Record year for at-risk Purple Martins

Western Purple Martins, a species at risk in B.C., set several new records despite the cold, wet spring and cool summer that were difficult for many plants and animals.

Amy Hsueh

Amy Hsueh

Western Purple Martins, a species at risk in B.C., set several new records despite the cold, wet spring and cool summer that were difficult for many plants and animals.

In B.C., Western Purple Martins are at the northern limit of their range and only occur around the Strait of Georgia as far north as Campbell River and in the Gulf Islands.

The species was almost lost from B.C. when numbers reached a low of about five pairs in the mid-1980s due to nesting habitat loss.

Purple Martins used to nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities in old trees and snags in burned forest, open treed areas or bordering fresh water. But much of their natural nesting habitat no longer exists due to logging, fire suppression, land clearing and urban development.

A nest box recovery program started in 1986 and has grown to 90 sites, 50 of them active this year.

The population of 585 pairs produced a record number of young – more than 2,200 nestlings raised successfully last year.

“Although only about half of adult and young  birds actually return each year, that made for quite an increase in the total number of Purple Martins returning to nest this year,” said Bruce Cousens, project coordinator of the program and senior biologist of Georgia Basin Ecological Assessment and Restoration Society in Nanaimo.

The prolonged cool weather this summer made it difficult for adult birds to find enough flying insects to feed themselves and their young and some regional areas produced more young than others.

Overall it was another record-breaking year for production of young – more than 2,300 nestlings raised and 1,900 banded.

“With average survival, this should result in another population increase next year, according to our population forecast model,” Cousens said in a press release.

In the Nanaimo area, Purple Martins can be seen and heard between April and August at nest box colonies at Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park, Protection Island, Nanaimo River estuary, Gabriola Island, Departure Bay (off Stevenson Point Road), Lantzville (end of Jacks Road) and Nanoose Bay.

There were 82 pairs nesting in the Nanaimo area last year and 110 this year with Newcastle Island being the largest local colony with 25 pairs.

Additional information about the B.C. Purple Martin Recovery Program is available at www.georgiabasin.ca and www.saveourmartins.org.