Sand Martin (Gabhlán gainimh) - Riparia riparia
A member of the swallow family, the Sand Martin is a widespread summer visitor throughout Ireland. Like the Swallow and the House Martin, the two other members of its family that breed in Ireland, it spends the northern winter in sub-Saharan Africa, but it nests in a very different location to either of these species: narrow horizontal tunnels which they excavate in sandbanks in coastal areas, at quarries and especially, as the species' scientific name suggests, along riverbanks.
The smallest of our swallow species, just 12cm in length, the Sand Martin is sandy-brown above and white below, with a distinctive brown band across the top of the breast. The tail is slightly forked and the bill is very short and stubby, though with the wide gape typical of aerial insect-eating birds.
One of the earliest returning migrants each year, Sand Martins usually arrive by mid-March, with older individuals returning earlier than younger ones. They leave our shores again in August. Though still a fairly common bird, they are very susceptible to pressures from human development, with their nesting areas unfortunately all too frequently destroyed during construction work. They are also particularly affected by periodic drought conditions in Africa, a situation increasingly exacerbated by overgrazing and climate change.
BY NIALL HATCH
To learn more about Sand Martins and Ireland's other wild birds, visit BirdWatch Ireland's website, birdwatchireland.ie, write to them at P.O. Box 12, Greystones, Co. Wicklow or call them at 01-2819878.