The feathered storm begins an hour before dark. A solitary bird flies a lazy, indistinct loop over the old Highland Mall parking lot — a black silhouette against a colorful sunset sky.
Look away for a moment, then turn back, and now there are two and four and twenty and then, quite quickly, more than you can count.
Hundreds, thousands and soon tens of thousands of Purple Martins are pulling an aerial net over the former shopping mall, circling and swirling, clockwise and counter, stacked layer upon layer toward every point on the compass.
North America’s premier avian insect eater, the guys who work the pest removal day shift before the bats come on deck, is finishing another day of sky munching across Central Texas. “It’s almost bedtime,” exclaims Victor Emanuel, Austin’s bird guru, world tour organizer and my guide for the evening.
Somewhere between 8 p.m. and dark each day in July, the collective martin population of much of Central Texas gathers to roost in a group of live oaks on the north side of the old Highland Mall. They will do this until their secret signal comes that it’s time to head for Brazil for the winter. And then they will be gone.
Tonight, 25 or so spectators, mostly Travis Audubon insiders, and my two grandchildren have gathered for the free show. Anyone can go, though. Just drive to the north side of the mall site and park next to the street in the mall parking lot across from the bank location. Arrive about an hour before dark. The birds arrive soon thereafter.
“I think it’s a better show than the bats,” Emanuel says. “The bats (under the Congress Avenue bridge) come out, and they’re leaving, and then they’re gone. Some nights they don’t come out at all until after dark. Here you get to see the birds coming to roost, and they spend a lot of time just flying overhead.”
Emanuel has watched this colony for years. “They have roosted across the street by the Wells Fargo bank but the last couple of years they’ve been here,” he says. “Nobody really knows where they all come from, but they’ve finished nesting, and they come here with their young until they begin to migrate.”
These aren’t the grackles and brown-headed cowbirds or starlings that are considered such a nuisance in so many towns and cities, although I’m certain they’ve been mistaken for those birds. These are Purple Martins, a good-sized, dark-colored bird with a forked tail, tapered wings and traces of iridescent purple in the plumage.
Purple Martins are the largest swallow in North America, and they herald the coming spring when they return each February to the million or more nesting boxes that humans have erected for them across the country.
Once they nested in hollows in old-growth forest trees, but we removed so many of those that the martins once mighty population was threatened. To help them, people began erecting group nesting boxes that you often see in yards and on farms and close to barns across the country.
The birds that rendezvous at Highland each evening do the air show before swooping down to roost, Emanuel says. They may be rebuilding social bonds that will allow them to squeeze themselves onto every limb, every twig, literally every square inch of the trees that bend under their collective weight.
As sunset approaches, the lazy circles are replaced by speedy false charges at the oaks, as if the birds are building up the courage to leave the sky and settle into the trees. As darkness closes in, the din of thousands of squeaking and squawking bird voices replaces the whoosh of wings, and in the light thrown by a single street lamp that juts up through the trees, the oaks appear to be alive with squirming bird bodies.
Emanuel leads our little group, clothes now spotted with bird droppings from above, a little closer to the trees. “It isn’t clear why they come here,” he says. “They’re filling up before they fly to Brazil.”
“We want to get the word out about these birds,” he says. “We want to get kids out there, too. If you can get kids interested in the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or fishing or birding, it’s one of the best gifts you can give them.”
The Purple Martin Society, www.purplemartins.com, and the Purple Martin Conservation Association, www.purplemartin.org, provide information about Purple Martin nest boxes and the birds themselves. Travis Audubon, www.travisaudubon.org, leads martin watching gatherings at Highland Mall on weekend nights during July.