My house bares scars. And like most scars they itch and irritate, they also mark trauma and sometimes loss. These scars are five horseshoe shaped blotches of clay, the last remaining evidence of former house martin nests. My neighbour, who has lived in our close since the 1970s, told me that every house had at least three nests under the eaves, and the back wall of his house once played host to seven nests. In an attempt to lure them back I've installed three artificial ones where formerly they built their little mud and spittle cup-like nests. I have even daubed fake droppings, to make it look as if one is in use. House martins rarely use artificial nests, but it is supposed to encourage others to build real ones close-by. They have been up for six years and not even one property viewing, but I'm still very much on the market for martins.
Growing up in the suburbs of London, the swallow wasn't a bird we would generally see, it was the house martin that brought us tidings of spring, and they were quite common. Their uniform is much smarter and cleaner cut then the swallow. A compact little bird with a blue/black head, wings and tail, which contrasts neatly with their pure white rump and belly. Every other house on the estate had a nest tucked under the eave and I'd watch them drop from their nests like an arrow, then dart, bank and swoop after flying insects, they appeared to me as miniature spitfires in a dogfight.
The local Victorian built hospital had well over a hundred pairs of house martins, the building has now been demolished, and one suspects the martins have gone too. This isn't just an urban decline, the warden's house at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's reserve at Hickling Broad once accommodated 17 martin nests, little has changed here, but there hasn't been a nesting attempt in 10 years. At this point I'd normally say something positive or suggest a clever solution, unfortunately I can't.
The house martin's tanned cousin, the sand martin, seems to be holding their numbers. This is where our activities have benefited wildlife, as old gravel workings provide the sandy banks in which they burrow out nest cavities. Old gravel extraction sites will often have flooded pits too, which are great for the martins to hawk for insects over. The sand martin is slightly smaller, is grey/brown above with a pale belly and chin, its main identification feature is a well-marked brown breast band. The soft sand cliffs of north Norfolk provide their natural habitat for nesting and some nationally important colonies can be found from Sheringham round to Bacton. It was here that coastal defence work prompted the contractor to string netting across the cliff face to stop the returning martins from nesting, unsurprisingly it resulted in a public relations disaster, so the netting was taken down and work commenced after the last fledgling left its nest. It turns out that a clever solution wasn't required, only some common-sense. Fortunately most Norfolk folk feel there is something distasteful about going to great efforts to stop birds nesting in spring.
April is when the bulk of martins and their Hirundine colleagues the swallow arrive back in the UK. I recall working on a boat in the middle of NWT's Ranworth Broad when hundreds of house and sand martins dropped in during migration, they were in a feeding frenzy on the alder and Michaelmas flies that were swarming above the broad. All around us they displayed their wonderful acrobatic flying skills; for an hour they were with us, then they were gone.
These martins, like many of our breeding birds, were returning to us after spending the winter in sub-Saharan Africa. This is becoming an increasingly perilous journey, not only is the desert becoming an expanding obstacle, mist netting on both sides of the Mediterranean is trapping millions of birds each spring and autumn. Although illegal in EU countries it still seems to continue unabated.
A friend told me that he had to have a polite word with a new neighbour. He had jet washed a martin's nest off the front of his house because bird droppings were landing on his car. Quite appalled, but remaining diplomatic, he informed his neighbour that martins were seen as a sign of good luck here and it was bad form to upset them. The birds attempted the next year, and his now mindful neighbour parked his car on the road during the few weeks the nest was in use. Not a clever solution, just common-sense.
Robert Morgan is NWT Reserves Officer.
Header image: Andy Taylor