Sand Martin

Sand MartinIn the spring and early summer, look out for breeding Sand Martins. They nest in burrows in sandy banks and cliffs.
Photo: Myosotis Scorpioides at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]

Scientific name: Riparia riparia

Other common names: Common Sand Martin, European Sand Martin, Bank Swallow (North America), Collared Sand Martin

Conservation status: UK Birds of Conservation Concern, Amber; IUCN Red List, Least Concern

What to look for:

  • Colouring and appearance: Smaller than a swallow. Dark-brown above and under the wings, pale underparts. Chest bar below neck, small notch in tail and small, dark beak.
  • Size: Length 12 cm, wingspan 28 cm.
  • Where: Summer visitor across the UK and Ireland
  • Call: Twittering song
  • Similar species: Swallow, House Martin

Sand MartinRelated to but smaller than Swallows, Sand Martins can be found performing their aerial acrobatics close to rivers and freshwater as they swoop to catch their insect food. Like their Swallow cousins, they are summer visitors to the UK.

They come here to breed, staying with us from April into September. An observer at one of their colonial breeding sites would soon spot how they get their name. The male digs a tunnel, excavated horizontally to a depth of up to 90 cm, in suitable vertical and sandy banks, such as riverbanks, cliffs and even railway cuttings. The female then makes the finishing touches, and lays a clutch of four to five eggs in a nest of feathers and vegetation in the enlarged nesting chamber at the end of the tunnel. Both parents share incubation duties; after hatching, the young take up to 24 days to fledge. Each pair normally raises two broods per year, before departing back for their sub-Saharan winter home.

Did you know…?

…Getting ahead: Sand Martins usually arrive back in the UK slightly before their Swallow cousins.

…Droughts in the Sand Martin’s African winter home can cause their population to crash in their breeding grounds. This has happened twice in the last 50 years in Europe.

More information and references:

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., Zetterstrom, D.,1986. Collins Bird Guide, second edition (translated by Christie, D., Svensson, L.). HarperCollins, London.

Published: May 2015
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Myosotis Scorpioides at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]