It’s early October and the evening skies above our house are unusually quiet and devoid of movement. A week ago ’our’ colony of house martins were feeding low over neighbouring grass fields and lined up on wires above waiting for the wind to swing round. In previous years the majority left around the autumn equinox leaving the odd late family behind. This year they left en masse. I counted at least a hundred individual birds preparing for their journey south.
‘Our’ martins thrill us with their chatter and exuberant flight overhead during the summer months. I set my seasonal clock by their arrival, watching expectantly from early April. The odd one or two fly overhead early, a false alarm: they head further north.
This year a single pair arrived in April and set to work immediately with their first brood well ahead of the rest. The majority now arrive several weeks later in mid-May. Whilst the first pair may have three broods, the later arrivals only have time to fit in a couple. This thankfully gives the fledglings time to build up strength before departure.
I’ve been watching the fluctuating numbers in our small colony at my late mum’s house nearby for about 10 years. It’s a 1990s detached house which we understand was built on the site of an old tractor shed; so the colony has probably existed for many generations. The colony incorporates a Victorian house next door. Other houses nearby show faded signs on their fascia’s of a more extensive colony in former times.
From my observations, our colony is probably the largest in our rural west Berkshire village with a population around 2000. There are several other sites which comprise a few nests each but my mum’s house is a focal point with about ten nesting pairs this year on all aspects of the red brick house and another two next door; so an active colony of twelve, an increase of 20% on 2022. This September I counted around fifty birds feeding overhead on warm evenings.
The house stands within a Conservation Area and in close proximity to the clear chalk tributaries and water meadows of the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal which both lie a few hundred meters to the north and provide abundant nesting material and bountiful insects (especially near the sewage works downstream!) A similar and much larger colony exists about two miles to the west over similar territory
There is also a small swift colony down the road in one of the old cottages on the High Street, numbers noticeably depleted in the last couple of years. I love their raucous Apache-like behaviour as they speed down the narrow road between the houses breaking the 20mph limit by some considerable margin. But that’s another story.
My mum’s house is now let. It was important to me to ensure the martins were accommodated and protected during this process so I inserted a special condition in the tenancy agreement to facilitate them. This includes restricting use of the casement (side-hinged) windows during the nesting season to enable the martins to swoop in unhindered. This is the (slightly extended) clause I added:
House martins: we are fortunate to have about 8 nesting pairs of house martins on all sides of the house during summer months. Please help us protect their habitat by allowing them to nest freely under the eaves above bedroom windows. This includes not leaving windows wide open immediately under the active nests for the duration of the nesting season as this inhibits their flight path when building nests and feeding young. Please limit noise within the bedrooms during this period and refrain from cleaning upper floor windows (in person or with poles) which may disturb or accidentally destroy nests. Duration approx May-September inclusive.
The new lady occupant who arrived in June was only too pleased to support us and has readily observed this clause despite the limitations it imposes during hot weather.
Numbers of nesting pairs suddenly dropped about three years ago by half but have been recovering slowly since then. Of the ten active nests on our (now rented) house this summer, two of them were built up from minimal foundations for the first time in many years; other nests have just had more minor refurbs. Last year a couple of nests dried out and sadly collapsed but there were no casualties of this nature this year.
A couple of old nests have remained empty for several years whilst one or two others have been taken over by house sparrows partly a result of the martins’ later arrival. The ownership battle can cause a bit of a rumpus; last year the sparrows won; this year it was ‘one all’: perhaps the martins were better prepared.
About 8 years ago I bought about ten terracotta nest boxes at considerable expense from the RSPB and put them up between the natural ones. None have ever been used but I think their presence has provided encouragement. The entry holes were completely the wrong shape (and the cups may be the wrong colour?) After about five unsuccessful years we adapted them by breaking off part of the opening to more closely resemble the natural saucer shape. After three more years we’ve still had no luck. Perhaps it’s time to replace them with something more appealing!
I said final ‘good-byes’ to our little colony with a tear in my eye a week ago: ‘good luck, safe journey and see yer next year.’ Yes, I’m emotionally attached and feel somewhat bereft for a week or two after their departure. Roll on April 2024.
Written by Katy Adams Tee