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22 Jul 2023
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California has the swallows of Capistrano. On the Outer Banks it’s the purple martins of the William Umstead Bridge. That’s the old US64 bridge, most people call it the Mann’s Harbor Bridge, on the north end of Roanoke Island .

The bridge isn’t used that much anymore, not since the Virginia Dare Bridge bridge opened in 2002. And right now, that’s probably really benefitting the purple martins that flock to the bridge every year in the thousands, more like tens of thousands.

Purple martins are roosting birds and for whatever the reason may be they thousands of them have chosen the Umstead Bridge as their evening home. The birds are especially thick in the morning when they’re leaving and the evening as they return.

During the daytime they are very rarely seen at the bridge. Purple martins forage for food in the air, consuming insects as they fly.

To protect the bird, humans and vehicles, NCDOT reduces the speed from 55 mph to 20 mph every year from late July to August. It cannot be stressed enough—driving cross that bridge at anything even approaching 55 mph is dangerous right now.

Purple Martins are highly migratory and they use the bridge as a rest site on their annual return to Brazil. 

There are not as many as there has been in the past. There were times in years gone by that the size and density of the flock was so great that it could be detected on radar.

It’s unclear why the number of birds at the bridge has declined over the past few years. There is some speculation that competition for nesting sites with other birds may be contributing to the decline, but everything is still speculation at this point it time. 

Purple martins are just one of any number of fascinating facts about the Outer Banks. From Corolla to Hatteras, there is a surprise behind every sand dune. Stay with us at Brindley Beach Vacations and take some time to explore this sandbar by the sea.