Few realize that New Jersey is the only state with three coastlines: Atlantic, Delaware River, and Delaware Bay. These shores provide remarkable natural events including August’s "Purple Martin Majesty," during which hundreds of thousands of purple martins amass before migration, whirling in dark blizzards against the pale evening sky in Cumberland County, above the sinuous Maurice River that feeds into that shimmering bay.
The Maurice’s gentle banks are lined with swaying "forests" of phragmites. These golden reeds are appropriated each August dusk by martins from the eastern reaches of the United States and Canada. Ornithologists call this phenomenon "staging," as birds beyond counting gather to feed upon abundant wetlands insects before undertaking their Brazil journey. Word has it that this year’s martins fledged early and also are intensely congregating ahead of schedule, which may signal premature departure.
This year, Maurice River Township stages its official Purple Martin Festival on Friday and Saturday, August 24 and 25. This spectacle attracts everyone from "martin landlords" and martin banders, to people who don’t know a martin from a swallow and never guessed they were cousins. The township provides free viewing platforms at the Mauricetown Bridge: Route 670, west of the Route 47 Wawa. (In isolated Cumberland, everything is measured from Wawa stores. Also Maurice is locally pronounced as "Morris," important in asking directions.) High-powered spotting scopes will be provided by the organization Citizens United to Save the Maurice River. Participants are urged to bring their own binoculars. No pre-arrangements are required for viewing at the bridge. See listing at end for directions.
The Natural Lands Trust offers free kayak trips each evening, departing at 6 p.m., below Mauricetown’s Bridge. Martins-by-kayak may be arranged through Steve Eisenhauer of the Natural Lands Trust at 856-825-9952 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Another enjoyable way to view the Purple Martin Majesty is on one of the evening dessert cruises, which set out on both Friday and Saturday from the Port Norris Marina at 6:15 p.m. Aboard his ship "Bodacious," Captain Tim Smith is a sure and gentle hand at the helm. Fees for cruise, desserts and soft drinks are $30 per person, for approximately three hours with martins and other birds, some threatened and endangered. For directions and reservations (no credit or debit cards) call Linda Costello at 856-785-1120, ext. 110 or E-mail LCostello@MauriceRiverTwp.org
A "Bodacious" tour is an exercise in timelessness. As the sun settles toward the watery horizon, all optics turn to the sky, to wood’s edge, then play over bobbing phragmites. For a long while, except for intensely fishing osprey, no wings are in view. Then, first one, then six, then a small flock of dark birds flash over the marshland. Soon the sky itself vanishes behind tornadoes of purple martins and accompanying swallows. Questions of amazed first-timers aboard are expertly answered by members of environmental associations, Cape May Bird Observatory, the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), those who house and band martins, and even local politicians.
Captain Dave Scherer of Maurice River Cruises hosts small groups on his pontoon craft. He, too, knows every nook of the Maurice, including Peak of the Moon, the Revolutionary War battleground near Port Norris. Cap’n Dave and his personable first mate have always lived and worked in this county. They are intensely connected, not only to martins, but also to Cumberland’s osprey and American bald eagles. For more information call Scherer at 856-327-1530.
Allen Jackson has been named a PMCA’s "Purple Martin Landlord of the Year," for nesting success on his quarter-acre yard in the city of Millville. He terms martins "America’s most wanted birds." Why? Because they’re seriously insectivorous, as well as very comfortable around humans," he says. Most martins now live in prepared gourds and/or houses, a practice originated by Lenni Lenape Indians. Jackson ascribes martin increases in Cumberland County to the diligence of those who set up and maintain martin housing.
Steve Eisenhauer, regional director of stewardship and protection for the Natural Lands Trust (Peek Preserve), also explains why there are so many martins and why here. "Martins need to be near water (fresh or salt) but they tolerate lawns. Plus, we do have the insects. Many South Jersey martin colonies are near schools. It’s great for the children – natural lessons in geography. Right outside their classroom are these neat birds, about to fly to Brazil!"
Eisenhauer particularly praises a regular on his kayak martin tours – a third-grade teacher at the Downe Township Elementary School. "Trish Finley has kept a purple martin colony thriving for the last seven years. Trish incorporates it into environmental education."
"Martin landlord" Jackson recalls a particularly cold spring when he ordered 1,000 crickets for a Vineland school’s martin colony. A retired federal wildlife biologist, he realized that the flock was at risk due to insufficient insect hatch. Jackson first used a slingshot to shoot crickets toward hungry birds. "Pretty soon, the children and I simply threw crickets into the air. The martins flew by our ears and caught those crickets."
Jackson elaborates on why so many martins come to the Maurice River area. "They are creatures of open habitat, of river systems and coastal habitat. Where you have wetlands, there you have insects. Plus (we have) good martin landlords -more than 100 in south Jersey. Martins need to be close to buildings. This helps protect them from aerial and ground predators and nest competitors. That’s why we have an extra good martin population."
During the Purple Martin Festival the August sky above the Maurice resembles a roast entirely covered with cracked pepper, every grain a martin, when not a swallow. A skyful of martins is by no means a Hitchcock experience, however. Locals gather at the river all through August, describing martin-dusks as "cool," even "transcendent," even though they might not know the name of the birds.
Aboard the Bodacious, apart from the boat’s putter and murmurs of about-to-be-ravished birders, it is very silent upon the Maurice. Kayaks in Crayola colors make their own hushed way along edges of phragmite fields. A pale sun tints clouds, waters, and reeds with J.M.W. Turner and Monet hues. Martin-banders whisper of nest successes and failures. They’ll exult over five and six fledglings per mature pair, this year’s norm, as recounted by Mauricetown banders Drew and Nora Gerberoux. Necks crane, every eye on the still empty sky. When first birds materialize, banders and martin landlords (I am not making this up) can recognize "their" birds, by the colors of bands upon those stick-thin legs.
Abruptly, clusters of birds will dance before, beside, behind, and always above the boat – martins and swallows as high and as far as the eye and optics can see.
Royal purple on top, snow-blinding white below, as they flash and maneuver, their very breasts are increasingly stained rose by the lowering sun. Then, suddenly, they all settle onto the reeds, as though at a single command. Then again abruptly, again as one, flocks upon flocks rise toward late sky and final insects.
Great blue herons mince and feed in shallows. Ospreys splash and rise, carrying a last fish with aerodynamic precision. Sharp eyes and superb optics pick out a clapper rail in the bank shadow. Last year at sundown a peregrine falcon snared and lost a smaller bird, and we weren’t sure whose side we were on.
A coralline sunset ignites the swathes of phragmites. They turn from chartreuse to flame orange, then umber, as martins make their final swirls toward sleep. The river turns molten silver, then pewter, then slate to match the clouds. Everything pours rose and on over to deepest purple to match these legendary birds. And no one knows, not even the experts, could this be the martins’ last night, this year, upon the sibilant Maurice?
Purple Martin Festival, Friday and Saturday, August 24 and 25, Mauricetown, Cumberland County. Free viewing platforms on the Mauricetown Causeway Bridge, Route 670; kayak excursions (contact Steve Eisenhauer at 856-825-9952 or E-mail email@example.com; sundown dessert boat cruises on the Bodacious (reservations required, Linda Costello at 856-785-1120, ext. 110 or E-mail LCostello@MauriceRiverTwp.org); and pontoon excursions (contact Dave Scherer at 856-327-1530). www.mauricerivertwp.org/purplemartin.html for directions and information.
Where to Stay: Country Inn, 1125 Village Drive, Millville 08332 at Wheaton Village (glassblowing museum and exhibits), 856-825-3100, www.countryinns.com.
Restaurant: Paper Waiter Restaurant & Pub (pun intended – paperweights fill museum), 1111 Village Drive, Millville 08332, 856-825-4000. Good plain country food.