Did you know that there is a tiny island right near Columbia, SC where thousands of Purple Martins fly to spend the night every summer evening? Summer means these little birds who usually nest in gourd birdhouses, find that Lake Murray in South Carolina is irresistible and are drawn to Bomb Island in the middle of the lake every evening like moths to a light. They just cannot resist. Each year, around a million migrating purple martins stop at Bomb Island on South Carolina's Lake Murray. Bomb Island is almost twelve acres of standing trees surrounded by water.
The island has its own history. Pilots in World War 2 used Bomb Island and many other surrounding islands for a bit of bombing practice. After all the practice here on Lake Murray many went on to work on very important missions. Some of the bomber crews flew with General James H. Doolittle's Raiders on April 18, 1942 during the time when Tokyo was bombed.
It migration starts early in the summer when you can be out on the lake and see a low flying kind of floppy little bird going very fast by your boat. Then you notice a few more and every day the numbers grow until there are so many they can make the sky dark. Many watch this migration nightly from their pontoon boats full of family and friends. This is not your typical group on the lake. This group is solemn and quiet as they all look to spot the little guys flying in as if they are saying “I am late, I am late, for a very important date!” Alice in Wonder style. This phenomenon starts in late June until last until August.
For peak number of birds, visit during late July. By July, there are so many in the sky that it appears as if there are black clouds overhead as the sun sinks ever so slowly in the western sky. Then as if by magic, all of the Purple Martins take flight at one time and swirl in multiple formations. No there was not a sound or even a whisper. They all just knew when and where to go to keep this precision show on point. They entertain like pros every night as if they were Broadway stars.
Naturalist Zach Steinhauser points out the Purple Martins’ flying pattern. “They’re the ones soaring around, more loosely knit rather than in a tight flock,” he says, “and they glide like a fighter jet.”
Whether they are drawn here by something the military did way back when or due to the amazing food source of mosquitoes near Lake Murray (just ask anyone - the lake is the leader for these biting bugs). Best to know that these little birds, the Purple Martins are the largest North American member of the swallow family and, like other swallows; their diet consists of flying insects. Many are thankful for them eating some of these biting creatures.
These birds do love their island and humans are not allowed there per posted signage. Bomb Island is right on the path of their migration route and has lush trees and shrubs. It sits far enough out in the water that no predators can make it to the island. These birds are famous and have been named the largest martin roost on the continent. NASA has even watched their migration here and National Geographic has featured them.
“A bird that was tagged and recorded flying back and forth to Canada pinged just a few miles west of Lake Murray,” says Steinhauser, who leads boat tours here and has traveled to South America to study the birds. He keeps tabs on the migration with the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s tracking tools.
As you watch them one can speculate where they have been and where they are going. They definitely see more of the world then many of of us. Many find themselves in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil at some point on their journey.
Want to see them yourself on Lake Murray? Find a friend with a boat, take your own or check for rentals here at Lake Murray Country. Remember that the show is over once the sun sets.
Tips for snagging a look at these amazing creatures are to make sure you get out to the island just as the sun starts to fall from the sky. The birds start their journey from even 100 miles away about an hour to 30 minutes before sunset. Yes some will be early and some will be late just like mankind. Check your weather apps for sunset times, but remember that the time is complete sunset, not the colorful magic hour. You will be heading home at the sunset time reported for the day.
Mornings are something that one needs to see too when these little fighter jets awake. Radar can track them as an explosive note as they all rise for the day in unison.
Be sure not to miss this amazing sight right here in the Columbia, SC area.