North America's first officially designated Purple Martin sanctuary is at Lake Murray! It's also one of the largest roosting sites in America. Late each afternoon from June through late August or early September, hundreds of thousands of purple martins make their way to 12 acre Doolittle Island in Lake Murray (also called either Lunch Island or Bomb Island) to nest for the night. The number has been placed in the range of 750,000 purple martins returning to roost each late afternoon. Is is believed that the Lake Murray purple martin roost is the largest in North America (and possibly the world).
On summer evenings, boaters by the dozens are anchored around the island to watch this sight. The island is about 12 acres in size and has small to medium size trees and shrubs. The island was used by pilots practicing bombing runs during the 1940s in World War II. The island is named for General Jimmy Doolittle who organized his Doolittle Raiders for their famous Tokyo air raid. This group trained very briefly out of Columbia, conducting practice bombing runs to this island. The island was used through the 1940's for other pilots as they trained for service in World War II. In 1995, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Columbia Audubon Society, and the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company, which owns Lunch Island, signed a joint agreement officially designating the eastern end of Lunch Island as the nationís first purple martin sanctuary
When birds are roosting in the summer months, no one is allowed on the island. As the martins leave the roost in early morning, going in all directions to forage for the day, their departures are so massive that it shows as distinct rings on Doppler radar maps. By late summer, the purple martins begin their migratory flight to South America for the winter.
UPDATE: In 2014, the number of purple martins roosting at Lake Murray was reduced dramatically. This has continued in 2015. On June 21st, I made a boat ride out to Bomb Island to check out the situation and it appears to me that the number of purple martins is in the low thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Where have they gone and why did the massive numbers dwindle so much? There is uncertainy on these issues.
UPDATE 2016: The purple martins are back - not quite the huge numbers as previously, but, back in very large numbers.
CLICK on the pictures below for larger image sizes. (Pictures from July 2009)
Boaters Watching Purple Martins
Purple Martins Watching Boaters
The Purple Martin Conservation Association | Purple Martin Society | The Purple Martins of Lunch Island | All About Birds: Purple Martins | Wikipedia: Purple Martins | Purple Martins - Audubon Society | Purple Martin Vocalizations
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Lake Murray | Lake Murray SC | Lake Murray South Carolina Lake Murray Purple Martins | Purple Martins at Lake Murray | Purple Martins | Purple Martin sanctuary | Doolittle Island