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Sand Martin (Riparia riparia)

The Sand Martin also known as the Bank Swallow is North America's tiniest swallow.

Identification

Adults are usually about 12 cm (5 inches) long with a white underside and a brown band that runs horizontally across the top of the breast. It's head and back is brown with a white throat area.

Sand Martin
Sand Martin from British Columbia, Canada

Habitat and Behavior

Sand Martin’s are typically found near bodies of water that have nearby sandy/clay vertical banks. They are almost always found in flocks as they are a social bird.

Bank swallows will use their small bills and tiny feet to excavate burrows into the side of banks and cliffs. The burrows can be 4-6 feet long and are dug by the males. The breeding females will then build a nest at the end of the burrows and lay 3-5 eggs each. The eggs hatch after 2 weeks and both parents will feed the fledgling birds. After about 3 weeks, the young birds will leave the nest.

During breeding season, the Sand Martin is found across the northern USA and throughout Canada. After the young become independent in early fall, the whole community will start a long migration to South America, where they go over winter.

Sand Martin burrows
Sand Martin Burrows

Diet

Sand Martins feed mostly on airborne insects. You can find them flying close above open fields or bodies of water, using their incredible speed to gather insects.

Viewing and Photography

Finding Bank Swallows is fairly easy in the spring and summer months. Their burrows are commonly found along the banks of rivers, lakes and roads. The easiest way to locate them is to drive along the roads in areas that are near bodies of water. The areas should be hilly enough that banks had to be cut into the hills when the roads where built. Observe the banks near the roads as you travel them for multiple holes dug in the side. Bank Swallow burrows can be found on the side of the highway, but rural and forestry roads provide a much better opportunity for observing the birds.

Alternatively, should you own a boat; you can also explore the banks of your local lakes and rivers for their colonies.

Taking photographs of Sand Martins can be a challenge on its own. They are extremely fast birds, not much more than a blur to the naked eye. You should head out for photographs on bright days, as you’ll have to set your camera to a fast shutter speed in order to freeze these birds in flight. Selecting a low aperture will also help you achieve a faster shutter speed to clearly capture them in flight.

My technique for doing photography of this bird, is to place my camera on continuous shooting mode and then focus the camera near a cluster of burrow holes. As I see sand martins approaching the burrows, I simply hold the shutter button and take a series of photographs. Normally, you’ll get one good frame of the bird(s) per set you take.

On cloudy days or at low light you can experiment with using a flash to get the desired shutter speed.

Flying Sand Martin

 

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