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Tracie Skarbo was motivated to write by her father, who was her biggest supporter. “He was always behind me, rallying me on with my writing. I would always see him with a book in hand. He gave me a great appreciation for the written word, and the power and responsibility that writers have to shape those who read their words. He also taught me to respect nature and to value the beauty within it; my reflections on my environment are just an extension of this.” Skarbo was raised on Vancouver Island and is working on her next two books.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Purple Martins at French Creek

This August, I went to French Creek to see what there was to see.  I often visit marinas for photo opportunities.  I have a deep affinity to these places and people.  There is something soothing and traditional about the fishing boats.  Perhaps I was a fisherman in a previous life and this is why I feel such an attraction for the sea and all things associated with it. 

On this particular evening my son and I were lucky; there was a setting sun for perfect lighting, and the water was calm, perfect to catch reflections.  But what we didn't know was there were even more surprises in store for us.

Great big crab traps on this boat, along with the floats to mark their location.

While we were walking and looking at the various boats and wondering where they had come from, what stories they would have to tell if they could talk, I could hear birds.  Then I could see the birds.  Something was disturbing them.  They were dive bombing an area and looked like they were after something.  We decided to take a better look.
What we found were some retired biologists tagging the newest members of the local Purple Martin population in the nesting boxes.

Here you can see them tagging the chicks with metal tags and checking their health and sexes. 

"By 1994, all known nesting pairs in the province were using artificial nest-boxes, mainly erected on pilings." Without human intervention, particularly the provision of nest-boxes, this species would have been lost some time ago.

Purple Martins were originally found in the lower Fraser River lowlands, downtown Vancouver, and the east side of Vancouver Island from Campbell River to Victoria.  The decline of the species have coincided with the establishment of the European Starling and with the removal of old pilings from harbours.  Here you can see him retrieving chicks from one of the boxes to tag below.  He is constantly being dive bombed by the parents of the chicks, and I am surprised that he has never fallen off of the ladder.  Sometimes he is in a boat balancing on the ladder!

The total number of known active martin nests in British Columbia in 1995 was 55.  All but two pairs nested on southern Vancouver Island.
 I must tell you again that these people are volunteers, they are not being paid for coming out here and keeping tabs on the population.  These two were retired biologists that believe in the cause and that someone must keep up the work.  There are others too that come out and help them and at the end of the essay I will give you some information if you want to get involved further.
A nest-box program started in Cowichan Bay at this time probably rescuing the species from extirpation in British Columbia.  There are now active Purple Martin sites on Vancouver Island at the Esquimalt Dockyards, Victoria Harbour, the Sooke Basin, the Cowichan estuary, Ladysmith Harbour and the Nanaimo estuary; at Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park; and on the Lower Mainland at Maple Woodflats and Rocky Point.  The present population is still less then 75 pairs.  The Purple Martin is considered Endangered and is protected from killing or collecting by the Wildlife Act.
Purple Martins are the largest swallows in North America.  Adult males are an iridescent purple-black.  Females and immature birds are dark above and pale below.

 Long reputed to be an efficient predator of insect pests, this large, dark swallow has for centuries been encouraged to by native people in the American Southwest, and later by wise farmers east of the Rockies.  Highly tolerant of human presence they readily accept colonial nesting boxes.
My son is thrilled when he is encouraged to hold this older chick.
Adult males arrive back from migration first, often coming back to the previous years nesting site.  They sing a special early morning song which attracts young males to claim nearby sites.  This is beneficial to the older males in various ways; they are able to mate with the females that the young males are breeding with increasing the number of offspring, they don't have to help with rearing the young because the young males are mated with the females and this ensures that the colony is well-populated.  The young males benefit because the risk of predators is diminished with the older males around, and the older males take the best and safest sites.  Colonies can be one pair to many dozens of pairs.

The female alone incubates the eggs for 15 to 19 days.
Wintering birds can concentrate in large numbers, on wintering roost site consisting of 5000 birds in Brazil.
In British Columbia, Purple Martins almost always select sites near or over open water.  Individuals and groups interested in helping Purple Martins in British Columbia are encouraged to build and erect nest-boxes along the waterfront on southern and eastern Vancouver Island and in the lower mainland.  Boxes should be constructed of cedar, and maintained regularly.  Locations should be chosen that allow easy access for maintenance.
For more information:
With the setting sun it was time to leave our adventure and head back to the car for the long drive home.  My son was full of questions and excitement about what he had seen and the new knowledge he had acquired.  I was grateful for the moments in life where the beauty of all that surrounds us is revealed, most of all happy to have my son there to experience it.  I know today was one of those days that will stick in his mind and he will tell his kids about in years to come.


  1. What a beautiful capture and image tale. Not to mention a fascinating and unexpected day for you and your son!

    1. Thanks so much for the read Karen! It was a spectacular day and one that will stick with the both of us for a lifetime. :) Hope you are doing well on your side of things!

  2. oh my those babies are so tiny....and cute...cool they are tagging and following these guys...love the marina...the ships and the sea call to me...i would love to be out on it....but will settle for your views of the boats and a sigh...smiles.

    1. :) you and your kids would have loved it out there Brian. The biologists were so full of information and loved my son's interest. It won't be forgotten! Thanks for coming by!

  3. Excellent - what a worthy project.