The only time I had ever heard about Erie, Pennsylvania was watching the movie “That Thing You Do” about a small town garage band called The Wonders hitting it big with their one hit song. Erie being their hometown. Never thought anything of this destination until I met Joe Siegrist of the Purple Martin Conservation Association during a series of events that kickstarted this whole project.
If you read or remember from my first post; I met Joe & the PMCA for the first time back in 2016 at a tradeshow in Mexico, Missouri. Once I realized I wanted to make a documentary about the Purple Martins in my backyard, the PMCA was my first contact. I wanted to make this film as South Carolina as possible, but I quickly realized that the story goes far beyond my backyard. As I researched & dug deeper into the realm of Purple Martins I was finding out about colony management techniques, all the different types of housing one can put out for the birds, migratory martins dispersing to surprising destinations, a couple of subpopulations that can still nest in natural settings, the list goes on & on. I knew I needed to get up to Erie to 1) better understand martins and 2) document all the things that go on with Purple Martin research.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) was founded in 1987 and serves as a centralized data-gathering & information source to better serve this human-dependent species. Their office is located on the shores of Lake Erie at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at Presque Isle. Through their collective efforts & data contributed by citizen science, they have been able to make significant discoveries about the nesting habits of Purple Martins. The past few years their research sights have been set on understanding this species’ wintering habits in South America. They’ve taken expeditions down to the Amazon Rainforest two of the last 3 years & returned this past February. Thankfully their expeditions have yielded success & discovery which has been great for us as we tagged along (that trip is for another blog post ;).
As I was planning & fundraising for these shoots in 2017, Erie was the first stop on my list. I had planned to be in Erie for a week during the busiest time of the year for the PMCA’s field season. During this time they take measurements of Martin chicks and band them with unique identification numbers should any of those birds show up elsewhere. They’ve had martins banded in Erie, PA show up in Florida, Iowa, & Connecticut. They also attach GPS Satellite trackers to some of the adults of their colonies to unlock the mysteries of the Purple Martin’s migration. I was just about set & then I found out that my second shooter couldn’t make the trip with me. A good portion of what I was trying to document & accomplish hinged on him. Sadly, I couldn’t find another shooter to come with me & I had to cancel that trip. I felt so defeated having that happen. However, I used the time I would’ve taken to go film to instead run more martin tours on Lake Murray so hey; silver lining..
Fast-forward about 11 months and I have everything locked down for the trip I’ve been waiting to take for the past 3 years. I’m absolutely terrified. My plan was simple: get up to Erie & tag along with the PMCA Field Crew as they conduct their fieldwork for ongoing research for 2 weeks. The fear of this planning, time, waiting, & funding all going to waste because I screw something up or don’t capture something vital to the story, is blaring in the back of my mind. The morning came for me to leave and my dad & I drive up to Charlotte for me to catch my flight. The whole flight I anxiously look over my notes, shot lists, and panic thinking I forgot something. I fly into Buffalo & get a rental car to drive down to Erie. I arrived to my hotel, got checked in & settled, and then set off to where the majority of fieldwork would take place: Presque Isle State Park. I had finally made it.
After spending the weekend familiarizing myself with the area, that Monday I reunited with Joe & met the rest of the PMCA staff whom I had been in contact with. It was great finally putting faces to names. I explained to them the purpose of what I’m documenting in Erie, footage I was looking to capture, the whole purpose of the film, and how I was going to be “their shadow” for the next two weeks. We hit the ground running with field work. The PMCA has 3 main colonies they conduct most of their research from. There are two colonies in Presque Isle State Park and one across the bay at a water treatment plant. Fieldwork consisted of banding adults & chicks, reading codes of previously banded birds, weighing each bird captured, collecting fecal samples from chicks, A LOT of written data logging, and the most exciting; capturing adults & attaching satellite trackers to them! Now to catch an adult Purple Martin, one has to use an extendable paint-roller & clogged the compartment that the targeted martin walks into. Then you lower the housing & carefully retrieve the bird inside so as to not let it escape. For scientific fieldwork & data collection, it was pretty easy. Purple Martins are definitely one of the easier birds to conduct research on for anyone out there looking to get a Master’s or PhD in Avian Ecology/Conservation.
The first Friday in Erie, I had the pleasure of being able to sit in on a conference call for the International Purple Martin Working Group composed of scientists from Brazil, Canada, Florida, and Pennsylvania. What a privilege it was to be able to just be there. Most of everyone on this call are scientists that I’ve been speaking with as I conducted my research for this film. A very surreal moment to listen to their discussion as they looked over data from satellite imagery from multiple, complete martin migrations tracked via satellite geo-locators. There was talk about leading expeditions further into the Amazon to the Tefe region where multiple birds were all tracked to the same location, as well as talk of researching the Yucatan as many birds landed in the same general region of the peninsula after their cross-gulf flights. It’s incredible that here we have this bird that we know so much about already, but there’s a whole other side to its life & ecology that’s a complete mystery.
The second week came & my best friend Jacob drove up to Erie to help film. Together we tagged along documenting more of PMCA’s fieldwork, but also ran around Erie getting shots of the more well-known parts of the city. At the main harbor, we flew our drone out over Presque Isle Bay & got great looks across to the state park which was this beautiful green hook popping out from land. You could see the wetlands & I half-expected to see a gator pop out from one of the water cells. Looking to the horizon was Lake Erie with no sight of land. Now I grew up on a lake, but Lake Erie is a LAKE. Canada was not in sight whatsoever. We would go to the lake side of the park & try & get some timelapses of a sunset, but apparently there were fires in Canada creating a smoky haze keeping us from filming a classic sunset. Probably one of the funnier things we encountered was a Pirate Tour ship acting as a kids attraction that allowed little kids shoot water cannons at a pirate on a smaller dingy that was part of the act. Unfortunately though, Jacob managed to catch some kind of illness & had to leave early.
Confident that we had managed to grab all the footage we needed, I spent the last day in Erie filming some last little bits of field work, getting to help out with fieldwork some, & figuring out new shot angles. I had jerry-rigged my camera to one of the PMCA’s martin houses & we hoisted it up get the martin’s perspective from their housing. The martins themselves didn’t take too kindly to my camera blocking off a couple of their compartments with chicks inside. As we were wrapping up, we still had one satellite tracker to deploy. Joe & the team look at me & handed me the paint-roller. I stood there watching the compartment waiting on its tenant to arrive. I hear one of the PMCA staffers say something and as I turn to look back & respond, the bird of course flies up & into the hole. They shout out at me that the bird is in there & I fumble the pole up to the hole & just barely manage to clog its entrance. Joe gave me a B+.
What was probably my favorite moment from my time in Erie was when Joe first showed me data of the satellite tracked martins and one of the birds tagged in Erie pinged in about 2 miles away from the Lake Murray Roost!! Odds are that bird hung out on Bomb Island for the night! It proved what I had thought for a while about the island and now I get to tell my clients about it on this upcoming tour season: Purple Martins from across the east coast come & stay at Bomb Island. These are not just South Carolina birds.
With shooting wrapped up & my bags packed, it was time for the next part of my summer adventure chasing Purple Martins: searching for one of the last natural nesting populations of martins in the Sonoran Desert.