Martins, Swallows and Swifts

On 27 March I was out walking with my sharp-eyed eight-year-old grandson. “Look, look up there, Grandad, what are those birds?” With my poor eyesight it took me a while to focus on them – sand martins!

The sand martin is one of our earliest summer visitors from Africa. It has brown upperparts and is white underneath with a brown band across the breast. As the name implies, they nest in a hole in a sand or river bank, excavating a tunnel to a chamber where the nest is made. Well, that’s what the book says. Our local sand martins do something a little different. At Zouch, they nest behind the shuttering at the side of the canal cut, accessing via holes in the steel plate. 

I saw my first swallows of the year seven days later when two flew over the Soar, thanks once again to my keen-eyed bird watching pal. Bigger than a sand martin, the swallow’s upperparts are an iridescent blue-black, underparts off-white and the face is a reddish brown. It has long tail streamers, those of the male are noticeably longer than those of the female. Now it’s often called the barn swallow, which reflects the fact that most nest in barns and outhouses. So where did swallows nest before there were barns? They were originally a cave nesting bird but have taken advantage of man-made structures since humans came along.

The next to arrive is the house martin. Again, the clue is in the name. Like the swallow, the house martin builds a cup like mud nest, but prefers the eaves of a house. Some nest on cliffs which were the original nesting sites before we came along to provide lodgings.  A few houses in Hathern are landlords to families of house martins who, like their cousins, have flown in from Africa. Superficially similar to the sand martin, the house martin is blue-black where the sand martin is brown. It doesn’t have the breast band but makes up for it by having a distinctive white rump.

The swift is the last of the four to arrive from Africa in late April or early May and the first to leave in August. Swifts are sooty brown with long curved wings and spend more time on the wing than any other species. I always think that Hathern is the village of the swifts (and not just the sock factory!). Tony Croft is a member of the Leicestershire Swift Network and has had swifts nesting in his nest boxes in Narrow Lane for 37 years

“We put up nest boxes when we replaced the fascias which prevented the birds from entering the loft. I have five boxes now, three with cameras. Up to three years ago all were occupied with birds fighting to secure a box, but since then there’s been a decline and last year only one box was occupied. However, there are still 30 or so swifts flying in “screaming parties” over the village. There are nests in Narrow Lane and Wide Lane but there must be more nests somewhere. Nationally, swifts have declined by 58% from 1998 to 2018, so they need all the help we can give them.” Tony is willing to give any advice about installing nest boxes – you can contact him on 842634.

Watching these four species all feeding over the Soar on a hot summer’s day is a most pleasurable and memorable experience – not to be missed! 

PS   We had two rare summer visitors recently stop off in Hathern. On 9 April a pair of Ring Ouzels took up temporary residence on the football field. They are like blackbirds with a white bib and nest in mountains and moorland. They were closely followed by more visitors – a large number of birdwatchers!

Thank you to Dave Neville (in connection with Swift Partnership Team)

Ghostly Images

You will, no doubt, have seen the impression left by a bird crashing into your patio window. You may be interested to know that only certain birds leave their waxy mark. I had received this response from RSPB:

“These are the natural oils and feather dust which originate from the downy feathers close to the skin. These provide woodpigeons with great insulation and they also have fine barbs which crumble to form this waxy dust, which the bird then uses to preen the outer feathers to make them waterproof. Birds with powder down feathers such as woodpigeons and members of the parrot family generally have a reduced or no preen gland, which is how most other birds look after their feathers. Feather dust is therefore vital in order to keep the woodpigeons feathers waterproof and in good condition. Bathing is an important part of keeping feathers in good condition for all birds but especially important for birds with powder down. Washing the dirt-covered powder off enables the woodpigeons to reapply fresh powder to their outer feathers in order to keep them water proof and well insulated.”

I had noticed a film of powder on my pond every time Woodpigeons bathed….

“The powder deposits on the pond are not harmful to the pond wildlife or other birds that may be using the pond for drinking or bathing and will eventually disperse with the movement of the water.”

I hope this is of as much interest to you as it was to me.

Swift Box

Message from Jools Partridge:

I installed a three colony swift box yesterday (made from an old organ pipe I was given some years ago). I set up a swift caller too which I am really pleased with. However, please tell members not to record screaming swifts over Carvers Corner, Glen Parva till they actually see them! LOL. Cost of the caller was £15.82 including a 12volt amplifier (FM radio and Bluetooth too) and pair of tweeters. I bought 100m of speaker wire for £14.89 (cheapest way to buy it) and have plenty left over (70 odd m) at 15p per m if anyone wants some!? The calls were chosen, and downloaded for free, from a Dutch website, and I am so happy with the results of my work. Happy to share links if anyone wants to try out getting their swift boxes occupied this year!?

Nest Boxes – Update 1st November

On Friday a group of 5 volunteers met at Blaby for the annual clean out, repair and recording of the various SLB nest boxes. First stop was All Saints Churchyard where there was evidence that 3 of the 4 nest box holes had been used and in one box there was a clutch of 6 Great Tit eggs which had been abandoned, with another nest built on top which appeared to have been successful.


The group then moved on to Rectory Farm, Great Easton, where we have about 30 assorted nest boxes. Highlights this year were that 10 boxes had been used by Tree Sparrows – all appear to have been successful. One adult bird was found dead on a nest (see photo), it had probably died whilst using the box to roost. One box was used by a Blue Tit and 2 others by Great Tits but the open-fronted boxes still continue to be ignored.


The Little Owl box, kindly made by Brian Pepall, which was erected last year had been used as we found 1 unhatched egg inside. However, after thorough cleaning the egg appears not to be that of an Owl as the shape, size and appearance tends to suggest a Dove species rather than Owl.

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Some of the boxes were showing signs of rotting, so the 6 boxes that Brian had made over the winter were put up to replace them. We feel this has been the most successful year to date.

Photos courtesy of Derek Walker.

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