Purple Martins on the North Island

Last year on June 15th, Christie and I saw and photographed two Purple Martins off the mouth of the Nimpkish River estuary near Alert Bay. The birds were flying around and around a piling that marks the edge of the Nimpkish Bank and happens to be an area where minke whales can often be found. We did not find any minke whales that day but our sighting of the Purple Martins constitutes one of very few sightings of this species this far north in the province.

The Nimpkish Estuary

Purple Martins of the Western sub-species are native to coastal BC. Historically, they nested in abandoned woodpecker holes and other naturally occurring cavities in open woodlands near water. Due to habitat destruction from logging, agricultural and urban development as well as competition for nest sites from introduced species like European Starlings there were fewer than 10 breeding pairs of Western Purple Martins in BC in the mid 1980s.

Hayley Shephard installing Purple Martin nest boxes.
Hayley Shephard installing the nest boxes.

Now, thanks to efforts by many individuals led by the BC Purple Martin Stewardship and Recovery Program more than 800 pairs of Purple Martin breed in specially designed nest boxes at various locations around the south coast of BC. Given that Purple Martins prefer nesting in open areas near water most of these boxes have been placed a top of old pilings near intertidal areas in estuaries and marinas. It is probable that high recruitment from these colonies has led some Martins further afield in search of new nesting sites as may have been the case for the two individuals we saw last year.

Enough nest boxes for a small colony to develop.
Enough nest boxes for a small colony to develop.

In any case, our sighting last year resulted in a stewardship initiative to build and install enough nest boxes for a colony to start up in this area should Martins ever return with intent to breed. Dave Towers built and donated the nest boxes and Hayley Shephard and myself installed them on an abandoned piling in the Nimpkish Estuary. If the Purple Martin population continues to grow further south and weather is favourable for flying insects (the Martins’ primary prey), then it may only be a matter of time until these boxes help aid in the recovery of a species that was nearly extirpated from this province. Many thanks to Bruce Cousens for guidance on nest box building and placement and to the Namgis First Nation for allowing this effort to take place in their territory.

Waiting for the Martins with Alert Bay in the background.

~ JT

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