The latest from Attenborough Nature Reserve
Aristotle once said; ‘one swallow does not a summer make’ and with this is mind, we perhaps shouldn’t get too excited about the news of a single sand martin spotted at Attenborough Nature Reserve on the 12th March – two weeks earlier than we would typically expect.
This small hirundine, a cousin of the swallow and house martin, is often one of the first spring migrants to arrive back on the Reserve’s each year.
Despite many birds being considered to be the herald of spring, it is the sand martin’s appearance that is met with the most excitement at Attenborough as it means that not only is summer drawing closer, but also the artificial nesting bank at the Reserve will come to life again.
Dubbed the ‘Sand Martin Hotel’, the nesting bank and viewing hide, situated at the end of the Attenborough Nature Centre’s wildlife garden, first opened its tunnels to its feathered guests in April 2014. Funded through a Heritage Lottery Funded ‘ACE’ project (Access, Community, and Education) the bank provides nesting opportunities for up to 150 sand martins each summer. While the integrated ‘sunken’ bird hide provides panoramic views across Coneries Pond and enable visitors to watch the sand martins at close quarters as they feed over the water and return to their nests.
Sand martins make an incredible 2000-mile journey to the UK from the Sahel, a region of Africa to the south of the Sahara Desert, where they have been over-wintering.
This species has suffered a number of major population crashes in the last 50 years, mainly due to droughts in their over-wintering sites – which means many birds can’t build up enough energy to help them cross the Sahara. Within the UK they are also under threat from habitat loss, where natural nesting sites have been destroyed through development, dredging and bank stabilization along rivers.
Sand martins nest colonially. Colonies can range from just a few dozen pairs to groups of several hundred. In a natural environment they use tunnels in sandy banks along rivers and surrounding lakes. The birds dig the tunnels themselves using their long sharp claws. The nest holes are usually between 35cm and 1m in length and are excavated by both parents over a period of two weeks. In our artificial bank, clay pipes filled with sand will be embedded in to the walls to simulate the bird’s natural nesting habitat.
By mid-April, it is hoped that the sand martins will begin nesting in the artificial nesting bank again. Throughout the breeding season, volunteers carry out weekly nest record checks to monitor their progress. From the moment the first twig is taken in to the bank, to the first egg being laid and first chicks hatching and fledging, every detail is recorded.
The data gathered has already provided us with a fascinating insight in to the Sand Martin’s nesting ecology – including early indications that some pairs may in fact raise three broods during their short stay in the UK.
At around a week old, each of the chicks is fitted with lightweight, uniquely numbered ring by members of the South Notts Bird Ringing Group. The information gathered by the ringing scheme enables us to learn more about the sand martin’s incredible migration journey, how long they live for, and indeed if any of the chicks return to visit us in subsequent years to start a family of their own.
Just four years since Attenborough’s ‘Sand Martin Hotel’ first opened its doors to visiting birds, staff at the Nature Reserve were delighted to announce the arrival of the nesting bank’s 1,000th chick.
With the early arrival of the birds this spring we are hoping for an extended breeding season and the biggest number of chicks raised to date. Why not pop over to Attenborough and enjoy some of the early signs of spring for yourself? You might even spot one of our sand martins.