Purple martin project passing to the next generation of conservationists

It’s a rare breed of high school senior-to-be who’s already working on completing a community-service project that’s needed to graduate next year.

Many students put it off to the waning weeks of their senior year, and only a small minority tackle projects before their junior year is over.

One such highly motivated teen is Chelsea Tageson-Crane, 17, a student at Capital High School.

She’s one of five classmates monitoring purple martin nesting activity this summer at the Woodard Bay Natural Resource Conservation Area at Henderson Inlet.

Since May, they have headed out to the bay weekly at dusk, armed with binoculars, spotting scope and data-entry sheets to record sightings and activities involving a beautiful, blue-black songbird that faithfully returns from the Amazon River basin in Brazil each year to mate, nest and raise its young.

Woodard Bay has been home for about 20 years to purple martin nest boxes placed on pilings – nearly 60 in all. The students monitor about half the boxes, the ones most easily seen from shore without the aid of a boat.

“It’s the largest purple martin nesting colony in South Puget Sound,” said Breanna Trygg, senior culminating projects coordinator in the wildlife program at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Another group of Capital High School students monitors the 20 or so purple martin nest boxes in Budd Inlet’s East Bay.

Students in South Sound and statewide help the cash-strapped state agency keep tabs on a variety of wildlife species at a time when field biologists are spread thin, Trygg said.

“We assign them to species that we want to keep an eye on,” she said.

It wasn’t too many years ago when purple martins had all but disappeared from South Sound because of the loss of nesting habitat – wooden snags they excavate for nests. That’s when Jack Davis, one of the founding members of the Black Hills Audubon Society, came up with the idea of installing nest boxes on old marine pilings, including at Woodard Bay and East Bay.

“I remember being out in a little row boat with Jack, putting up purple martin nest boxes in East Bay,” recalled another longtime Black Hills Audubon member, Chuck Chambers. “It was shortly after I retired from Fish and Wildlife in 1981.”

Lanny Carpenter, a birding and environmental activist disciple of Davis, recalls replacing 30 or so of the wooden nest boxes at Woodard Bay with plastic ones that Davis had encouraged him to build not too long before the venerable birder succumbed to cancer in 1998.

“Jack was the inspiration for all of the purple martin recovery efforts in South Sound,” Carpenter said. “He’d be thrilled to know the students are working on these purple martin projects.”

I walked to the Olympia Farmers Market for lunch Friday, stopping long enough along East Bay to watch three or four purple martins – they are members of the swallow family and aerial insect feeders – flitting in and out of their artificial nests.

I thought of Davis and smiled at the thought of high school seniors such as Tageson-Crane keeping track of his fine-feathered friends.

Anyone who saw the front page of The Olympian Monday had to marvel at the image of a myotis bat captured last week at Woodard Bay by my co-worker, photographer Tony Overman.

Wings extended and mouse-like face staring into the camera, the bat is perfectly lit in the gathering darkness, with blue-black Henderson Inlet showing in the background and a sharply illuminated clump of grass in the foreground helping frame the photo.

This jaw-dropping photo didn’t come easy. Overman returned to the Woodard Bay bat roosting pier three consecutive nights at sunset, tweaking his strobe light technique and lens exposure through hundreds of digital camera clicks until he got the perfect picture.

“It was a technically challenging shot,” Overman recalled. “The bats are tiny, and they move so fast. Plus, I was shooting in the dark and I needed to show the bay in the background, and I needed to light up the bat.”

The eye-catching photo the third night was the result of turning the flash down to the lowest power, stopping down the lens for more depth and using a faster shutter speed than the previous nights.

Overman ranks the bat shot as one of his top two or three wildlife photographs. It’s running neck-and-neck as the top vote-getter in this week’s MSNBC online news photo contest, competing with a NASA photo from the International Space Station of an erupting volcano in the North Pacific. The photos can be viewed at

Way to go, Tony; you’ve got my vote.

A total of 1,633 people rode in the 22nd annual Bicycle Commuter Contest sponsored by Intercity Transit in May. Participants recorded 107,000 miles on more than 11,500 round-trip commutes, preventing about 100,000 pounds of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

One of the goals of the contest is to get more people in the habit of riding their bikes to work. Here at The Olympian, three of the four members of the newsroom commuter contest team have continued to commute by bicycle since the contest ended – Christian Hill, Matt Batcheldor and Gail Wood. I’m the only team member who hasn’t pedaled to work this month.

My hesitancy to commute to work is driven in part by what happened to Hill on June 16 as he barreled down State Avenue near the office.

A car pulled out onto State from Bethel Street towing a low-slung trailer. Hill slammed on his bike brakes and did a header over the handlebars. It could have been worse. He suffered a cracked radius in his right arm, but no surgery or cast was required. He expects to be back riding his bicycle in about two weeks.

I need a dose of Hill’s determination to resume my bicycle commute.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444