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Swallows, Swifts & Martins by Rachel Coyle

A visit to Lewinshope last week proved a treat for me (the bird geek) for some great sightings of nest building swallows and house martins. Having a good number already creating their own nests on the buildings at Lewinshope, Lulu and Johnny are keen to help provide more places for swallows and other birds, so we decide to take a walk around the Mill to look at suitable places where some extra nest cups and boxes could go up. Swallows and martins are able to have multiple broods in one season and so if there is a nest there ready-made for them it means they can spend less time nest building and more time having and raising young.

As we walked around the Mill and its out buildings we watched swallows swooping out over the pond and across the fields. To most, swallows martins and swifts look very similar in flight and Lulu was keen to understand how to identify each individual species. It is of course tricky, they are quick birds which seem to be forever on the move but there are a few key differences that once you get your eye in make it much simpler. So here is a blog to help you with the key things to look out for. (Apologies in advance for my hand drawn identification images, I’m the first to admit I’m no artist)

Swallows are part of the hirundine family, which includes two other of our summer migrants the house martin and sand martin.  The swallow is perhaps the best known and most recognisable of the three. Being the first to arrive back in Britain from their African wintering grounds, for many they are a sign that summer is on the way.  The swallow can be distinguished from its martin cousins by a few features. The long streamers of the forked tail make it easy to identify during flight. These tail streamers are longer in males. In the world of swallows a longer tail is highly attractive and females will choose males based on the length of the tail.

My interpretation of a Swallow Swallows also have a distinctive rust-red coloured throat which can most easily be seen when they are perched. Look out for flocks of swallows perching together around August time. A favourite sighting of mine is seeing large flocks of swallows perched on power lines. It is often a sign of the end of summer. The busy breeding season has finished and in my mind this is the time when pairs and newly fledged youngsters can have a brief rest before heading off on a long journey Southward.

The house martin is fairly similar in size to the swallow and has a similar plumage of glossy black feathers and a white belly. This can make it difficult to identify when the two species are in flight together. Swallows and martins share the same behaviour of catching insects on the wing and so can often be found in similar feeding grounds, over water or open fields. The house martin however lacks the long streaming tail feathers of the swallow and instead has a short v-shaped tail. They also lack the red throat of the swallow. For me the key distinguishing feature of the house martin is the white square on its back, just above the tail.

If you are lucky enough to have either of these birds nesting on or near your home looking at the nest is another way of distinguishing the two apart. Both are cup nesters but the swallow favours a more open topped cup where as house martins build close to a beam or rafter on a building which makes for a more sheltered nest. Both use a mixture of mud, hay and feathers to craft their nests.

The third and less well known species is the sand martin. These birds are more commonly found by rivers where sandy banks provide them with the perfect place to carve out nest holes. They are very sociable birds and will nest in close proximity to each other. Taking a walk along the river Tweed between Galashiels and Melrose is a great place to look out for sand martins. Here the river banks are dotted with holes created by colonies of nesting sand martins.

A rather chubby sand martin Similar in shape to the house martin with its v shaped tail. The sand martin is more brownish and less glossy in appearance. The white underside is also tinged with a brown band at the top of the chest. Being river side nesters it makes sense that the common feeding grounds be over the rivers themselves where a huge number of flying insects will congregate.

Although similar in shape and lifestyle the swift is in a completely different family to the swallows and martins. Swifts are easier to identify as they are much larger than both swallows and martins and have a distinctive sickle like shape to the wings. They also have a very distinctive call often referred to as a scream. It is easy to see why in the past these birds, with their tendency to swoop around screeching, were mistaken for demons and thereby known as Devil’s bird. These birds however lead fascinating lives. Barely landing from the moment they fly the nest, they sleep eat and mate on the wing. Again the sound of screeching swifts is another true sound off the summer for me.

Swift It’s great to see that Lulu and Johnny are so keen to help wildlife flourish at the Mill. Providing an extra helping hand in the form of putting out some extra nest boxes can make a huge difference to the success of our birds during the breeding season, allowing them to boost the number of young leaving for Africa at the end of the summer.


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