Would you believe 500,000 to 700,000 purple martins filling the sky, above the phragmites marshes of the Maurice River? That waterway, literally designated “Wild and Scenic”, is never more dramatic than when the martins gather prior to migration, every August. If you’re lucky, you have tickets with dear birding friends, aboard watercraft chosen by Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River (and its Tributaries), to carry you toward a sunset miracle. (https://www.cumauriceriver.org/) (https://www.cumauriceriver.org/pages/maurice.html) (http://www.mauricerivertwp.org/purplemartin.html)
There are a couple of more sailing — use the third link above to become martin-dazzled!
The Maurice empties into our Delaware Bay. Recall/realize that New Jersey is the only state with three coastlines — The Shore, The Delaware River, and the Delaware Bay. Revolutionary Battles were fought in the vicinity of the Maurice — “Peak of the Moon” and the grisly Hancock House massacre. In Greenwich (pronounced Green Witch), there is an actual monument to the tea burners of that town, celebrated for daring to defy the British. Several trials were mounted, not one of them successful in convicting a single burner of tea. The names on that stone are the proudest items in Greenwich, right up there with that very early, venerable Quaker Meeting House.
Preservation battles are increasingly being undertaken in the region — for Philadelphia “developers” — let’s face it, they’re destroyers! — would pave over the entire area that earned New Jersey its Garden State honorific. Think tomatoes. Think Campbell’s soup and Heinz ketchup. They put ketchup on their breakfasts down there. Neighbors realize you’re not local when you look surprised that they bring you Heinz’s glory for your bacon and eggs.
The Maurice and the Cohansey are wide and shimmery, soft, even lazy. Silence is the norm in either Salem/Cumberland County river. A few fishing boats mutter along. Various signs of legendary shipbuilding of yesterday become apparent as your boat carries you martin-ward on the well staffed Bonanza II.
You’ll have counted 8 mature American bald eagles and more than a few immatures before you’re even settled into your viewing post in the prow. Great blue herons lift off with dignity. Black-crowned night herons are already at roost in the heart of dark evergreens and shrubs. These white football-shaped herons always seem to be scowling, but they’re very happy with the undisturbed habitat provided by the Maurice in August.
Your boat is filled with people from many states, and birding experts who specialize in martins. The birds themselves will float in from four states, but not until the sun has nearly set behind those towering reeds. We don’t know each other, but birders are never strangers for long. The air is steamy but not oppressive. Wavelets whisper and it’s quiet enough to hear them. Inside the excursion boat, desserts of sweet and fruits await, and plenty of soft drinks and essential cold water. Binoculars are everywhere. Expectation high.
Legendary martin expert, –who modestly disclaims his introduction–, Allen Jackson, speaks on the microphone, then comes down to eager participants on the prow. All evening long, he softly answers seemingly endless questions. We learn that these martins eat in those other states, returning nightly now to the Maurice to roost in seemingly endless phragmites. That the sky will fill with them, as with passenger pigeons long ago. That their migratory flight could start next week, with the first northwest wind to speed them southward. That insects are their food of choice and Brazil their 4000-miles-away destination.
The river turns from wet slate to mercury. The sun goes from yellow to orange to pink tones, then copper. It resembles a cauldron, spilling molten copper across the water’s dimpled surface. On the other side of the boat, the half-or-so moon is yellow, then gold, then orange. Yet its water signature is silver.
Ospreys are everywhere, –young on the nest, matures in the air, skillfully, skillfully fishing. We don’t see any of legendary competitions between eagles and osprey, perhaps because all have had a good day on the Maurice. Red-winged blackbirds ripple overhead like avian rivers, males and females together, feeding intensively. Grackles perch on a complex telephone pole, and we all want them to be martins.
Then Allen softly alerts us to a single martin on high. A handful. A gathering. A cluster. A swarm. As the river turns the color of smoke from a fresh campfire, phragmites reaches become the color of charcoal. I must admit, we’re not seeing the purple of the ever increasing circling birds who choose sundown for their autumnal drama. Charcoal-feathers-to-charcoal reeds, they soar and circle, consider landing, land, then rise again. No longer can we count birds – until some0ne comes up with the old joke: “Count the legs and divide by two!”
Allen is rapt, gently reminding us to look right, look left, look carefully over the reeds, and, above all, gaze at the sky. Those miraculous birds are as closely packed as pepper on pastrami, and still more are streaming in. Two tiny boats and ours still their motors. We are gifted with the musical chatter of the gatherers. And then the sun seems to drop like toast pulled into a toaster, and it’s all over until tomorrow.
By next week, Allen announces, there could be a million. They will roost on both sides of the Maurice then, awaiting that weather front, that essential northwest wind that begins their migration, and ends martin miracles in New Jersey for another year.
Never forget, as I remind and remind you re land in our state — neither the martins nor the humans would have had this night’s experience, were it not for dedicated preservationists. Support Citizens United to Save the Maurice River. Support your local land trusts, wherever you live.
Nature is paramount. Nature herself is endangered. Do everything you can to keep her, and her magnificent creatures. safe.
Preliminaries to the skyful of martins: