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First Light
Purple martins' majesty

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Dan Majors, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In June 1972, Western Pennsylvania was inundated with about a week of rain from Hurricane Agnes. It didn't do too much for people's spirits.

But it had an even harsher effect on the region's purple martin population. It virtually wiped them out.

An adult male purple martin, showing the characteristic purple-black plumage that gives this species of swallow their name. (James R. Hill III / The Purple Martin Conservation Assoc. via AP)

Purple martins are "aerial insectivores," meaning they eat insects on the fly. And since bugs don't fly much in the rain, almost every purple martin adult and nestling in our neck of the woods died.

The Purple Martin Preservation Alliance -- www.purple-martin.org -- does what it can, but because the birds migrate to specific regions, the population here has never recovered.

Unless they're keeping it a secret.

That might not be as outrageous as it sounds. John Bartlett, a reporter for The Erie Times-News, has uncovered more than 100,000 purple martins roosting on two cattail islands near Presque Isle State Park.

Not that these are rare birds up around Presque Isle Bay. But a population of this size places the area among the top 30 or so key congregating points for purple martins in North America.

"We've really tried to keep it secret, fearing too much interest would stress the birds or scare them away," said James R. Hill, executive director of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, based in Edinboro.

But before you start beating up on Bartlett, I should tell you that it was the conservation association that blew the birds' cover.

Hill, who used to work at the National Aviary on Pittsburgh's North Side, said the group went public in an effort to have the cattail islands designated as one of the Audubon Society's Important Bird Areas, which would help protect the nesting areas from development.

"There are so many martins, when they leave the roost at sunrise and return at sunset they are clearly visible on Doppler radar," Hill said. "Watching them come in at sunset and spiral down, they are so thick they block out about 25 percent of the sky with the silhouettes of their bodies.

"We've taken ornithologists to see it who have been all over the world viewing wildlife phenomena, and they say it is the second- or third-most spectacular thing they have ever seen."

The birds begin gathering on the islands in July from parts of Indiana, Ohio, New York and Ontario, and remain near the mouth of the bay until their southern migration begins in early September.

"Until now, no one has written about the roost other than us internally," Hill said. "With Important Bird Area designation, we knew we would have to let everyone know -- this is really significant."

Now everybody's heard about the birds.

Some wings and some prayers

The purple martins may have more room in the sky if the U.S. Senate this week approves a federal aviation spending bill that could force poorer rural airports in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, to ground commercial flights. Smaller airports serving Bradford, Johnstown and Oil City/Franklin could be affected.

It's hard to imagine two candidates being any closer

Phyllis Ranko Matheny and Judith Fisher used to be friends. Then, a couple of months ago, they had a falling out. And it doesn't look like they'll make up any time soon. The two candidates for Washington County prothonotary finished within four votes of each other in Tuesday's election, and there are 23 absentee ballots yet to be counted.

So none of us will feel like a canary in a coal mine

A member of the Allegheny County Board of Health yesterday said more than 200 public comments were received regarding the county's "bad actor" ordinance, which would deny permits for new or expanded facilities to companies that are in violation of county air pollution standards.

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