The Virginian-Pilot



Published: March 4, 2004
Section: LOCAL, page Y1
Source:    Mary Ellen Riddle
© 2004- Landmark Communications Inc.

Purple martins from Brazil will begin flocking to eastern North Carolina in coming weeks as part of their annual nesting ritual, and Columbia resident Alisa Esposito and her husband, Chris Lucash, are putting up additional housing in hopes of attracting more tenants this year.

While Esposito awaits the arrival of the iridescent birds, she is still worried about the effect traffic will have on them at the William B. Umstead Bridge, a pre-migratory roosting spot. Esposito had hoped to limit bird fatalities this season by bringing the problem to the attention of state and federal agencies. Roosting occurs at the bridge, also called the Manns Harbor Bridge, between mid-July and mid-August as the birds prepare to return to Brazil.

The first "scouts" are due to show around March 10.

Last summer, Esposito met with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Department of Transportation at the bridge to witness the sunset spectacle, when clouds of martins swarmed over the road before collecting on a cable underneath.

The group noted the effect on the birds and motorists. Vehicles were forced to slow down. Birds were killed. Citing "hazardous conditions," a transportation department representative likened the scene to a Hitchcock movie.

The federal fish and wildlife agency, mandated to protect migratory species, recommended putting up fencing on the western end of the bridge to help keep the birds from flying into traffic. Fencing has been used successfully in Texas and Louisiana, according to the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

But last fall, officials decided to post warning signs instead of fencing, citing aesthetics and cost.

"They are important to our ecosystem, but we have other issues," said Chad Edge , Division I traffic engineer with NCDOT. "I'm looking at it from a traffic engineer perspective. The bridge is not designed to have fencing. Right now, I think we will go with signage and look at fencing at a later date."

Calling the measure immediate and the least-expensive option, Edge said state officials recognize there is a problem. "The book is not closed on it," he said.

The state is working out the wording for the signs and the possibility of flashing lights. The warnings are expected to be in place by the end of June.

But even if motorists heed the warning and slow down, the birds still are likely to swarm around vehicles, especially if the wind is blowing and hampering the birds' settling-down process.

"It doesn't matter how fast the cars are driving, they continue hitting the cars and die," said Louise Chambers , educational coordinator with the Purple Martin Conservation Association. "You may avoid hitting them, but they still are going to hit you. The 2-ounce birds are going to die."

Chambers has toured numerous bridge roosts from Louisiana to Florida.

"As a driver, it's very traumatizing and, even if you're not hitting them, you see others hitting them," she said. "It's not safe to stop and rescue them."

Edge said that fencing could cause a tunnel effect. But Chambers, whose organization has been exchanging e-mails with the state transportation department, said she wasn't bothered by it.

"I've driven on fenced bridges," she said. "I didn't feel restricted or tunnelized."

About the expense, she noted that the purple martin association raised $17,000 to help fund the fencing on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge in Louisiana.

East of the Rockies, purple martins depend on humans for nesting sites. Some roosting sites can be located in wildlife preserves. But others, such as bridge and park roosts, have proved problematic because of traffic clashes and bird droppings.

The species is attracted to large bodies of water and wide open spaces. Water collects heat all day, then releases it to warm the birds as air temperatures cool off. This helps the martins conserve energy. In such wide open spaces, they also are safer from predators.

The pre-migratory ritual is essential to the birds, which include those just learning to spread their wings. "They need the roost period to build up fat," Chambers said. "They are building stamina.

They need to be rested and strong. Just like people gassing up and getting food. It's a critical time."

Bob Noffsinger, a fish and wildlife migratory bird biologist, calls the signage a step.

"But I think ultimately to address the problem, they are going to need to put up something not to have those birds be hit," he said.

Esposito, who works with the endangered red cockaded woodpecker as a wildlife technician with a local environmental consulting firm, was recognized by the purple martin association last year with a conservation award for her work on the bridge situation.

She hopes to raise interest through education. She is presenting a series of slide shows in March on purple martin biology and colony site management while nurturing the idea of creating a purple martin festival during the peak roosting season.

"This area has a huge potential for people who have enthusiasm for purple martins," she said. "I'd like to see people have an understanding and appreciation of the roosts. It's a wonderful, natural event, and it's pretty spectacular."

She said she would like to see people set up emergency houses but stressed the importance of knowledge. Simply erecting a home is not enough to insure the health and safety of the birds, which need protection from predators, room enough to flex their wings and nests checked for mold and parasites.

"If you want to establish a colony, get housing up no later than mid-June," she said.

Description of illustration(s):
Fact Box
To learn more:
Slide presentations are set for Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Pocosin
Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Walter B. Jones Center for the Sounds
amphitheater in Columbia and at the Tuesday meeting of the North
Banks Bird Club at 7 p.m. at the Kill Devil Hills branch of the Dare
County Library. Visit the PMCA website at
Color Photo
Alisa Esposito of Columbia is preparing for the arrival of migrating
purple martins by erecting special birdhouses in her yard and by
pushing the state to protect the birds from motorists on the William
B. Umstead Bridge.

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