Riparia riparia (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Passeriformes > Hirundinidae
The smallest of our hirundines, the Sand Martin can be found nesting in colonies in sandy banks across Britain & Ireland.
The Sand Martin is amongst our earliest summer visitors to arrive, often being seen during the first two weeks of March. It is also one of our earliest to go again, with most birds leaving the country in early September, heading for wintering locations south of the Sahara. Compared to House Martins, Sand Martins have a plainer appearance, with mostly brown plumage apart from a white chin and belly.
A long-distance migrant to our shores, ringed Sand Martins have been shown to cover distances in excess of 4,000 km between the UK and their wintering locations. UK Sand Martin numbers have fluctuated in recent decades, but a recent uptick led to them being moved from the Amber to the Green List in 2015. In the breeding season, Sand Martins can be found across Britain & Ireland.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the Sand Martin
Sand Martin identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Sand Martin.
With their swept back wings and aerial lifestyle hirundines (Swallow, Sand and House Martins) and the similar, but unrelated, Swift often cause ID headaches. Let us help you to separate these amazing summer visitors.
Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Sand Martin, provided by xeno-canto contributors.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
This species is unusually difficult to monitor, because active and inactive nest holes are difficult to distinguish, and because whole colonies frequently disperse or shift to new locations as suitable sand cliffs are created and destroyed. WBS counts were of apparently occupied nest holes along riverbanks but BBS and WBBS record birds seen. WBS/WBBS suggests a stable or shallowly increasing population, with wide fluctuations, although the decrease during the late 1990s and early 2000s was steep enough to raise BTO alerts in previous reports. BBS counts also show that large year-to-year changes occur, but do not yet reveal a clear long-term trend. Though previously amber listed through its 'depleted' status in Europe, the species was moved to the UK green list in 2015 (Eaton et al. 2015).
|UK breeding population||No population change in UK (1995–2020)|
Breeding Sand Martins occur throughout Ireland whereas in Britain they are localised south of a line from the Wash to the Severn Estuary. They remain scarce in the Outer Hebrides and are absent from Shetland.
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
|No. occupied in breeding season||1886|
|% occupied in breeding season||62|
|No. occupied in winter||28|
|% occupied in winter||0.9|
European Distribution Map
Relative frequency by habitat
In Wales and Ireland Sand Martin range has been relatively stable. In Scotland there are range extensions into the northwest and onto some of the Inner Hebrides and to Orkney. Abundance has increased in Ireland, Scotland and northern England but decreased across much of southern England.
Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK
|% change in range in breeding season (1968–72 to 2008–11)||-13.9%|
|% change in range in winter (1981–84 to 2007–11)||+666.7%|
Sand Martin is one of the earliest summer visitors, arriving from mid March onwards, departing through August and September.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.
Lifecycle and body size information about Sand Martin, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||7 years 9 months 1 days (set in 1998)|
|Typical Lifespan||2 years with breeding typically at 1 year|
|Adult Survival||0.3 (Male: 0.312±0.026 Female: 0.289±0.026)|
|Juvenile Survival||0.215 (in first year)|
|Wing Length||Adults||106.5±2.8 | Range 102–111mm, N=15647|
|Juveniles||103.7±3.7 | Range 99-109mm, N=2180|
|Males||106.6±2.7 | Range 102–111mm, N=5607|
|Females||106.5±2.9 | Range 102–111mm, N=7243|
|Body Weight||Adults||13.3±1.57 | Range 11.7–15.3g, N=11075|
|Juveniles||13.1±1.1379 | Range 11.2–15.0g, N=1807|
|Males||12.9±0.92 | Range 11.5–14.5g, N=3723|
|Females||13.6±1.2 | Range 11.8–15.8g, N=4998|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Field Codes||2-letter: SM | 5-letter code: SANMA | Euring: 9810|
For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name
Interpretation and scientific publications about Sand Martin from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
The main drivers of change are uncertain. The number of fledglings per breeding attempt has not changed although this is based on a small sample. There is some evidence that population changes may be linked to overwinter survival but the ecological processes for this are unclear and the findings from different studies have sometimes been inconsistent.
Further information on causes of change
Arrival dates in the UK advanced by over three weeks between the 1960s and the 2000s (Newson et al. 2016), but laying dates have not changed so it is unclear whether this may have an effect on the population. Nest-record samples are small, but indicate that nest failure rates have decreased enormously since the 1960s; however brood size has also decreased and no trend can be detected in the numbers of fledglings per breeding attempt.
Rainfall in the species' trans-Saharan wintering grounds prior to the birds' arrival promotes annual survival and thus abundance in the following breeding season (Szep 1995). A study in Italy found that, since around 2000, this link no longer held there, perhaps because more recent wintering conditions had been less extreme, although the data suggested that there may still be some weak influence of winter climate on survival (Masoero et al. 2016). However, another recent study confirmed that winter climate and conditions on passage were still the main drivers of breeding abundance at a site in Lancashire (Mondain-Monval et al. 2020). Annual survival rates from RAS sites in the UK for 1990-2004 were correlated positively with minimum monthly rainfall during the wet season in West Africa (Robinson et al. 2008). Mark-recapture in Cheshire during 1981-2003 found that, after allowing for the effects of African rainfall, some demographic measures were density dependent, with adult survival low when wintering densities (measured as the size of the western European population) were high and recruitment low when the local Cheshire population was high (Norman & Peach 2013). This study did not replicate an earlier finding (Cowley & Siriwardena 2005) that summer rainfall on the breeding grounds has a negative influence on survival rates through the following winter.
Information about conservation actions
The drivers of change for this species are uncertain, but may relate at least in part to conditions in wintering areas; hence it is unclear whether conservation actions taken in the UK will have any significant effect on the population.
However, the building of artificial sandbanks and nest holes to provide nesting habitat for Sand Martins has successfully attracted them to breed at sites in the UK (Hopkins 2001). Another method which has been used successfully to create artificial burrows is by drilling holes, e.g. into a limestone cliff (Gulickx et al. 2007).
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