Sorting out a house martin from a swallow

A poor year for Swallows and House Martins?

Numerous folk have asked me over the years, how do I tell a house martin from a swallow? Well we have three so called hirundines in Britain. The online dictionary states hirundine means like or pertaining to a swallow, no help there then! The three are however sand martin, which is brown and lives in either sandy riverside banks or artificial sand martin walls which are extremely successful. The one at Farnham is full again this year. House martins are blueish black with a white rump and nest under the eaves of houses often sticking their mud nests to the soffit board if it's not plastic. The swallow is the one with the long tail streamers, no white rump and a reddish face and pale underparts, they prefer to nest in buildings or places with plenty of cover, sites not as exposed as house martins. Finally although not a hirundine, is the swift, a slightly larger bird which appears all black and has long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. All these birds spend most of their time on the wing hawking for insects, frequently, especially in the case of the swift, uttering loud vocal cries at the same time.

House martins, like swallows, spend the winter in Africa but probably not quite as far south. The theory is that British and Irish house martins spend our winters hunting for insects over the forests of equatorial Africa. However, these are thinly-populated areas and we have virtually no reports of BTO-ringed birds from south of the Sahara. We do know that, just like swallows, they fly north in the spring, crossing North Africa, Spain and France and arriving here in April and May. Birdwatchers contributing to Bird Track, the joint BTO, RSPB and BirdWatch Ireland project to collect bird records, are worried that far fewer house martins made it back this summer. They may have been adversely affected by poor weather in southern Europe during the spring.

It seems that the BTO has been receiving phone calls all summer from folk wondering where their house martins are, concerned at the lack of birds at traditional breeding sites. It appears that a few house martins arrived quite early, in mid-March, but the main influx of birds was a good week later than in recent years. Any birds that have already arrived will now have built nests and be hatching chicks by now, so it does look like we're missing a lot of our breeding birds. The BTO is keen to establish a National map for House Martins, to know where they are breeding for the new national Bird Atlas project. The aim is to create an up-to-date distribution map for every species in Britain. House martins are really difficult to pin down; although some places always have loads of house martins, other colonies can move about from year to year. The last national distribution map for house martins is based on information from nearly twenty years ago when house martins were found across most of the British Isles, with the biggest concentrations in England. This is where you come in, can you answer the following questions, Where are house martins breeding this summer? Is this a bad year for house martins? How commonly do house martins use artificial nests? Information is required for every house with house martin nests and needed urgently if we are to be able to do anything to stop the anticipated evidence of decline in these beautiful birds. See the BTO website for more information or contact the BTO on 01842 750050. Other ways to help include contributing to the This World on the Move House Martin survey organised by the BTO. Some people choose to count birds on estuaries, in fields or on our coasts but much valuable information can be collected from the comfort of an armchair. If you care about garden birds, why not join Garden BirdWatch and tell them what happens in your own personal nature reserve? You can also contribute further to the Bird Atlas by looking out for birds in your local area. They are particularly interested in species such as tawny owl, barn owl, kingfisher and, in the winter, are keen to receive records of siskin, goldfinch and blackcap. What if the house martins are on someone else’s house? If you want to tell them about house martins in your neighbourhood (i.e birds that are not nesting on your house) you can register to take part in the Bird Atlas project and then use a Roving Record form. These forms can be used to tell them about any birds you see: any sighting from a goldcrest to a golden eagle can be contributed to the national Bird Atlas. More details from the BTO website

High Batts Open Day

One of the highlights of the local wildlife year is a visit to High Batts Nature Reserve for their annual Open Day. This year it will take place on Sunday, June 29 from 10am to 4pm, and as usual there is a wide range of activities to interest visitors of all ages. These include displays, the results of moth and small mammal trapping, pond dipping, botany tours and bird ringing; some of these, particularly the latter, are weather dependent, so let's hope for a fine day. Walks around the site to explain the management required to maintain its benefits for wildlife can be arranged, and free refreshments will be available. Entry is of course free although donations are very welcome. This stretch of our district is particularly rich in wildlife and with all the effort made by the reserve members High Batts is special so why not drop in and have a see for yourself? High Batts is situated on the Ripon to Masham road between Lightwater Valley and North Stainley and will be signposted on the day. One of those not to be missed events.


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Chris Iredale was out at Yorke's Folly, on Guisecliff recently and heard a cuckoo calling out. “It was difficult to estimate its distance as it appeared to be frequently moving about. Eventually it came close enough for me to see it and hear it calling whilst on the wing. On Saturday morning, I returned with my partner to try at least to hear the cuckoo again. Imagine how surprised we were when a cuckoo landed on Yorke's Folly, as we were sat quietly between the two columns! Seeming unaware of our presence, it gave its trademark call in full voice. On both occasions the cuckoo was mobbed by one, sometimes two smaller birds, at a guess these would be the size of a meadow pipit. I managed to take a photo of the cuckoo and its pursuer as they departed the monument. I have heard of cuckoos being described as parasites regarding the egg laying and rearing of their young. Does this behaviour also extend to them being mobbed, much in the same way as raptors are?” Cuckoos are easily confused with raptors and may therefore be treated in the same way by smaller birds who mob them. It could even be that they are recognised as “parasites” and moved on, although it seems strange that birds seem not to recognise the alien eggs in their nests. What truly fascinates me about cuckoos is how do they find their way to tropical Africa, their wintering grounds? Also how do they know to eat hairy caterpillars, another mystery.

Anne Horner and her daughter Liz walked to the River Nidd via Crag Lane in Killinghall and were startled by a bat flying over the corn seemingly catching midges! We stood and watched for about five minutes until it flew further afield. This is the second time we have seen bats in this area during daylight hours, is it unusual? Further down the river on a little island we spotted a beautiful blue dragonfly amongst the trees, it was gone in seconds!” Bats do occasionally venture out during the day, we assume that they are supplementing the food, perhaps because they have youngsters to feed.

Martin Rowe has taken some marvellous photos of song thrush and young. “We've not had as many species recently, although there are lots of juveniles about. They've been out in force this morning with song thrushes, blackbirds and starlings sunning themselves on the grass while the parents pick up bird seed from right beside them to feed to the youngsters - talk about an easy life! I managed to get some good shots of a pair of song thrushes being fed, although the best shots were a bit blurred as they moved so fast. One shot I just missed was of one juvenile only seconds away from having food put in when its sibling flew down and landed on top of it, jumped off and took the food from the parent first.

Recent sightings at RSPB Fairburn Ings include, garganey seen a few times, green sandpiper from Wednesday really early. Lots of raptors including barn owl and tawny owl both scarce here. Peregrine, marsh harrier (two on Wednesday) and hobby all most days, two white storks on Saturday.


Please confirm all listings before setting out to ensure that routes or events have not been cancelled and are correct.

June 28 - July 6: Otley Walking Festival There are 40 walks and events over the nine day Festival, several in the AONB. For further information ring Ruth Blackwell on 01943 465270, email or visit Booking required for some events. Contact AONB Office 01423 712950.

Saturday, June 28: Wetherby District Footpath Group - St James / Ribston Hall round 6.8 miles Meet: 11am St James Retail Park, Knaresborough, in car park near entrance. Bring a packed lunch (01937 520591).

Saturday, June 28: Harrogate Group of the Ramblers' Association – Meet at Trinity Road, Harrogate at 9am and drive to Grassington for a 13 mile walk around Bare House, Bycliffe Road, Coniston, Caplestone Gate and Kettlewell. Pat and John Wilson 01423 503343.

Saturday, June 28: 7 miles – Yorkshire Dales Society – Ribblehead To Horton Linear Walk. 10.15am-3.30pm - Leader John Osborne, Natural England Looking at flora, fauna and bird life Meet at Ribblehead Station, 08.49 train from Leeds and return 15.56 from Horton.

Saturday, June 28: Wheel Easy – 9.30am Saturday Medium Ride. For details tel Malcolm 01423 870333 or see

Sunday, June 29: Ramblers Association Wetherby & District Group Dothwaite Dale, Hutton Le Hole. Meet 10.30am Kirkbymoorside Public CP behind Kings Head( GR697866) 7.5m M. Leaders John & Kathy (01937 845945).

Sunday, June 29: Wheel Easy - 9.30am Shorter and longer rides from 10 miles to about 60 miles Awayday Ride - Easingwold Audax 51km and 103km Start at the New Inn, Easingwold, 10am and 10.30am For details visit For details tel Malcolm 01423 870333 or see

Sunday, June 29: Events in Nidderdale AONB - A family minibeast discovery hunt near Brimham, especially arranged as part of National Insect Week, with Teresa and Robert Marshall of Harrogate Naturalists' Wildlife Watch. Meet some of the minibeasts to be found on this unimproved farmland. Suitable for young and old alike. (All children must be accompanied please.) Centrally based hunt/exploration so no long distance walking required. Equipment and instruction provided, but bring your own if you wish. Wildlife to be released unharmed after close inspection/study with magnifiers. 2-4pm. Children 2, supervising adults and Young Rangers free. This event must be booked through the AONB! Contact AONB Office 01423 712950.

Sunday, June 29: Events in Nidderdale AONB - Dragonfly Walk - Ellington Banks A chance to visit this MOD wildlife haven in the company of expert Dan McAndrew and discover more about the fascinating world of dragonflies and damselflies. 3 miles 10am-1pm Adults 4, under 16s free. This event must be booked through the AONB! Contact AONB Office 01423 712950.

Sunday, June 29: Events in Nidderdale AONB - UpDale Day at Middlesmoor This is the village open day with crafts, stalls, exhibitions, sword dancing, refreshments and other activities around the village. Why not learn some simple Italian phrases with young people from Italy? 10am to 4pm. Contact AONB Office 01423 712950.

Sunday, June 29: Studfold Community Nature Group – Meet Studfold Farm, Lofthouse, Activity Centre 1.30pm. Details Alan Croucher, 01423 556244, email

Sunday, June 29: Thorp Perrow Arboretum and The Falcons of Thorp Perrow – Ecologists Afternoon Join Mr Gordon Simpson MBE for a very entertaining walk at 1pm, looking at everything from bees to wildflowers, and dragonflies to ducks! For further details ring 01677 425323 or email

Sunday, June 29: Dalesbus Ramblers - Wharfedale Villages. A pleasant walk via fields, lanes, riverside and a postman’s trod. Visiting Linton and the hidden village of Thorpe. Start: Grassington National Park Centre: 11.00 Finish: Grassington: Approx. 16.30 Distance/Grading: 7 miles / Easy TRAVEL: Outward: Bus 874 from Ilkley (10.15) or bus 66A from Keighley (09.45) and Skipton Bus Station (10.24). Return: Bus 874 to Ilkley or bus 66A to Skipton and Keighley for onward connections. Walk Leader: Grassington NPC: 0175 675 1690.

Sunday, June 29: Dalesbus Ramblers - Embsay Reservoir and Crookrise. An exploration of the moors around Embsay and Eastby. Start: Embsay, Village Hall: 12.15 Finish: Eastby: Approx. 16.15 Distance/Grading: 7 to 8 miles / Moderate to strenuous TRAVEL: Outward: Bus 884 from Ilkley (11.45). Connection on bus X84 from Leeds (10.35). Return: Bus 884 to Ilkley or Skipton for onward connections. Walk Leader: Syd: 0113 268 9345.

Sunday, June 29: North Yorkshire Fell Club – Moors and Pastures, Yorkshire Dales 13 miles hilly. Contact Pauline Sibson 01423 869448 for further details.

Tuesday, July 1: Events in Nidderdale AONB - Walking, Wildlife and Whatever Else: Pateley – Guiscliffe Enjoy the beauty, biodiversity and heritage of the AONB on a walk local guide Nigel Heptinstall 8 -10 miles Meet 10.30am Adults 4, under 16s free. This event must be booked through the AONB! Contact AONB Office 01423 712950.

Tuesday, July 1: Bilton Historical Society. Meet every Tuesday morning 9am-noon to research Forest, Farms and Families in Bilton Secretary Geoff Deighton - 01423 866977 / email:

Tuesday, July 1: Open Country Trailblazers - meet at 10am at Community House each Tuesday to help improve and create accessible paths around Harrogate District. Jobs and sites are decided on the day depending on weather and work priorities. Volunteers are taken home afterwards usually between 4.30 and 5.30pm. Details David Shaftoe 01423 507227, email

Wednesday, July 2: Wheel Easy - 10am Elderly Gentlemen’s Ride 1.30pm Poddlers Ride 6.30pm Wednesday Evening Ride 10am Elderly Gentlemen’s Ride (meets Low Bridge, Knaresborough). Ladies and non elderly also welcome! Suitable for long riders, approx 12mph. For details tel Malcolm 01423 870333 or see

Friday, July 4: 7pm – Friends of Nidderdale AONB – Gardening in Today’s Changing Climate talk By Matthew Wilson. Harlow Carr Gardens on Drinks and nibbles will be served at the start of the evening, so please assemble at 7pm. 01423 712950 or email