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Welcome back Sand Martins, Swallows, House Martins and Swifts

Date Posted: 01 May 2016


One of our most spectacular summer migrants has returned, this week on the 2nd May Thomas saw his first Swift of 2016.

Each year in Britain we welcome back four aerial Summer migrants, this year the first to arrive was the Sand Martin then the Swallow closely followed by the House Martin and now the Swift, although they have many similarities the Swift is the odd one out, the Sand Martin, House Martin and the Swallow all belong to the Hirundinidae family, the Swift belongs to the Apodidae family which it shares with Hummingbirds.

It can often be difficult to identify Martins, Swallows and Swifts; here is a short guide, you may need a pair of binoculars to pick up their colourings/markings as they can all appear quite dark against the sky.

Sand Martin

Description: Brown back and wings, white underneath with a dark band across the chest, they nest in burrows in sandy banks, cliffs and quarries and are usually seen flying over water.

Sand Martins nest in colonies of sometimes more than 100 pairs; they excavate a horizontal tunnel 45-90cm long that has a chamber at the end, they will use the same site for subsequent years making new tunnels if the old ones collapse or flood. Each year they rear two broods of usually four/five or three - seven young in a nest of feathers, grass and leaves. British Sand Martins begin their migration back to Sahel, the zone south of Sahara in late July to September.


Description: Glossy blue-black back, head and throat and a rusty-red chin patch, white to buff underneath and a distinctive deep forked tail with long streamers. They build a cup shaped nest out of mud and straw often inside barns and outbuildings they are usually seen in farmland, villages and open fields.

Swallows rear two broods of four or five chicks, they often return to the same breeding area and nest site if they were previously successful there. In September or October British Swallows return to their wintering grounds in South Africa, they can fly up to 200 miles a day at speeds up to 35 mph.

Swallow populations fluctuate from year to year there has been widespread declines in numbers since 1970.

House Martin

Description: Glossy blue-black back and head and white underneath, they build a nest made out of mud under the eaves of buildings they are usually seen in built up areas, over water and fields.

House Martins can have one, two or three broods of four or five chicks, often fledged young from the first broods help the parents to feed later broods, they nest in colonies of on average four to five nests, which are occupied each year although not always by the same two birds. House Sparrows can be a problem to House Martins by damaging or taking over nests and attacking adults, young and eggs if this is the case place some nest boxes with 32mm holes under the eaves away from the House Martin nests to encourage the Sparrows to nest there instead. In September/October they return to Africa for the Winter.

There has been a widespread decline in House Martin numbers since 1970.


Description: Plain brown all over with a paler throat, a short forked tail and long scythe shaped wings, they nest in holes and crevices of old buildings and churches, they are usually seen in urban areas and open countryside where they fly low in groups and have distinctive loud screaming calls.

Swifts are strange birds their latin name is ‘apus apus’ which means ‘no feet’ they do have tiny feet and short legs which is why you don’t see them perched on telegraph wires or fences. For the first two or three years of their life young birds will fly constantly, only then will they land to breed, Swifts feed (flying insects), drink (raindrops or by skimming a pond), mate and sleep (they are able to snooze with one side of their brain at once, then switch to the other side) in the air. Swifts only rear a single brood of two or three young, in late July or early August they begin their migration back to South Africa for the Winter.

Swifts are in deep trouble, between 1995 and 2011 we lost about a third of all the Swifts breeding in the United Kingdom the main reasons being the loss of nesting sites: old buildings are being renovated and refurbished to modern standards with sealed walls and roofs or demolished and replaced with new buildings that exclude Swifts, and insecticides: used mainly in agriculture they kill insects resulting in less food not only for Swifts but other insect feeding birds too such as House Martins, Sand Martins, Swallows, Warblers, Cuckoos, Wagtails, Spotted Fly Catchers, Sparrows and Starlings. 

Making a home for House Martins, Swallows and Swifts costs very little compared to the huge benefits.

CJ Wildlife House Martin Nest Box - Single Chamber        CJ Wildlife House Martin Nest Box - Double Chamber

House Martin Nest Boxes are available with a single or a double chamber they should be positioned under the eaves of your house or outbuilding, as House Martins nest in colonies it is a good idea to have multiple nest boxes together.


CJ Wildlife Swallow Nest Box

Swallow Nest Boxes should be sited inside an outbuilding, garage or shed which allows easy access for the birds via an open window or door.


CJ Wildlife Woodstone Swift Nest Box 

Swift Nest Boxes should be placed under the eaves on walls at a height of at least 5 metres, with a clear flight path to the entrance.

If every household put up a box it would be amazing and make an enormous difference, I cannot imagine a Summer without our big four aerial Summer migrants the Sand Martin, the House Martin, the Swallow and the Swift.



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