The Purple Martins (Progne subis) gave themselves away with loud ‘chortles’ and ‘rattles; emanating from the Aspen grove high above Sunlight Mountain Ski resort. The previous day I had scale the steep ski slopes to tower 8 where a colony were reported to be. My long climb had been to no avail as there were no martins in sight.
The large Aspen grove besides the forest track was a live with tree swallows. But their gentle calls were over ridden by the loud throaty and rich calls of the Purple martins. I have only seen Martin’s flying high in the sky on migration in the East. So to see them in their natural nesting areas of the forests was a real bonus. To get up close to this magnificent birds was worth the early morning start. The males were difficult to take photographs of against the blue sky. The purple ‘haze’ turning black and featureless giving no credit to the intense plumage of the bird. However a male clung to a white aspen at a nest hole, which was the best views I managed to get of the male Purple martin.
I was intrigued how the Purple martin’s came to nest in the holes in aspen trees. Of course they could not excavate the holes themselves. It would appear that they make use of what the woodpeckers and flickers have worked on in previous years. Making flickers and woodpeckers keystone species in the forests of the mountains.
As our European hirundines do not nest in trees it rare to encounter them in the forests of the UK. So it is always ‘curious’ to see martins and swallows flying amongst the tall trees in the forests of North America. Because of it’s sheer size the Purple martin, more like a Swift, seems slightly out of place amongst the stately aspens. However they are such skillful aerialists, that they can negotiate the trees adeptly.
The western Mountain race arboricola is larger than the eastern race subis and the females have paler underparts. Certainly in the Aspen grove in the Rockies the females were more approachable than the males and easier to photograph.
To see a colony in a natural situation – in an Aspen grove high in the mountains of the west was a real pleasure.