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)