House martin diary- 3rd May

Watercolour studies of a single male house martin, arrived today and prospecting artificial nest cups.

Like swifts, numbers of house martins often build up slowly. Until mid May the majority of house martins are last year’s breeding birds who return straight to nests they occupied the previous year. Their return rate from Africa is much less than swifts’ so inevitably there is some nest and mate swapping before they settle down to breed. From mid May younger first time breeders arrive and look for a colony to join, or start a new colony- you can watch them touring houses looking. Eventually they settle and start building a nest, or they may use an artificial nest cup- these are the birds you are most likely to attract.

So far I reckon less than a quarter of the nests in Gilling East have house martins back. It is no coincidence that there is often a good arrival of house martins with the first substantial wave of breeding swifts. Both species feed very high in fine weather and much lower near lakes and reservoirs during windy, wet or cold weather. In addition house martins often feed on the sheltered side of trees or large hedges in strong winds, sometimes almost gleaning insects from the foliage. The weather forecast in the second half of this week looks promising for a substantial arrival of both species.

The first house martin to roost on our house arrived on 14th April this year. Now we have one pair of house martins settled in a nest cup(since 30th April) with another single male visiting from today- we had four pairs breeding last year. They are only occasional visitors to the eaves in this rather cool, grey weather, but nevertheless at times they really enliven our house and garden as they chatter in the nest and swoop round the eaves. The male performs a spectacular, fast, display flight into the nest, calling a harsh “zee zee zee zee” call to lure the female in to join him. When she does there is often an intense burst of song.

I feel extremely fortunate to say that of the five houses I’ve lived in we have attracted house martins to four, so I’ve not spent many years without their company in summer. In each case they were attracted to artificial nest cups. They are fascinating to sketch and study and give about eight weeks more entertainment than swifts each year! Their flying is incredible, more manoeuvrable, with a much tighter turning circle than swifts. Through the months ahead I’ll be sharing the fortunes of our house martins and sketching many aspects their behaviour.

For a summary of a typical house martin year based on my notes from 1985-2021 see


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