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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

8/8/2013 9:52:00 AM
The Martin Season-
Photos by Don Reimer
Photos by Don Reimer
by Don Reimer

As a quality birding destination, there is much to recommend the stretch of highway along Route 27 that borders the west side of Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade Village. A variety of interesting land and water birds, including several species of flycatchers, Yellow-Throated and Warbling Vireos, Marsh Wrens, grebes and herons, reside in the mix of marsh, lake and hardwood habitats. Unusual Maine nesters there include cattail-dwelling Sandhill Cranes and, out along the lake margins, graceful swooping Black Terns that forage for small fish in the close roadside stream inlets.

In mid-July two photo companions and I visited the active Purple Martin nesting colony at the north end of Main Street, where a half dozen heavily used martin houses sat atop 20-foot poles amid a green expanse of closely cropped lawn.

The colony was bustling with early-morning activity as adult martins brought food to their recently fledged young. Insects were harvested on the wing above the knee-high wet meadows, and dragonflies were a predominant menu item during our visit. Some of the young martins sat begging on the roofs of the white multi-tiered units; others received the fresh food deliveries inside of the houses. A pair of smaller-cousin Tree Swallows had settled in an upper, end-wall apartment of one house.

The flock chittered constantly, low-pitched gurgles from the males and chortling calls and down-slurred whistles from the females.

Over one million Americans put up Purple Martin housing each year, but many are unsuccessful at attracting martins. Houses that are white or light colored seem to attract the most martins, perhaps due to the inner apartment temperatures being slightly cooler for the incubating female and her nestlings. The most advantageous placement of martin houses is as far away from trees as possible, with no vegetation around the support pole.

The largest of the eight swallow species that breed in North America, martins are rather uncommon in Maine. The bulky purplish-blue males could be easily mistaken for a starling, but martins have longer wings and a smaller, finer bill; the female and young martins are grayish with a white belly.

Distribution across Maine is spotty and limited, with current colonies in Unity, Livermore and Corinna, to name a few. In the eastern U.S. martins nest almost exclusively in martin houses and gourd-shaped structures provided by man. In pre-colonial times, the martin was reportedly a dooryard bird in Native American villages. Their favored habitat is open country, farmlands, town greens, agricultural areas and wetland borders near open water.

When I knocked to ask permission to enter the property, the owner, Mrs. Yeaton, provided some joint history of her family property and the long tenancy of the martins. When the family purchased this working farm in 1909, an ancestor quickly noticed the procession of martins in the vicinity. Far too busy to build a proper martin house that first year, he nailed an orange crate to a tall pole and the birds settled in to nest! With time, more housing stock was added as neighboring farms also constructed houses. Mrs. Yeaton proudly stated that "Purple Martins have occupied this property continuously for over 100 years. The birds arrive here about the first of May and leave around August 1." Martins winter in South America, an annual 5,000-mile journey.

With her complex of productive martin houses and a wooden bat box attached to a back barn wall for good measure, Mrs. Yeaton certainly enjoys a level of natural insect control that we should all envy.

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