Nashville-area bird researchers have ramped up their efforts to learn from one of the area’s most amazing showcases of the natural world. It’s been happening this month as more than 100,000 purple martins fly in to roost each night in the trees surrounding the Nashville Symphony.
As part of their migration, the birds have been gathering annually around Nashville since at least 1996, and have occasionally been run off or relocated. That could have been the case last year, too, if not for the intervention of birders who realized what was happening outside the symphony.
This summer, as the birds returned, a more robust corps of volunteers has come together to monitor the roost, gather basic research and, perhaps most importantly, to keep visitors informed as they marvel at the sight and wonder why it’s happening.
For tourists like Michelle Fennessey, the sensory overload was like nothing she’s experienced.
“Oh, it’s raining birds! My God!” she exclaimed one night in early August. “I mean, when will you ever see anything like this? … This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
She and her adult daughter, Molly, happened upon the swirl of birds by chance while visiting the city for the day.
They’d soon receive the signature souvenir of the purple martins: several droppings of poop on their clothes and hair.
“Literally, as she warned us, I got some poop on me,” Molly said.
Birders add layer of research
Many gawkers that night had their interest further piqued by the sight of a volunteer looking skyward while holding a tracking device. It’s a metal stick, about a yard long, that looks like a miniature old-fashioned TV antenna.
It’s a new part of the experience this year.
Laura Cook, the bird researcher with Warner Park Nature Center, says she got federal permission to attach transmitters to a half-dozen martins and track their whereabouts.
“Almost every night we pick up a couple of our birds (downtown),” Cook said. “That was really cool, because it answered our question.”
They’ve also been tracked near Clarksville, which is about 70 miles roundtrip from the symphony roost site.
“During the day, they’re going out and foraging a really large area and then coming back to Nashville to roost with all of their other buddies,” Cook said.
Those trips are just a warmup before the purple martins will fly thousands of miles to South America. That will likely begin in late August or early September.
Meanwhile, a coalition of wildlife groups is working to keep volunteers on site at the symphony each night. Cook notes there’s sensitivity about misinformation spreading, right down to the basic fact of what’s up above soaring.
“They’re not bats,” she said.
Volunteers also try to estimate the population — although Cook notes that it’s somewhat more difficult at night. Instead, some researchers go down just after 5 a.m. when the purple martins are departing. In that moment, they can create such a dense mass that they briefly appear on local weather radar appearing like a red storm.
And if the purple martins return to the site again next year, enthusiasts hope to create even more programming and say they’ll be courting more support from Metro.
“This is an amazing migration phenomenon. Nashville is really lucky that we have this ability to go down to the city center and see tens of thousands of purple martins,” Cook said.