Hordes of purple martins put on their show

Every year about this time, thousands ...

No, tens of thousands ...

No, upwards of a HUNDRED thousand purple martins swarm above the marshes that border the Maurice River in Cumberland County.

This weekend, it's all being celebrated in a purple martin festival. Viewing platforms will be set up at the foot of the Maurice River bridge -- just north of Mauricetown on Route 670 -- and naturalists  from Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and New Jersey Audubon will be there starting at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

For those who want to get out on the river, kayak trips will be setting out from the bridge. And the boat, Bodacious, will be setting out from Longreach Marina at 6:15 p.m. for a three-hour trip on Friday and Saturday.

One of the naturalists will be Audubon's Pete Dunne, who lives nearby and who wrote vividly about the phenomenon of these blue-black swallows for the Cape May Bird Observatory publication, The Peregrine Observer.

He and his wife, Linda, had finished dinner and had wandered down toward the bridge, where the sky "was simply awash in birds," he wrote.  Ten or 20 thousands birds flew out of the marsh, "coalescing ito a swirling dark tornado of birds that writhed across the horizon like smoke. The conjoined cacophony of burbling chirps and chortled trills swept up the river."

Oddly enough, the birds choose to roost in the phragmites, which are an invasive species, instead of the native cattails and wild rice.  And what's happening in August is that the martins are “staging” in large numbers before heading off to South America for the winter. They forage for insects during the day, then head for the reeds along the river at dusk to roost there for the night.

Here are the details on the weekend's events, from a Citizens United press release:

On Friday and Saturday, the Cumberland County Improvement Authority places a viewing platform in the parking lot at the foot of the Maurice River Bridge. Naturalists will be there starting at 7 p.m. until dark. Bring binoculars. Long sleeves, long pants and insect repellent are recommended.

Those who take the trip on the Bodacious will be joined by local purple martin expert Allen Jackson.  The trip includes beverages and desserts and costs $35 per person. Contact Lillian Armstrong of CU Maurice River to make a reservation and obtain payment information, at 856-305-3238 or Lillian.armstrong@cumaurceriver.org. Space is limited. The trips run rain or shine.

Kayakers put in at the Maurice River Bridge and elsewhere. Life jackets and light sticks should be used. Al and Sam’s Canoe and Kayak Rentals is taking reservations for departures from the bridge both evenings. Call 856-692-8440. Suggested launch time is 6:45 pm.

A family fun day will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Bayshore Center in Bivalve. There will be purple martin crafts for the kids, plus live music, demonstrations and exhibits. The Oyster Cracker Café will have special hours until 6 p.m., serving homemade soups, Jersey Fresh seafood, sandwiches, salds and baked goods.

Here are some relevant websites:

CU Maurice River to download a flyer with details of the events: www.cumauriceriver.org

Maurice River Township for information and directions:  www.mauricerivertwp.org/purplemartin.html

Al and Sam’s Canoe and Kayak Rentals: www.alandsams.com

Bayshore Discovery Project:  www.ajmeerwald.org

New Jersey Audubon: www.njaudubon.org

Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions: www.anjec.org

Millville Country Inn & Suites (offering special purple martin rates):  http://www.countryinns.com/millville-hotel-nj-08332/millvill?s_cid=se.ggl.cis_cmp30