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Bird of The Month: The Sand Martin. By John McEwen and illustrated by Carry Akroyd.

Blog | By John McEwen | Apr 12, 2023

The sand martin (Riparia riparia) is the smallest and least numerous of British Hirundinidae (swallows).

Up to 225,000 pairs arrive in the UK to breed in the summer, mostly from tropical West Africa, which compares with 620,000 house-martin pairs and 700,000 barn swallows.

It is one of the earliest summer migrants and also the most water-loving. As its name suggests, its natural habitat is sandy; it nests in tunnels dug to a depth of three feet. It is the most gregarious of the species: its favoured sites are honeycombed with the holes of hundreds of pairs.

The tunnelling requirement makes the sand martin less familiar to us than either its Hirundinidae cousins or the swift (not classified as a swallow), all of which frequent buildings.

John Clare (1793-1864) celebrated the difference in his poem The Sand Martin, written in his turbulent thirties.

Thou hermit haunter of the lonely glen

And common wild and heath – the desolate face

Of rude waste landscapes far away from men

Where frequent quarries give thee dwelling place

With strangest taste and labour undeterred

Drilling small holes along the quarry’s side

More like the haunts of vermin than a bird

And seldom by the nesting boy descried

I’ve seen thee far away from all thy tribe

Flirting about the unfrequented sky

And felt a feeling that I can’t describe

Of lone seclusion and a hermit joy

To see thee circle round nor go beyond

That lone heath and its melancholy pond.

In postwar Britain, the sand martin has benefited from the motorway and house-building boom. This continues the increase of gravel pits – its primary nesting site even when the pits are operational and not beneficially flooded.

Designed sites have also been provided, such as the sand cliff at Suffolk’s RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. This soon-thriving colony was wiped out by a single stoat in 1989 and, despite protective fencing, it took till 1994 for colonisation to be resumed.

Gatherings of swifts, swallows and house martins hawking over water, not least city lakes, are always worth checking for less eyecatching sand martins, especially at migrating time.

It was an unexpected joy in May 2021 on a Scottish visit to see nothing but sand martins from a bridge over the Kelvin in the heart of Glasgow.

I later found a thriving colony the length of a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic, near the promontory of Rubha Ardvule, on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.