Purple Martins nest at the 3 Crabs Estuary on May 26. Photo by Dow Lambert

Purple Martins nest at the 3 Crabs Estuary on May 26. Photo by Dow Lambert

OPAS helping Purple Martins find homes

A rather colorful, melodious and regular visitor to — among other regions — the North Olympic Peninsula has new digs on the peninsula’s shoreline.

Members of the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, Port of Port Angeles and Port Angeles Yacht Club earlier this year collaborated on a project to install four Purple Martin nest boxes in the Port Angeles harbor.

Similar to those installed in Dungeness Bay at 3 Crabs, near Morse Creek and at Protection Island’s National Wildlife Refuge, the boxes were built and mounted by Audubon members on March 21, just east of the Port Angeles Yacht Club inside the breakwater.

Those involved expected it would take a couple years for Purple Martins to take to the structures, but on June 18 Port Angeles Yacht Club members Kaiyote Snow and Ed Mensing reported at least six of the birds in and around the nest boxes.

Ken Wiersema, who along with Dow Lambert led Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society (OPAS) volunteers in the designing, building, maintaining, and monitoring of Purple Martin nest boxes, said he was pleased to see the birds already using the PVC nest boxes, designed to provide safe habitat for Purple Martins to reproduce.

“We don’t know if they’re going to be successful (but they’ve) got birds in them right now,” Wiersema said.

That’s a bonus for advocates of the martin, the largest swallow in North America that’s nearly robin-sized.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the dark, glossy-blue males and brown Purple Martin females “peer from the entrances and chirp from the rooftops all summer … (while) in the West, martins mainly still nest the old-fashioned way—in woodpecker holes.”

Dow Lambert (inset) and other volunteers with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society help install tubular nesting boxes for Purple Martins in the 3 Crabs restoration area in April 2019. Photos by John Gussman

Dow Lambert (inset) and other volunteers with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society help install tubular nesting boxes for Purple Martins in the 3 Crabs restoration area in April 2019. Photos by John Gussman

Purple Martins are also known for the “unmistakable, extremely pleasant chatter it has,” Wiersema said. “Very charismatic.”

Purple Martins are adaptable birds, finding breeding grounds in a number of climates throughout North America from the Midwest plains and Eastern shorelines to deserts of the southwest and Pacific shores — pretty much all climates except mountainous ones.

“Once you get east of the Rockies they seem to have pretty good, stable population,” Wiersema said.

They are long-distance migratory birds, with most East Coast-breeding individuals migrate across the Gulf of Mexico. Those on the West Coast come as far as Argentina. The martin gets its food and water in flight, snapping up insects and scooping low to skim pond water in mid-flight.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Puget Sound regional head healthy numbers of about 20,000 or so, but those numbers dwindled to about 1,000 breeding pairs by the 1950s, Wiersema noted. Those numbers dropped, Wiersema said, with two major factors: clear-cutting land that eliminated old tree snags in which they’d nest, and the introduction of certain sparrows and European starlings that compete for nesting sites.

In addition, pesticides and herbicides have cut down on the staples of the Purple Martin’s diet: primarily large insects such as mayflies and dragonflies.

“If you don’t have a good insect population … the birds are not able to do very well,” he said.

The peninsula’s shorelines are prime territory for the martins, with the prevalence of both freswater and saltwater insects.

Providing the Purple Martin with nesting boxes, Wiersema said, can help the West Coast birds maintain their migratory patterns.

And while Audubon members make boxes for chickadees and other birds, he said, Purple Martins have been in decline enough that they are somewhat dependent on human-made nesting boxes.

“The long-range objective is to get them back in natural cavities; in the interim …. we have to be able to provide essentially (provide) artificial nest boxes for them,” Wiersema said.

PUMA project growth

Wiersema is past president of Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society chapter and current OPAS education chair, as well as the local state Audubon board member for the region. On the OPAS website detailing the Purple Martin (PUMA) Nest Box Project, he noted that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife records have documented nesting colonies of Purple Martins in Clallam County from the 1920s.

The birds had small colonies under eaves of the Sol Duc Hot Springs lodge and in the County Courthouse in Port Angeles as late as the 1930s, he wrote.

Since that time, introduction of non-native, cavity nesting birds have taken many of the natural and human made cavities found over land sites and forced the Purple Martins to move their nests over water, Wiersema wrote.

In the mid-1990s, after observing that Purple Martins had been observed nesting in cavities in the deteriorating abandoned wood pilings on the abandoned pilings in Dungeness Bay, OPAS board member Stuart Mac Robbie began a project to build and install nest boxes.

Purple Martin eggs lay inside a nesting box in the Port Angeles harbor. “(We) expect these to hatch about mid-July,” says Ken Wiersma. Photo by Ken Wiersma

Purple Martin eggs lay inside a nesting box in the Port Angeles harbor. “(We) expect these to hatch about mid-July,” says Ken Wiersma. Photo by Ken Wiersma

Initial boxes didn’t stand up to harsh weather conditions and had to be replaced. Volunteers built four simple boxes and later replaced them with improved boxes designed for the martins; Stan Kostka, a leader in developing and monitoring Purple Martin nest colonies in Puget Sound, aided the group on the project.

In 2005, at the invitation of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, OPAS expanded the program to include installation of Purple Martin nest boxes on Protection Island. The island is a National Wildlife Refuge and has restrictions on nest box placement to just a few onshore locations. In 2013, a Refuge biologist noted seeing two Purple Martin nests with young birds in them found in natural tree snag cavities, Wiersema noted.

Each year since 2005, OPAS volunteers have added and/or improved box designs to replace older boxes nest boxes; maintenance is done at extremely low tides for access to Dungeness Bay’s sand flats. That includes 18 redesigned, tubular boxes mounted on three steel pilings near the 3 Crabs area in April 2019 — where months prior the more than 170 creosote pilings were removed — and some boxes in the adjacent wetlands. That effort included donation of time, expertise and effort from various community members, in particular the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, to see nesting boxes hang 14 feet above the tideflats.

In April 2020, the group — with special authorization from WDFW biologist Shelly Ament — installed 22 PUMA nest boxes on the steel pilings in the tide flats and on root wads around the tidal estuary, and sent seven cleaned and repaired boxes on to protection Island.

“During both of these box installations, the PUMAs were on and in the boxes within five minutes of hanging the boxes,” Wiersma wrote.

Monitoring the nest boxes usually begins in April and ends in August. The data is sent along to U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Kostka, who collects data for the Puget Sound/Strait of Juan de Fuca regions.

Over the years the project volunteers have added other sites — 20 gourds at a resident’s private property on Diamond Point, four on an island at the mouth of the Dungeness River on Dungeness Farms property, three near the mouth of Morse Creek just east of Port Angeles, where they’ve seen successful nesting for the past three years, and two refurbished boxes west of Joyce — and now in the Port Angeles Harbor. Some Purple Martins have been spotted as far west as Neah and Clallam Bay, Wiersema said; while the group doesn’t have nesting boxes in those areas, they may be in natural cavities, he said.

Wiersema said the group purposefully has multiple sites across the area rather than in a central spot. That way, an incident such as an oil spill wouldn’t wipe out the region’s breeding population.

The project seems to have found a foothold over the years, Wiersema noted: In a 2018 report on the project, he noted that on an Aug. 10 field trip to the pilings at the 3 Crabs site, OPAS volunteers counted 46 adult birds in and around the boxes on the pilings, and another seven birds on the overland boxes; numbers were prior to a count of that year’s chicks fledge from the boxes. On Aug. 28 of that same year, Bob Boekelheide counted 70 martins around the 3 Crabs parking area and on the wires overhead.

“This count included both adult birds and this year’s fledglings,” Wiersema wrote; at the time it was the highest count of Martins recorded in Clallam County. Later that year, Purple Martins were seen for the first time on an August Wednesday morning bird walk at the Dungeness River Audubon Center.

For more information, see olympicpeninsulaaudubon.org/purple-martin-nest-box-project.

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