Our uniquely positioned facilities on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic means we have many wildlife species living in the area, and we are committed to their protection and the conservation of their habitats. One of the fauna who nest with us in our sand extraction and processing sites is the Sand Martin (Riparia riparia), a migratory bird in the swallow family.
They are found throughout Ireland from mid-March to September. They are amber listed in the UK and Ireland which means that they are of medium conservation concern. Sand Martins are the smallest of the European martins and swallows at just 12cm long and weighing 10-19 grams. The colouring of the Sand Martin is brown above, white below with a narrow brown band on the breast; the bill is black, and the legs are dark brown or black.
A harsh alarm call is heard when a passing falcon, crow or suspected predator requires a mobilisation of the colony to drive it away. Sand Martins appear with us at the Sandwasher before any other members of the swallow family, normally between mid-March and mid-April, but were delayed this year due to our extended winter and did not arrive until late April.
Their diet consists of small insects and spiders. They can be observed feeding on the wing whilst swooping over various settlement ponds at the Sandwashing facility. The Sand Martin is a sociable bird, nesting in numbers from a dozen to many hundred pairs. The nests are at the end of tunnels which can be a few inches to three or four feet in length, bored in vertical faces of sand, gravel or loose soil.
The actual nest is a litter of straw and feathers in a chamber at the end of the burrow. Four or five white eggs are typically laid around mid-late May and incubated for 12-16 days. The young chicks leave the nest at around 18 to 22 days old but continue to be assisted by their parents for up to a month. It is common for a second brood to be hatched.
Faces are sloped at a 45° angle to discourage Sand Martins attempting to nest in active extraction zones and to encourage them to use the suitable alternative sites that have been provided. Any works needed for us to improve the performance of occupied nesting sites will be carried out once the birds have departed for the winter.
This species winters in sub-Saharan Africa, crossing the Sahara Desert in autumn and spring. Over the past 50 years the European population has crashed on two occasions as a result of drought in the birds’ African wintering grounds and loss of nesting sites as a result of habitat disturbance or destruction.