18 September 2011

Watching Magnificent Martins and Spectacular Swifts

Submitted to the newsletter of the Audubon Society of Omaha, with additional material added to the online edition.

By June 5, 2011, Purple Martins had arrived at their midtown roost, with an early number of 100 present the following day. Numbers in the hundreds were reached by June 23rd, with more than 1000 by mid-July. Numbers increased day-by-day and there were about 6500 on July 21st.

By this time, Nebraska Medical Center personnel had placed banners on the cross-walk windows to create a visual barrier and reduce the likelihood of a martin hitting the glass.

The watching season at the martin mecca midtown was notably subdued this season. There were consistently fewer watchers of the magnificent flight behavior as the birds came in each night to their normal roosting site.

An early peak was August 13th, when an estimated 45,000 were present. There were fewer birds for a few days, but then a multitude occurred once again. As numbers increased so did the delight of observers.

Figure showing a 15-mile diameter around the Martin Mecca Midtown. Sites within this radius known to be used during the day by martins include the lake near Bennington, Horseshoe Lake Flats, Florence Waterworks, Carter Lake and Offutt Base Lake.

The peak count of the season, ably made with the assistance of Justin Rink - the Purple Martin Ambassador - was 65,000 in early September. A brief article in the local newspaper brought out more enthusiasts, with at least 262 watchers on the 4th. Numbers decreased quickly though, with only 6000 on the 7th. The last few birds were seen on the 12th, ending another season. This was within a day of the last martins noted in 2009.

The Nebraska Medical Center deserves recognition for timely placement of banners, and then adding others - when requested - within the north walkway as birds were watched bouncing off that glass.

A significant difference this year was a shift of the last martins to using a couple of trees in a green space along Capitol Avenue, about a block west of 42nd street.

Swift Chimneys

The next grand spectacle to enjoy during the autumn season is the gathering of chimney swifts at prominent chimneys of various buildings in eastern Omaha. Fine numbers will continue to gather through mid-October.

On the evening of September 10th, a chimney near 44th and Izard Street was used by an estimated 925 chimney swifts. This same evening, nearly 400 Common Nighthawks were observed flying southward and generally about the same vicinity; one of the highest number of this species to have ever been noted in the region.

Early on the morning of the 11th, perfect timing allowed a count of 1025 bug-eaters leaving the big chimney at Duchesne Academy, along north 38th Street, in the Cathedral neighborhood.

That evening a most spectacular sight was the twittering gathering at the many-sided chimney of the church at 36th and Farnam Street. The birds kept coming but eventually - within minutes - all disappeared into the brick structure. There were an estimated 1400, based on counts of groups entering the roost. The same event was enjoyed two night later.

The best chimney in the Omaha area for watching the roosting activity of Chimney Swifts.

Swift action can be enjoyed in many places about Omaha. Numbers vary, but can be readily seen in downtown Omaha, especially the south side of the Old Market, South Omaha, the Blackstone area, Benson, in Dundee near 50th and Dodge and scattered elsewhere. Particular chimneys are often used again-and-again.

Swift watching is as easy as watching martins, and with a little planning, can be enjoyed from the comfort of a car. It can be a uniquely different birding outing.