Just more than a year ago, Kevin Li worked alone, hanging seven gourds high on rotted pier pilings along Shilshole Bay. It took him an hour, but before he could finish, about 10 purple martins...






Just more than a year ago, Kevin Li worked alone, hanging seven gourds high on rotted pier pilings along Shilshole Bay. It took him an hour, but before he could finish, about 10 purple martins had already moved into their summer homes, chirping, flapping and chasing off a crow. From desolation to a bustling community in an hour.

Li, 50, died four months ago, but the Western purple martins he reintroduced to Seattle a decade ago fly our skies again this summer, a living legacy to his tireless work.

Last month, on a cold, windy morning, Li’s friends and fellow bird-lovers climbed 20-foot ladders to hang new hollowed gourds on an old pier at West Seattle’s Jack Block Park and carry on his mission. He did so much that his fatal scuba-diving accident left a giant void for people and birds alike. Last month’s gourd-hanging was organized by Kristina Baker, whose longtime companionship with Li began with their mutual love of birds.

“I remember one night at Shilshole, there was an incredible sunset. Kevin and I sat there watching two purple martins watching the sunset. They leaned their heads together, and Kevin and I did the same thing, watching them watching the sunset.”

Some say the birds once roosted in the thousands at Green Lake and Montlake at the end of each summer, but the numbers began dwindling in the 1970s and ’80s, and the state counted a single nesting pair in Seattle in 1988. In 1996, Li began establishing roosting spots. Last year, he counted 75 pairs in homes he had erected.

Li, an environmental scientist, began installing bird boxes, but they were often taken over by starlings and house sparrows. Several times a week, he climbed a ladder to evict the invaders. Then he learned that ancient Native Americans used natural gourds for the purple martins. He tried them and found the purple martins loved the gourds, but their competitors didn’t.

In his home office, Li left a map peppered with sites where boxes have been installed and purple martins have nested. He also left this:

“Best places for viewing martins: Nisqually Reach Nature Center at Luhr Beach, and Jack Block Park in West Seattle. Late July and August are often best . . . At low tide, the Ballard Public Access Beach (behind the beach club, 6411 Seaview Ave. N.W.) is another excellent viewing spot …”

If you go, take a moment to thank Kevin Li.