Purple Martin Recovery Program

Purple Martin Pair (1)

For nearly a decade PICA has supported the work of the Western Purple Martin Foundation, both financially and with a small group of dedicated volunteers. 

2016 Purple Martin Report:

Throughout the Strait of Georgia there are 95 to 98 colony sites with about 1200 nesting pairs.  The 2016 nesting season was not as successful as the previous year’s.  Due to periods of cold, wet weather in the summer of 2016, there were fewer flying insects for food for both adults and young.  An estimated 2900 nestlings successfully fledged and 1755 were banded.

In the summer of 2016 there were seven nest box sites on the Penders.  Purple Martins nested at five of the sites: Roe Islet, Otter Bay Marina, Medicine Beach, Shingle Bay, and Port Washington.  Of the total of 35 nest boxes, Martins used 25.  Martins also used a piling cavity at Shingle Bay.  No swallow nests were found in any of the boxes this year.  Volunteers banded 53 nestlings.  There were an additional eight nestlings too young to band.  The young at Medicine Beach had already fledged and were seen flying around when the volunteers arrived to do the banding.  If all the young survive, more than 60 Purple Martins will be added to British Columbia’s Purple Martin population.


2015 Purple Martin Report:

In 2015 there were 6 sites on Pender with a total of 29 nest boxes.  Purple Martins nested at 4 of the sites including Roe Islet, Otter Bay Marina, Medicine Beach, and Shingle Bay.  Martins used 19 boxes and there nest starts in 2 more.  Swallows nested in 2 boxes.  We banded 57 martin nestlings; there were also 15 nestlings which were too young to band.  One nest box still had 5 warm eggs.  If all the young survived there may have been about 77 young produced on Pender in 2015.  This is a good increase over the possible 50 young produced in 2014.

Throughout the Strait of Georgia, there were about 1150 Purple Martin pairs nesting at 90 colony sites, a slight increase over the 1060 pairs at 80 sites in 2014.  With the warm weather we had for much of the spring and summer and a good supply of large flying insects, martins laid 5 to 6 eggs per nest and sometimes 7 eggs.  They successfully raised approximately 4000 young, of which 2800 were banded.  With the high number of young produced in 2015, we are expecting that the BC population will increase significantly in 2016, depending, of course, on the winter weather in South America and our spring weather in 2016.

Exciting news continues for the Purple Martin Recovery Program with martins nesting at more freshwater sites and extending their range both west and north.  Martins nested at 8 freshwater sites in 2015 (up from 6 in 2014) for the third year in about 40 years.  Purple Martins were also seen on the west coast of Vancouver Island where they nested successfully in Bamfield.  Martins are continuing to extend their range well north of Campbell River to Port McNeil on the northern end of Vancouver Island.

2014 report from J. Charlene Lee, Director of the Western Purple Martin Foundation:

A good number of Purple Martins returned in 2014, as expected.  Throughout the Strait of Georgia, there were about 1060 pairs nesting at 80 colony sites, a significant increase over the 950 pairs at 65 sites in 2013.  Unfortunately, there was a 30-40% loss in nestling production due to two cool wet periods in June and July and a subsequent low availability of flying insects for food during critical nestling rearing periods for both adult and sub-adult birds.  Only about 2800 nestlings were raised successfully and 2250 were banded.  With this lower production we are expecting that the BC population will remain about the same for 2015 with the possibility of a slight increase/decrease depending on winter and spring weather.

Exciting news continues for the Recovery Program with martins nesting at more freshwater sites and extending their range both west and north.  Purple Martins nested at 6 freshwater sites (up from 3 in 2013) for the second year in about 40 years!  They nested at Westwood Lake and First Lake in Nanaimo, at Comox Lake near Courtney, at Fry Lake in Campbell River as well as at Burnaby Lake in Vancouver and Eagle Point in Harrison Mills.  Purple Martins were also seen on the west coast of Vancouver Island at Tofino and they nested successfully in Bamfield.  Martins are continuing to extend their range well north of Campbell River into the Broughton Archipelago where they nested in boxes at several sites.

This summer there were 6 sites on Pender Islands with Purple Martins including Roe Lake, Otter Bay Marina, Medicine Beach, Hope Bay, Port Browning, and Shingle Bay.  The 2 martins at Hope Bay weren't nesting when I was there for nestling banding in mid-July.  There was a total of 29  nest boxes available.  Martins used 18 boxes and swallows nested in 4.  We banded 26 martin nestlings, there were 17 eggs that hadn't hatched yet, and 7 nestlings that were too young to band.  If all the eggs hatched and all the young survived there may have been about 50 young produced on the Pender Islands in 2014.

Purple Martins on Pender Island
(click to see more photos)

  • Over the past six years, PICA has provided shoreline nest boxes at four locations on North Pender island for the endangered Western Purple Martins.
  • We have had exciting nesting success, with 15 young Martins fledged in 2010, and 30 in 2011.
  • Approval was received from Harbours Commission to place six nest boxes on dock pilings at Hope Bay in 2012, and six boxes at the Razor Point government dock in Browning Harbour in 2013.


It seems that one can’t open a newspaper these days without seeing an article about something bad happening in our natural world.  Well, this is a good news story that has come about as a result of the efforts of a group of dedicated people who manage the BC Purple Martin Stewardship and Recovery Program, supported locally by the Pender Island Conservancy Association. 

What is a Purple Martin and why is it worth saving?  Purple Martins (see photos below) are the largest of the swallow family, and the western sub-species used to be common in the Georgia Basin, including on Pender Island.  The western Purple Martins prefer to nest in hollow trees or in pilings near or over water.  Over the years, partly due to development and competition with European Starlings, their numbers dropped, until by the 1980’s there were only 10 breeding pairs in the whole Georgia Basin.  The reduction was primarily due to a lack of suitable nesting sites.  The BC nest box program began in 1986 and over the years it has grown to 50 areas with most having more than one colony.  The program has been a resounding success and in 2010 there were about 800 breeding pairs.

On Pender the program is operated under the auspices of the Pender Island Conservancy Association and now has 6 nest box sites, each with between 4 and 6 boxes.  The last photo, taken in May, shows Jill Ilsley and Kelly Skrukwa installing the first of 5 boxes at the Port Browning government wharf.  

More nest boxes are at Shingle Bay, near Medicine Beach, near Roe Islet, Otter Bay Marina, and Hope Bay.  In 2011 and 2012 a total of 59 nestlings were counted and of those 40 were old enough to band.  Bands are in the form a ring that is placed on the leg of a bird so that if it is recovered in the future it may provide information about its migration and nesting habits.

PICA would like to thank Pender Island Lumber and Parks Canada for their support of this project.

Bob Vergette


2012 sees us into our 5th year of PICA participation in the Purple Martin Stewardship and Recovery Program for southwestern British Columbia. By placing nest boxes at various locations along our Pender shores, we have been able to welcome the return of these lovely little birds to our Islands.

The Western Purple Martin is the largest swallow in North America - about half as large again as other swallows of our area. Their entire diet can be described in a word – insects!

They depend upon finding nesting cavities near shorelines, but steady loss of habitat over the years brought them close to extirpation from our province.  By 1985 there were only about five breeding pairs of Martins remaining on Vancouver Island.  Through the efforts of the Purple Martin Recovery Program, PUMA, the population has grown to 735 pairs nesting at colony sites around the Strait of Georgia - an exciting comeback for the birds!

We have the wonderful dedication and leadership of PUMA Coordinators Charlene Lee and Bruce Cousens of Nanaimo to thank for this wonderful return.

We in PICA were inspired in 2008 by the success of the PUMA nest box program on Mayne Island. It seemed only fitting that Pender Island offer a welcome to any of the birds that might venture across Navy Channel. And, venture they did - last summer occupying nine of our nest boxes at three shoreline locations.

Our many thanks to Keith Pincott, Bob Vergette, Jill Ilsley, Parks Canada, and other PICA friends for installing and maintaining our boxes, and for assisting with the banding program.

In 2010 the first Purple Martins were fledged from Pender Island, with 15 chicks being banded by Charlene at the end of July.  Our population expanded in 2011, with 31 young and/or eggs observed and 19 birds banded. Two banded birds were observed while in flight, but were too distant to determine the origin of their bands.

Banding is a very careful operation that provides valuable research information.  The tiny birds are very gently lifted from their nest and placed in a bag that is lowered to the dock or boat.  There they are carefully banded and quickly returned to their box, with hardly a peep emitted!

In addition to banding, a few birds on Vancouver Island have been equipped with tiny geolocators, which ride with them on their migratory flight.  Several of these geolocators have been retrieved from returning birds, bringing important information about their travels after leaving southwestern BC.  They disclosed that the birds travelled south through the western states, to a fall roost in Arizona.  They then continued on through Central America, northern South America, and into the Amazon Basin, to winter in southeastern Brazil. Returning by the reverse route, their travel clocked up 22,000 km between their southern Vancouver Island summer visits!

Such a miracle to think of these little birds, in a few short weeks, going from egg, to helpless nestling, to adult birds with the instinct and strength to fly hundreds of miles a day to their winter destination.  For fascinating information and photos, check the Western Purple Martin Foundation website at www.saveourmartins.org

Sylvia Pincott

At the August, 2012 PICA meeting Bob Vergette reported on the Purple Martin Stewardship and Recovery Project.  The Georgia Basin Ecological Assessment and Restoration Society began a volunteer nest box program in 1985.  At that time there were an estimated 10 breeding pairs of the Western Purple Martin.  The Purple Martins are at risk in BC due to loss of habitat, particularly of suitable nesting cavities, and competition from two introduced bird species, European starlings and House Sparrows.  The introduction of nest boxes at various costal sites along the Georgia Strait has resulted in an increase in the number of pairs to about 700.  PICA has been involved with the project for six years.  On Pender nest boxes have been installed on pilings near Otter Bay, Shingle Bay, Roe Islet and Medicine Beach.  July 2nd a team of volunteers checked the nest boxes and banded the chicks that were old enough.  The team counted 32 chicks.  We hope that the chicks will survive the long trip to Brazil and return to the Penders in the spring to start their own families.  The next task for the team is to clean the nest boxes for the 2013 breeding season.  If you are interested in helping, contact Bob Vergette at 629-3820.

Rhondda Porter

(click for more photos)

Photo by Davy

Contact Jill Ilsley if you would like to participate in the Purple Martin project.

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