Another guest blog post from Debbie on East Reading wildlife. This time, the sand martins are back...
If you go down to Kennetside now, you will be able to see the sand martin colony that returns to this area every spring to breed. Their normal nesting habitat would be in burrows that they excavate in places like sandy river banks and quarry faces, but in East Reading these resourceful birds utilise old drainage pipes in walls and bridges in which to build their nests. One of the best places to spot them is on the Newtown side of the railway bridge that the Horseshoe Bridge is attached to. Look up at the drainage pipes and you will see them flying in and out. They also sometimes use the old drainage pipes in the walls of the Kennet as you walk into town and also near to Bel and the Dragon.
They are small birds with short, forked tails. They are very similar to house martins, which can also be seen nesting in Newtown, but these make mud nest under the eaves of buildings.
Sand martins have brown wings and a pale underside with a distinctive brown band under their chin. House martins are bluey black with a pale underside and a distinctive white rump. These features can be difficult to spot when they fly so fast, but if you see birds flying in and out of these old drainage pipes then you can be sure that these are the sand martins. They also give fantastic aerial displays over the water as they hunt for insects.
The other bird species that martins are sometimes confused with, are:
Swallows – these are small birds with glossy blue backs, red throats and pale underparts, but their really distinguishing feature is their long, tapering forked tail, the forks often described as ‘streamers’. You may see them feeding over the Thames.
Swifts – these are larger than martins and swallows, are uniformly dark brown (although they appear black in the sky) and with short forked tails. They have distinctive scythe-shaped wings and can be seen every summer flying very fast around Newtown (often very high in the sky) in small flocks with a piercing ‘scream’. They tend to arrive a bit later than the sand martins and are usually the first to leave as well.
Follow these links for more information, including photographs and comparisons between each species described above: