After days of rain, the morning dawned with a fiery red sun inching its way up the horizon. That was the good news. The bad news was that it might get too hot for me.
On my first day "back to work" after seven weeks on a rocky road of recovery from surgery, I battled a staph infection and was a little shaky but still gathered my binoculars, new digital camera and visor. After weeks of complications and confinement, I was anxious to leave the house and start filming wildlife segments for the upcoming season of "Venture North."
Ron Seekamp's home in Fridley was the destination. Ron's been a faithful martin landlord for nearly 40 years. He's devoted to the species and has painstakingly designed, built and modified martin houses to increase the size of the colony and its nesting success. His colony this year has 14 mature nesting pairs and no sub-adults reproducing.
An important cog in the wheel of martin management is data collection. Decades worth of data fill a stack of notebooks in Ron's office. When and which birds return in spring from wintering grounds in Brazil, whom mates with whom, how many eggs are laid, how many hatch and how many fledge are all found in the data. Injuries spotted, sickness, predation and inter-colonial conflicts are recorded as well. Other notations include weather conditions prior to the birds' arrival, on the date of arrival, during and after nesting and on days of departure in August.
Ron Seekamp prepared bands that would later be applied to purple martins. Each band has a tracking number that identifies where and when the bird was banded.
Andrea Lee Lambrecht
Another major component to data base management of dedicated guardians is the task of banding baby martins. On this bright and sunny July day, the task commenced.
Ron knew there were 69 hatchlings and how many were in each nesting box. Their ages varied from 11 to 21 days. It's a little dicey to band the older youngsters. They can be quite vocal and, being nearly ready to fledge, they could escape.
With Denny Mayer, a seasoned licensed bander from Big Fork, Ron systematically lowered each housing unit and removed a drawer full of baby birds. To protect them from the hot sun and bright light, Ron shaded them with a piece of plywood. Denny confidently scooped up each bird and attached a tiny, silver metal band to a spindly little leg.
Each U.S. Fish and Wildlife band bears a tracking number that identifies who, where and when the bird was banded. Because the metal bands are impossible to read unless you have the bird in hand, new colored bands are being tried.
Ron is fond of his martins, to say the least.
"This is my 39th year monitoring them," Ron said. "I'm still learning. For example, this year I noticed lots of birds picking up the eggshell chips I put out for the martins. Except for robins. I don't know if it was the strange weather we've had or what."
Like any prudent person in the hospitality industry, Ron always is improving his housing accommodations. This year a couple he named Knute and Karen checked into the 15-inch deep "honeymoon suite". The master bedroom drawer is longer than the standard 12-inch home of most lodging units. Romance was in the air and Ron happily reported the pair had successfully raised all six offspring.
By the first week in August, all the young will have fledged. They'll forage most of the day and come back in the evening. Adult martins teach their offspring to catch insects, although if the pickings are inadequate the parents will provide supplemental food.
"Only about 25 per cent of the young will be alive after the first year," Ron said. "It's a long way to Brazil where they spend the winter and there's lots of hazards along the way. Life's not easy for a songbird. There's bad weather, predation, inadequate food, loss of habitat and poor housing and shelter options. All contribute to their demise."
But just the same, you can bet Ron and Denny will be thinking of purple martins in winter and looking for the birds come spring.
Andrea Lea Lambrecht, naturalist and outdoors writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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