Thousands of Purple Martins swarm and roost in Austin, Texas

We made a personal bird trip today from San Antonio to Austin, Texas to attend the first Purple Martin Party of the year. This event, held by Travis Audubon, takes place four Saturday evenings in …

purple martins swarming in the sky in austin texas

We made a personal bird trip today from San Antonio to Austin, Texas to attend the first Purple Martin Party of the year. This event, held by Travis Audubon, takes place four Saturday evenings in early summer every year. This is when Purple Martins, a dark blackish-purple swallow, gather by the thousands to swirl around in the sky and roost in the trees in a shopping center parking lot in the middle of the city.

purple-martin-perched-on-nesting-box-in-san-antonio-texas
This is a Purple Martin. I saw this one at Mitchell Lake in San Antonio. It’s sitting on a nesting box.

We found out about this event through the Bexar Audubon newsletter. Previously, I’ve seen Purple Martins in small groups in San Antonio at the park and at Mitchell Lake where there are nesting boxes. Back in Los Angeles, in 2014, I ventured downtown to watch a similar event, the nightly roosting of the Vaux’s Swift. I watched as they swirled and swirled forming a giant bird tornado getting ready to enter a giant chimney for the evening.

The Purple Martins migrate during our winter down to South America. See this beautiful visualization using eBird data.

We arrived a few minutes before 8 PM and looked up to the skies as the Purple Martins began to slowly appear in small numbers. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, the birds begin to collect in massive numbers and formed liquid-like patterns in the air.

Leaning back against our car and looking straight up it felt like the sky was washing over you. This giant murmur of birds shifted around in the sky forming abstract shapes and flowing in circles. This amorphous shape flirted with the treetops getting closer with every attempt.

A few brave birds took the plunge into the trees and opened the avian floodgates. Purple Martins immediately began diving into the trees in massive numbers. Their combined vocalizations concentrated in the trees sounded like static or rushing water. It was incredible.

Once they started entering the trees, I put my camera away, grabbed my shotgun microphone, and hurried over to the trees to capture their sounds.

I had to turn the gain on my recorder way down as the sound was so loud the microphone didn’t need any help hearing the commotion. I assume most of what you hear in this clip are their wings flapping as they land in the trees.

The Purple Martin Party was a great opportunity to meet fellow birding enthusiasts as well as curious people who just came for the show or were passing by. I had a few good conversations with folks from Travis Audubon and chatted with fellow bird photographers.

I picked up a cute Purple Martin enamel pin for my hat and a Travis Audubon t-shirt.

Besides the main attraction, something else special happened. My husband and I frequently see Common Nighthawks fly around our neighborhood but I never have my camera with me. A nighthawk made several appearances, flying around the parking lot probably looking for food. I took my first photo of this species and, with this bird, reached a cool 200 species photographed and submitted to eBird.

The Common Nighthawk we saw flying around the parking lot.
Me at the Purple Martin Party. So much bird poop on the ground. We both got pooped on!