The happy harbingers of summer

Swallow perched on wire - Kevin Carlson

Swallow perched on wire - Kevin Carlson - Credit: Archant

The first sight of these fleet winged migrants always means summer is on the way. Dorset Wildlife Trust tell us how to tell your swift from your swallow or martin

Barn Swallow 'Hirundo rustica' on the wing. Ken Dolbear MBE

Barn Swallow 'Hirundo rustica' on the wing. Ken Dolbear MBE - Credit: Archant

Soon an array of swallows swifts, sand and house martins will be gracing our skies, as these migrants from Africa and warmer Mediterranean climates start to arrive in Dorset for the summer.

Swift courtesy of

Swift courtesy of - Credit: Archant

Barn Swallows - parent on wing feeding fledgling on barbed wire. Ken Dolbear MBE

Barn Swallows - parent on wing feeding fledgling on barbed wire. Ken Dolbear MBE - Credit: Archant

For swifts, their exceptionally brief nesting season from May to July means we will see a hub of activity and numbers building up very quickly. You may even see a swift in April, swooping low over meadows in Dorset.

Sally Welbourn from Dorset Wildlife Trust says: “The spectacular aerial acrobatics and ‘screams’ of the swift near nesting sites are familiar sights and sounds of summer. Their scythe-like wings and their flight give the illusion that the swifts are turning over in the air, which is a dramatic sight. The swifts forked tail and long wings give them a distinct look, and they spend most of their time in the air – feeding, drinking, mating and even sleeping ‘on the wing’!”

Sadly, swifts are declining in number dramatically, and breeding swifts in the south west has fallen by around 40%, since the 1990s. The reasons they are declining are not always clear, but it is thought that habitat loss is a key factor, as swifts favour nesting in old buildings, many of which are being renovated and converted, leaving limited nesting space.

Swallows, sand and house martins, also known as the ‘hirundines’, bear resemblance to the swift, (they too have forked tails) but they can be seen closer to land – perching on wires or fences and nesting in the open countryside, often close to a water source. Swallows are agile fliers, although they fly lower and slower than the swift. They take their time to migrate to the UK, stopping to refuel and replenish their energies along the way, rather than flying here in one mammoth journey.

Whilst the swallow takes up residence in a huge variety of habitats, house martins are known to favour constructing mud nests on buildings. Sand martin’s have limited nest sites, but can usually be found near water, sandy cliffs or near quarries. Artificial sand martin walls have even been built by the RSPB in the hope of attracting them. However, the abundance of countryside, water and urban areas in Dorset means this summer, you may never be too far away from a swift or a swallow.

Most Read

“Both bird enthusiasts and beginners can get a great deal of enjoyment watching swifts in flight,” says Sally. “They are easily recognisable, whatever your level of bird watching expertise. It is particularly important for us to monitor swifts, due to their decline, and Dorset Wildlife Trust, along with the RSPB and Swift Conservation, would appreciate help recording swift sightings, so we can better understand their behaviour and make further steps towards their protection.”

To find out how to record your sightings and to learn how to incorporate space into your building for swifts to nest visit

Have you seen a swift, swallow or martin yet? Why not let us know where and when by tweeting us @dorsetmag or getting in touch via

If you’ve taken any pictures of a swift, swallow or martin, upload them here -


Know your Swift

Look for: Long scythe-like wings, a sooty brown colour which can appear black in the air, and a short forked tail.

Where will I see them: They spend most of their time flying high up. Listen for their high pitched screech.

They eat: flying insects and airborne spiders.

When will I see them: They are usually the first to arrive (from April onward) and are only here for a short time, they are gone by July. They spend their winters in Africa.


Know your House Martin

Look for: Glossy blue upper parts, white underneath and a forked tail.

They eat: insects.

Where will I see them: Found most commonly in towns and villages they build mud nests often below eaves of buildings.

When will I see them: From May onwards possibly slightly earlier, they remain here until September.


Know your Sand Martin

Look for: This is the smallest of the European hirundines. It has dark brown upper parts and is dark under the wings with pale under parts and a dark line along the chest.

They eat: They feed on invertebrates when in flight.

Where will I see them: Along rivers and gravel pits where they also nest.

When will I see them: They are usually the first of the hirundines to arrive, so from May onwards.


Know you Swallow

Look for: Dark, glossy blue backs with red on the throat and long tail streamers. They are very agile in flight – spending most of their time in the air.

They eat: Small insects.

Where will I see them: Countryside, farm yards, towns and villages.

When will I see them: They arrive in May and can be seen as late as October in Dorset

Comments powered by Disqus