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Sand Martin

A summer visitor that can be seen feeding over rivers in the evenings

Photograph by: 
Pam Parsons

The sand martin, like its more well known cousin the house martin, is a summer visitor to Britain to breed. It is a colonial breeding species and nests in tunnels it builds into soft, sandy banks. With its preferred nesting habitat sand and gravel extraction pits are popular with them especially after the mineral extraction process has finished. Here in Dorset in the Purbeck and adjacent areas we have many gravel pits and some of those are exhausted and abandoned but its seems there are very few sand martin colonies here. There are a few small colonies in Dorset but not a significant number and so most of the birds recorded here are passage migrants. In spring and autumn they can be seen in good numbers feeding over lakes and rivers prior to moving on to their breeding grounds elsewhere.

The sand martin is one of the first of the summer migrants to return with birds arriving here from about week 11 in mid March although a very small  number are seen even earlier than that; indeed, in 2019 there were reports of sand martin in week 8 at the end of February. Once they start arriving reports come thick and fast until about week 18 at the beginning of May and then there are a small number of reports each week throughout the summer until picking up in week 29 in late July which is when the southern movement seems to start. There are far fewer reports of sand martins during the autumn exodus compared to the numbers passing through in spring. By week 36 in September they are all but gone but in 2017 there was single report in week 42 in October!

There are reports from forty sites in Dorset and many of these are of migrating birds; very few are breeding sites. The distribution map shows a definite tendency for reporting sites to be near the coast indicating observations mainly during migration periods.

An evening visit in April to Swineham Gravel Pit near Wareham or to Longham Lakes near Ferndown will almost certainly bring you views of sand martins and so add them to your Dorset list.


Common Name Sand Martin
Scientific Name Riparia riparia
Species Group Birds Hirundines and Swifts
Status Occasional
Interest Level
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
Look for

Brown versions of the house martin

Identification Notes
  • Similar to the house martin but visibly browner on the back
  • Nests in gravel pits but feed over nearby rivers and lakes
  • Always communal and will be seen in good numbers where they occur 
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Hirundines and Swifts