The Outer Banks’ Blue Angels
By James D. Charlet/Correspondent
One of the most fun, entertaining, enlightening things to do on the Outer Banks, especially Cape Hatteras Island that will keep a smile on your face, has nothing to do with the beach or the ocean. It is sitting on the deck around sunset watching Purple Martins.
They start arriving in January and February. You will see them darting about almost any time of the day during the summer, mid-July through August, but my favorite time is at the end of the day, an hour or so before sunset. This is the time I call “the shank of the day.” That is when the air suddenly and noticeably becomes sweeter and a little cooler. The bonus here on the Outer Banks are the World-Class sunsets almost every evening. The clouds light up in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors.
Now add to this wonderfully pleasant setting the antics of Purple Martins. No bird has more fun flying than these guys. Martins love to fly all day long, and since they are highly social, they fly in groups, but not like flocks. If they did fly in formation, they would be the “Blue Angels” of the bird world.
Another bonus is that other members of the Swallow family are out soaring at the same time. The Outer Banks hosts, in season, Tree Swallows, Bank Swallows, Barn Swallows, Rough-winged Swallows and Chimney Swifts. But the king of the acrobatic air is the Purple Martin.
Watching them fly is mesmerizing. They are master gliders; Wilbur and Orville would be proud of them. They fly so fast at times that they are hard to follow. They will dive from great heights then pull up dramatically into the wind and almost hover. They skim over treetops and cut around obstacles with precision accuracy, much like the F-18s. They swoop down in subdivisions to follow the clear runways over the streets. They buzz and dart and just keep flying.
As a casual observer, it seems to me that most backyard songbirds have short, purposeful flights unlike the charming house finches which change their mind and direction every five seconds! On the other hand, flocking birds fly for greater distances and they all fly together in close proximity and in the same direction. Neither so for the free-for-all Purple Martins.
Their flights seem to be entirely recreational, except for the fact that they do feed on the wing by snatching flying insects. So, they even have fun playing with their food. They fly for long periods, covering a large area of sky, but seem to stay within a certain perimeter, tacking back and forth. Each bird has its own roller coaster flight plan. Occasionally, those paths coincide, and they will briefly fly together before darting off in their own way.
All the while, adding sound to sight, they have a constant series of short chirps and clicks. You will probably hear those soft pleasant sounds before you see them. I sense that they like to see you admiring them and will pass by close to give you a good look.
Then, the curtain call. Just like that, at sunset, they disappear from the sky, returning to their roost for the night. They sleep, rest and re-energize for tomorrow’s air show.
Where Else to See Them
For years, thousands of Purple Martins have roosted on the west end of the William B. Umstead Bridge, locally referred to as the Old Mann’s Harbor Bridge. So many, in fact, that in 2007 the NC Department of Transportation instituted flashing lights and a 20-mph speed limit around sunrise and sunset during those times. Previously, there had been numerous bird-car fatalities. The Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society (https://www.purplemartinroost.com/) was a primary advocate for the NCDOT action and they report a dramatic decrease in Purple Martin losses since then. The Society also built the “BeBops Memorial Pier” on the west banks specifically as a safe place to view the amazing sight of 100,000 Martins all flying at once. The head boat Crystal Dawn from Pirate’s Cove in Manteo provides sunset cruises to the bridge. See their website, https://crystaldawnheadboat.com/ for more information.