Purple Martins: New Residents at Port Susan Bay

Written Joelene Boyd, Puget Sound Stewardship Coordinator
Photographed by Julie Morse, Senior Ecologist & Skagit Audubon Group

Thanks to dedicated volunteers we now have new residents at Port Susan Bay – Purple Martins. We are really excited by this because it is the first time (at least in recent history) that Purple Martins have been seen at Port Susan Bay (PSB) and it’s all thanks to volunteers.

In mid-February volunteers came out and installed bird houses then later in May another group of volunteers from the Skagit Audubon installed some more.

I asked Mark Perry, of Skagit Audubon, some questions about Purple Martins and this project.

Why it is important to install purple martin boxes?

Purple Martins while not endangered suffer from habitat loss along the West Coast. They are "cavity nesters"...building nests in holes. Free standing Snags along bodies of water are perfect sites. On the East Coast humans have provided nesting sites since the early colonial days and the birds have adapted, accept living in close proximity and thrive. Along the West Coast the practice of providing replacement man made housing has not been as prevalent. 

Is there a specific conservation target or goal in mind

Our conservation target is simply to expand the number of nesting sites and thereby hoping to attract more nesting pairs. Our friends to the north in British Columbia have a very successful and extensive effort. Their program has grown from just a few boxes, sites and less than 100 birds to more than 50 sites, over a thousand nesting boxes and a survey population of 4500+ birds. 

Why Port Susan Bay?

In Skagit, county there are only two identified Martin nesting sites. PSB offers almost perfect natural habit...wide open marsh land near body of water but lacks tree snags. Nesting boxes were removed when the dikes were removed/relocated. By utilizing the existing left over pilings and providing 3 additional nesting poles (like a snag) we hope to attract a new population of nesting pairs and reestablish a thriving colony. Martin's eat flying insects and are very social curious birds!

Why is the Skagit Audubon focusing efforts around the region to install these boxes?

Like most volunteer projects it takes a few interested and passionate folks to see a need, figure out ways to address the need and take action. Skagit Audubon has over 200 families as members, is focused on local conservation efforts and fortunately have some handy folks willing to get involved. Please check out our website www.skagitaudubon.org for more information about our chapter. 

Where else can folks see these boxes?

36 boxes are up and a thriving colony exists at Ship Harbor near the Anacortes Ferry terminal. The site is easily viewed from the Ship Harbor interpretive trail. 

11 boxes are up just north of the Padilla Bay interpretative center in Bayview. 

9 boxes are up in English Boom. 

We hope to add 30 more boxes by next season at Wiley Slough and yet to be determined sites. 

Are they just birdhouses or do they have special dimensions that make purple martin houses?

A Martin Birdhouse is a bit unique. First the orientation is more horizontal than vertical. The entrance hole must be large enough for Martins but not too large to allow starlings or house sparrows to hijack the box. The box needs to be 12-15' off the ground. And since Martin's are colony nesters you need 5-7 boxes to attract them. 

If someone wanted to help out in purple martin efforts what should they do/who should they contact?

If someone is just a bit handy and would like to build boxes I can share some simple plans via email. Please see the chapter President email found on the Skagit Audubon’s website skagitaudubon.org.

If folks notice Martin's already nesting at a "natural" site please let Skagit Audubon know. Or if you think there is a potential site where we could easily access and add nesting boxes that's good info too. (Using same skagitaudubon.org email). 

If you would like to join our citizen science monitoring team please contact Skagit Audubon. And of course we welcome anyone who would like to join Skagit Audubon and become active members! 

Thank you Mark and all of the volunteers who helped on this project!