July 9th   Leave a comment

House martins are the small blue and white swallows that nest under house eaves in pot shaped mud nests. They are the ones with the white rump and the chirruping calls. They, like most summer migrants, have declined a lot – 50% since 1970 in the UK – and they have certainly become a bit less common around Crail in the 16 years I have been here. They nest colonially and their favoured site is under a steeply sloping eave with regular protruding joists. They like the pro shop at the golf club at Balcomie and the houses along Roome Bay Avenue for example. Some people like them nesting on their houses. It is a joy to hear them gently warbling away in their nests at night or see them swooping agilely catching insects around the garden. Others are not so keen. The piles of droppings accumulating on window ledges or worse dropping down above a front door are too much. The response is then to net the eaves during the winter to force them to move on next summer. House martins have lost a lot of their nest sites in recent years through changes in house design and decreased tolerance of householders. But I think the real reason they are declining is probably lack of insects. We are recording huge declines in insects all over Europe as farming becomes more intensive and we increase our use of pesticides and herbicides.

House martins collecting mud for their nests (JA)

It has always been tough to be a house martin I think. They are susceptible to bad weather here in the summer, on migration, and then on the wintering grounds in Africa. They nest naturally in rare habitats like sea cliffs and caves. But they cast their lot with us, shifting to our farmhouses and messy insect rich farming habitats, and rambling villages and towns, full of horses and small holdings. Things were better for house martins for two or three thousand years. But its now all a bit sterile – think, when was the last time you saw a cowpat? True its all a bit neater and less smelly for us, but much less interesting and much less full of wildlife like house martins and indeed barn swallows. We still have a few house martin colonies around Crail, but it is not a certainty for the future. They, like many species that live in close association with us, still need wild plants and insects in the spaces between our buildings, and we need to keep habitat for them. Crail is not a bad place with lots of habitat sneaking its way between the denser bits of housing. And we have the beach and the seaweed of course – the best place to see a house martin is along the shore at Roome Bay because it has good nesting sites right next to the best insect supply in Crail. But we can do more. The unmown grass strips above the beach and at Castle Walk are a great example. This year they will be adding lots of extra insect food for the house martins as well as the barn swallows, the swifts and the sand martins. And all just because we asked the Council not to spend our money so often, cutting all of the grass, all of the time. House martins break my heart a bit – like spotted flycatchers and cuckoos and other characters from my childhood that are becoming scarcer – but they also make me very happy every time I see them. Thankfully that is still every summer day in Crail.

A house martin building its nest – the corner of a window frame where it meets the roof is another favourite site (JA)
A house martin chick looking out over Roome Bay this evening (WC)

Posted July 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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