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Outdoors North

Memories of Indiana visit recalled

Two purple martins sit on the outside porches of an apartment-style birdhouse recently at Ludington Park in Escanaba. (Photo by John Pepin)

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings, coming down is the hardest thing.” — Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne

I remember the little Indiana town along the Big Blue River that once manufactured sheet iron, caskets and a wide range of other items. Once called the “Rose City” for its numerous florists and growers, it’s the open agricultural aspect of this place that my memory recalls tonight.

I think back to sitting at a wooden picnic table in the yard, facing the farm fields. It was a balmy evening after suppertime. The warm and thick humidity hung over me like a wet bathrobe.

My companion, an older gentleman who owned the house where I was staying, wanted to show me the range and effectiveness of the potato gun he’d crafted from a piece of PVC pipe.

By potato gun I mean exactly that — it shot full-sized potatoes, a long, long, long way out into those wide green fields.

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

That homemade grenade launcher was something else. It was incredible how far those stout brown potatoes traveled before I could see them hit in the dirt.

In addition to his potato gun, Raymond was proud of his home, property and something I wouldn’t have counted on, his ability to attract purple martins to his backyard birdhouses.

Like most any red-blooded Hoosier, he loved basketball. After all, the largest high school gymnasium in the whole world was located here in his comparatively little town, east of Indianapolis.

However, I would be willing to bet Raymond’s activities related to putting together, cleaning out and maintaining his apartment-styled condominiums for these 8-inch-long birds – which were born for flight and insect eating — were a close rival.

Raymond kept records of numbers of nesting birds and dates for arrival in the spring from their long migration journey north from the Amazon River basin.

This was almost 30 years ago when I sat at his picnic table out back, down in Indiana.

It was also the last time I heard the cheery sound of purple martins gliding fork-tailed over the backyard and the farm fields.

I had known the sound well from my childhood. Back in those days, it seemed there were swallow and martin apartment houses put up all over the place, especially in open areas like fields and yards.

Most notably, my next door neighbor had a martin house that brought the beautiful purple adult birds and the dark blue and white sub-adults and females to the yard where they would land on the top of the birdhouse and the utility wires that fed the property.

Their calls were loud and unmistakable.

Eventually, starlings and house sparrows — two invasive species from Europe competing for nest holes – displaced the martins and they eventually stopped coming back in the springtime.

Meanwhile, the daring chimney swifts that dove dramatically, each summer evening, straight down into the mouth of a tall red-brick chimney on the back of another neighbor’s house remained a big attraction for me.

But the purple martins were missed.

I didn’t sense it then, but what had happened with the martins in our neighbor’s backyard was happening all over the region. Over the span of just a few years, the birds all but disappeared.

Until about a decade ago, the only place I had seen a purple martin was outside the Sonora Desert Museum in southeastern Arizona where the birds there build nests in holes made in the arms of saguaro cactus.

That last time I saw a martin anywhere close to home was in Ludington Park in Delta County. I was there along the Lake Michigan shoreline to take pictures for a news story I was working on.

I saw a bird flying over the open expanse of the park that was too big for a tree swallow and wasn’t a chimney swift. I recognized it almost instantly as a purple martin.

In another instant or two, the bird flew out of sight. I haven’t seen one since.

A year or so ago I heard that conservation efforts had been taking place to save what was believed to be the last remnant Upper Peninsula population of these birds at Ludington Park.

It sounded encouraging, but I was skeptical. My experience has taught me that once things are dead or gone, they usually stay that way.

So, a few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear that work — through planning, innovation, cooperation and care, including deterring competition from starlings — had revitalized the colony of martins at the park to 20 pairs, with three times that number of chicks hatched this spring.

I decided to make a trip to Delta County to see if I could see and hear these birds that had endeared themselves to me so long ago, back in my childhood.

It’s funny. The closer I got to the park, the less likely I thought my chances would be of encountering the birds. One prominent aspect of such journeys that birdwatchers know well is the hit-and-miss nature of these outings.

I knew where the birdhouses had been put up at the park from previous visits when I had arrived hopeful and left disappointed.

This day was different.

Cool breezes off Lake Michigan worked to make the warm and sunny afternoon delightful. As I drove slowly into the park, it wasn’t long before I saw the first wooden birdhouse off to my left, sitting at the top of a steel pole.

With the window open on the driver’s side of the car, that sound buried deep in my mind since our backyard in the 1970s came across the air – the spirited chirps and rattling of purple martins.

There were birds sitting on the porches of the apartment house, talking and talking. In my case, I was hushed to silence. I was in awe.

I took pictures and approached close enough to see with my own eyes a sight I was starting to doubt I might ever experience again in this part of the country.

It wasn’t long and the birds took to the air where they joined others that were soaring high above the green grass and blue waters of the beautiful park with a handful of chimney swifts. Wow.

I could feel my heart float up toward my throat. I was floating inside.

With so much available bad news, especially when it comes to the distribution of bird and animal species across the planet, this development of a re-established martin population stunned me.

I was so happy. I looked again and again into the skies. Each time, I could easily see at least four or five martins flying around, dipping and gliding.

After soaking the sound good and deep into my ears, I found myself sitting at a picnic table in the park enjoying a sandwich and a cold can of pop with the Queen of Shebis.

I thought about that old picnic table where I had sat with Raymond.

It struck me that he was now gone, over the rainbow somewhere, and the purple martins were now back. Kind of strange in a way. If he could have seen this, I know he’d be happy too.

I wonder what he ever did with that potato gun? He probably passed it on to a friend or relative. I imagine a neighbor of his sitting in his own backyard shooting those potatoes into the Indiana evening sky.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to try to expand on the stirring success at Ludington Park to bring purple martins back to the entire region. I want to help any way I can.

I know some of the folks responsible for this, but not all of them.

I want to thank any person anywhere between here and the wilds of the Amazon basin who helped make this magic happen.

You have not only achieved a tremendous, hopeful and inspiring conservation victory, but you have also provided me with one of the most meaningful and truly joyful moments of my lifetime.

Gracias, mi amigos.

Editor’s note: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.

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