House Martsin are summer visitors and in April their dry ‘twittering’ begins to fill the skies and by May they are all back at their breeding sites all over the country.
The House Martin is a much loved bird, a relative of the Sand Martin and the Swallow and well known to those who live in towns and particularly those who have white-painted eaves and soffits.
For some reason the white paint attracts the birds and they build their nests of mud from puddles nearby ready to bring up their young noisily just a few feet from bedroom windows. Many people wait for their House Martins to arrive each year with mixed feelings especially because they nest colonially so if you get one pair the chances are you will get several!
In late summer the House Martins are noisily flocking in the skies above our towns and gravel pits seeking insects in the air, sometimes very high and hard to see with the naked eye. Telephone wires often attract them when they come to rest, but it is important to check them carefully as Swallows are equally keen to group on wires too. In flight the House Martin is easy to separate from Sand Martins and Swallows, as they have a white rump which is obvious as they tumble through the air. The Swallow is a similar colour with a dark bluish or blackish back but their totally dark upper side stands out from the pied look of the House Martin. Sand Martins pass through, generally close to water bodies, but they are brown and have a light brown breast band, again with no white patch on the rump.
The House Martin has declined by 55% over a period of 36 years of monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology, however, in the five years from 1998-2003 the trend reversed with an upturn of 11% noted. More recent years have seen some improvements but due to their long-term decline and deteriorating status across Europe this is now an amber listed species, indicating cause for conservation concern. For a bird wintering in Africa the question always remains that some of the decline may be due to problems there but very dry spring months could lead to nest-building problems unless an area has plentiful supplies of mud!
So in summer, look for the House Martins when you go out, look way up in the sky on warm afternoons and see if you can see and hear them chasing insects way above your heads and remember to see if you can spot the white rumps when they turn their backs to you as they wheel around in the skies.
Berkshire Ornithological Club