Quick facts

Common name(s): sand martin

Scientific name: Riparia riparia

Family: Hirundinidae (swallows and martins)

Habitat: sandy river banks, cliffs, gravel pits

Diet: gnats, flies, other small insects

Predators: sparrowhawks, stoats, herons

Origin: native

What do sand martins look like?

The sand martin is the smallest of Britain’s swallow and martin family, measuring around 12cm in length. It has brown upperparts and a brown breast band across otherwise white underparts. Juveniles have a slightly paler, less prominent breast band.

What do sand martins eat?

Sand martins feed on small insects, mainly gnats and other flies, usually on the wing over water.

Sand martin chicks.

Credit: FLPA / Alamy Stock Photo

How do sand martins breed?

Sand martins are social nesters. Between a dozen and several hundred pairs nest close together in a colony. They nest at the end of tunnels up to four feet in length, bored into sand pits, gravel pits, and sea cliffs. Nests are lined with vegetation and feathers. Sand martins will keep coming back to sites for years and will build new tunnels as and when necessary.

They lay four to five eggs in late May or early June, with eggs hatching after around two weeks. Approximately 20-24 days later chicks will fledge. Sand martins usually have two broods each year.

Where do sand martins live?

These birds favour sandy river banks, cliffs and gravel pits. They have 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 the UK in August or September and winter is spent in eastern and southern Africa, South America and South Asia.

Signs and spotting tips

Look out for sand martins feeding over the water along riverbanks from March to October, when these birds call the UK their home.

Sand martin call

Audio: Garbriel Leite / xeno-canto.org

Sand martin at nest hole.

Credit: John Bridges / WTML

Threats and conservation

Sand martins are not currently threatened in the UK, however due to droughts in their wintering grounds in Africa there have been population dips over the past 50 years.