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Monday, September 22, 2014
Southwest Louisiana ,
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Last Modified: Monday, August 18, 2014 1:06 PM

(photos: 1 - Purple Martins on power lines, flying all around...every spec is a Purple Martin; No. 2 - male and female Purple Martins on a power line.....both photos by Louis Bonnette)

By Louis Bonnette

If you’ve traveled Highway 27 south late in the afternoon lately and topped the Gibbstown Bridge, you’ve seen the building of the phenomenon.

By the time you’re at the bottom of the bridge you’re in the middle of it.

I’m talking about the staging of the purple martins.

From the bottom of the bridge south for almost two more miles there are (according to Gulf Coast Bird Club member Mohamed El Mogazi) tens of thousands of these birds strung on power lines, flittering in the marsh and just flying around.

I saw them last week after El Mogazi called and suggested I take a ride to the area.

It was amazing. I don’t think I have ever seen that many birds in one area at any one time.

El Mogazi and several other bird club members (Jeanie and Jim Pousson, Brian Henderson, Sandra Lewis) took the tour Sunday afternoon.

“All that area was solid with purple martins,” he said. “We saw the birds all the way down the highway until just about halfway between Little Chenier road and Creole.

“We made our first estimate and settled on around 2,000. Then we went south down Highway 27 and it was more of the same, birds on the wires and in the air flying. As we continued on, our count swelled to 4,000 birds, 6,000 and more.

“That Sunday evening, the martin’s staging boundaries started just north of the Gibbstown Bridge, south on 27 to about halfway from the Little Chenier turnoff and the turn off to Creole. It spread to the east for about two miles and to the west for some distance. We settled on an estimate of 30 to 50,000 birds. To us birders it was an enchanted evening.

“July is the peak of their staging time. This is when they begin to build up energy and fat reserve for their migration south to Brazil and other areas in South America (beginning in August). They are long distance migrants, usually arriving here in February (sometimes in late January) from South America. The first one I saw this year was on Feb. 7. They begin to pair up then, their chicks hatch and then they start moving around. It’s this time of the year that they make this huge staging.

“It’s very impressive. They begin coming together maybe an hour or 30 minutes before sunset and by evening the number is in the tens of thousands.”

That’s not the largest area in the state however.

El Mogazi said that hundreds of thousands have been estimated in the Lake Ponchartrain, Metairie area for such an event.

Insects are the birds’ choice of food – mosquitoes, dragonflies, flies, grasshoppers, wasps, bees – and they will gourge themselves.

El Mogazi said that one might see other swallows (the purple martin belongs to the swallow family) in the staging but they will be mainly purple martins.

“The Purple Martin is the largest of the swallows,” he said, adding that the adult males are a dark blue-purple overall with brown-black wings and tail. Females and young birds are duller with gray on the head and chest and with a white-ish lower belly.

He said that the staging can last up to nine weeks.

“When they started this year, I don’t know,” he said. “They stage always close to water where insects are plentiful. The marsh along Highway 27 is suitable for that.”

As for where the birds retire to at night, El Mogazi said that’s a mystery to the bird club members, but they believe it is at Broussard Lake which is west of Highway 27, off to right from where Little Chenier Road runs into 27.

“They like to roost in trees and shrubs but I don’t think there are that many trees around Broussard Lake,” he added, noting that Jeff Kelly of the University of Oklahoma suggested that the lake is the roost for the birds based on his studies of them on radar.

One can locate Broussard Lake on a map but El Mogazi said there are only private roads to that area.

If you enjoy watching birds and you haven’t seen the staging of the purple martins and you want to, El Mogazi suggests late in the afternoon.

“Very early in the morning they will come from their roost but its better in the afternoon. This type of occurrence has probably happened in the past but it is only this year that it has caught our attention.”

l

NOTE: At the bottom of the Gibbstown Bridge on the southside there is a parking area to the left where one can get off the highway and watch the birds.

My wife and I spent about an hour parked there and watching. The birds were so numerous that they flew all around and came right up to us before zooming off.

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