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British Wildlife

8 issues per year 84 pages per issue Subscription only

British Wildlife is the leading natural history magazine in the UK, providing essential reading for both enthusiast and professional naturalists and wildlife conservationists. Published eight times a year, British Wildlife bridges the gap between popular writing and scientific literature through a combination of long-form articles, regular columns and reports, book reviews and letters.

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Conservation Land Management

4 issues per year 44 pages per issue Subscription only

Conservation Land Management (CLM) is a quarterly magazine that is widely regarded as essential reading for all who are involved in land management for nature conservation, across the British Isles. CLM includes long-form articles, events listings, publication reviews, new product information and updates, reports of conferences and letters.

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The NHBS Guide to Swifts, Swallows and Martins Identification

Mariam Salah
Mariam Salah

Swifts, swallows and martins are migratory birds, flying from Africa and spending their summers in the UK. They soar high and feast on the abundance of flying insects over the warmer months, truly marking the end of winter and announcing the arrival of spring and summer. Although swifts, swallows and martins share some characteristics, they are however markedly different. They are roughly similar in size and shape, which makes them difficult to discern between, especially when flying so high up. However, as you begin to look closely at their appearance, flight, nesting behaviour, and a few more key characteristics, you can begin to distinguish between them. 

Below we share our top tips so you can discover which bird you have spotted. In this article we have focused on the below species; they are all common and widespread to the UK: 

  • Common swift (Apus apus)
  • Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  • Common house martin (Delichon urbicum)
  • Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

How to identify swifts

Image by Imran Shah via Flickr

Swifts are amazing birds, they are the longest continually-flying bird, spending up to 10 months in the air without landing. They eat, drink, sleep, and mate while flying, only landing to breed. They are almost never seen perching. 

Key identification features:

  • Crescent-shaped, long, curving wings
  • Forked tail. Much shorter and stouter than the tail of a swallow
  • Dark brown all over with a small pale patch on their throat, but often appears black against the sky
  • Screaming piercing call

When to spot them in the UK: April to September 

How to identify swallows

Image by Vincent van Zalinge via Unsplash

Swallows are small colourful birds. They are known for their agility as they feed on insects while on the wing. They can be commonly found flying low to the ground over farmland and open pastures near water where there are lots of insects. In late summer they can be spotted perching together on telephone wires and power lines, readying themselves to migrate to Africa for the winter. 

Key identification features: 

  • Glossy blue upperparts, creamy-white underparts
  • Red throat and dark red forehead, but from a distance their whole head tends to appear just dark
  • Long forked tail
  • They tend to nest in barns, lean-tos and other outbuildings, where they build cup-shaped nests of mud
  • They have a chattering call
  • Can be seen perching on telephone wires or wire fencing

When to spot them in the UK: March to October

How to identify house martins

Image by Stefan Berndtsson via Flickr

House martins are commonly found in towns and villages, as well as in agricultural areas. They are one of the last of our summer migrants to depart in the autumn. They only eat while on the wing, catching insects as they fly. Their mud cup nests are usually spotted below the eaves of buildings. 

Key identification features:

  • Small birds with glossy blue-black upperparts and pure white underparts
  • Distinctive white rump, short forked tail and white feathers covering its legs and toes
  • Shorter wings than swifts or swallows

When to spot them in the UK: April to October

How to identify sand martins

Image by Julian via Unsplash

Sand martins are the smallest of all the European hirundines and one of the first spring migrants to appear. They are agile fliers, feeding mainly over water and breed in colonies of up to 1000 pairs. Unique to sand martins, these birds burrow holes into sandy, dry vertical banks in sand pits and gravel pits, riverbanks, lakes, streams, railway cuttings, and incredibly in drainpipes in walls and holes in brickwork.

Key identification features:

  • Dark brown upperparts, with pale tipped feathers. Upper wings, tails and flight feathers are dark brown
  • Underparts are white with a distinctive brown band across its breast which separates the white throat from the white belly
  • Breast band on young sand martins is less visible and their necks and chins are a reddish brown.
  • Short legs and feet which are dark brown or black
  • Short forked tail
  • Tend to swirl and flap rather than glide, and can be found mainly over water

When to spot them in the UK: March to October

Recommended reading:

Swifts and Us 
Paperback | £9.99 





RSPB Spotlight: Swifts and Swallows
Paperback | £9.99 





The Screaming Sky: In Pursuits of Swifts
Paperback | £11.99 





Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Great Britain and Ireland
Paperback | £19.99 





Swifts in a Tower
Hardback | £14.99 






On Crescent Wings: A Portrait of the Swift
Paperback | £19.99