You can still catch the 'bird hurricane' of purple martins roosting in Austin this summer
Standing around a scorching asphalt parking lot may not seem like an entertaining or enriching way to spend a summer evening, but for hundreds of bird-curious people lounging in the La Frontera parking lot in Round Rock on a recent Saturday, it was the perfect place to be.
“We are lucky to have such a cool, natural behavior happening in the Austin area,” said Caley Zuzula, program manager for Travis Audubon. “It's hard to find such a large grouping of animals doing such an interesting phenomenon like this.”
What exactly is the phenomenon? Each summer, tens of thousands of purple martins descend upon the Austin area to roost as they make their way back to South America after breeding in North America. The roosting activity is highly social and visually spectacular – often described as a “bird hurricane.”
For more than a decade now, the purple-sheened songbirds’ extraordinary aerial behavior is celebrated with annual Purple Martin Parties hosted by Travis Audubon.
Shelia Hargis, a party volunteer and longtime member of Travis Audubon, says the Austin-area roosting has been happening at least since the 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2009 that members of Travis Audubon decided to celebrate the birds’ spectacular soaring: That’s when the parties started at Highland Mall, where the birds roosted for several years.
“We had people coming from the neighborhoods, and they would say, you know, 'I have lived here for 30 years, and I didn't know this was happening in my neighborhood,'” Hargis said. “So it was really, really cool to be able to share this amazing thing with our fellow Austinites.”
Since then, the purple martins have bounced around Central Texas shopping center parking lots including Capital Plaza and La Frontera. And flocks of humans have followed, setting up on blankets or lawn chairs and armed with binoculars or cameras to capture the hour-long acrobatics show.
Purple martins, like grackles, flock to urban parking lots; the shopping centers replicate a natural terrain that keeps them safe from predators, said Joe Siegrist, president and CEO of the Purple Martin Conservation Association.
“Our understanding of the habitat that they like to use in Brazil to roost is small islands of vegetation along wide rivers,” Siegrist said. “And we think that a wide, flat parking lot with a few trees in it has a similar draw to them instinctually.”
Siegrist was visiting from his home base of Erie, Penn., to watch the purple martins and explore the possibility of broadcasting the roost on YouTube so people across the world can experience the show while learning about the bird, whose species is in decline.
“The coolest thing about purple martins that always amazes people is that they migrate down to the Amazon, and they spend more time down there than they do in North America,” Siegrist said. “So really, they're Amazon jungle birds that are just vacationing up here to have babies, and then they turn right back around and go south.”
Purple martins are long-distance migrants and can travel an estimated 350 miles a day – eating, drinking and even bathing in the air.
For partygoer and bird lover Sharon Tan, the parking lot gatherings provide a way to socialize while raising awareness for local wildlife.
“I just think it's really important that you can support awareness about how to take care of birds that live in your backyard,” Tan said. “And, it's super fun. It's a really cool community of people.”
The remaining Travis Audubon Purple Martin Parties take place July 28 & 29 and Aug. 4 & 5 from 8 to 9 p.m. near the Old Navy at the La Frontera shopping center in Round Rock.