Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Purple Martins of Manns Harbor

 While on vacation last week my daughter and I spent an afternoon together and ventured from the beaches of Nags Head to the beaches of the Croatan Sound, located along the west end of the Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island is part of the barrier islands off the cost of North Carolina. The area is best known in American history as the site of Sir Water Raleigh’s attempt to establish an English settlement in the late fifteenth century. The fate of that colony remains unknown as it mysteriously disappeared a few years later and is known today as the “Lost Colony”. Visitors from all around come to Roanoke Island to see the “Lost Colony” play, which happens to be the longest running outdoor theater production in America. Roanoke Island is also home to the first English born child to the New World, Virginia Dare, who was part of the original lost colony.

VA Dare

Many outsiders are unaware, but Roanoke Island is home to another unique attraction – the famous purple martin roosting site under the William B. Umstead Memorial Bridge (aka “Old Manns Harbor”). This bridge extends across the Croatan Sound and leads to and from the mainland on the northern end of the island. The bridge is home to one of the largest purple martin roost along the east coast. 100,000 + purple martins converge on the bridge every night from July through early September. Manns Harbor Bridge roost is so large the bird's morning departure can sometimes be seen on Doppler radar. Some martins may travel up to 150 miles from their summer breeding colonies to reach this site. They arrive at sunset to roost under the bridge. The Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society (CCPMS) has determined that this spectacular roost has been active at this bridge for over 30 years.

The purple martin numbers can be so large during the summer (at dusk and dawn) that the CCPMS initiated the installment of speed reduction signs and lights, alerting drivers to slow down. Personally, I think this is a great idea.


We arrived at the bridge that afternoon about 45 minutes before sunset and pulled off the road onto the designated parking area at the entrance of the bridge. Not knowing which end of the bridge was better for viewing the martins, I just chose the first entrance we came to (island side).


My daughter enjoyed playing on the beach while I snapped a few photos of the gorgeous sunset.



A young lady showed up with her yellow lab and began throwing sticks in the water for her dog to retrieve. This was a big hit with my daughter.


Birding action was a bit slow but we did spot a Pied-billed Grebe...


...and a nearby great blue heron.


We did begin to spot a few martins flying over at dusk, as well as a common nighthawk (below).


We didn't see as many martins as anticipated and I was beginning to wonder if most of them had moved on further south or we were just on the wrong end of the bridge. Just before dark we decided to jump in the car and head across the bridge. A little over half-way across the bridge my daughter hollered: “look at all those birds dad”. Sure enough, the purple martins were pouring in like black birds landing in a corn field to feed. Fortunately, no one was behind me so we were able to stop on the bridge and watch them for a few minutes. The pictures below are nothing like the real experience and the quality is not that good due to the lack of daylight and the fact that they were taken from inside the car; but it will give you a idea of how many were coming in to roost. Click any photo to enlarge it.



And this wasn’t the normal amount. A recent CCPMS blog post earlier in the week (8/16) reported that the numbers were down a little for this time of year, which indicates that they may be migrating earlier this season. The timing of the migration has a lot to do with the number of insect available for them to fatten up on before leaving for their long trip to South America for the winter. The insects must be plentiful this year.

For more information on this be sure to check out the Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society (CCPMS) website and blog:


Migratory and wintering roosts are critically important to the annual life cycle and ecology of Purple Martins. To get involved with and to learn more check out the Project Martin Roost site sponsored by the Purple Martin Conservation Association:

This post has been submitted to Skywatch Friday, and I and the Bird #133. Be sure to check out these great websites!


Dawn Fine said...

Howdee Alany:)
What a nice evening..beautiful skies..
Wow..lots of Purple Martins in the sky!

April Lorier said...

First, I'm so glad you didn't get 'lost' in the Lost Colony! :-D

2nd, your first photo of the sunset was so beautiful I almost cried. I don't think I've ever been affected like that from any other photo, Mr. Artist!

Jim said...

Some really great sky shots there. Amazing sunset colours. It looks like a beautiful place.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Les said...

I am sure they barely put a dent in the resident mosquito population.

eileeninmd said...

Wow, gorgeous sunset. It must have really been cool to see all those Purple Martins.

Anonymous said...

Marvelous captures

Enjoy your weekend!

The one with the View said...

Gorgeous photos!! I just love the sun over water!!

Kerri Farley said...

Gorgeous images of the sunset!!

Kimberly said...

Spectacular post! I can't beleive there's so many!!! And your sunset photos are breathtaking!

Scott (JournOwl) said...

Great post and thanks for all the information...birding, history, etc. A place I would definitely love to visit one day.

Alan Pulley said...

Thanks for all the kind comments!!

Purple Martin Man said...

Your pictures are beautiful! Lets hope the martins get outta there before the hurricane hits in a couple of days.

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rigging training said...

The site of the harbor and the ocean is lovely. Since the place houses rich diversity in the bird species, I hope it does become a shipping line.