Flocks of martins gathering

Sand Martins.
Sand Martins.

DID you see any sand martins in their breeding tunnels this year?

The Sussex Ornithological Society (www.sos.org.uk) would like to know if you have.

They publish each year a report of every bird seen in the county and the sand martin is one of the rarest recorded breeding species and any records will be gratefully received. This RSPB Images photograph shows two sand martins peeping out of their sandy tunnel they have dug out.

So you can see that breeding sites are not so easy to find. A sandy cliff face which is undisturbed is what’s needed by these rarities.

There are about seven breeding sites in Sussex: Sandgate Park at Storrington, Heath End at Burton, others at Iping Common, Duncton, Sandhall Farm at Hooe.

There used to be a biggish colony at Chichester RDC Oving site, where heaps of rock salt was stored and the martins made tunnels into the mini white cliffs with no ill effects.

When I was a boy, sand martins were common around every village because most places had a little sandpit somewhere from which builders took their raw material for mortar and concrete.

But quite a few colonies were also plagued by boys with air rifles taking target practice as the birds swooped in and out of their tunnels.

Col Peter Hawker, perhaps the most committed show of all time, writing in the 1820s, talks of useful practice at his house in Longparish in Hampshire with his muzzle loader hitting swallows and house martins in the village.

I doubt if he bothered with the difference between house martins and sand martins.

Last week, sitting outside in the garden with a good strong cup of tea at hand I watched several hundred mixed martins swooping overhead as they gathered for the flight south to South Africa and found myself hard pressed to tell the two apart.

They were all flying at high speed against the light and as high as the buzzards soaring nearby.

I was looking for the broad brown band under the neck, which breaks up the white underparts of the sand martin.

Writing 70 years ago, Walpole-Bond speaks of sand martins nesting in top crust of soil at chalkpits, also in holes in masonry.

They also nested in lane-side banks such as those near Chithurst, and in sandcliffs along the Rother, where some birds actually used old rabbit burrows at Playden.

During September, flocks of hundreds of sand martins gather at Pagham Harbour, Chichester gravel lakes and these are birds drawn down from all over northern Europe before departure to the sea crossing into France.