They may be small, but Swallows and martins are perfectly-formed birds
THE DAY WAS dull, grey and windy. Not much of a day for birdwatching, I thought (wrongly). The lane opened on to stubble fields, where Swallows were swooping, meteors of sloe-blue, terracotta and ivory, feeding up before the long migration to Africa. House Martins mingled with them, white-rumped, floating and tumbling and twisting, distinctive from their companions the Swallows, whose flight fluttered, dived and flickered. I walked across the wet land to the edge of the wood, and looking up through a lattice of Ash leaves saw, against the light, a Sparrowhawk high over the field. Seeing me, it flew into a tree. Above the bridleway leading into the woods, a cloud of House Martins was swirling and circling, chirping and volleying on neat wings, glossy, blue-blackbacked, white rumps flashing above forked tails, torquing on the wind. Their homemade homes are miracles of engineering, nests that take 10 days to make, using more than a thousand beak-size pellets of mud and lined with feathers gathered in the air. They are industrious parents: during the first three weeks of life, they feed their brood with up to 40,000 insects. But House Martins are fast disappearing (as are the insects from pesticide); their numbers down by an alarming percentage. I was reminded of a trip to wild Macedonia where I had watched House Martins swarming like gnats around a massive concrete dam across the River Treska. They’d made their nests under its rim and were flying in and out to perch there, tails down, showing the beautiful blue of the back and the dazzle of the white rump, the flitting flight, the flutter of the wings and torque of the tail. Above them, around rock faces of the Matka gorge that towers above the river, their close relatives Crag Martins were circling and swirling, descending and skimming along the surface, water-skiing, sand-brown-backed and chunky.
Their homemade homes are miracles of engineering, nests that take 10 days to make, using more than a thousand pellets of mud, and lined with feathers gathered in the air
I watched them swooping along the river, feeding on insects caught in flight, while frogs sounded off from the bank. A handsome bird the Crag Martin, bigger than the House Martin, with dark armpits and flash of black and white on the tail – and a powerful persona all of its own. I recalled watching Sand Martins at the sandy cliff at Minsmere as they arrived back from winter migration, chattering to each other as they appeared to check that last year’s nest-holes were still in order, landing sand-coloured on to the sand wall with folded wings, skittering off again, circling above the holes before having another look, and chattering some more.