SAND MARTIN (Riparia riparia)

FAMILY: HIRUNDINIDAE (Swallows and martins)

Sand martins are the smallest of their family and can fly a staggering 4,000 km from Africa to spend the summer in the UK. They are one of the first migrants to arrive in the UK and can be seen as early as the beginning of March, they are also one of the first to leave and will be gone in early September. They are gregarious and are rarely seen alone. Sand martin populations have fluctuated over recent decades but recent stabilisation has led to them being moved from the amber list to the green list.

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Alert Status:

Green - 26% increase ↑

Estimated number of UK breeding

pairs: 71,000 (updated 2016)

Listen to sand martin song:


The smallest of our swallows, the sand martin is small and brown. They have dark brown upper parts and wings which contrast the white belly, breast, and throat. Sand martins have a brown band across their breast which is not present in house martins, they also do not have the noticeable white rump that house martins have.

Average Length: 12 cm

Average Lifespan: 2 Years

Average Wingspan: 26-29 cm

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Sand Martin diet

Sand martins feed on invertebrates, often taken on the wing over bodies of water. Because they take winged invertebrates on the wing they cannot be attracted to garden feeders. Creating an insect-friendly garden will increase your chances of seeing a sand martin if you live near a known population.

Sand Martin breeding and nesting information

Sand martins breed in colonies that can range from 10 pairs to hundreds of pairs. They begin breeding in April, the male begins to dig a burrow for a nest until they find a mate, after which they complete the burrow together. 4-5 eggs are laid which are incubated by both the male and the female before they hatch. They stay in the nest for another 19-21 days until they fledge and the parents feed them for a further 5 or 6 days. They can often produce a second brood before their breeding season ends in August.

Threats to sand martins

Sand martins’ nesting sites are often lost to flooding and human activities which may be heightened by continuing human expansion and climate-driven extreme weather. Increased use of pesticides and other factors that drive a decrease in available invertebrate prey are also driving fluctuations in this population. Previous decreases have been caused by droughts in their wintering grounds in Africa, with climate change likely to make these droughts more common, populations may be under threat.

How you can help

Help your local river trust keep rivers and waterways clean and usable by sand martins.

Petition your local area to install suitable sand martin nest boxes if there is a lack of suitable nesting banks.

Create an insect-friendly garden if you live near sand martin populations to ensure they have ample food.  

Fascinating Fact

In North America, Sand martins are called bank swallows due to their nesting habitats and the fact its Latin name means bank.
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BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Riparia riparia. Downloaded from Accessed: 25/09/2023.

British Trust for Ornithology (2023) Sand Martin, BTO. Available at: Accessed: 25/09/2023.

Brzek, P., & Konarzewski, M. (2001). Effect of food shortage on the physiology and competitive abilities of sand martin (Riparia riparia) nestlings. Journal of Experimental Biology. 204(17): 3065-3074.

Mondain-Monval, T. O., Briggs, K., Wilson, J., & Sharp, S. P. (2020). Climatic conditions during migration affect population size and arrival dates in an Afro-Palaearctic migrant. Ibis, 162(2), 572–580.  

Robinson, R. A., Balmer, D. E., & Marchant, J. H. (2008). Survival rates of hirundines in relation to British and African rainfall. Ringing and Migration, 24(1), 1–6.

RSPB (2023) Sand Martin Bird facts: Riparia riparia, The RSPB. Available at: Accessed: 25/09/2023.

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