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Purple Martin Nest Discovered in Restoration Snags

Purple Martin 512x350

Walking past the twin barns and up atop the dike onto the gravel Estuary Trail, visitors encounter a dramatic shift in the scenery from lush forest to open grassland. The flat plain of the Nisqually delta stretches out to the horizon. Beyond the grassland, estuary mudflats extend out to Puget Sound. Rising up from the grass are a number of dead trees, called snags. They are incongruous, rising as they do from an otherwise featureless plain. How did they get here?

The trees did not actually grow in place, where they presently stand. They originally grew on the sides of the old Brown Farm Dike, which had been built in 1904. When the dike was removed in 2009 as part of the delta restoration, biologists decided to try and use the largest trees. Somewhat spontaneously, they floated the idea of placing the snags in the grassland area at the upper end of the tidal zone, hoping the dead trees might be used by raptors for perching. The snags were also considered mitigation for the loss of trees and habitat along the old dike.

Over the past few years, visitors have enjoyed clear views of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Shrikes, Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlin as they utilize the snags to hunt or rest. A number of songbirds use the snags as well. But this summer we witnessed something entirely new.

Starting in mid-June, Purple Martins became a regular presence in the vicinity of the snags. Purple Martins are the largest species of swallows in North America. West of the Rockies, they are mostly common only on the Pacific coast, where they nest during the summer before returning to Bolivia and Brazil for the winter. Their presence at the Refuge is unusual under any circumstances. A colony of Purple Martins nest in boxes at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, located on the northwest corner of the Refuge, but they rarely make it to any areas where visitors are likely to observe them. They typically are seen only a few times each year.

Over the weeks following the initial sighting in June, their continued presence was an intriguing mystery. But in mid-July, they were seen entering and exiting an old woodpecker cavity in one the snags. A nest! And for the following three weeks, they could be heard and seen chasing away predators. The two parents alternated feeding the young, sometimes carrying large dragonflies to the nest. A second pair of Purple Martins were also constantly present, apparently interested in all the nesting activity.

According to state officials, Purple Martins are rare in the state due to the loss of habitat (old growth deciduous trees) and competition from non-native Starlings and House Sparrows who usurp the nest sites. There are only a handful of natural Purple Martin cavity nests in Washington State. The majority of Purple Martins only nest in manmade nest boxes. But what makes this nest really remarkable is that it is the probably the first record of Purple Martins nesting in a natural snag relocated as part of a restoration project. It’s a big deal for restoration projects and conservation work! Let’s hope they find their way back to our snags next year!
Page Photo Credits — Purple Martin, photo by Michael Schramm/USFWS
Last Updated: Sep 30, 2016
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