Monday, 23 July 2012

Unusual bird flock returns to Shockoe Bottom




RICHMOND, Va. --
Acrobatic birds called purple martins are flocking to Shockoe Bottom by the thousands for an unusual ritual that fascinates viewers and experts.
The birds form tornadoes in the sky before breaking up into squadrons that land at dusk in 18 weathered trees just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market.
Volunteers are leading free walks to see the martins on Sundays and Wednesdays through Aug. 1. And the fifth annual Gone to the Birds festival, highlighted by that evening's fly-in, is scheduled for Aug. 4 from 6 to 9 p.m.
"It is a remarkable roost, and it is a nice thing to see, no doubt about it," said Mike Wilson, a biologist with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The chatty, gunmetal blue birds come to Richmond, probably from local areas and other states, in July and August to build their numbers before leaving in late August to migrate to Brazil.
The flock is growing, from an estimated 10,000 in 2008, to 15,000 in 2010, to 27,000 last summer.
Migrating martins spot the Richmond flock from the air and join in, Wilson said.
"In laymen's terms, (Richmond) has become more popular. It just keeps building year after year."
A few years ago, Wilson saw 5,000 martins flying into the old Bradford pear trees along 17th Street, and the birds were tightly packed.
"I was blown away with 27,000 birds there last year," Wilson said. "It's amazing that they can fit into those trees."
Wilson said martins roost in Houston and other urban areas, but he's not aware of another place where they get so close to the public.
People walk and park right under the roost trees, and the birds often fly by viewers' heads before zipping into the trees.
Adding to the show, a hawk or a rare peregrine falcon often shows up to snatch a martin to eat.
Adolph White, a retired Richmond schoolteacher, said he appreciates the way the martins call to each other when a predator is around and the way they maneuver to avoid a hawk.
"They have great survival skills," White said.
People first noticed the Bottom birds in 2007. No one knows what first drew them there.

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