Florida Swamp Spires
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Upon starting this project, I researched everything I possibly could about Purple Martins & their nesting habits. I was completely shocked that in just two centuries humans have had so much of an influence on a wild species that we could get it to change their biological nature that took millions of years to evolve. Makes absolutely no sense. Over the course of those same millions of years, other species evolved with Purple Martins that went extinct because they couldn’t hack it in the natural world. Natural selection systematically took each unfit species out of the environment & allowed only the strong to survive. The modern day problem is now humans are watering down the survivability of certain species of wildlife; case & point the Purple Martin.
During my studies of Purple Martin reproductive ecology, I kept hearing from various avian experts about this park outside of Orlando that was home to the last of the natural nesting Purple Martin colony. It’s an extraordinary place called Orlando Wetlands Park which serves as an oasis to a myriad of Florida Wildlife. Investigating this site became a top priority for the creation of this film. Just imagine being the last of anything; your trade, your craft, your family, your ideal, your language, your culture, the list goes on and on. You are the last person with the knowledge & memories & skills that make the world that much more diverse & better. Imagine the responsibility you would carry trying to pass all of that on to another generation or just one person to keep that entity alive in an ever changing world. I thought to myself, “How is this not a bigger deal?”, “Why is no one talking about this?”, “Where does one begin in getting the word out?”, and “Is this a park, state, or national matter?” Knowing I needed to document this place for y’all, I got on my handy, dandy laptop & reached out to the park director in an attempt to see if he was aware of his park’s significance & if he would be willing to help me in my quest to document the last natural nesting Purple Martins of the Eastern USA. Thankfully, I received word from them & was even given a map of the nesting sites. I was warned that the colonies had shown serious declines due to hurricane damage.
Now before I get carried away here, I should probably tell you a little about Purple Martin breeding behavior. Purple Martins are what’s known as a Secondary-cavity nester. This means that
primary cavity-nesting species, like Woodpeckers, who dig their own nesting cavities in dead trees or snags provide habitat for birds & wildlife. The following year, a secondary cavity-nesting species will use these empty cavities to lay eggs & raise their babies. Martins also nest colonially, so there needs to be an abundance of Woodpecker cavities for there to be any suitable nesting habitat.
Songbirds aren’t the only ones who utilize these “vacant lots” created by their Woodpecker brethren. Ducks, Owls, Flying Squirrels, Opossums, Raccoons, Frogs, Snakes, Squirrels, & even Bumblebees will make their homes in what people consider an “eye-sore.” Some famous forester said, “A dead tree is more alive than a living tree.” Try to picture all the cool animals we could see around our homes if we left up dead trees. Now obviously there’s a threat if the tree were to fall & your house, car, or self. However(!!!), people don’t realize they can trim the stumps down to a height that if they do fall, they won’t hit anything & you get a natural birdhouse/feeder for a couple of years. My parents have one in their backyard & I constantly see where birds have dug into it. Back to the point though…
To recapitulate: Purple Martins nest in Woodpecker Cavities, there’s a park in Florida that has the last natural nesting colony of Purple Martins in the Eastern USA, I’m going to document it.
My plan was simple: get to the park before sunrise, stakeout the island colonies, & pray that Martin Scouts are still laying claim to them. I would spend the rest of each day at the park to film the rest of the array of wildlife that Orlando Wetlands park has to offer. Communicating with the
rangers of Orlando Wetlands Park, I coordinated my trip to take place this past February. It was convenient because my best friend was getting married not too far from there at the beginning of the month. I made it down to Orlando late on a Sunday afternoon & before I checked into my AirBnB, I checked into Orlando Wetlands Park. This place is magical. I highly recommend experiencing this place if you’re a wildlifer or just enjoy the outdoors. As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted with the calls from White & Gloss Ibis, Anhinga, Limpkins, various frog choruses, & the trademark “Quack” of Mottled Ducks. Each trail is a berm & they run around cells of wetland/marsh habitat where you may spook the occasional Alligator getting its suntan on. Herons, Wood Storks, & Roseate Spoonbills all waltz through the water trying to grab anything they can in their bills. What was a great sight to see was the squadron of White Pelicans that took residence at the park during their winter migration. I was highly optimistic, then the first morning happened.
I arrived to the park bright & early Monday morning & meandered out to the islands. I set my cameras up & waited. The minutes felt like hours. I began to question; “Am I too early in the year?” & “Did I overshoot my timing?” Having flocks of Tree Swallows fly around was a welcomed & perturbing sight because I would see a Swallow & think “MARTIN!!” (Tree Swallows & Purple Martins are close relatives & look similar in shape). A pair of Sandhill Cranes would always walk by me on their morning stroll for earthworms. They’re always fun to be around because they’re a bird that’s as tall as a small human. Then it happened; I began to see these bird-like shapes singing on top of the snags that make up these little islands. I got my binoculars focused on the shapes & then came to see that each one of these shapes belonged to a European Starling. It was such a gut-check & incredibly defeating to my goal, especially on the first morning…
Time for another fourth wall break in this blog. Now European Starlings are species of bird that is native to Europe (no crap). European colonizers had them introduced in the United States during the late 1800s because of their love of Shakespearean literature & his mentions of Starlings. They just didn’t realize how many awesome birds we had here in America. Starlings are also secondary cavity-nesters & compete with our native birds for nesting cavities. The advantage starlings have lies in the equipment they’re packing; they’re long, sharp bill. Starlings will peck their opponents & babies in the head to death, then toss the bodies from the entrance hole. This competition has greatly affected cavity nesters around the globe because Starlings have been introduced to every continent except Antarctica. Okay, back to Florida…
Tuesday came & just like Monday, more Starlings. I was infuriated at the lack of conservation & habitat management. Like here is probably the most important nesting site for this species & humans simply have ignored it to the point of worthlessness. It was this week that showed me that Purple Martins, as a species, are completely dependent on people to provide their nesting habitat via manmade birdhouses. It goes back to my opening paragraph to the fact that humans have corrupted a natural behavior that evolved over millions of years in just a short 250 years. Part of me is thankful I got sick from Sun Poisoning (although the ordeal was absolutely awful) that Wednesday so I wouldn’t have to face more disappointment & frustration. Thursday came & I captured my final shots that I needed & I walked out of the park with a sense of defeat, but also a sense of urgency because it really is up to humanity now to make sure this bird stays with us. I didn't see a Purple Martin at all during this expedition. Even in perfect habitat, Martins are rare to non-existent if they don't have nesting habitat.
It’s pretty easy when it comes to saving this species in your area. All you have to do is put up a birdhouse. Will you take action?