Sunday, August 05, 2012

Observing Purple Martins - Calming my Crazy

I’ve had problems with insomnia ever since I was a young girl. Growing up I spent many a school night starring out my bedroom window wondering if there was anyone else out there who was as wide awake as me. (I had been forbidden from waking-up my sister to talk when I couldn’t sleep). Now that I am fifty I’ve lost my tolerance for sleepless nights and have added discovering new ways to quiet my mind as part of my Finding my Strength challenge.

I have to admit Chopra Center's 21-Day Meditation Challenge has not worked out for me. I had a terrible bout of insomnia the night before the challenge was to begin and had all I could do just to make it through the next day let alone meditate. I skipped day one with every intention of catching up on day two. Well that never happened and when I received the “we’ve missed you email” from Deepak I didn’t bother opening it.

Which brings me to my new calming hobby – observing Purple Martins - which I discovered quite by accident. Earlier this year my neighbor took a fall and was spending time in a rehab center. His Father’s Day wish had been for his children to drive to his home and take a couple photos of the ‘flock” of Purple Martins nested in his yard. Since they were unable to comply, he called wondering if I wouldn’t mind taking a few snapshots. I was happy to oblige.

Those first Father’s Day photos weren’t very exciting, so my husband convinced me he could do better and spent the next several weeks observing and photographing the Purple Martins. He picked out his favorite photos and we put a book together. Last Saturday when my neighbor returned home I gave him the book as a welcome home gift. He said it was the most awesome gift he’d ever received. 

My neighbor has always had a passion for Purple Martins. His father had taught him when he was quite young to be on the lookout each spring for the arrival of Purple Martin “scouts” checking out the previous year’s nesting area. After spotting the scouts, the two of them would rush to put up their Purple Martin house. If the house went up too early they risked Sparrows taking residence and chasing off returning Martins. When his father passed away my neighbor inherited the Purple Martin house and continued the tradition. He was devastated a few years ago when the birds stopped using his house. He took it down and discovered the wood had rotted. The next year he erected a new house in the same spot, but still no birds. His colony had moved on. He then discovered The Purple Martin Conservation Association and added another new house with gourds based on Purple Martin Conservation guidelines. This new house did the trick; he now has a new ‘flock’ of birds that return each year.

Here are some of our photos:


The next day I filled my cup with coffee and took my two dogs outside. I sat on my bench next to my perennial garden with my dogs at my side. It was a beautiful crisp summer day. It had been another week of sleepless nights including one with a horrific wind storm that had downed a few major branches in our yard. The sailboats were out participating in a regatta and a lone duck was feeding on our shore line. I looked up and saw several Purple Martins flying overhead and really listened to their song. I counted ten birds. I put my head back and thought this is bliss. Several years ago after I had first moved into my husband's lake home, a friend had said, “Living on a lake you must feel as if you are always on vacation.” I had responded with, “No that is not what it is like, not at all.” As I sat there watching the Purple Martins, I knew this is what she had been talking about. At that moment I did feel as if I was on vacation. I sat there for another ten minutes taking it all in before I went back inside, back to my never ending to-do list. That night when it was time for sleep I thought about that moment; the beautiful day, sitting on the bench watching the Purple Martins. My mind was quieted and I slept.

Today the birds appear to be gone – left for their migration back to South America.  It is sad to see them leave so soon after my calming experience, but I am already looking forward to their return next spring.  I plan on joining my neighbor in his lookout for the Purple Martin scouts and anticipate observing them for the entire season and for many seasons to come. In the meantime, I will try to remember those ten minutes of bliss observing the Purple Martins from my garden bench when I need to quiet my mind and get a good night of sleep.

According To Denise


  1. For reasons unknown, the martins roost here in Richmond every fall. At the moment we have about 25000 downtown every evening finding places to settle for the night. It's beyond amazing.

    I fear that poor sleep is another of t hose little gifts that Mom Nature gave us ... when shw was in a bed mood. I have good nights and bad nights with no rhyme or reason. Hope your cycle ends soon.

  2. I wish you could come and visit us. We have so many birds in our yard. Their constant singing is one of my joys. I hope you can get some regular sleep soon!

  3. That's wonderful that you found something that could quiet your mind enough to sleep. Those birds are beautiful.

  4. I have never seen a Purple Martin in person but from those photos they look so wonderful. Lovely photos! And I'm happy for you.

  5. I so understand! I struggle with insomnia so I get that part. But I know the effect the birds can have. For the last 25 years we've had a bird feeder near our house. It started when my kids were younger and they got into it too. We got a bird book and started identifying the different kinds of birds. It was so exciting when we spotted a new one.

    At our current house, I briefly decided not to feed the birds anymore. I took down the feeder and stopped blowing my budget on bird food. It only lasted a couple of weeks. I missed them! The feeder is on my deck and everytime I walk by (which is often) I see them out there. When I take an afternoon break, I sit on the couch so I can read my book and watch. THey're so relaxing. I LOVE watching them. We don't have any exciting birds, mainly just sparrows, cardinals, woodpeckers, finches - ordinary birds - but they relax me and make me happy.

    Visiting from SITS.

  6. That's rather a neat thing about the Purple Martins, I didn't realize it was such a careful thing to keep them around.

    So nice of you to help your neighbor with those photos!

    And I can sympathize with your insomnia - for years I could not sleep for various reasons. Going on a couple hours snatched here and there was simply killing me. It took a special class, among other things, to relearn how to get to sleep again.

    It's not foolproof of course, and I can lose the ability over time if I let things slip but some things can help with the insomnia depending on what's causing it (if you have identified and/or eliminated physical reasons).

  7. I'm like you - insomniac since childhood. The only thing that works for me is lots of exercise, and since menopause - that doesn't always work either. I once had a helpful doctor who suggested that I just get up and do something I enjoy instead of lying in bed angry and frustrated. (I usually read.) I love the martin photos and reading about your process for them - it sounds meditative, indeed!!

  8. Webb,
    Interesting - my birds are stopping in your neighborhood to roost on their way to South America. This yearly event even makes the news: I found this video: I hope you enjoyed them. It has been so dismal around here without them. My husband is going to take down our neighbor's bird house for the season. We’ve decided to offer to buy the martin house from him when he leaves. Unfortunately his health is not improving and this may be sooner than everyone would like.
    I am still suffering from insomnia – it was another bad week. And you are right some nights there is no rhyme or reason. Maybe it is just a fact of life.

  9. Michelle,
    Thanks for the offer. Don't forget I offered to give you some of my Lily of the Valley as a house warming gift when you got to Wisconsin. My patch is doing marvelously - they have to be a drought tolerant plant. Seriously, someday when we meet up at a book event* I will bring you a cluster or two.

    *I will be so disappointed if we meet at an IMA event and not a book event if you know what I mean.

  10. Denise,
    This only worked once - which means I need more calming events in my life. Thanks for hosting the "Calm my Crazy" link-ups, I sure enjoy them.

  11. Anna,
    Thanks for stopping in. You may not have seen a Purple Martin because they are very particular about their nesting. Supposedly there is a huge colony that nests in Sacramento during July. And you were wondering where to go on your next summer vacation!!

  12. Homemakers Daily,
    Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve been paying attention to the birds out here, since moving in 14 years ago. One of my first purchases was a bird book, but I’ve never paid attention to the Purple Martin ‘til this year. I think I needed to hear their story. We mostly have common birds here too, but have seen some different species during spring and fall migrations.

  13. Revanche,
    Thanks so much for writing your post, “Insomnia: the old companion” summarizing what you have learned from your sleep class and your own experiences. I especially liked your suggestion to set a time aside to worry about things. I actually tried it this week (a particularly bad insomnia weed) and it worked. I woke up at my usual 3:15 a.m. and immediately started worrying about a project. I told myself remember the plan I worked out yesterday. It worked I fell back to sleep. I also like the breathing techniques. I am going to try them tonight. I am sure I will need them – Sundays are almost always bad nights for me.

  14. Heidi,
    Thanks for the comment. I do think menopause is part of my problem. After writing my post Weekend Wisdom: last year, I visited my doctor. She told me since I am still on birth control pills, my menopause symptoms should be minimal and that what I have been experiencing is just stress. She refused to prescribe anything other than BC pills and that I needed to learn how to manage my stress. (She is taking me off birth control when I turn 51.) I think she is wrong though. I think some of my insomnia problems are related to menopause. Some nights- after I’ve done everything right including exercising during the day - I still wake up at 3:00 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep. This happens even when I am not under stress. I think my stress and menopause compound each other. Also, I hate sleep aids including melatonin. If things don’t get better I may call her again.

  15. What great pictures. I especially like the one with the insect in its mouth. I've not seen a photo that close and clearly before.

  16. Chasing Joy,
    My husband gets the credit; he's the photographer in our household. I am happy to report the purple martins are back this year and florishing. They were really late... most likely the late spring...we almost gave up on them.