Purple Martins in snow and 100,000 blackbirds

2010 February 15
by David J. Ringer

VICKSBURG, MISS. — Whew, lots going on and a failing laptop on top of everything, so we’re going to cover a lot of ground in this post. Still have heaps of Ecuador photos to share, and more systematics and ID posts in the hopper.

Purple Martins return

I spotted my first Purple Martin of the spring out my bedroom window one week ago — Sunday, Feb. 7. We saw one at the Audubon office on Tuesday, and on Thursday evening, when we returned from Little Rock (that’s another story), a female appeared to have taken up residence in one of our gourds.

Martin gourds at Audubon office in Vicksburg, Miss.

Female Purple Martin in gourd


Friday, it snowed in Vicksburg. We got about 6 inches, which I’m told is the most that’s fallen here in several years. It was a beautiful wet snow that stuck to everything and transformed my “backyard.” I don’t know when or if I’ll see this again here.

Snow at apartment 1

Snow at apartment 2

Snowy sycamore branches

Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Backyard Bird Count

Friday also kicked off the Great Backyard Bird Count, so I started counting in the snow. This year, in addition to submitting checklists, I’m also helping out as a reviewer for the state of Louisiana. When reports get flagged by the eBird filters, I follow up on them, contacting the observers for further information if needed.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal has been the most frequently reported bird on the Great Backyard Bird Count for the last five years. It looks like it’ll claim the title again this year. How cool is it that one of our most frequently encountered birds is also so gorgeous?

Have you ever seen a Purple Martin in the snow? I did on Friday, and here are the (blurry) photos to prove it:

Purple Martin in snow 1

Purple Martin in snow 2

By mid-afternoon, the sun was peeking out, and the snow had already started melting.

Greater White-fronted Goose, Anser albifrons

While I was on a conference call, I noticed something unusual swimming past with the usual assortment of feral ducks and geese that I see every day. It was a Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)! I managed to snap a couple of photos without dropping my phone. After this brief appearance, I never saw the bird again.

100,000 blackbirds

Saturday, I went to count birds at Mahannah Wildlife Management Area in southern Issaquena County. I had good numbers of Canvasback, White Ibis, and sparrows, and I saw three Common Yellowthroats, which was good.

But the real spectacle began as the sun started to set.

I heard the distant clamor of blackbirds and finally spotted a river of Common Grackles up high, moving south. Thousands of birds streamed past — and that was only the beginning. They kept coming. Thousands became tens of thousands, and somewhere along the way, the Red-winged Blackbirds started pouring toward me as well.

The grackles moved high in long ribbons that, at times, stretched farther than I could see in both directions. One such stream passed overhead continually for 20 minutes. The red-wings were much lower, flying in wide bands and in a slightly different direction. Vertigo gripped me briefly as the birds rushed past.

By the time it was done, I’d estimated totals of 75,000 Common Grackles and 30,000 Red-winged Blackbirds — a staggering figure, and one that, so far, gives Valley Park, Mississippi, (the nearest town) more individual birds than anywhere else on the continent in this year’s GBBC.

I couldn’t even begin to hint at the magnitude of the event with my camera, but here are some shots anyway.

Common Grackles going to roost 2

Common Grackles going to roost 1

My crude colored lines indicate about 50 grackles each. There are about 650 grackles in this image, and it’s just one small section of a stream that passed overhead for several minutes.

Blackbirds going to roost

OK, you have to see this big to get it, and then you can see a cloud of grackles in the sky, a small, loose flock of red-wings lower down, and thousands of birds packed into the lower tier of trees.

Rusty Blackbird

I got some birding in on Sunday too — four checklists in fact — and was please to hear mockingbirds, cardinals, and House Finches singing. It was almost 60 degrees, and all our beautiful snow is gone already.

I had lots of pelicans and 3,000 Double-crested Cormorants at Eagle Lake north of Vicksburg, and there were a few Rusty Blackbirds feeding on wet ground near the parking lot at the public boat ramp.

Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus

One more day

The Great Backyard Bird Count runs through Monday, so you have one more chance to participate!

Related posts:

  1. First Purple Martin of spring and a big flock of Rusty Blackbirds
  2. Cole Camp CBC: Snow, longspurs, and owls
  3. Dallas-area Snow Bunting and Little Gull
  4. Wildflowers, warblers, and snow
  5. Snow day!
4 Responses
  1. February 15, 2010

    That second last photo is incredible David. So many birds.

  2. February 15, 2010

    Oooh, your snow was just as pretty as ours. But we had so much, ours is still around, 5 days later.

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