Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Up in the Air

This is an adult male Purple Martin. 

Oddly, our local Purple Martin story began in 2017 when this group created nest boxes for Wood Ducks. You can read that story by Clicking Here. 

In 2019, Wood Duck Box # 3 was utilized by Purple Martins. Click Here to read about that unexpected utilization.

Wood Duck boxes are significantly larger than the nest sites that are typically used by Purple Martins. For example, this box (which has been in use for at least ten years, next to the Marine Science Center in Port Townsend) is about one-fourth the size of our Wood Duck boxes.

After the first pair utilized the Wood Duck box, I wondered if the single family might grow into a colony. My first attempt at helping facilitate their colonization was to mount this smaller box behind Box #3. As you can see, it was inspected by a Tree Swallow.

Sadly, the Purple Martins ignored the smaller box. On the positive side, they continued to use the larger Wood Duck Box.

In this photo, we see a single unhatched Purple Martin egg discovered during a November clean-out of the larger box.

In 2021, my good friend Elaine Chuang suggested, secured, and installed first one and then two gourds connected to Wood Duck Box #5. This box is located southwest of Box #3. (You can find all the Wood Duck box locations on this map by clicking on the brown circles.)

Elsewhere, in Seattle and along the West Coast of North America, Purple Martins primarily nest in gourds. This photo clearly shows the size disparity between our Wood Duck boxes and the gourds. 

Last year, one of the gourds on Box #5 was used by the early arriving Tree Swallows. Tree Swallows migrate north before the Purple Martins, so they got there first. You can check out the timing of their migrations using these links. (After reaching the map click on the white triangle inside the blue rectangle to see the annual process in action.)

The Purple Martins continued to use Box #3, but the question of their recolonizing Union Bay remained up in the air.

Returning for a moment to our first photo, you may wonder, Why are they called Purple Martins?

At certain angles, in just the right light, an adult male's iridescence can reflect a bit of a purplish hue, but usually, they look blue with black or brownish wings.

The females and young Purple Martins are generally brownish-gray, with light bellies and occasional blue highlights. 

If we ignore the color issues for a moment, new birders may still wonder, Since they look like Swallows why are they called Martins? 

The common names for all other members of this family, in Western North America, i.e. the species with the scientific name Hirundinidae, include the word swallow. For example, Cliff Swallows, Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, etc. Plus, the common English word used to describe the whole Hirundinidae family is, Swallows. So, by definition, a Purple Martin is a Swallow. In fact, it is the largest one in North America. 

Around the world, the names Swallow and Martin are used without any obvious distinctions. They appear to have been randomly assigned to various bird species within the Hirundinidae family. 

The naming confusion is further complicated by the color issue. The French Name for our Purple Martin translates to Black Swallow. The Spanish name translates to Purple Swallow. Plus, there is a totally different species, in Africa, whose name translates to Blue Swallow. Common names are inherently difficult because they are evidently created locally without worldwide synchronization.

However, scientific names are carefully selected and unique to each species. So they should make perfect sense. The genus and species name for our Purple Martin is Progne Subis. Using Google translate, and doing a Latin to English translation results in the phrase, "You are prone". The relationship between this phase and Purple Martins is not very obvious. After searching multiple sites, I finally noticed a myth-based explanation in Wikipedia. To read it Click Here

The complexity of the natural world is challenging enough without using names that require extensive explanations. Lucid and intuitive names would help new and casual birders focus on more important things like bird identification, their interactive relationship with the local ecosystem, or how climate change may impact the species.

Black-capped Chickadees are an excellent example of a well-named bird species. The name is easy to remember because they have black caps and their call is "chickadee-dee-dee".

This year, the Purple Martins took another step in the recolonizing of Union Bay. 

If you look closely you can see two young Purple Martins in the gourd on the left. They were hoping, with mouths open, that the male on the Wood Duck box would provide food.

He seemed to ignore them, but then a female flew in and their excitement increased again.

However, the female also passed them by. I wonder if the young even noticed the second male who landed above the western gourd - on the right side of our photo.

The second male flew to the opening of Box #5 and peered into the box. 

At this point, a third male came in for a landing just to the left of the occupied gourd. 

I certainly expected one of these four adults would have food for the young.

However, I was wrong. A moment later, a second female arrived and...

...she brought an insect to feed to the young. 

In total, there were seven Purple Martins in the previous photo. Three adult males, two young in the gourd, and two that appeared to be adult females. It is wonderful to see a colony forming. Surprisingly, there is more to the story.

This is Wood Duck Box #6, which is to the south of Box #5, and northwest of the Dempsey Center. Apparently, a third family of Purple Martins nested in this box in 2022.

If you look closely at the migration data (mentioned above) you will notice that by the middle of September Purple Martins are generally gone. Yesterday, I did not see a single one. 

If you are feeling lucky, you might bring your binoculars to the northwest corner of Union Bay. Watch for fast-moving Swallows high in the air. Also, be sure to listen for their liquid-sounding calls.


Our next, Friends of Arboretum Creek Work Party, to help restore native life around Arboretum Creek, will be:
Date:   9-7-22 (On the first Wednesday of the month.)
Time:   9-12 am
Meet:   In the parking lot that is east of the Interlaken Ave intersection with Lake Washington Blvd. 

Come, Join the Fun!

   To Sign Up:   Click Here


Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


Going Native:

Each of us, who breathe the air and drink the local water, needs to watch and protect our local environment. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. Even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. 

I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors, and local businesses to respect native flora and support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (When native plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants. 


My friend Elaine Chuang shared several resources (that were new to me) from the January 2022 Washington Ornithological Society meeting. By the way, Elaine credits Vicki King for researching and supplying this information. The major new concept is that specific keystone native plants enable critical moths and caterpillars that in turn provide food for the great majority of birds, especially during the breeding season. Here are the top two links from her list.

Native Keystone Plants for Wildlife:


Resources for adding plants to your Pacific Northwest Garden:



In the area below it is my intention to display at least one photo each week to help challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.  

What type of caterpillar is this? Is it native to our area?

(Thank you to Matthew Hilliard for this photo!)

Scroll down for the answer.


Hyles galii: Curiously, this species is known by two similar but different names based on what it eats. In some areas, it is known as the Bedstraw Hawk-moth Caterpillar. However, in Alaska, it is known as the Fireweed Hawk-moth Caterpillar. Matthew found this caterpillar on a Fireweed plant in the Arboretum, so it would seem the second name is most appropriate. Everything I have read implies it is native to North America - as is the Fireweed plant. 

Douglas Tallamy in the book "Nature.s Best Hope " explains that caterpillars supply more energy to birds than any other plant eater. He also mentions that 14% of our native plants provide food for 90% of our caterpillars. These plants he calls keystone plants and suggests we can greatly benefit urban birds by planting these in our yards.

Native Keystone Plants for Wildlife:



The Email Challenge:

Over the years, I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements. As of 2021,
 Google has discontinued the service.

In response, I have set up my own email list. With each post, I will manually send out an announcement. If you would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Something like:

                Larry, I want to see more of nature. Please add me to your personal email list. 

Thank you for your patience and interest!

My email address is:  



The Comment Challenge:

Another common issue is losing your input while attempting to leave a comment on this blog. Often everything functions fine, however, sometimes people are unable to make it past the 
robot-detection challenge or maybe it is the lack of a Google account. I am uncertain about the precise issue. Sadly, a person can lose their comment with no recovery recourse. 

Bottom Line: 

If you write a long comment, please, copy it before hitting enter. Then, if the comment function fails to record your information, you can send the comment directly to me using email.

My email address is:  




A Final Photo:

The second male also inspected the western gourd. 


  1. Larry - Great story and photos. Can the timing allow for Wood Ducks AND Purple Martins to use the same box? Wood Ducks nest early, so maybe this can work out to be shared housing?

    1. Dave, That would be a very interesting scenario. The timing would have to be just right. Another somewhat similar idea would be for the Wood Ducks to use Box 5 while the Purple Martins were using the gourds on either side. Fingers crossed. Larry

  2. Fantastic photos and commentary! Always a joy to view/read! Thanks!

  3. This whole article was really fascinating. Thanks so much for the photos AND explanations. M.Riley

    1. Mike, You are certainly welcome! Larry

  4. Excellent! Thank you for following along.