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
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 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.
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.
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.
In North America, Sand martins are called bank swallows due to their nesting habitats and the fact its Latin name means bank.
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Riparia riparia. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/collared-sand-martin-riparia-riparia. Accessed: 25/09/2023.
British Trust for Ornithology (2023) Sand Martin, BTO. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/sand-martin. 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12801
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. https://doi.org/10.1080/03078698.2008.9674375
RSPB (2023) Sand Martin Bird facts: Riparia riparia, The RSPB. Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/sand-martin/. Accessed: 25/09/2023.