RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia is for lovers — and thousands of purple martins.
They begin flitting into town in early June, and by midsummer the purple martins that roost in a one-block section of downtown Richmond are so thick, their synchronized mass movements can be seen on weather radar.
Once scorned for their mess, the purple martins that check in each night in a row of pear trees are now celebrated with their own festival. "Gone to the Birds," now in its fifth year, will be held Saturday as bartenders serve up "Purple Martinis," restaurants offer discounts and guides take birders on tours of this urban aviary.
It's a mystery why the blackish-purple birds, the largest of the swallow family in North America, selected a row of 15 Bradford pear trees to spend their last six summers in a crowded entertainment district known for its restaurants, clubs and former tobacco warehouses converted into lofts.
Most people don't care and just enjoy the show, which includes raptors sweeping down from high-rises to snatch a purple martin in flight. There are plenty to go around: organizers said they counted 27,000 birds at the 2011 festival; 14,000 have been counted this year.
The most spectacular show is at dusk when the birds circle the skies, tightening into a ball to return to their roost in waves.
"Who would think standing around watching birds would be something cool to do?" said Jon Baliles, who helped organize the first festival with his brother-in-law.
"We were like, wow, it's totally surreal, right in the middle of the city," Baliles said. "I'm no bird aficionado but that remains one of the coolest things I've ever seen in Richmond."
The festival is supposed to help businesses in a section of downtown called Shockoe Bottom, once the center of Richmond's slave-trading commerce. The low-lying area is still recovering from floods brought by Hurricane Gaston in 2004.
Purple martins, like other migratory birds, often roost in a staging area before they begin their flight south, which for the martins is South America. They gorge on beetles, increasing their body weight by 30 to 60 percent, to fuel their 5,000-mile journey.
"They're associated with eating insects, so people love having them around, and they're purple," said Mary Elfner with the Virginia Audubon.
But why pit stop in Richmond?
Louis Verner, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said the dense leaf cover and twig structure can support thousands of birds in one tree and the James River is less than a half mile away.
Mike Wilson, a biologist with the Center for Conservation Biology, said Richmond is not the only urban setting for the birds.
"What these birds do is they're relying on these routes for safety in numbers," he said. Martins are gregarious, he said, and they form big flocks.
Dilnesaw Bitew wasn't a fan of the birds at first because of the mess they left on the cars at his Addis Ethiopian Restaurant. Now he offers 20 percent discounts while the birds are in town.
"Now I like them. It's fun to watch them in the evening," he said.
Adolph White, a retired teacher and amateur birder, is out every morning to wash down the sidewalk that runs along the row of pear trees. He was there Wednesday with his grandson.
"It's covered up pretty bad," White said of the layer of droppings.
His night job is much better. He's a guide several nights a week for people who want to see the purple martins return at dusk to their pear trees.
"They are amazed," he said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap
Center for Conservation Biology: http://ccb-wm.org/