Sand Martin

A summer visitor who, of the three musketeers (Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins), arrives first in March. The older birds arrive before the youngsters. They are most often seen in small flocks feeding over water on rivers, lakes and reservoirs as they avoid built-up areas, woods and mountains.

Sand Martins are smaller than Swallows. They have a brown back and white underparts with a brown breast band. Their wings are pointed and appear narrower than a House Martin's. They have a similar tail but lack the white rump. Although less graceful than a Swallow, they are still pretty good to watch. Their call is a harsh, dry, rattling "cht-cht-cht" twitter. They generally feed in gangs, flying low over water to catch insects like midges, flies and aphids.

Traditionally, Sand Martins nest in colonies in burrows on sandy cliffs close to rivers and gravel pits, though now they often use the Sand Martin hotels found on nature reserves. They are very sociable in their nesting habits; from a dozen to many hundred pairs will nest close together, depending on the available space or hotel burrow vacancies. Their nests are made at the end of tunnels which can be a few inches to three or four feet in length. Once they have dug their burrow, 4-6 eggs are laid. Both parents take turns in keeping the eggs warm, which hatch after 14 days. The youngsters can fly after 22 days and depend on mum and dad to feed them for a further week. Sand Martins will often have 2 broods and sometimes change mate if they argued too much over room service.

There are approximately 200,000 pairs in Britain over the summer, though this fluctuates from year to year as it is hard to count the fast moving blighters accurately. They depart back to Africa in August where they overwinter in the Sahel, the zone south of Sahara, where they can feed in the damp places that offer plentiful supplies of flying insects. When migrating, large flocks will gather in evening roosts on reed beds. Most Sand Martins will return to the same colony year after year. In the late 1960s, Sand Martin numbers crashed because of drought in Africa, but since then they have been slowly recovering. The oldest ringed Sand Martin lived to be 9 years old.

Their Latin name is 'riparia riparia' where 'riparia' means 'of the riverbank'. It is derived from the Latin 'ripa' for 'riverbank'. A riparian owner is someone who owns the section of a river that borders his land (including the fishing rights).

House Martin

House Martins are very sociable and inclined to operate in small flocks. They will rush past you in a fluttering flight on stiff triangular wings while blowing "prrit" raspberries and flashing their white bums just so you don't confuse them with Swallows.

A House Martin has a blue-black back, pure white underparts, a white bum, a forked tail with no streamers and a dark underwing. They arrive in late April, usually a week after the Swallows, and depart late October to over winter in Africa. Where they go in Africa is still a bit of a mystery. It is thought somewhere high above the central African rainforest. While on this winter holiday, they do their moult (feather change) so they are looking spic and span for when they return.

House Martins eat insects like aphids, gnats, flies, beetles, and ants which they catch in flight, similar to a Swallow, though often at a higher level in the sky. They seldom land on the ground except to gather nest material.

Nesting starts in May, a week or two after arriving. House Martins have largely abandoned nesting on cliffs and mainly make their cup-shaped nests under the eaves of houses, reusing and repairing old nests year after year. The nest takes both adults 12-14 days to make and is made of 2,500 small mud pellets stuck together and has an entrance with a clear flight path in. Being sociable, House Martins prefer to nest in groups. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 15 days. Both parents feed the youngsters who can fly after 30 days. From 15 days the parents try to lure the youngsters from the nests on test flights. They have two broods (sometimes three) with brothers and sisters from the first brood helping to feed the second. Late broods can still be in the nest in October. If you stand under a House Martin's nest at night, you can hear the conversational twittering as they read bedtime stories. Although their nests are protected, ignorance and people not liking poo on their houses leads to some bad homeowners knocking nests down. The House Martins will build a new nest elsewhere, but it results in fewer successful broods.

There are about 500,000 pairs in Britain with the preferred habitat being open country with low vegetation, such as pasture, meadows and farmland, and preferably near water, although they can also be found in mountains. House Martins have even moved back into cities if the air is clean. The oldest ringed bird lived to be 14 years old.

The Latin name is ’delichon urbica’ where ’delichon’ is an anagram of the Ancient Greek term ’chelidon’ meaning ’swallow’ and ’urbicum’ is from the Latin for 'of the town'.


They are the Red Arrows of the fields with their red, white, and blue markings. To think they have been on safari in Africa with elephants and giraffes before coming here is awesome. Hearing their happy, chatty, twittering call not only lifts your spirits but heralds that summer is on the way. They are birds of open rural countryside - rare in urban spaces.

The Swallow is a sleek, slender bird with a deeply forked tail. They have a dark blue back, off-white underparts, a deep red face, and blue-black chest band. Their tails have long thin streamers whose length depends on their age and nobility. The tail has white spots underneath that are sometimes visible in flight. The wings are long and pointed. They love flying low over fields and water. When perched on branches, wires or TV aerials, they are very chatty with a liquid, happy, twittering call.

Swallows feed almost exclusively on flying insects like bluebottles, house flies, bees, hover flies, mayflies, flying ants, and moths which they catch on the wing. They have two foveae in each eye, giving them sharp lateral and frontal vision to help track their prey, and strong jaws with a wide gape to catch them. In poor weather, they will feed more over lakes and reservoirs. Their moult (feather change) is slow so it doesn't interfere with the ability to fly and catch insects.

Nesting starts from April, in barns or outhouses. The nest is a cup built from mud and lined with feathers and grass. Previous years' nests are often reused and the same pair of Swallows will return to the same site year after year. The 3-6 eggs hatch after 15 days. The young Swallows fly after 20 days and are fed for a further week. A brood of young Swallows needs about 6000 flies a day to survive. There are usually two broods and sometimes three. That is a lot of flies to catch! Farmers' use of insecticides to kill insects on their fields had a devastating impact on Swallows, but now many of these chemicals are banned and the Swallow population is stable. The loss of old buildings where they can nest is also a big worry, so put up a Swallow box!

The Swallow is a summer migrant, arriving in April and going by October. They migrate by day, feeding as they fly (most other birds feed during daytime and migrate at night). It takes about 6 weeks to get to Africa and about 4 weeks to get back. They often travel in tour groups with House Martins. In ancient times, when Swallows disappeared in winter, people thought they hid at the bottom of lakes.

There are 800,000 pairs in Britain. Their Latin name is 'hirundo rustica' where 'hirundo' is the Latin word for 'swallow' and 'rusticus' means 'of the country'. Americans call them Barn Swallows.


Swifts are the supersonic fighter jets of the birds. They are scimitar winged, aerial masters. They can cruise at 26 mph, their default speed, but when screaming across the sky they can get competitive and, by radically altering their aerodynamics, can reach speeds of up to 69 mph. This makes them the fastest bird recorded in straight and level flight. Like a supersonic fighter, they can even hold this speed when flying upwards with their afterburners on. Only Peregrine falcons are faster, but they cheat by using gravity to gain speed in a stoop.

A Swift is all sooty brown and looks black from a distance (and you usually see them high up or flashing past). They have a pale throat and stiff, narrow scythe like wings. The tail is forked. Their tiny legs (undercarriage) are forward pointing so they can only hang onto a rough surface and are unable to grasp a perch. You will not see Swifts on wires or branches, only in excitedly screaming squadrons racing across the sky.

Swifts feed on insects including flying beetles, flies, hover flies, moths, butterflies, flying ants, lacewings, and airborne spiders, catching up to 10,000 a day! When flying around in Central and Southern Africa, Swifts will range widely in search of food and will go out of their way to avoid storms.

Swifts arrive here in early May and are gone again by August. As time is short, they nest soon after arriving. They breed in old buildings with access to the roof space or cracks in cliffs. They make a shallow cup of straw and other material that has been gathered while flying. They lay 2 or 3 eggs which hatch after 19 days. The young can fly 42 days later once they have finished flight school. The young pilots are independent on leaving the nest and immediately migrate back to Africa in their smart uniforms. Incredibly, they will remain airborne for the first 2 years of their flying career before settling down to nesting. Swifts can even sleep while flying! Nobody is quite sure how they do this. Swifts only stop flying when on their nests.

There are 80,000 pairs of Swifts in Britain, but this number is declining through loss of nest sites as modern houses have no access to their roof spaces, like old houses do, and many old houses are being modernised. It is important to fit Swift bricks and boxes on your house to help them. Their Latin name is 'apus apus' which is derived from the Greek 'apous' meaning 'footless', a reference to their small, weak legs. Swifts are often depicted without feet in old paintings, pottery and heraldic shields.