Cambridgeshire Bird Club

Cambridgeshire Sand Martin Survey  2017

The latest Cambridgeshire Bird Atlas notes that a survey of Sand Martins (Riparia riparia) is overdue. I have recently been co-opted as the club’s research officer and would like to instigate such a study in 2017.
Sand Martins are the smallest of the hirundines to be seen in Cambridgeshire. The flight is often described as “weak” or “fluttering” but even so they migrate thousands of miles and are one of our first summer visitors. The earliest county record comes from the Nene Washes, the 27th February 1994, and the latest is from the Ouse Washes, the 17th November 1968.
Sand Martins nest throughout most of Europe. They can cope with a wide range of climatic conditions, from the north of Norway to the hotter parts of Spain. They winter in Africa with British birds travelling through France and Spain to the Sahel.
The 2015 Cambridgeshire Bird Report notes that Sand Martins are on the “green list” but that they have suffered declines in the past. 184 pairs nested in 2015 at 7 sites. Peak counts recorded 175 individuals on the Cam Washes in spring and 500 at Burwell in late summer. The highest ever count was an estimated 2 million birds at a roost on the Ouse Washes in August 1968.
Birdlife (Birds in Europe 2004) give the status of the species as “depleted” with moderate declines in the late 20th century. They say the situation has stabilised but with very confused local variations. There appear, for instance, to have been recent gains in Ireland but falls in the UK.

A survey in Cambridgeshire should throw some light on the picture locally. It may also help us influence planning decisions and assess the value of purpose built nesting structures. The surveyors will be club members making specific notes of their observations during their normal bird watching. I do not envisage surveyors having to “sign up” for specific routes at specific intervals. I’m sure there are sufficient of us to produce interesting and valid results as part of our normal activities. The study will be in two parts. Firstly, I would like to get an accurate and comprehensive record of nesting colonies. Secondly, I believe it would be valuable if we could get a more general idea of where the birds are and what they are doing. Sand Martins are insectivores but arrive early and leave late so certain habitats must be vital to their well-being.Finally and importantly, care is needed particularly when surveying Sand Martins. Obvious hazards are deep water bodies and steep unstable slopes.
The laws relating to trespass and access obviously also apply.

The basic methodology will be for club members to record results during the course of their normal bird watching. Two forms are set out below reflecting the targets for the survey. One deals with general sightings of Sand Martins throughout the County and examines the numbers of birds and behaviour. The second looks at nesting colonies and is perhaps more challenging. One of the interesting features of these martins is that they can establish colonies remarkably quickly but appear to desert them equally quickly. Why? The survey may be able to throw some light on this behaviour. It does, though, lead to some problems as regards collecting information. If you find a colony it would be very helpful if you could survey it regularly throughout the breeding season, capturing the key information set out in the forms below. A few sites are well known but the club’s annual report over the years mentions numerous instances of temporary colonies.

The forms can be found at
Sand Martin Survey 2017 Sightings
Sand Martin Survey 2017 Nesting Colonies

Robert Brown

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