Purple Martin Migration at Highland Mall

The Audobon Society of Austin has written a guest post concerning Highland Mall’s Purple Martin migration, and apart from the amazing spectacle, make a great point about green spaces in Highland Mall.

I wanted to quickly alert people to an event occurring tonight at Highland Mall around 7:30pm.  Unbeknownst to me until just a couple of weeks ago, there is a clump of about 5 trees in the middle of a Highland Mall parking lot that serve as a rendezvous point for hundreds of thousands of swallows who will soon be migrating to South America for the winter.  As you can see, the trees are directly across from the Wells Fargo bank on the north side of Highland Mall just behind the former JC Penney (now ACC building).Tonight (Friday, July 26) is the last night the Audubon Society will be out there, as the migration is starting to wind down.  I highly recommend witnessing this, as it’s — if anything — more dramatic than watching the bats, and right near our own neighborhood.

Highland Mall was built at a time when environmental considerations were nonexistent, the creek that runs through that property was paved over; something unlikely to happen today.  As a result parts of the Ridgetop neighborhood and the area south of the Mall have suffered from periodic flooding problems.  It has long been part of the NLNPT long range planning to recommend that if and when Highland Mall is redeveloped, that this creek be restored, along with a green buffer and some accompanying park space, and maybe even a storm water retention pond.

I’m thinking that the angle of preserving this important slice of swallow migratory habitat might be the foot in the door that NLNPT and Highland NA planners need to get some momentum behind green space restoration at Highland Mall.  This will, however, require strong public support, which is partly why it would be nice to see a lot of folks out at the swallow gathering tonight.

It’s been a long time since I was amazed like I was last night. Perhaps the first time was almost 20 years ago when I first went to the Congress bridge to see the bats. I was fortunate to see them in particularly glorious form–great visibility from unusual contrast with the evening sky (they flew up, instead of down to the water). Last night was about the BIRDS. The birds are the new bats. Let me explain. Tom O’Neill said “Rich, have seen the swallows yet?” Huh, what? So last night, we took the bus out to the north side of Highland Mall across from Wells Fargo/Sugars to check out the swallows. Just a few (like a dozen) around 8pm. Within 15-20 minutes they had grown to hundreds. By 8:45, the Audubon Society folks there were estimating 300,000?!! By 9:03, they had “disappeared” into 3 trees, literally becoming the living leaves, roosting shoulder to shoulder. It was an amazing, swirling swallownado that was multi-layered high that you don’t see the bats do–maybe 20 levels up–and instead of flying away in a line like the bats, they just swirl around over your head like a giant tornado of birdfs. The sky literally blackened and amazingly, we weren’t bombarded by droppings, though some people brought umbrellas. You HAVE TO SEE THIS. This is why:

  1. It’s an incredible experience in and of itself
  2. It’s the most exciting thing to happen at Highland Mall since it opened. Sorry ACC, I’m excited about you, but this is waaaaay cooler.
  3. This has the potential to turn this part of Airport Blvd into a DESTINATION. You should have seen all the people there in their camping chairs who came out to share the awe.
  4. ACC & John-Michael Vincent Cortez) needs to see this phenomenon for itself and incorporate it into their plan. People will travel around the planet to observe this. It occurs just 2 months of the year (late June through early August). Perhaps work with UT or other partners to build a program or conservancy.
  5. This kind of neighborhood improvement/development can’t be bought. It’s a one of a kind placemaker and the Airport Corridor (Chris Riley) should take this as seriously as the Waterfront District takes the bats.

This is how you watch the birds: Around 7:15, grab some food to-go and some camping chairs. I suggest patronizing any of the businesses along Airport. Arrive at north side of mall (you’ll see other folks gathering). Stake out a spot no closer than 25 yards from the treeline to the west (you’ll understand later), tailgate with your friends, look up, try to keep your mouth closed, and be amazed.

I’ll be there Friday with the bus. This will be the last evening the Audubon Society will be there because the migration season is ending and the birds will be on their way to Brazil. Will you join me for this quintessentially Austin experience and help decide whether it’s something worth conserving?

Posted in HighlandMall