"Fledging of the Purple Martin by River on August 5" Washougal Travelogue by glabah

Washougal Travel Guide: 34 reviews and 279 photos

Purple Martins in Steamboat Landing Park

On August 5, 2010 the various Purple Martin nests that had been placed so carefully in the several decaying wooden piers on the Columbia River were experiencing quite a show of life: the hatchlings were fledging.

Within several days the new birds were gone from the nests, and nowhere to be seen in the area around Steamboat Landing Park.

Nesting activity in the park took place in both artificial nest boxes and in holes and grooves in one of the remaining wooden piers that was large enough to support such activity.

But, I get ahead of myself. Steamboat Landing Park is located near the intersection of highway 14 and 15th, right along the Columbia River. It is a popular place for fishing, and there is an elevated observation deck with benches for those who want a better view of the surrounding area.

While the pier from which the fishermen persue their daily activity (if sitting on a chair watching the river flow past can be considered an "activity") is now held in place by very sturdy steel pilings, there are some remains of the older wood pilings that were once a common feature of such structures around the Northwest.

The largest of these remaining pilings at Steamboat Landing Park is in the center of this photograph, and you can see that it is taller than the ones that surround it.

It is in this old and hollowed out piece of wood that the Purple Martins have decided to seek a home for their nesting activity, and thus nest boxes were added to the post as well in order to augment the nesting capacity of this piece of wood.

This is not to say that the steel pilings don't serve their purpose, especially during the fledging season. Indeed, they provide quite a useful place onto which the unpredictable youngest birds can flop after giving their wings a first try.

Even if you don't care about birds, the Purple Martin are worthy of your concern. They are voracious mosquito eaters, and therefore keeping them around, especially near the marshes of Washougal, means they have a net overall positive impact on the quality of life here.

If you think the summer mosquito problem is terrible here, think of what it would be like if there were no swallows or Purple Martins eating hundreds of them per bird, per day!

Unfortunately, when the European Starling was introduced to North America, it quickly proved to be the undoing of the Purple Martin. The European Starling wants the same nest size hole, and is a terrific competitor for nest space, as well as terrorizing entire communities of swallows and other birds as Starlings form huge flocks.

The Purple Martin is on a severe decline due to being pushed out of its traditional ancient woodpecker hole nest sites.

However, for whatever reason, the Starlings do not like to nest over water. Thus, such antique wooden piers as this one have proven extremely vital to the survival of Purple Martin - if they have enough hollow spots, woodpecker holes, or nest boxes added to them.

As they are very dark, the Purple Martin may be confused with a European Starling at first glance. However, European Starlings eat trash, fruits, and are especially fond of the wine grapes being grown in the Willamette Valley.

Purple Martin feed almost exclusively on flying insects, and it is fun to watch their aerial acrobatics as they persue mosquitos and other pests on the wing.

How many heads can you see sticking out of various holes in the wood and nest boxes here?

Fledging is a hazardous time for the youngest birds, as it is the first time they experiment with their winds and rely on them to keep them away from predators and keep them from drowning in the water.

The event of fledging is accompanied by much chatter from one youngster to another, and from various adults of the colony to various youngsters in the colony.

Fledging is a wild and confusing time to watch the swallows, but it is also a very fun time to watch - if you aren't one of the ones whose youngster might drown if he falls into the river.

While the Purple Martins were fledging, there were various other activities going on around the nesting site. This included fishermen (and a woman or two) on the wooden walkway, a great blue heron hunting in the grass, and some osprey hunting.

One of the osprey hunting for fish passed over the nest site (top of photo, to right of pole, small dot).

It is almost as if the parents could point to that and say "One day you could do that and more, because you are small and fast and designed to be far more acrobatic than they are."

Checking back in two days, the fledging Purple Martins were completely gone. Unfortunately, that means one of my relatives was unable to see the birds while fledging, but we will stop back again next year.

Other bird life also was evident in the area. See the first two photos in my next travelogue with an assortment of photos from Washougal that wouldn't fit anywhere else.

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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