Sand Martin

Sand Martin

This, the smallest in our three swallows, is usually the first to reach, often before the end of March. All three species are drawn to the vicinity of water for feeding purposes, but as the sand martin’s nesting-requirements-cliffs or banks of sand or earth-are frequently related to water, one has a tendency to think of it as the most water-haunting of the three.

Just like the swallow and house martin have thrived with the multiplication of nesting-sites made by man’s building activities, so, less directly, has the sand martin. The digging of the recycleables for brick and concrete make available the earth-faces of innumerable clay and gravel-pits, which, wherever the softer layers prove penetrable, are readily colonised.

Other fairly natural sites developed by man are available in railway cuttings through suitable soils, including soft chalk, or perhaps in the thick mortar between the stones of medieval masonry; more purely artificial sites, relieving the bird of the labour of tunnelling, are supplied by drainage pipes in retaining walls in sites varying from riverside gardens to railway stations well from water. It appears strange those of all the British types of perching-birds, this, one of the most aerial in habits, and never apparently endowed with highly specialised tools for the job, should have grown to be the only excavator of tunnels in the earth.

Haunts :

On migration and passage frequently congregates in large flocks over water. Breeding haunts restricted by specialised requirements, but usually present whenever latter can be found, from earthy sea-cliff to inland gravel pit or river-bank.

Appearance :

Swallow-like both in form and feeding habits, but much smaller and, quite appropriately, of the earthy-brown colour above; underside white, with conspicuous brown band across breast; tail only slightly forked.

Voice :

Normal call a harsh twitter, more grating and vibrant compared to house martin; song simply a more rapid elaboration of call. When alarmed (particularly at nesting-site) most frequent call is staccato ‘trit-trit’.

Food :

Entirely insects adopted wing; possibly, from usual proximity to water, aquatic insects in higher proportion compared to other two swallows-though all three species may occasionally be feeding over water together.

Nesting :

Burrow excavated in firm sand, soft marl or similar substances by both pecking and scratching; entrance hole often a horizontally flattened oval; tunnel may penetrate from one to three feet, with widened nesting-chamber at end; little actual nest-building-chamber lined with few straws and feathers. 4-5 white, almost transparent shells, lacking gloss of these of house martin.