Birds. You either love them or you’re not too fussed. I used to be one of the latter but I’m slowly moving towards the former – partly because its easier to find photographic opportunities for birds in the here than other large creatures, and as a by product (or as a result) I frequently find myself with a newfound appreciation for various species.
Some photographers strive to capture those things that are rare, akin to a harmless form of trophy hunting, in that your skill and status are elevated by the uniqueness of your subject. But don’t overlook common species as they have their own very special traits that deserve a bit of admiration now and then. Previously I had already mentioned what cool birds great-crested grebes are, with their elegant mating dances and zebra-striped chicks. These are not rare birds in any way – indeed they are found on many lakes and ponds around the UK. This summer I’ve been stalking a different type of bird: the Hirundinidae, more commonly known as swallows and martins.
Both of these birds are migrant passerines, and breed on all continents except for Antarctica. In the UK we commonly get the swallow (more specifically the barn swallow Hirundo rustica), the sand martin (Riparia riparia) and the house martin (Delichon urbicum). They’re found in the UK between late March and September/October stopping over on their way to the Sahara, and are typically known for their frantic flight acrobatics as they catch insects in flight. The sand martin is marginally smaller than the house martin (averaging at 12cm instead of 12.5cm) and has a distinctive brown band around its neck whereas the house martin has a completely white belly.
You’ve probably seen them around, just not really taken much notice. You might even have a house martin nesting under house eaves near you. The sand martin is most often associated with water, nesting in sand banks and more natural habitats whereas the house martin and swallow have almost completely moved into man-made areas (the swallow prefers dark, gloomy corners unlike the house martin). They are hunted most frequently by birds such as sparrowhawks and hobbies as adults, and while their chicks are in their nests almost anything can come and steal them away – from magpies and squirrel to tawny owls.
They will have on average 2 broods while they stop over in the UK, with the first brood equally likely to help feed the second brood as it will parasitise and get a few more helpings of free food. Nesting tends to take around 14 days, and then another 20 days before they fledge.
OK. So what’s so special about them?
House martins: these birds will attach their nest cups to eaves for extra support from two sides. Each nest takes up to 10 days to build, roughly translated as 1000 beak-sizes pellets. IN 10 DAYS!
Swallows: females will choose to mate with males with the most symmetric tails as these are of higher quality – longer and symmetrical tails are related to higher genetic fitness as these birds live longer and are more disease resistant.
The parents are very territorial and this one frequently called his brood off (even a few weeks post-fledging) when I got too close!
Plus they look pretty.
And so the obsession begins.