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Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

The smallest of the swallow and martin family, sand martins are often seen feeding over water.

Common name: sand martin, bank swallow

Scientific name: Riparia riparia

Family: Riparia 


The smallest of Britain’s swallow & martin family – about 12cm. The topsides are brown. Brown breast-band across otherwise white underparts. Its flight is less graceful than the swallow - more of a flutter than a swoop. 

Where to spot

Likes sandy river banks, cliffs and gravel pits. It has a wide range in the summer, covering almost all of Europe and the Mediterranean countries, part of northern Asia and also North America. Most leave in the UK in August/September. Winter is spent in eastern and southern Africa, South America and South Asia.


It feeds on small insects, mainly gnats and other flies, normally over water. 


Sociable in its nesting habits, from between a dozen and several hundred pairs will nest close together. Nests are at the end of tunnels up to four feet in length, bored into sand pits, gravel pits, and sea cliffs. They will keep coming back to sites for years and will build new tunnels as and when necessary. 


  • Sand martins were first recorded in Anglo Saxon times, according to the BTO.
  • Over the past 50 years the population of sand martins has crashed twice due to droughts where they spend the winter in Africa. 
  • The Latin name Riparia riparia describes it's preference for nesting in riparian (riverside or stream-side) areas. 

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