Benenden

Trollope's Bird Notes
June 2017
From the Benenden Magazine

Read the May 2017 notes by clicking here

One of the delights of spring is hearing the first chattering song of a passing Swallow and then looking up and seeing that fork-tailed aerial bird swooping over catching whatever miniscule prey it can find. We only have one species of swallow breeding in this country, though it is very closely related to our Sand Martin and House Martin. These birds are collectively called hirundines. Early naturalists used to include swifts in this group until it was later realised that they were not close relatives at all although they look similar and enjoy a similar aerial lifestyle.

It is only in the last few years with my visits to Costa Rica and Namibia that I have realised just how many swallows and martins there are in the world. What is the difference between a martin and a swallow? The answer is not a lot but generally the English name martin refers to a hirundine with a squarish tail rather than a forked one. However this is only a general categorisation as our Sand Martin is called a Bank Swallow in America!

There are about 75 different species of hirundines in the world and with only three breeding species in this country I can perhaps be forgiven for being surprised at this global number. To differentiate ‘our’ Swallow form all the others in the world you will have probably noticed that the newer guide-books refer to it as Barn Swallow. Europe can add two further breeding species, the Crag Martin and Red-rumped Swallow, both of which have been recorded in the UK. I was lucky enough to see a red-rumped Swallow at Rye Harbour in 2010. For the record, three American hirundines have been recorded in this country, namely American Cliff Swallow, Tree Swallow and Purple Martin. All are very rare visitors.

The Barn Swallow is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world. It breeds right across N America, Europe and Asia and winters respectively in South America, Africa and India. It is really only absent in Australasia. During my recent trip to Namibia I saw them virtually every day. The fortunes of the Barn Swallow have been a little changeable but overall a pretty good compared to many of our summer migrants. The graph (by courtesy of the British Trust for Ornithology) illustrates the picture well. When, in the 1980s, the population fell it became an amber-listed species and only came back to green in 2015. It was interesting looking at these figures as I would have painted a far bleaker picture on its fortune. Readers of my bird notes might remember the pairs nesting in a watermill in Biddenden which I used to monitor. There were two to three pairs regularly raising 10 to 12 young. In 2007 they had a disastrous breeding season only raising four young and since then they have never returned. The other site I keep an eye is a small colony on the side of the church hall in Newenden which used to have about six pairs but is now down to a single pair.

The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) 2008/2013 Atlas suggests there has been a slight decline in the South East which has been more than compensated by increase elsewhere particularly in the western half of the country. According to the Atlas, the Barn Swallow was recorded in 95% of the 10 x 10km squares which makes it the most widely distributed summer migrant. It is only missing in central London and some of the remote hills in Scotland. The highest densities are in Ireland and is probably related to agriculture where it favours pasture, particularly cattle, rather than arable. The UK population is estimated just short of 900,000 pairs. The other interesting fact that emerged from the BTO nest record scheme is that that the first egg-laying date has advanced a huge ten days since the 1970s. Coupled with the fact that departure dates have also been extended, the Barn Swallows now have a longer breeding season enabling extra broods. This is probably the main driver for the population being marginally on an upward trend.

I keep a watch on a local mere (within the parish boundary) and as it is off any official footpath it is relatively undisturbed. This year I found three Lapwings one of which was settled on the ground and I believe it could be on a nest despite surrounding ground looking very marshy. I have seen Lapwings here before but not breeding. I hope this turns out to be a nest and it would be some record for the parish to have breeding Lapwings again. A Little Grebe was also on the mere where they have bred previously. Linnets, Yellowhammers and a male Reed Bunting were also present making this spot a real haven.

Last year the territory of one of the local Nightingales was scrubbed, causing much distress to various neighbours who enjoyed its wonderful song. The parish used to have a good number of pairs and I am concerned we have none left. I would love to hear from any reader if they hear a Nightingale this spring.

I have one further request. The BTO are doing a survey on House Martins and I would be grateful to hear of anyone who has a House Martin’s nest on their property.

Charles Trollope cetetal@btinternet.com

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timdwyer@benendenvillage.org.uk