the area. Last year he went to Tulsa and watched an estimated 250,000 martins fly to roost near a large hotel center. The hotel, he said, promoted the birds and sold quite a few rooms and hosted quite a few organized dinners to those who came to watch the birds.

Based on past observations, Schuyler thinks the population will build in Old Town for about the next week or two, possibly hitting as many as 40,000 birds, depending on this year's nesting success. Bird numbers will probably begin to fall off quickly after that, especially if there's a cold front that brings a good north wind to help in the long migration.

If you get a chance, go see them. It rivals about any wildlife-related event in Kansas, and you can even go out for a fun dinner and then walk to the show.

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