The Sand Martin (Riparia riparia) is a migratory passerine bird in the swallow family. It has a wide range in summer, embracing practically the whole of Europe and the Mediterranean countries, part of northern Asia and also North America. It winters in eastern and southern Africa, South America and South Asia. It is known as Bank Swallow in North America, and as Collared Sand Martin in South Asia, and sometimes as European Sand Martin.
The 12 cm long Sand Martin is brown above, white below with a narrow brown band on the breast; the bill is black, the legs brown. The young have rufous tips to the coverts and margins to the secondaries.
Its brown back, white throat, small size and quick jerky flight separate it at once from similar swallows, such as the House Martin (Delichon urbicum), the Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) or other species of Riparia. Only the Banded Martin (R. cincta) of sub-Saharan Africa is similar, but the Sand Martin only occurs there in winter.
The Pale Martin is the subspecies diluta of northern India and southeastern China is sometimes split as a separate species Riparia diluta. It has paler grey-brown upperparts and a less distinct breast band. It winters in Pakistan and southern India.
The Sand Martin's twittering song is continuous when the birds are on the wing, and becomes a conversational undertone after they have settled in the roost. The harsh alarm is heard when a passing falcon, crow or other suspected predator requires combined action to drive it away.
This species was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758, and originally named Hirundo riparia; the description consisted of the simple H[irundo] cinerea, gula abdomineque albis—"an ash-grey swallow, with white throat and belly"—and the type locality was simply given as "Europa". The specific name means "of the riverbank"; it is derived from the Latin ripa "riverbank".
Linnaeus already remarked on this species' breeding habits: Habitat in Europae collibus arenosis abruptis, foramine serpentino – "it lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills". It is generally found near larger bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes or even the ocean, throughout the year.
The Sand Martin appears on its breeding grounds as the first of its family, starting towards the end of March, just in advance of the Barn Swallow. In northern Ohio, they arrive in numbers by mid-April, about 10 days earlier than they did 100 years ago. At first, they flit over the larger bodies of water alone, in search of early flies. Later parties accompany other swallow species, but for a time, varying according to weather, the birds remain at these large waters and do not visit their nesting haunts. The Sand Martin departs early, at any rate from its more northerly haunts. In August, the gatherings at the nightly roost increase enormously, though the advent and departure of passage birds causes great irregularity in numbers. They are essentially gone from their breeding range by the end of September
The Sand Martin is sociable in its nesting habits; from a dozen to many hundred pairs will nest close together, according to available space. The nests are at the end of tunnels of from a few inches to three or four feet in length, bored in sand or gravel. The actual nest is a litter of straw and feathers in a chamber at the end of the burrow; it soon becomes a hotbed of parasites. Four or five white eggs are laid about mid-late May, and a second brood is usual in all but the most northernly breeding sites.
This is not a rare bird, and it is classified as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN. It does have some local protections, as certain populations have declined or face threats from habitat loss and fragmentation. They are considered threatened in California, where populations exist in the Sacramento Valley and at two coastal sites, Ano Nuevo and Fort Funston
foto: Mihai Baciu