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  • Captain Zach

Where it All Began...

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

If you’re from the Lake Murray area of South Carolina, you most certainly have heard about the Purple Martins at Bomb Island. Every night over the Summer, thousands of these birds will flock to the island performing their evening sky-dance as the sun sets in the background creating a mosaic that resembles a Dali painting. The birds all gather up in the canopy of old growth hardwoods that remain off limits to the public. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, chaos ensues for about 10 seconds as every bird clears out from the slick branches & soar overtop of the spectating boaters, who may or may not receive a present from the winged performers. As the birds glide out away their evening’s accommodation, they spiral up over the heart of the lake and form what looks like an eye from the great pantheon looking down upon you. Being a Hitchcock fan definitely adds to the experience but if you’re one of those people who are scared of birds, its best to stay on the shore and watch the sunset from afar.

When I first moved to Lexington, SC, our family kept hearing from the locals “You gotta go see the Purple Martins.” That first Summer we bought a boat & made great use of Lake Murray. Countless hours were spent cutting through the water’s surface on skis & wakeboards. We would joyful volunteer to get thrown around on an inner-tube; a decision my sister and I regretted the next morning. Those long summer days on the water would always conclude with a trip to Bomb Island to watch the Purple Martins come in for the evening. It’s the perfect setting with this natural phenomena going on with the setting sun in the background; a photographer’s dream.

I eventually moved away for college & honestly never wanted to come back. I had dreams of pursuing a career in wildlife conservation working as a biologist on endangered species projects around the globe. I later became disillusioned with this career after watching how biologists communicated their work with people outside of their field; they didn’t. I felt my skills and talents were needed to be used as a form of scientific communication. I thought that by becoming a wildlife photographer & filmmaker, I could get people to see these animals & the threats they face and inspire people to take action. That brings us to now.

Upon graduating from college I couldn’t find a job, so I moved back home and started working as a Naturalist at my parents’ garden center. Not quite the start I wanted for the “glamorous” career I was dreaming of. As a Naturalist working at a garden center you work with people with the goals of trying to attract certain wildlife to their yard; primarily birds & pollinators. With a conservation background, I used my platform to educate customers about how great of an impact they could have on their local wildlife by what they did to their yards. People hear the word conservation and think of Lions & Tigers & Bears OH MY!! However, conservation is as simple as planting a native plant for pollinators to feed on, or putting up a birdhouse, or digging a pond for frogs.

After about 2 months of working in this position, I went to a tradeshow in Missouri with the intention to learn about being a wild bird product retailer. While I was out there, I made first contact with this lost culture of hosting Purple Martins. I began talking to vendors that specialized in Martin products about Bomb Island on Lake Murray and showing them cell phone videos. I even met Joe Siegrist of the Purple Martin Conservation Association. To my surprise, I had no clue Purple Martins had a conservation group working for them. Later during the show, there was a speaking event I sat in on. I don’t remember much from the actual talk, but the host of the whole event began to conclude the speaking session. The topic of Purple Martins came up and the host dropped a nugget of info on me that has set me on the pursuit of my passion-project; “Just about all Purple Martins are born in birdhouses that we put up for them.”

The gong went off, my pupils dilated, and the light turned on simultaneously upon making this revelation. I thought, “there’s no way that that’s true!” Then I got to talking with Joe Siegrist again and he confirmed that information to me. I thought to myself “HOLY SHIT. How can this possibly be?” Then I began to think about the martin roost on Lake Murray and I tried to embrace the fact that all half-a-million birds that were flying around this tiny little island came from birdhouses. That’s an ass-load of birdhouses. Then I thought of all the people that dedicate their time & money to setting up martin housing. It wasn’t until the flight home that I realized that this is the perfect opportunity for me to chase my dreams of becoming a wildlife filmmaker.

That moment when I chose to pursue this project was in October of 2016. When I graduated college, I made the promise to myself to do the things I say I’m going to do after years of being a flake. This is the first commitment to come from that promise. It’s been a long ride with its ups & downs. Purple Haze has become my best friend & worst enemy at times. I’ve met a lot of great people on this journey & can’t wait to meet more. For the rest of this project, I will be sharing this journey with you via this blog. For everyone that has followed Purple Haze since Day 1; Thank you. For everyone that’s just now joining, I’m excited to share with this crazy world that’s been under our noses our entire lives.

Pura vida,

Captain Zach

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Apr 08, 2019

Where, geographically, do the Purple Martins nest? I ask to determine if Northern Virginia is the right place to build a home for them. I've never seen them around here. Thanks. - Mark


Apr 07, 2019

Good luck on the project zach. There are so many fascinating things about purple Martins that captivate me. I’ve yet to have a chance to visit lake Murray but in 2009 I visited the former roost at dale hollow lake. That same year and a couple consecutive years after that my own property hosted a small roost of several thousand martins before they continued on the journey south.

I spent over twenty years without success trying to start a colony. My martins are now arriving for the twenty fourth year of my colony.

I’ll look forward to reading your posts.

Tom Brake

Abingdon Virginia

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